The Strange Politics of the 2007 Legislature
Indiana Writers Group column for Jan. 10 and thereafter
By Andrea Neal
INDIANAPOLIS – A visitor passing through Indianapolis this week would be hard-pressed to decide if Indiana is a red state or a blue one, if it’s dominated by Republicans or Democrats, and what exactly those two labels mean here. As the 2007 legislature swings into action, a motley list of priorities has emerged that defies political labeling.
Passing a two-year budget is the only necessity. According to a prominent Republican state senator, “the top four issues” will be all-day kindergarten; a health care plan for low-income, uninsured Hoosiers; local government taxing flexibility; and the governor’s plan to put a new toll road around the northeast, east and south sides of Indianapolis. It’s a far different list from last year, notable because it’s more about spending than saving.
The political rhetoric leading up to the session has been just as mixed with Democrats seemingly more committed than Republicans to budgetary conservatism. Democratic House Speaker Pat Bauer, responding to Republican Gov. Mitch Daniel’s budget priorities, expressed alarm at mounting obligations, “despite having only $1.5 billion in new funding to go around.”
The main difference between last session and this is that Democrats control the House. Theirs is a slim 51-49 majority but all that’s needed to stop Republican bills in their tracks. That political reality no doubt influenced Daniels’ decision to make all-day kindergarten his centerpiece educational bill instead of something conservative, say taking on collective bargaining law, which blocks free-market reforms like performance pay for teachers.
Daniels’ health plan is also attracting Democratic support, although some say it doesn’t go far enough. The plan would insure about 120,000 Hoosiers, pay for child immunizations and anti-smoking programs and be funded by a 25-cent or higher increase in the state’s cigarette tax, now at 55.5 cents a pack. Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary and chairman of the House health committee, has suggested a $1 a pack increase to make the program more comprehensive. But there will be opposition from lawmakers who oppose any tax increases.
While kindergarten and health care fit with Democratic priorities, two of Daniels’ proposals are provocative and, like Daylight Saving Time last year, will require even some Republicans to swallow hard before supporting them. These include the Indianapolis toll road connector, and privatization of the Hoosier Lottery with proceeds going to higher education.
The Commerce Connector would be an outer belt toll way linking the six interstates through Morgan, Johnson, Shelby, Hancock and Madison counties. Daniels sees it as a huge economic development advantage, made more so because it that would be paid for by private funds. To move forward, Daniels needs legislation to transfer the tolling authority the Indiana General Assembly granted last year for the Evansville to Indianapolis segment of I-69. This way, I-69 would no longer be built as a toll road. Mayors and county officials in the affected communities are excited, but Democratic legislators – the same ones who opposed last year’s Major Moves initiative – are promising resistance.
Just as controversial will be Daniels’ proposal to lease the Hoosier Lottery to a private concessionaire for 30 years in exchange for a one-time cash payment of about $1 billion and a percentage of annual revenues. The cash would help pay for new college scholarships and professorships, the annual revenue would be directed to public pensions and auto excise-tax relief, as it is now.
“A lot of us have questions about it,” Minority Leader Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, admits. The questions range from what impact a private contractor would have on ticket sales to whether subsidizing scholarships unintentionally leads to rising tuition costs.
Lawmakers of both parties find themselves in a reactive posture, with Daniels setting the discussion agenda. Because his ideas are so new — he’s the first governor to attempt lottery privatization, for example – it may take awhile to decide what’s conservative, what’s liberal and what’s purely pragmatic.
“He’s a man of big ideas and many of them are good,” says Rep. Winfield Moses, D-Fort Wayne. “The ideas are fantastic,” Bosma said. “The funding mechanisms will take some work.”
The two made a joint TV appearance Sunday and did their best to strike a bipartisan tone heading into the long session. Moses talked about tax relief. Bosma expressed hope for “a new tone of partnership.” And, in yet another sign of strange times, an out-of-town visitor would have had a hard time telling the Republican and the Democrat apart.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.