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FEIGENBAUM: RFRA drains Pence clout in session's final weeks

April 4, 2015

Ed FeigenbaumIn case you took your spring break on Mars, Indiana became the center of the political and policy universe over the real or perceived issues with the new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (we warned you about Indiana laws named for anything but a child).

A political firestorm swept the nation after the signing, catching Hoosiers unaware.

Leave it to the constitutional law experts to explain whether the law presents real problems or whether it was all misperception from the reporting (as Gov. Mike Pence believes), but the immediate damage to the state’s brand forced the governor and Republican legislative leaders to concoct and administer an antidote they believed addressed the condition and its symptoms.

Conventions canceled or threatened to move from Indiana. The state’s leading employers blasted impediments to attracting top talent. Major entities shelved expansion plans.

Even the Indianapolis-based NCAA made uncomfortable noises about its future locally and Indianapolis’ hosting future championship events (just as expensive work ramped up at the IUPUI Natatorium and the Legislature looked to pump $20 million into IUPUI track and field stadium renovations). Thus, pressure grew to change the law—before a new round of anti-Indiana backlash could air on every network covering Final Four events in Indianapolis April 4-6.

Regardless of whether the problems were real or perceived, the Hoosier Hospitality “brand” was damaged, and economic development growth was threatened in “A State that Works.” Gubernatorial proclamations that “Indiana’s on a roll” were belied by gleeful attempts by Chicago’s Democratic mayor to poach Indiana businesses within hours of the bill’s signing.

For purposes of this column, we won’t explore the RFRA impact—both positive and negative—on the governor’s political brand, but rather will offer a quick look at what the whirlwind might portend headed into the final weeks of the session.

With the governor taking a hit, he will not be de facto leader of his party’s lawmakers this month. The rank and file will pay more heed to Senate President Pro Tem David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma. The leaders had to repair the gubernatorial damage from a Sunday national television interview with more forthright answers of their own in a press conference the following day, and acquitted themselves well.

The Bosma brand—enhanced by national television appearances—also emerged stronger, enhancing his clout within his caucus.

Bosma and Long carried the water on the antidote. (Query, though, whether they created the problem, given that RFRA didn’t emanate from the governor’s legislative agenda). Even as the governor was defining and defending it, legislative leaders were talking about fixing it.

The governor’s campaign bought $250,000 of broadcast ads at the end of March supporting common construction wage repeal, but the Senate committee hearing on the topic March 31 was overshadowed by RFRA and the pending gubernatorial press conference.

And that’s what will happen until RFRA fallout subsides. Legislation deemed important through the first three months of the session may now progress through the final three weeks with most—save those directly affected by the bills—distracted by the nation’s new shiny object.

Contrary to popular misperceptions, lawmakers can legislate and chew gum at the same time, and Statehouse reporters can cover more than one issue concurrently. While the process might get bogged down in lengthy caucus meetings, bills will still be fully considered, amended or not, and voted upon.

While reporters will be watching—as at the common construction wage repeal hearing—much of their attention (and news holes) will be directed elsewhere. That’s when deals can be cut quickly and without the usual scrutiny.

If you are watching a bill in the coming weeks, be prepared to spend some extra time and attention, and don’t expect as much media coverage as you might have normally anticipated.•

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Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. He can be reached at edf@ingrouponline.com.

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