First Days of 2011 Session Could Portend Next Two Years

The 2011 Indiana General Assembly has begun and lawmakers say its early days may help forecast how ashift in power will affect the Statehouse.

Vi Simpson 3x2

Photo: Bill Shaw

Indiana Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson says her caucus will act as a watchdog to the Republican majority in the Indiana Statehouse.

The 2011 Indiana General Assembly has gaveled into session and lawmakers say the early days of budget negotiations may help forecast how the shift in power brought to bear by November’s Republican landslide will affect the Statehouse.

Less than a week into the Indiana General Assembly’s 2011 session, perhaps the term which best describes the mood on the part of the Democratic minority in both houses is “guarded optimism.”  Following losses in November, Republicans control 37 of the 50 seats in the Indiana Senate and hold a 60-40 edge in the House.  Couple that with control of the Governor’s office and the GOP holds large enough margins to pass most legislation without any real opposition.  But Democrats like State Rep. Peggy Welch (D.-Bloomington) say they’re buoyed by acts of bipartisanship, including new House Speaker Brian Bosma’s (R.-Indianapolis) naming of two Democrats as committee chairs.  Still, Welch wants more evidence before she’s ready to call it a pattern.

“One of the things that I will be watching closely – and I would hope that citizens will be watching – is that as there is new leadership that they will be willing to govern and not just be ideologues,” she said.

It’s a budget session of the legislature and in the current financial climate that means cuts – lots of them, and from every governmental agency.  Welch sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, as well as on the State Budget Committee, and said she understands the need for new efficiencies – but not at any cost.

“I plan on closely scrutinizing every budget of every agency,” Welch said.  “We know that we’ve got to make more cuts, but I want to make sure that the cuts that are being made by the agencies are the right cuts.”

State Rep. Milo Smith (R.-Columbus) also sits on Ways and Means and has a plan he says will make elections cheaper and more efficient – he wants to move city elections to the same years as mid-term congressional races.

“Why do we have to have a city election that isn’t on every other year when we’re electing members of Congress?  So I’m proposing that we move those city elections to the same time we hold the congressional elections, which is also county government,” he said.

If passed this year, Smith’s plan would affect mayoral races happening in November.  But there’s a hitch: Candidates could file for primary elections thinking they’re running for a standard four-year term.  If Smith’s bill passes, it would go into effect on July 1 and would mean winners of May’s primaries would suddenly be running for three-year terms, so that the next city races take place in 2014.  Though he long ago announced he wouldn’t seek a fifth term in office, Columbus Mayor Fred Armstrong – a Democrat — said he agrees with Smith’s idea.

“As far as I’m concerned, it should be changed to whatever they can change it to where we have some national elections, because it is cheaper.  And it does make them get out and work a little bit harder.  It’s easy for me to say now, but I agreed with it long ago when it was first mentioned,” Armstrong said.

Smith, a tax adviser by trade, also hopes to change the way property assessments are done, and save money by doing away with state-mandated general reassessments of all property in a county.

On the Senate side, where the GOP holds a nearly three-to-one majority, Democratic leaders are watching to see how Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R.-Fort Wayne) deals with a raft of bills which attack the Obama Administration and its policies.

“I don’t want to say they’re bad bills – let me say some of the more interesting bills that have been filed,” said Minority Leader Vi Simpson (D.-Ellettsville)

Simpson said the reaction of Long and Governor Mitch Daniels to the most conservative pieces of legislation introduced this year will go a long way toward showing how the Republicans plan to use their power.

”He might have to allow them to come to the floor for debate.  And that will be unfortunate if we let the session get bogged down in some of the silliness that some of the legislators have been working on,” she said.

Simpson labels as “silly” bills which would exempt Indiana from adhering to health care changes under the Affordable Care Act and which would require a copy of the birth certificate for any presidential candidate who hopes to be on the ballot in Indiana.  Simpson says her caucus is small enough to band together on most issues, whereas Long may have to unite factions within his which have different agendas.  Though her voting bloc is small, the Minority Leader said Senate Democrats are prepared to act as watchdogs over the 2011 session and the Republicans.

“We will be vocal and we look to be a partner in finding solutions to the myriad of problems that we have, but we’ll also be loud when we have to be and we’ll point out to the public when we think they’re wrong,” she said.

Lawmakers now have a little less than two months before bills must be passed out of their chamber of origin and across the Statehouse atrium to the other chamber.  In that time, the content of those bills may signal as much about the legislature’s lawmaking goals as it does about how the process will work for the next biennium.

Stan Jastrzebski

WFIU/WTIU News Senior Editor Stan Jastrzebski spent time as a reporter with WGN Radio in Chicago and as an editor at Network Indiana, an Indianapolis news service. Stan is the winner of awards from the Associated Press, the RTDNA, the Indiana Broadcasters Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. He hosts WFIU's Ask the Mayor and anchors WTIU's InFocus.

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