By BRIAN HOWEY
The headline fixation in the fledgling administration of Gov. Mike Pence has been his 10-percent income tax cut. It is, what Chief of Staff Bill Smith observes, “the shiny object” and one that Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley partially restored on Thursday at 3.3 percent after it didn’t make the House Republican budget.
The narrative after 80 days is an administration that has groped for a voice and a gravitas on the issues. Gov. Pence said at one point, “We have to do a better job of getting our message out.”
But after spending several days deep in the gubernatorial warrens on the Statehouse second floor, what emerges is an array of numbers that when pieced together in what is now an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, a different story line emerges.
Pence’s nine agenda bills are, for the most part, progressing. There was a staff review of some 2,200 bills that emerged prior to this long session, one that the Pence team had just seven weeks to prepare. According to Senior Policy Director Marilee J. Springer, there have been 95 meetings on individual pieces of legislation over eight weeks. There have been 138 meetings between the new governor and legislators.
And when one surveys the nine Pence “agenda bills” only one, a bill for treatment of compulsive gambling, is dead. The governor’s second priority, SB465 — the Indiana Works Councils — passed the Senate 49-0 and the House 94-0. Most others have passed by wide majorities.
If you want to find animation from Gov. Pence, a conversation about his agenda invariably leads to a large chart on an easel just south of his desk.
“The thick blue lines are the six goals,” Pence said, pointing to the chart. “Those are the six goals of the next four years in this administration. There isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t meet with our economic development team, meet with our legislative team, and ask, ‘Where are we when it comes to increasing private sector employment?’”
“We’ve been very, very serious about this,” Pence continued. “I tell you, there is wisdom in the multitude. As I traveled around the state last year, one of the most responsive lines, in crowds large and small, in cities and small towns, was when I said to people that while this is Indiana’s moment, this is the time to go from reform to results.”
“From reform to results,” Pence repeated after a pause. “Almost every head in the room would be nodding. You got the sense that Hoosiers know we went through a season where there was a lot of course correction, a lot of hard choices made, whether in fiscal reform, economic reform or education reform. But there’s a real hunger now for seeing the outcomes and the natural consequences of those bold policies come into effect.
“That’s where we’ve been, in the policies we’ve been advancing, all of it is in the outcomes.”
And there will be metrics. Employment? It will be measured by the Indiana University Business Research. Improving math and reading skills? ISTEP and IREAD3.
“There will be third-party measurables,” Pence promised.
For this new administration, the headline measurable may come down to Gov. Pence’s 10 percent income tax cut.
“The late Russell Kirk used to say, ‘Politics is the art of the possible,’” Pence responded after he was asked whether he’d accept a fraction of that 10 percent. “Look, I was a legislator for 12 years. As we move forward, we are going to continue to advocate strongly for what we think is going to get this economy moving again, get Hoosiers back to work.”
“Let me say,” Pence continued, “I’m looking for opportunities to find common ground. As these negotiations move forward, I am confident we’re going to have productive dialogue and I am confident in the end we’re going to come together and produce the kind of budget that’s fiscally responsible, funds our priorities and gives Hoosiers the tax break they deserve.”
Reacting to the Senate budget Thursday, Pence said, “We have been clear about our expectations for this budget: It must be honestly balanced, hold the line on spending, fund our priorities, provide tax relief for working families, small businesses and family farms, and maintain the state’s fiscal strength. The budget announced by Senate leadership provides a framework for achieving all of these objectives.”
OMB Director Chris Atkins told me that the next budget forecast — coming April 16 — will need to reaffirm last December’s forecast.
“The budget we put together was based on December’s numbers and we showed that it clearly works,” Atkins said.
Pence believes his 12 years in Congress will help him win over the Indiana legislature.
“People often ask me about the difference, what it’s like to transition from a legislator to an executive,” the governor explained. “I say I hope having been the one will make me better at the other.”
— This columnist publishes at howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol