Well, the Indiana General Assembly passed a $22.7 billion budget for the next two years. I have to admit I feel a bit like a fraud trying to explain what brand of monkey business led to the final deal.
No one else in Indiana politics but Speaker of the House Pat Bauer, the former Democratic Ways and Means chairman, could have found more money for public schools during the worst recession since the Great Depression.
My newspaper, the Post-Tribune in Gary, Ind., sent me to cover the war in Iraq. I got on a plane from Chicago the night the air war started and eventually became embedded with the Indiana National Guard. Consequently, I spent more time in Baghdad last month than I did in Indianapolis. I got back in time to cover the last three days of the session — four if you count the extra day of per diem senators received when Republican Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton held the vote until 1:30 a.m. Sunday. I think I understand now why most of you pay absolutely no attention to the Legislature. You would think that after a month I would have missed something, but I settled in pretty quickly. When I came back, they were on the verge of reaching an agreement. Most of the credit for the final budget package goes to freshman Speaker of the House Pat Bauer. No one else in Indiana politics but the former Democratic Ways and Means chairman could have found more money for public schools during the worst recession since the Great Depression. Let’s see if any other state in the union will show an increase in education spending this year. He did it because Bauer knew where to find the high ground for Democrats. Fellow Democrat Gov. Frank O’Bannon called for no increase in education and late into the session spent his political capital lobbying lawmakers for increases in Medicaid and prisons, along with an economic development plan that consists mainly of business tax cuts and some university building projects. School kids or prisoners? Tough choice. By the end, O’Bannon was largely ignored by his own party. The governor’s amiable style, which has served him well throughout his political life, may have finally gotten the best of him. On the other hand, Bauer’s legendary temper never showed. Instead, he wooed Republicans in both houses. On the House floor, House Republican Leader Brian Bosma called Bauer his new friend. Garton agreed to work with him and impose an artificial deadline that ended the session early. There will be fall-out. Unless extending research and development tax credit for 10 years or creating a tax deduction for steel mills really does have a miraculous ability to jump-start the state economy, this budget won’t stay balanced for long. It may not be balanced by the time you finish reading this sentence. Actually, the new budget doesn’t start until July and the state still has dwindling reserves left from the booming 1990s. Don’t, however, expect these reserves to last more than a year, which means lawmakers will be faced with making painful cuts or calling for an income tax increase during the 2004 campaign for governor — just about the worst time to make good decisions. It means O’Bannon’s biggest test as governor could come in his final year. Lawmakers like Bauer are better at spit and chewing gum deals than public policy. In a 2 a.m. press conference, after the General Assembly was finished, the governor said that behind closed doors he asked leaders from both parties if they wanted him to lead them to a tax increase. “I was told it would be the shortest parade you’ve ever seen,” O’Bannon said. It may get even shorter. Democrats have a single vote majority in the House. If Bauer was willing to move around the governor in this budget, expect that detour to grow wider when House Democrats unveil their 2004 re-election strategy. O’Bannon was right, of course. Medicaid can’t be cut dramatically without some change at the federal level and without real consequences for the poor and elderly. Without some real change in the legal system, prison spending isn’t likely to dip as lawmakers pray. Even public schools may not have long to celebrate. The achievement gap went untouched, despite looming deadlines imposed by Indiana and later by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The school funding formula, which was maddeningly complex to begin with, is now even more opaque. Designed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Sen. Luke Kenley, it reflects a GOP desire to allow the money to follow the child. The new formula makes it easier for state money to flow out of the cities and into the suburbs and possibly to a charter school. Bauer forced the GOP Senate negotiators back to the table until they found some way to guarantee no urban school lost money in the deal. They even started to give money for teacher pensions for the first time since 1996. In exchange, the deal swept away a Democratic addition to the formula that stopped urban schools from losing money because they have the toughest kids, even if they have declining enrollment. That fight will now be fought in every budget, unless the GOP takes over the House; in that case, it will be put to sleep. While I missed a month of the General Assembly, it looks like I’m back with plenty of time to watch the real decisions being made.