Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Pence, Rockport, marriage & more

Posted By on Tue, Jan 7, 2014 at 4:00 AM

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When Republican Mike Pence became governor last January, sending Mitch Daniels officially up to Purdue University, I thought that might be the high point of the political year.

After all, Pence's campaign had not promised a controversial agenda for the legislature and there were no elections on the calendar.

Even the legislature promised little excitement. With Republicans holding a quorum-proof majority in both the House and Senate, there wasn't much Democrats could do to make things interesting.

But it turns out 2013 wasn't boring after all. Here are five things - a list that is by no means meant to be inclusive - that commanded attention in the past year.

Pence convinces lawmakers to cut the income tax

It seemed clear when Pence became governor that legislative leaders were done being pushed around. They'd spent eight years doing Daniels' bidding and they were ready to reestablish the General Assembly as an independent branch of government.

Poor Pence. Lawmakers in the House were so uninspired by the governor's plan to cut income taxes by 10 percent that they just blew it off, failing even to include the proposal in their budget. A ticked off Pence said in response that Hoosiers "deserve better," words that were about as hostile as this governor would ever get.

A few weeks later, though, Senate Republicans did include a tax cut in their budget - albeit only half what the governor wanted and phased in over twice as long. It wasn't much but Pence smartly declared the tax cut a win and signed it into law.

The death and possible rebirth of the Rockport coal-to-gas plant

The story of a proposed coal-to-gas plant planned for Rockport is just too complicated to explain in a few paragraphs. But in brief, it's a project that promises to inject billions of dollars into the state economy, use Indiana coal, create jobs and tie the state's natural gas customers to a 30-year-contract with prices that may or may not be a good deal.

Oh, and the project is backed by a company that employs a good friend of Daniels, who brokered the deal for the state to buy most of the plant's product.

The plant has been in the works for years, but lawmakers - at the urging of some of the state's natural gas utilities - rethought it during 2013. They passed a bill that was thought likely to kill the project. In fact, its future seemed so bad that the developers announced they'd stop investing.

But just this month, the Indiana Supreme Court - which has a member who worked as Daniels' chief counsel when the deal was being negotiated - issued a decision that appears to give the plant new life. It's too soon to know for sure but the rollercoaster that is Rockport promises to ride on into 2014 as well.

Dwayne Sawyer appointed auditor - and resigns weeks later

Pence made a historic appointment last summer when he named Brownsburg city councilor Dwayne Sawyer to serve as the state auditor, making him the first black Republican to serve in a statewide office.

But it was not to be. Just a few months later Sawyer abruptly resigned for what he said were personal and family reasons. The move raised questions about Pence's vetting system, although the reasons for Sawyer's decision remains a mystery.

This month, Pence tried again. He named Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville, to the post.

Legislature delays decision on marriage - and public opinion flips

In a surprise move, Republican leaders in the General Assembly delayed a debate on a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. It's essentially a same-sex marriage ban, although its authors refuse to call it that.

Lawmakers have passed it once but must pass it again before it can go on the ballot for ratification by voters. The fight was expected earlier this year but with the U.S. Supreme Court set to consider marriage laws and amendments in other states, legislative leaders decided to wait.

But during the delay, public opinion in Indiana has shifted. Where Hoosiers used to support the amendment, now they're not so sure, according to recent polling. And an increasing number of people indicate they even support gay marriage.

Meanwhile, big businesses - including Eli Lilly & Co. and Cummins Inc. - are throwing their weight and money behind an effort to defeat it.

It's with that backdrop that lawmakers prepare to take on the measure in 2014.

Republicans, new superintendent clash

The biggest surprise of 2012 was the election of Democrat Glenda Ritz as superintendent of public instruction, beating out GOP darling Tony Bennett.

I never thought the situation would grow even more dramatic after she took office. But Ritz and the other members of the State Board of Education - whose members are appointed by the governor - got off to a bad start and the rift grew and grew.

By the time the year ended, Pence had created a second education agency, Ritz had sued her fellow ed board members, and the sides brought in a national group to mediate.

At the board's final meeting of 2013, relations seemed to have calmed but with big decisions pending about the state's curriculum standards and testing, fireworks are likely in 2014.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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