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Column: Acquiring, maintaining power only half of job


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INDIANAPOLIS — As it drifts to its midway point, the 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly has been strangely listless.

There have been no huge blow-ups, no epic battles between Republicans and Democrats and no clashes that make the limestone walls of the Statehouse shake. There have been conflicts, of course, but they have been carried on sotto voce — so quietly that they come and go as quickly as a whisper in the wind.

In some ways, after the tumultuous 2011 and 2012 sessions — when House Democrats fled the state and boycotted sessions, respectively, in doomed attempts to derail right-to-work legislation — the quiet is a blessing. Not having to shoulder one’s way through packed crowds of protesters just to get to the restroom is a relief.

Still, there is something odd about this lack of urgency.

During the years when Mitch Daniels was governor, new plans to either dismantle or remodel state government seemed to come with every tick of the clock. Lawmakers grappled with big issues — privatizing the Indiana Toll Road, pushing through the most expansive school voucher program in the country and restructuring the ways social services got delivered to Hoosiers. During the legislative sessions, the Statehouse seemed to buzz.

Now the buzzing is gone.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Last fall, Indiana Republicans won a victory of historic proportions. The GOP not only retained control of the governor’s office by electing Mike Pence, but they strengthened their control over state government by racking up supermajorities — quorum-proof majorities — in the House and Senate.

Republicans found themselves with more power to shape the state’s future than either party had seen in at least a half-

century.

The question was: What would they do with it?

And the answer, it appears, is: Not much.

Lawmakers so far this session have done little more than poke around at the margins in terms of crafting public policy.

They have pushed to expand the state’s already sweeping school voucher program. They have decided to shelve, for the time being, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Legislators pretty much have decided to ignore Pence’s proposal to give Hoosiers a 10 percent personal income tax cut.

One potential area for drama, Pence’s strident opposition to expanding Medicaid as part of implementing health care reform, also hasn’t shaken things up much. Even Pence’s less-than-gubernatorial language on the matter — his office’s news release said he “flatly refused” — didn’t set off many fireworks, maybe because many legislators sense that he’s just positioning himself and the state to strike a deal with the federal government.

There have been no sweeping attempts to rewrite Indiana’s tax code, not much activity in terms of job creation and no grand plans to restructure state government.

What squabbles that have popped up have involved turf battles.

The one that has gotten the most attention has been the Republican lawmakers’ determined campaign to fence in Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and, in the process, largely overturn a statewide election by legislative fiat.

Ritz knocked off the darling of conservative education reformers, Tony Bennett, in the fall; and Republicans have not been eager to move on. Brick by brick and bar by bar, they’ve tried to build a cell to put her in; and they’ve been largely successful.

They also have worked hard to put teachers in their place by pushing for a bill that would prevent automatic collection of union dues from their paychecks. That’s a measure that’s got nothing to do with education and a lot to do with securing an advantage.

And then there’s the polite but determined campaign to ignore Pence’s tax proposal. Democrats actually have given Pence’s plan more support than members of his own party, largely as a political stunt, of course.

The Republican dons in the House and the Senate chafed a bit at the control Daniels exerted over state government, and they’ve been looking for a way to reassert legislative leadership. Giving Pence’s proposal a cold shoulder gave them the perfect opportunity to do so.

So, at the halfway point in this legislative session, we’ve not heard much noise or seen much action.

That could change, of course; but right now it’s looking like acquiring and maintaining power was much more important to Republican lawmakers than actually doing anything with it.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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