A $22.5 billion kidney stone 

Two months into the

Two months into the General Assembly and so far people are behaving. No one has come back from the dinner break drunk. No one has been caught with an intern. No DUIs.
Maybe it"s early. Maybe the threat of a $1 billion budget deficit has sobered people into focusing on the state"s future. Maybe they will start reading bills and staying awake during committee hearings. Well, maybe it"s early. The unofficial halfway point of the session came when the House passed a two-year budget, like some $22.5 billion kidney stone. It takes bits of money from all sorts of places, like the state"s share of the national tobacco settlement and the Teacher Retirement Fund. There"s an incentive for teachers - don"t let them retire until they fix our kids. Democrats were able to find some extra money for public education. It was no small feat. By all accounts, like most states, we"re broke. States rely on income and sales tax. Both are down and are expected to be hit again once we get the premiere of Recession II: This Time It"s War. The budget will continue to dominate the session until the process screeches to a halt at the end of April with a deal on a spending plan that will balance using techniques that would make Arthur Andersen blush. As for all of the non-budget bills bubbling in the pot, there is still plenty of time for surprises but enough legislative time has passed to get an idea of what will happen before lawmakers leave town. Lobbying reform is a goner. Despite ranking GOP House member Mike Smith resigning his post to take a job with the Indiana Casino Association days before the session began, there will be no restriction on lawmakers jumping ship and turning up in the halls as lobbyists later in the week. Rep. Dave Crooks (D-Washington) sponsored a bill that would impose a cooling off period. Yes, you could actually call it the Crooks Bill with a straight face. House Public Policy Committee Chairman Mark Lytle (D-Madison) said his committee was too busy to hear the bill this year. Lytle was a runner-up for the casino job and by too busy, he meant busy with three weeks of hearings for gaming bills. The same cold shoulder was applied to the more stringent reporting requirements that would have forced lobbyists to reveal the money they spent to wine and dine lawmakers during the session, instead of months after the bills passed and they have left town. The Associated Press reported that last year lobbyists spent more than $20 million on contract lobbyists, who in turn bought gifts, held receptions and took our state lawmakers out to dinner. Of course that was last year. How much is SBC spending to pass a bill that would thwart its competitors? How much are deep-pocket competitors like AT&T and Time Warner spending? Don"t know Ö those reports won"t be due until this time next year. That"s a cooling off period any lawmaker can support. Don"t expect any new money for the arts. Rep. Sheila Klinker (D-Lafayette) tried to get $6 million in the budget for the arts. She is vice chair of Ways and Means, but she was told no. Artists need a gimmick. How about slot machines at poetry slams? I"d rather get three Carl Sandburgs than three cherries. This doesn"t appear to be a year for social issues. There will be no hearing on whether to abolish the death penalty. There is mixed interest in gun control. Bills by Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary) are languishing. One would ban assault weapons and the other would raise the age for carrying a handgun. Rep. Linda Lawson (D-Hammond) was able to get a bill through committee that would bar those convicted of domestic violence from getting a gun permit, in line with federal law. One of the hottest legislative ideas this session is methamphetamine. Rep. Jonathan Weinzapfel (D-Evansville) has a bill that would make it a crime to possess one of the elements that go into making the drug. In case you don"t know the recipe for a batch of crystal meth, those ingredients can include cold medicine and hydrogen peroxide. And no, there is no minimum quantity in the bill. Police have to believe you intend to use your hydrogen peroxide in a meth lab. I"m from up north and we"ve got some bad drugs floating around, though meth isn"t typically one of them. It"s supposed to make people very aggressive. Apparently, it has the opposite effect on law enforcement. Usually, our drug cops go that extra mile and find the crack, not just settle for the baking soda. Sen. Murray Clark (R-Indianapolis) was able to pass a bill in the Senate that would create minimum mandatory sentences for dealers of 10 grams or more of methamphetamine. Clark said it makes the penalties the same as that for being caught dealing crack cocaine, a law which has already begun to make prison populations swell. Clark is running for governor. Weinzapfel is running for mayor of Evansville. Though science is still debating the addictive power of methamphetamine, candidates have a more difficult time withdrawing from the allure of television time, and pictures of themselves backed by a neat row of uniformed police officers. Both bills are expected to have wide support when they reach the opposite chamber. As I said, it"s still early. If nothing else, the General Assembly has proven that anything can happen in Indiana, especially if it shouldn"t.

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