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December 30, 2012

State political drama in ‘13 will rest with GOP

Two-year budget talks will dominate next session

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s a whole new Statehouse, as one administration packs up and leaves and a new one prepares to start pulling the levers of power that voters tilted even more in Republicans’ favor in November’s elections.

Fading into history are the days of “The Blade” versus “The Boss,” when Gov. Mitch Daniels battled Democratic House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer over issues large and small. Daniels is off to Purdue University, and Bauer is now out of power and in a tiny minority.

Now, the major drama will take place entirely within the Republican Party.

Its members now hold 69 of the 100 seats in the Indiana House, and 37 of the 50 seats in the state Senate — majorities that exceed the two-thirds necessary to do whatever they want, even if Democrats boycott the way they did in 2011 and 2012.

And thanks to a redistricting process that was controlled by Republicans in 2011 while most House Democrats were holed up in an Urbana, Ill., hotel, those majorities look all but impossible to crack without a major wave election for the next decade.

The Republican power should help Gov.-elect Mike Pence as he enters his first legislative session as governor — he’ll be inaugurated Jan. 14 and deliver his State of the State address Jan. 21.

However, lawmakers who have had to pinch pennies in recent budget-writing sessions have already expressed concern over a key Pence proposal: A two-year phase-down of the state’s individual income tax, from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent.

In that upcoming session, the dominant issue will be writing a new two-year budget — one that will be worth around $29 billion total.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said there are “a lot of uncertainties out there.”

He said Indiana’s tax revenues are a three-legged stool, made of income taxes, sales taxes and gaming taxes charged at the state’s 13 casinos.

Now that Michigan and Ohio have expanded gaming, and Kentucky could soon follow suit, he said, “gaming revenue is under assault right now.”

Other concerns he listed include funding K-12 education at adequate levels and covering new costs associated with President Barack Obama’s health care law.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the upcoming budget session could be a time for “strategic investments and strategic restorations,” and said he would like to see teachers’ pay increased.

“We need to view teachers not as factory workers, but as professionals,” he said.

Long agreed with that idea.

“We should pay them more. We’re going to ask more and more of them as time goes forward. They’re going to have shorter vacations and longer school years,” he said.

Bosma has not endorsed Pence’s proposed income tax cut, saying that more than half of the state’s revenues already come from sales tax collections — a volatile source during a turbulent economy — and that he is hesitant to throw the state further out of balance.

“Living within our means is the key, because the fiscal fog is thick. It’s uncertain times,” Bosma said.

Bosma has said he would like to see the state pursue a pre-kindergarten program that hands scholarships to low-income families to pay for tuition at schools of their choosing – and that issue is likely to be a key one in 2013.

State Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he favors extra funding for schools – especially after budget cuts made during Daniels’ tenure.

“The most important resource is the people of this state, and we have to have an educated workforce,” Lanane said.

A coalition of Indiana mayors, meanwhile, are pressing for extra funding to address local issues such as infrastructure and foreclosed homes.

Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke also wants the state to crack down on methamphetamine, in part by requiring a doctor’s prescription to buy drugs now sold over the counter that contain pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient.

And an issue with the potential to dominate Indiana’s 2014 election cycle — a constitutional same-sex marriage ban — could be raised by state lawmakers in 2013.

If the House and the Senate both take the second step of the three-step process to amend Indiana’s constitution in 2013 by approving the same measure they approved two years before – an amendment that would limit marriage to one man and one woman and bar same-sex couples from having civil unions or any other sort of similar legal arrangement — the issue would go to voters in a 2014 statewide referendum.

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