When Richard Allen Thompson started his first term as state representative in 1979, his son Jeffrey Thompson—a recent college graduate—thought, “Someday, I might want to do this.”
Twenty years later, after his father (then a state senator) retired in 1996, Jeff Thompson became a representative for some of the same parts of Boone and Hendricks counties that his father represented a few years before.
And now more than 20 years into his legislative career, he’ll be leading the General Assembly in drafting the state’s two-year budget for the first time as the incoming chair of the powerful Ways and Means committee.
His decades of experience, mentorship and institutional knowledge make him an asset to his seat mates, said Brazil Republican Rep. Alan Morrison.
“He’s kind of like the elder statesman of the group that sits together,” Morrison said. “He’s just such a bright guy. He’s my go-to whenever I’m confused on what exactly an authored bill does for a certain tax.”
On Thompson’s other side, Indianapolis Republican Rep. Mike Speedy said Thompson doesn’t talk a lot but is a good listener, someone who gave Speedy a “courtesy laugh” at his jokes.
Being someone who thinks before he speaks made him an ideal candidate for the position, he said.
“The key to that job is telling people ‘no’ without making them mad. People who know Jeff, they know his character. They know that when he’s telling them no, he’s doing it because he wants to be fair,” Speedy said. “He is not someone who’s going to play politics in that role.”
Thompson admits that he’s not as brash as some of his coworkers, but said it is a strength for elected officials.
“I always do tell young people … quiet, more introverted people can be extremely effective legislators,” Thompson said. “There are many people like that because they don’t put their foot in their mouth quite as often.”
Debate over path forward for education
As a former teacher, Thompson said he knew his way around a classroom and school budget. After serving on the education subcommittee of Ways and Means, he was also familiar with K-12 funding, which composes roughly 52% of the state’s entire budget.
Still, Thompson said there’s more to learn when it comes to mastering the rest of the budgeting process.
“(It’s) lots and lots of meetings and talking to lots and lots people … I have lots to learn. I always tell folks, you learn a lot being around here but there’s a whole lot more to learn in the next few months,” Thompson said. “There’s not much in concrete today but it has to be in concrete someday and we’ll get there eventually.”
Rep. Greg Porter, the ranking minority member of the Ways and Means committee, said Thompson’s background in education prepared him for the greater responsibility of the entire budget.
“So there is a learning curve but it’s not as big as someone who has never been … the architect of K-12 education for a number of years,” Porter said. “Democrats, Republicans have different viewpoints on things and different approaches. I look forward to working with his leadership style.”
But Porter urged Thompson to consider how the state gives money to schools, especially the impoverished students in need of more resources. Indiana uses a complexity index designed to give those schools more money in the budgeting process.
“I hope that as a fiscal leader that he will look more toward equity in school funding and look at those challenges … for all students, not just for choice or voucher students at charter schools,” Porter said.
In previous years, complexity funding hasn’t been the favored approach for House Republicans and Thompson didn’t commit to any ideas for the upcoming budget.
“We’ll try to look at those programs that have really been a success and those that maybe have not been a good investment,” Thompson said.
As for teacher recruitment, even as schools report high vacancy rates, Thompson said the educator shortage ultimately comes down to individual school corporations.
“The state will, through the formula, send additional dollars but in the end the local corporations have to be the ones that prioritize those dollars in the best way to attract the best people,” Thompson said. “Not everything we can control from the state level nor should we. Let the local school boards and teachers come to agreements that they think are best for their corporation.”
Agencies will begin presenting their asks before the State Budget Committee in November, one month ahead of the revenue forecast for the upcoming fiscal year. The state has exceeded projected growth for nearly 18 months, prompting Democrats like Porter to push for “strategic investments” in human infrastructure. But Thompson urged a more cautious approach.
“A definite statement of … what will be approved or won’t probably is way premature at this point,” Thompson said. “We have to think about what the future looks like and a lot is going to hinge on the December revenue forecast. To make much of a judgment until we see those forecasts and the direction the state’s going, it’s kind of early to do that.”
Thompson said that he alone wouldn’t craft the budget, but rather the entire Ways and Means Committee.
“You can’t lead with an iron fist. You can in the short term but that doesn’t work in the long term. You’ve got to have developed confidence and consider other people’s thoughts and opinions,” Thompson said. “Let me assure you that the committee and the thoughts and opinions of member will drive where we end up. It’s not, ‘Jeff Thompson runs the show and you guys just follow along.’ It’s a collaboration.”
The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.