Start talking politics, and it’s easy to find Hoosiers who express scorn for state lawmakers—frustration over everything from what they make a priority to which measures passed or failed.
In fact, the vast majority of those elected to the General Assembly are well-meaning public servants who try to do what’s right (and do it for quite modest compensation).
But few if any can claim as austere or meaningful a record as Sen. Luke Kenley, 72, the Noblesville Republican who announced this month that he will retire this fall after serving District 20 for 25 years.
Longtime Indianapolis Star Associate Editor Russ Pulliam put it well in a recent tribute column: “State Sen. Luke Kenley was the older brother who made everyone else behave a little better. The General Assembly got serious when he came into the room.”
Kenley has been especially influential since 2009, when he became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, giving him an outsized role in controlling the state’s purse strings and writing the budget.
He won respect from members of both parties—and not by passing out budget goodies to his pals. In fact, one of his great legacies—and one reason the state boasts a AAA credit rating—is that he was good at saying “no.”
And while saying “no” invariably creates enemies, it helped that his decisions were based on hard thought, not whims. It also helped that Kenley, who for years ran a family-owned grocery chain, had an abundance of smarts—as evidenced by his Harvard law degree.
“He has a greater knowledge of what’s going on in the state than damn near anybody I know,” Sen. Karen Tillian, D-Portage, said in an IBJ profile published last year. “We differ on things, clearly, but he’ll always sit down and listen to me and talk to me. He doesn’t blow you off because you’re in the minority party.”
Among other achievements, Kenley was the architect of legislation that revamped the school funding formula to better link funding to enrollment. He also led the charge to pass property-tax reform, repeal the inheritance tax, and reduce welfare rolls.
In addition, Kenley was a driving force behind innumerable other bills, including legislation that led to construction of the $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium.
At times, he bucked his party on high-profile issues, including school reform, expressing skepticism about some Republicans’ desire to quickly expand the school voucher program.
The causes he embraced weren’t always sexy. But they were important—and he understood the gravity of what was at stake.
Kenley leaves big shoes to fill at the Statehouse. He deserves our congratulations for a job well done.•
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