By BRIAN HOWEY
— All of the pomp, optimism, sunshine and prose was just exactly as it should have been as Gov. Mike Pence became the 12th Indiana congressman to ascend to the state’s top executive position and the first in more than a century to do so.
Pence rhetorically reached for the torch that Gov. Mitch Daniels had passed to him on a crisp, cold Monday morning as the Indiana state flag gracefully billowed below him on the western stairway of the Statehouse. By noon he was greeting hundreds of Hoosier constituents, friends and former colleagues.
His first actions were to sign six executive orders, including one that would shift the state board overseeing teacher contract negotiations so that it reports to the governor’s office and another requires “family impact statements” that would help to ensure that “intact married families” won’t be hurt by state rules and regulations.
Reporters, sniffing for the first controversy surrounding the state’s 50th governor, were disappointed when Democrat Education Supt. Glenda Ritz signed off on the shift, noting that after years of the status quo her predecessor, Tony Bennett, had been the one to take over control of monitoring teacher contracts.
Perhaps the most eye-opening event occurred last Wednesday morning when Pence gathered his cabinet, which looked like the Republican Party. Beyond Lt. Gov. Ellspermann and Director of Personnel Anita Samuel, the cabinet was overwhelmingly white and male.
Pence huddled with legislative leaders, and as to be expected there were smiles and nods of assurance from Republicans and optimism by Democrats. House Minority Leader Scott Pelath told reporters that Pence had “struck the right tone,” explaining, “We all have important jobs for Indiana. Sometimes those jobs are to disagree and to discuss our differences. But we also have important roles [and need] to have the types of relationships where we can work together when we do agree that things are for the good of the people.”
If there were any doubts about the fledgling administration, they were allayed until Tuesday, when OMB Director Chris Adkins — the architect of Pence’s campaign “Roadmap” and his policy wizard — rolled out the first budget. It was there that the policy cornerstone of the Pence campaign met the realities of Statehouse sausage production and a fitful economy that has seen Indiana’s jobless rate hover in the 8 percent range for more than two years.
The 10 percent income tax cut which Pence unveiled last July without input or the imprimatur of Speaker Bosma, Senate President David Long or Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley would serve as the $790 million thrust of the proposed $28 billion biennial budget.
School funding would increase by a tiny 1 percent and Medicaid funding could gobble up 80 percent of the $1.2 billion surplus in the first year alone. That element was creating what Pat Kiely, former Ways & Means chairman and current Indiana Manufacturers Association President, would call a “surplus mirage.”
As the Pence administration began on a cold January morning, the temperature permeated the reaction of legislative fiscal leaders with frosty pragmatism.
“We’d like to be heroes and cut taxes,” said Kenley. “You also need to be prepared to take care of your priorities and you need to have enough money to do that.”
Said Ways & Means Chairman Tim Brown, “It is on the priority list. I don’t know where it falls right now.”
Essentially, the Pence income tax cut will be held hostage by events and statistics beyond his control until the April revenue forecast is manifest. Thus, the success of the No. 1 Pence priority will be outside of his hand for almost three months. It is a risky proposition for a politician who has aspirations for the White House, possibly as early as 2016. Thus, getting strongly out of the gates is vital in that context.
Rookie governors do not always get what they want. In 2005, Gov. Daniels sought a one-year, 1 percent tax hike on “the very rich” and that was rejected. Both newly minted Gov. Evan Bayh in 1989 and Frank O’Bannon in 1997 inherited 50/50 split Houses, and both ended up with special sessions.
The Great Depression prompted newly elected Democratic Gov. Paul McNutt, along with two super majorities in the House and Senate, to overhaul the state’s bureaucracy, initiate the gross income tax, while creating work programs that would eventually forge jobs for 75,000 Hoosiers. Like McNutt, Pence comes to office with two super majorities, 69 to 31 in the House and 37-13 in the Senate. Thus, Pence finds himself at a unique and rare juncture.
But commanding legislative majorities don’t mean the governor always gets what he wants. Gov. Roger D. Branigin, fresh off the 1964 Democratic landslide, ended up vetoing more than 100 bills.
About an hour after taking his oath and greeting the hundreds of Hoosiers who streamed in out of the cold, Pence ascended to the meditation room atop the Statehouse. The Columbus Republic reported: Three pastors stood behind him and placed their hands on his shoulders and prayed that Pence “find rest, comfort and peace in Christ.”
This new governor — as they all do — will need all the help he can get.
— This columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol