Three days before the Indiana General Assembly was to end last week, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels said one way to avoid an extra session was to be clear about what he could and could not accept in a new state budget.
He said budget plans passed by House Democrats and Senate Republicans were not acceptable because they spent too much and were built on revenue assumptions that were turning out to be wrong.
But some legislative leaders say Daniels was either never clear or had a moving target about an acceptable bottom line.
The disconnect between Daniels and leaders of the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-ruled Senate was evident as time ran out on the regular session without a two-year budget being approved. Now a special session will be needed to pass one, and lawmakers say they still aren’t clear how much surplus the governor wants at the end of the next two-year budget cycle.
“The actual number the governor could sign is in the eye of the beholder, in my opinion,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne).
Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) said April 29 – the day before the session ended – that he had strong assurances from Daniels that he would sign a budget if it would leave the state with a $1.4 billion surplus.
So Kenley said Senate Republicans drew up a new proposal that cut $100 million from proposed increases for schools to pad the future surplus to $1.4 billion. The next day – the final day of the session – Kenley said the governor indicated he might be able to sign it.
But several hours later, as the session drew to a close, Kenley said he was getting mixed signals from the administration.
House Democrats were irked that the Senate Republican plan would cut $100 million in school spending, but they put the Senate Republican version of a budget bill up for a vote anyway less than an hour before the session deadline.
Democrat leaders knew it was doomed: Many of their members were sure to vote against it, and they were unlikely to get any votes from House Republicans who said the plan spent too much. But Democrats’ attitude was that it was a plan largely drafted by Senate Republicans and met the $1.4 billion surplus figure they said Daniels had set.
House Speaker Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) said Daniels did not get seriously engaged in the budget negotiations until the last few days, had a moving target for a budget surplus, and that House Republicans were going to vote against any budget bill.
“They were ‘no’ all the way through on any budget,” Bauer said of House Republicans. “That’s the caucus of no over there, led by the nowhere man (Daniels). He was nowhere.”
House Minority Leader Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said Daniels did set clear parameters for the budget and told Bosma on the afternoon before the budget plan was voted on that he could not accept it.
“I suspect the other leaders knew exactly where the governor stood,” Bosma said.
Daniels said he gave legislative leaders a list of things he could accept in a budget, but not one of the items was in the final plan. When asked, Daniels said he wouldn’t provide the list to reporters.
“I’ve already described it,” he said. “It could have been real adjustments in the spending line of almost any kind the Legislature preferred, and/or the tools governors have had for decades,” he said.
Daniels said what he got instead was a plan for more spending and limited “tools” to cut spending on his own.
But Daniels said he never picked an exact ending point for a surplus, only that it not be smaller than today, which at last count was $1.3 billion. He did say that tax collections in April were $200 million below a revised fiscal forecast issued earlier in April and could end up $400 million below predictions by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Daniels said it didn’t matter that the budget plan that was voted on did not clear both chambers because he would have vetoed it anyway.
But could he have avoided a special session by being more precise a little earlier?
If he was clear, why not let the public know exactly what he told lawmakers he could or could not accept?
Long may have summed it up best.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “I think it’s subject to interpretation about how clear people were.”
That’s not good in the final days of a session when lawmakers are trying to pass a budget.