INDIANAPOLIS -- We aren't quite to the halfway point of Gov. Mike Pence's term, but he's now through his second Indiana General Assembly session and this week signed into law the state's first Pre-Kindergarten program, cut the corporate tax, and provided $200 million more in road funding.
Pence's emphasis has been on tax cuts and education, with modest achievements.
First, some historical perspective. In 1973, Republican Gov. Doc Bowen forged property tax reforms during his initial session, then found himself in the midst of a Middle Eastern-induced energy crisis in the second. Republican Gov. Robert Orr, like Bowen, had Republican majorities, but had to deal with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and almost as bad as the Great Recession of 2009-10. Orr was forced to call a special session in 1982 after the steel industry cratered, forging a big tax increase to keep the schools open.
Democrat Govs. Evan Bayh and Frank O'Bannon had to deal with hostile Republican Senates and 50/50 split Houses. Bayh had presidential aspirations and tended to play policy through that lens. O'Bannon found himself grappling with the state taxation system after the courts struck it down.
Then came Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels who had epic achievements in his first short session with a Republican Senate and a small House majority. He forged Major Moves that turned a $3.8 billion lease of the Indiana Toll Road into the I-69 extension to Evansville, the Hoosier Heartland and U.S. 31 freeways, and new Ohio River bridges. The 2006 session also reformed telecommunications, which launched a multi-billion upgrade that pushed Internet and better phone service into rural communities.
Pence had -- in theory -- the strongest hand of them all with super Republican majorities in both chambers. But his anemic 2 percent win over Democrat John Gregg in 2012 with only 49 percent of the vote essentially weakened his mojo in the Statehouse, where power from the districts translates into clout in the hallways. House Republicans forged a 69-seat majority as Pence limped in, with many members running well ahead of him in their districts.
The buzz throughout the session was that the Pence administration was not as prepared as it could have been for a second session. Most gave the new governor a pass in 2013 when he had to build an administration, create a legislative agenda and write a $30 billion biennial budget. But this session found the administration treading in similar waters. An influential state senator told me that he was approached about carrying the governor’s education agenda in December. Questions to the administration on who was carrying the governor’s package went unanswered as 2013 rolled into 2014.
The contrast with the Daniels modus operandi is striking. Senate sources tell me Daniels’ legislative package began assemblage in late summer. It would be scored fiscally in early fall, and bill sponsors would be lined up in early to mid-fall. His legislative liaisons were conspicuous, vigorous and accessible. The Pence legislative liaisons, multiple members have told me, were late in developing legislation, unprepared for fiscal impacts, blew off meetings with legislators, gave little direction, and were largely missing in action.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma was asked about working with the Pence team. “The Governor was very encouraging,” Bosma said. “The details were worked out by legislative leaders but the Governor was very encouraging on adoption of each of these initiatives. We kept him apprised at all times.”
So Daniels used massive amounts of political capital to push the multi-billion dollar Major Moves, and his internal polling showed his approval fell south of 40 percent (though he won reelection two years later with 58 percent of the vote). Pence pushed the important Pre-K program in a non-budgetary year, with Republican fiscal leaders refusing to reopen the budget, and he ended up with a five-county pilot program funded with tiny budget reversions.
His top priority -- the repeal of the business personal property tax -- essentially ended up in a blue ribbon study commission, while Senate Bill 1 gives counties the option to repeal the tax and it gives larger counties the ability to provide "super abatements." The governor emphasized the tax repeal, while Republican-dominated city and county governments resisted with the most cohesion displayed in decades. And when the dust settled, Senate President David Long was boasting about the corporate tax cut -- the "linchpin" of the session's tax policy -- calling it “more important” with the potential for the “biggest dividends.”
All of the top priority stuff that ended up in study commissioners, and shifts in policy with great potential impacts prompts a widespread notion that the Pence administration didn't do its homework, and that the cart came before the horse.
So much of the energy of this session was expended on the constitutional marriage amendment. It passed, but the change in the second sentence created great consternation and restarted the process. Pence was out of step with key legislators like Long who helped remove it even as Pence urged it to be reinstated.
All of these percolating fissures in the GOP -- between the economic and social conservatives; between municipal and state Republicans -- would have stayed well below the surface under a better-prepared and more pragmatic governor.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.