Well, the much ballyhooed Special Session called by the Governor got off to a rather slow start last week. The Senate and House met on May 14th, as required by law, and handled some internal matters. However, the Senate went home the same day, and will stay out until there is business to deal with. There are two reasons for doing this: first, the Constitution requires that any legislation that involves a tax must first be passed out of the House of Representatives. That means the Senate can do nothing until a bill is formulated, debated, passed out of Committee, and finally passed out of the House. That could take weeks, if not longer. Which leads me to my second point: it only makes fiscal sense that the Senators be at home taking care of normal business. When we're not in Session, we aren't being paid by the State, and the taxpayers save a lot of money.
If and when a bill comes out of the House, we'll head back down to consider the proposal.
So what are the chances of something coming out of the House? Not great. There are an unusual set of circumstances that exist which will hamper the House's ability to come to agreement. First, the Speaker of the House, John Gregg, announced in February that he was retiring. Two other high ranking Democratic House leaders also made a similar announcement. The decision to retire undermined Speaker Gregg's ability to get his caucus to work out an agreement on the budget crisis. There is much uneasiness in the House about voting to pass a tax increase in an election year. The Democrats fear that doing so will jeopardize their ability to retain control of the House. When the Speaker himself doesn't have to worry about keeping his own job because he is retiring, it creates a leadership vacuum at precisely the time when strong leadership is needed most. When the Speaker's lieutenants are doing the same thing, it really causes havoc.
Even stranger, the legislator charged with coming up with a budget bill is Rep. Pat Bauer, the House Ways and Means chairman. Normally, he would be rolling up his sleeves and trying to find a way to create a bill that his caucus could vote for without gagging. However, Rep. Bauer is one of the leading candidates to become Speaker of the House. This puts him in a tremendously difficult position: he doesn't want to make his fellow Democrats mad at him because he came up with a bill that required them to vote for a tax increase. That could cost him the Speaker's position. On the other hand, he doesn't want to be blamed for failing to get a bill out that would help his party and the Governor, not to mention the State. That makes the Democrats look inept, and divided.
The final complication is the fact that Rep. Bauer and the Speaker have said that to pass any bill, they will require some significant Republican support. That is a nice way of saying they won't make their caucus support a bill that raises taxes unless a fair number of Republicans vote for it also, this way, it wouldn't be as much of an election issue.
The Democrats' tenuous hold on the House ( 53-47 ) supports the concerns of the Speaker and Rep. Bauer. However, getting Republicans to support the bill won't be easy, and not only because it might be to their political advantage to refuse to do so. The Republican House members want tax restructuring that will help Indiana's economy move into the 21st century. That means getting away from an over-reliance upon property taxes, and doing away with anti-business taxes that chase away jobs to our neighboring states. These are worthy and important goals that should be included in any bill, because raising revenues simply to continue on down the same road of overspending while the State loses more jobs is a disaster waiting to happen. But finding a way to achieve these goals makes an agreement very difficult to obtain.
This race for Speaker of the House has created a major obstacle to obtaining a budget agreement between the House, Senate and the Governor's office. Given these dynamics, it is fair to say that no one knows if any bill can pass the House, which would mean the Senate would never get the chance to put its stamp on a bailout of Indiana's fiscal mess. But stranger things have happened, so stay tuned, and hang onto your wallet!