Leo Morris: My guide to the legislature

As another Indiana legislative session begins, there is an interesting dynamic at work.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, proposing his final two-year budget as a lame duck, is laying out an ambitious and in some ways historic spending plan. He endorses hundreds of millions more for such things as education, public health, economic development and increased salaries for teachers and other public employees.

And it is the Democratic caucus that has responded enthusiastically, even giddily, to the governor’s proposal. His fellow Republicans in the legislature are the ones going, “Well, now, let’s not get too ambitious here.”

Whatever spending plan finally emerges, two things are virtually certain.

Republicans will complain that the amount is higher than it should be, given the waste and fraud that will occur and considering how overburdened taxpayers already are. No cost-cutting will ever be enough.

Democrats will complain that not enough is being done. Government exists to improve lives, and Hoosiers can no longer tolerate mere token attention to some of their most severe problems. No amount spent will ever be enough.

Certainly, there will be other metrics by which to judge the session.

Many of us, for example, will be following the “culture war” bills that come up on race, sex, gender identify, abortion and other so-called divisive social issues, rooting for one side or the other. And there are sure to be at least a couple of proposals so patently absurd that they invite universal derision – remember the great effort to make the mastodon our official state fossil?

But really, we should mostly follow the money, for the obvious reason that government is a taxpayer-supported enterprise and we should pay attention to what is being done with our money and in our name. How the General Assembly allocates funding will determine in large part what kind of lives we will have for the next two years.

And there will be plenty of money to spend. The revenue forecast that came out in mid-December projects healthy growth, with about $1.6 billion in new money available. And of course the state already has about $6 billion in the bank unspent. So we can safely say that budgeting will be more a matter of what legislators want to do rather than what they feel they have to do.

And that leaves us free to judge, proposal by proposal, whether they should “do something” or not.

I did that for more than 30 years as an editorial writer, and I offer my criteria as a guideline. I know I’ve done this before, but, honestly, somebody should point in out at the beginning of every legislative session in Washington and in all 50 states.

For every single bill that comes up for vote:

  1. Is this really needed?
  2. If so, would government or the private sector be the better option?
  3. If government, which level should address the issue, federal, state, local or some combination?
  4. How much will it cost?
  5. Who will pay?
  6. What are the potential unintended consequences?
  7. Will it add to or subtract from individual freedom?
  8. Will the benefits to all outweigh the burden to some?
  9. Is there a sunset clause, or will this go on forever whether it works or not?

My list was a little longer than that, but that’s plenty to think about. In fact, just considering the first two should help you vote no on the majority of legislative initiatives. And the next three should show you that even if government identifies the right problem, it seldom has a clue about the right approach to take.

Leo Morris, columnist for Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier State Press Association’s award for best editorial writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected] Send comments to [email protected]