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So much for a honeymoon period.
The developing story line on Gov. Mike Pence’s first legislative session is largely centered on the General Assembly’s reluctance to move forward on his signature campaign promise, a 10 percent income tax cut for all Hoosiers.
It seems every reporter has reported on it. Every opinion columnist has opined on it. Every Statehouse wise guy has cracked wise about it.
Why shouldn’t they? This is a great story, the stuff that reporters love. With the new governor getting kicked around by the legislative leaders of his own party, the story practically writes itself.
We’ve been encouraged to believe this is a stinging rebuke, but is it?
Let’s begin by stating the obvious. Mitch Daniels is a tough act to follow.
Daniels came to office after 16 years of state government control by the opposite party. He had a vision for reinventing state government, an immediate budget crisis to solve, an intellect and force of personality the press corps respected, and a relative electoral mandate to push his vast agenda.
Eight years later he left office with high approval ratings, a long list of substantial accomplishments, a $2 billion budget surplus, and general sense among the public that the state was in good shape.
The legislature, now with Republican supermajorities in both chambers, understandably took the opportunity of a transition from one governor to the next to reassert some of its collective prerogatives. After serving with (they’d never say “under”) Daniels for eight years, they were not going to pass up the chance to finally flex a little muscle. No, things are going to be different now up on the third floor.
To Pence’s credit, he’s doesn’t seem to mind. Even if he did, what’s a successor to do?
The transition from the Daniels administration to the Pence administration is largely a continuation of shared philosophies and priorities.
It’s not like Pence could have rolled into town and immediately started to deconstruct the work of his predecessor, a fellow Republican and conservative.
Reinvent state government? It’s been done. Even the BMV works.
Implement Obamacare? Not likely.
Suggest additional education reforms? There’s plenty of work to be done on education, but Daniels and Tony Bennett dragged the legislature kicking and screaming into the debates about vouchers, merit pay, school grading, teacher tenure and accountability. No, save a few education superheroes like Rep. Bob Behning and House Speaker Brian Bosma, the legislature never had much appetite for big, structural education reform. Most legislators seem content with an education reform cooling-off period.
Which brings us back to Pence’s income tax cut. House Republicans chose not to include the tax cut in their budget, and that was the proof most reporters needed to proclaim the idea dead. They’ve chalked it up as Pence’s first defeat.
It isn’t. Legislative sessions are long and winding roads, and we’re only halfway down this one. There are deals to be cut and last-minute maneuverings to be made in a body accustomed to maneuverings that always, always happen at the last minute.
Keep a look out for the next state government revenue report due out in April. If tax collections are up and the state remains in a strong financial position, the governor may well yet get his tax cut. More likely, he’ll get a portion of it, enough to walk away from his first legislative session with a signature victory.
But even if he doesn’t, Pence will have firmly established himself as a friend of taxpayers. It isn’t enough to say these things in a campaign. Hoosiers don’t want a governor who talks about cutting taxes and controlling government spending only when he’s asking for their votes.
Voters, especially Hoosier voters, are leery of politicians who campaign as fiscal conservatives and then discover their inner big spender once they take office.
Pence inherited Daniels’ state government, but he rightly knows he can’t inherit Daniels fiscal conservative reputation. He’ll have to earn his own.
By first proposing and then fighting for his tax cut, Pence is cementing his reputation as a fiscally responsible steward of the taxpayers’ money. And that will leave him strengthened in his governorship, if not with the legislators up on the third floor, then surely with those he has been entrusted to govern.
Pence’s commitment to keeping his promise will make him a more credible and successful governor as he faces the challenges sure to come after his first legislative session comes to an end.
Cam Savage is a principal at Limestone Strategies and a veteran of numerous Republican campaigns and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He is a graduate of Franklin College. He can be reached at Cam@limestone-strategies.com.
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