News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Indiana Legislature

April 25, 2011

State of the Statehouse: Big budget bill tops to-do list in final week

INDIANAPOLIS — After nearly four months of covering the Indiana General Assembly and with one working week to go before the end of its legislative session, I’m beginning to think lawmakers are like journalists: We both need deadlines to get our work done.

It has been an unusual session, marked by a five-week walkout by House Democrats that did slow down the “freight train of change” promised by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

And much work has already gotten done, especially in the area of education, where major changes — from controversial vouchers for private schools to big limits on collective bargaining rights of teachers — are rapidly arriving.

But even without the walkout and the wrestling over education reform, I suspect this session would have ended like many others: With a rush to finish at the end.

The big budget bill is one item that still needs to be resolved when legislators meet in the final week. The plan to spend $28 billion over the next two years has two versions, one approved by the House and another approved by the Senate when there were just eight days to go till the session’s end.

Legislative fiscal leaders from both chambers will meet in a conference committee this coming week to work out some of the differences between the Senate and the House bill.

Among the compromises they have to pound out: The House version contains a proposal backed by Daniels to create a rebate plan that would give money back to taxpayers if the state’s reserves ever exceed 10 percent of state spending. The Senate version raises the trigger to 12 percent so that some of those reserves would go to fund the state’s underfunded public employee pension program.

The House version slashed the amount of gambling revenues from the state’s two racinos — the race-track-based casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville — funneled into a program that promotes the state’s horse-racing industry. The Senate version restores much of that funding.

There’s disagreement among Daniels, the Senate and the House on the details of a cut to Medicaid services for low-income Hoosiers. Daniels’ budget plan eliminated dental, chiropractic and podiatry services for adults; the House plan restored the cuts; the Senate plan cut Medicaid funding for dental and chiropractic services for adults but kept them for children.

And just days ago, Senate Republicans stuck an “anti-bolting” provision onto their budget bill that would allow any citizen in the state to sue state legislators who engage in the kind of quorum-busting walkout that House Democrats staged earlier this session. Under the provision, legislators could face $1,000-a-day fines if their absence stops legislative action for three days or more. It also allows a citizen to sue legislators who walk out in the final week of the session for any length of time.

It’s not truly a budget issue, of course, but it is about political payback.

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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