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The Indiana House, led by a GOP supermajority, has been willing to stand up to Gov. Mike Pence more than to former Gov. Mitch Daniels. The House and Senate have reached the midpoint of the 2013 session.

Halfway home

Supermajorities and new governor change legislative tone

No walkouts, no demonstrations, no attacks on the Girl Scouts. But that doesn’t mean the Indiana General Assembly has reached the downhill run of the session with no drama.

Republican supermajorities in both the House and Senate have ensured smooth going for some legislation, but other bills have revealed deep ideological differences within the party and even prompted a new term.

“While I know that House Democrats are interested in being bipartisan, it appears that we are finding ourselves having to engage in ‘tri-partisanship’ because we are dealing with two groups of Republicans that want to be the governing coalition in our state,” observed House Minority Leader Scott Pelath at the session’s midpoint. “One group is conservative but pragmatic. They want to work together for the benefit of the people of Indiana. The other group is extremely ideological and unwavering in pursuing the types of policies they want to impose on others.”

‘Tri-partisanship’ in action

Examples supporting Pelath’s point are easy to find. Consider House Bill 1337, an education bill addressing several contentious issues, including the A-F school grading system. Rep. Robert Behning, the Indianapolis Republican who has served as architect of much of the so-called education reform passed in recent years, made a frantic push for his bill late Monday night.

Facing opposition, he offered a rare third-reading amendment. The practice is uncommon because amendments are supposed to be made by second reading so lawmakers have adequate time to consider them and receive comment from constituents.

Questioning by Democrats revealed Behning’s bill would allow unelected boards to oversee “independent” schools, which could be created from public schools formerly managed by turnaround operators. The bill was soundly defeated, in spite of the GOP supermajority in the House.

“The lopsided 33-61 tally was a surprise,” observed Vic Smith, a retired Indiana educator and public education advocate. “About half the Republican caucus sent Rep. Behning a clear message of opposition.”

Another example of tri-partisanship came early and clearly – from Senate President Pro Tem David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma. They announced that a vote to advance a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage would not happen this session.

“We think it’s prudent to wait,” Long said. “We have 2014 to vote on it. And if the Supreme Court gives the states a clean bill of health, makes it a states’ rights decision, as it very well might, then we will be able to move forward without any questions about constitutionality of this provision.”

The announcement cheered Democratic leaders who had urged Republicans to set aside the social-issues agenda. But it didn’t please social warriors such as Eric Miller, who lobbies for the conservative Advance America.

“I think it’s important to let the people of Indiana know and let the Supreme Court know that Indiana is going to continue to move forward to protect marriage between a man and a woman,” he said.

Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Politics at IPFW, said the “tri-partisanship” effect wasn’t unexpected with the new supermajority status in the House.

“This is something that it was suggested folks watch for,” he said. “(House Speaker) Brian Bosma would have a different reality because people who think they should get their way aren’t happy. The things you used to do behind closed doors in caucus you now do on the (House) floor.”

The effect is lessened in the Senate, Downs said, because Long has experience dealing with supermajority status. Just last week he finessed a right-wing push to give Indiana lawmakers the right to throw out federal laws they don’t like. Instead, he allowed a measure authorizing a limited constitutional convention.

“It was a good move politically,” said Downs, an associate professor of political science.

But will the right-wing and centrist factions of the GOP give Bosma and Long a break, putting aside differences in the second half of the session to advance needed legislation?

“If we look at the totality of the session, a lot more of that is unlikely,” he said. “But it’s not over. We’ll see bills getting amended, legislators trying to get hearings for things they’re seeking. That still has to happen.”

A different tone

The biggest difference in the Statehouse atmosphere this session stems from the change in the governor’s office. The party affiliation might be the same, but the differences between former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Gov. Mike Pence are stark.

Observers say that veteran Republicans are more relaxed, more willing to challenge the governor’s office. Publicly, that’s apparent in legislative leaders’ refusal to include Pence’s proposed tax cut in House Bill 1001, the biennial budget. After eight years of yielding to a strong executive branch, they seem unwilling to compromise their fiscal principles for what was essentially a campaign promise.

“Legislators made a point of reminding him what branch was powerful,” Downs said. “He’s trying to be a legislator in some respects, while in some ways he has said some things that are executive-like.”

Pence’s political experience is entirely in a legislative setting, so he’s undoubtedly busy adjusting to a new role and unfamiliar responsibilities. His eagerness to embrace divisive social issues during his six terms in Congress suggested he would push a similar agenda at the Statehouse. To his credit, he has not.

Early last month, Pence told reporters he wouldn’t be weighing in on a number of issues and that there would be much legislation he “won’t have anything to say about” until it awaits his signature or a veto. Both Bosma and Long said Pence did not comment on the same-sex marriage resolution, even though he endorsed a constitutional amendment during his campaign and was a sponsor of an unsuccessful federal amendment.

But the friction between Pence and the General Assembly might grow. He said last week he will push “cheerfully, respectfully and relentlessly” for the 10 percent cut in personal income taxes. The governor’s tea party base will back his effort.

“It is a sad day when in a Republican supermajority, it is the Democrats … talking about a tax cut,” wrote Monica Boyer of Kosciusko Silent NO More after testifying on behalf of Pence’s budget plan. “This is not the supermajority that I gave my family, my life, and my time to elect.”

Sound legislation

If the GOP factions can keep the peace between now and April 29, however, they could produce important legislation. While troublesome bills get plenty of attention – the ag-gag bill, school voucher expansion, abortion restrictions – bipartisan measures to fix broken systems are advancing.

Legislation crafted from the summer study committee examining the Department of Child Services is one example. Senate Bill 105, with bipartisan sponsorship and a unanimous vote in the Senate, is now before the House Committee on Family, Children and Human Affairs, chaired by Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-Syracuse. If approved, it will once again allow medical professionals, local law enforcement, judicial and school officials to report suspected child abuse and neglect to local child protection officials, not the statewide call center.

Much-needed requirements on child care operations also are proceeding in the wake of tragic deaths in church-based day care centers and unlicensed homes.

In matters of local interest, a bill that expands the housing tax-increment financing district for Renaissance Point has passed the House, HB 1270. Democrat Phil GiaQuinta is author; Republicans Martin Carbaugh, Dan Leonard and Matt Lehman are co-authors.

“The speaker said he wanted to see some odd couples on bills,” GiaQuinta explained. “I’m not going to say we’ve got a ton of Democratic bills out, but we’ve had a good number.”

The Fort Wayne Democrat said he believes veteran GOP lawmakers, in spite of their supermajority status, understand that political tides turn and they might someday be in the minority.

If that’s the impetus for promoting bipartisan cooperation, it’s working fairly well. At halftime in the General Assembly, there’s enough entertainment and progress to keep Hoosiers engaged.

Karen Francisco has been an Indiana journalist since 1982 and an editorial writer at The Journal Gazette since 2000. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email, kfrancisco@jg.net.

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