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FEIGENBAUM: Even among GOP, compromises are a must

January 14, 2017

Ed FeigenbaumWhile lawmakers have been holding committee hearings and moving bills with alacrity since returning to Indianapolis early this month, the pace of a legislative session typically doesn’t gain real speed and find its rhythm until after the governor delivers his State of the State address.

When a governor and both chambers of the General Assembly are of the same party, the speech often serves as marching orders of sorts for lawmakers. Legislative leaders sometimes defer to the chief executive until his priorities and programs have been fully elaborated.

This year, there is no reason to wait.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, laid out details of his legislative agenda Jan. 5, well in advance of his Jan. 17 speech to lawmakers. There were no surprises in either the programs the new governor will advocate nor the priorities he assigns to them.

In contrast to some of his predecessors, Holcomb appears less preoccupied with creating drama and is straightforward about getting down to business. While some governors prefer to hold their legislative-agenda cards close to the vest before bully-pulpit time, Holcomb appears to want to get the legislative train rolling and doesn’t appear to be harboring any major programs announcement for the State of the State speech.

So where will the train head?

The leaders of both branches of government agree that, beyond passing the obligatory “honestly balanced” budget, this year’s major obligation will be devising a long-term, sustainable, data-driven roads and infrastructure package.

This starts in the House as a 20-year plan for funding road and bridge rehabilitation, adding new lanes and miles, and planning for their maintenance. As the package moves to the Senate, this could morph into a 30-year plan (and later compromise at 25).

The difficulty in extending things so far: changes in technology and usage patterns.

We don’t know, for example, how technology might increase electric or alternative fuel vehicles that don’t pay gas taxes, how driverless cars might change driving patterns, or whether Buck Rogers-type applied science (will Purdue University develop pothole-proof or infinite-duration road pavement?) we once saw only at world’s fairs might make irrelevant major elements of any plan extending through, say, 2040.

The big tug of war will focus on the “Mix for the Fix”: the combination of taxes, fees and fund transfers needed to address the needs, what needs will be dealt with in what order, and how the funds will be allocated.

Battle lines are being drawn over increasing taxes and fees—largely viewed as inevitable.

Democrats want more spend-down of reserves and to draw attention to recent Republican business tax cuts that could have been directed toward roads.

Americans for Tax Reform, Indiana Liberty Coalition and Americans for Prosperity—Indiana, groups sympathetic to fiscally conservative Republicans, are marshaling forces urging alternatives to new, increased and “perpetual” taxes and fees.

Beyond this, the governor will emphasize the imperative to eradicate the insidious opioids-abuse problem that affects family life and the health care and criminal justice systems. Expect tension between law enforcement and social services/public health voices in handling this dilemma.

Education funding numbers, formula changes and continued growth of private and charter school scholarships will also be fiercely debated. Legislators must also approve both interim plans and a final replacement for ISTEP while debating how to handle school grades, takeovers and teacher bonuses during the transition.

Both chambers also place a priority on career and technical education and streamlining the overall structure of workforce development and education programs.

Holcomb is pleased he and legislative leaders are “working from the same page.”

It’s intriguing that Senate Republicans have placed a high priority on reforming e-liquid (vaping) manufacturing regulation. That kind of granularity won’t find its way into the State of the State address, but it’s an example of the stuff of government that will inevitably distract solons and consume as much legislative time as gubernatorial priorities in the next few months.•

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