News and Tribune

January 6, 2014

CAPITOL CROSSROADS: ‘Short sessions’ quickly becoming political slogs

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
newsroom@newsandtribune.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Increasingly inside the Statehouse, “short session” no longer a term to be confused with an inconsequential gathering of the state’s lawmakers.

When lawmakers return for the start of 2014’s “short session” this week, they are set to take up two high-profile measures -- one to write the state’s gay marriage ban into the constitution and another that would eliminate the personal property tax paid by businesses.

Lawmakers began adding a second annual meeting to each two-year term —- just like Congress’ — more than four decades ago as a means to deal with minor budget fixes that could not wait. But that budget-fixing mechanism has evolved in recent years into sessions in which elected leaders tackle some of the most high-profile and contentious measures.

The precursor to this year’s business tax cut proposal came during the short session of 2008, when lawmakers [and ultimately voters] placed property tax caps into the state constitution. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, among others, has argued that the cuts unfairly placed the burden of local property taxes on businesses and left homeowners largely unscathed.

Top Republican leaders, including Gov. Mike Pence and House Speaker Brian Bosma, want to eliminate the tax, along with lobbying powerhouses including the Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana Manufacturers Association.

Pence, in particular, is coming into the 2014 session with some big expectations. In addition to the personal property tax elimination, he has proposed expanding school vouchers for teachers and preschool-age children and increasing aid for charter schools.

He ducked a question last week of how he would prioritize the items during the session, instead touting his upcoming State of the State address.

“We just came from a long meeting this morning working on my State of the State address,” he said Thursday. “What we’re going to attempt to do is build on the four speeches we gave in the month of December that really tried to touch on the totality of the agenda we’re carrying into this session of the General Assembly.”

Social and religious conservative groups, meanwhile, are seeking the marriage amendment. While Bosma and Long have said they still support limiting marriage to being between one man and one woman, neither appears to be actively pushing the issue — at least not in public. The marriage fight has the potential to crowd out other issues depending on how much time lawmakers spend on the fight.

That’s what happened in 2012, when state lawmakers made Indiana the first Rust Belt state to ban mandatory union fees two years ago via right-to-work legislation.

The issue dominated the first half of that year’s short session, drawing hundreds of union protesters to the Statehouse daily and shouldering its way into the national spotlight with Indianapolis’ 2012 Super Bowl festivities. But that was only after Republicans delayed the issue during the 2011 session, following a five-week walkout by House Democrats.

Yet even with top-tier items, lawmakers still find time for other major issues during these abbreviated meetings. Lawmakers passed a statewide smoking ban a few weeks after approving the right-to-work ban in 2012 and are already eyeing for this year some of the most contentious items that failed during the 2013 session, including the so-called “Ag Gag” proposal cracking down on trespassers.

The argument that short sessions should be limited in scope is often made by the minority party, in this case Democrats who are vastly outnumbered in both the House and Senate. But Chamber President and CEO Kevin Brinegar pointed out in a legislative session preview that the view may be outdated.

“While there’s no doubt that time is a factor in a short legislative session [like we have in 2014], we only have to look back to 2012 to see that landmark results can be achieved. Indiana became a right-to-work state and passed a comprehensive public smoking ban that year,” Brinegar said in a statement.

Look for big items to take center stage during the next few weeks at the Statehouse, both planned and unplanned.