House Speaker Pat Bauer has cast a long shadow over the Indiana General Assembly.
Last week, the darkness continued, as the session's promising start gave way to politics as usual.
First elected in 1970, Bauer, a Democrat from South Bend, has been in the legislature for 40 consecutive years, and for six of the last eight he has held the powerful position of speaker.
The week started and ended with vehicle bills.
Contrary to what you might think - and what I thought the first time I heard the term - a vehicle bill has nothing to do with automobiles.
A vehicle bill is a placeholder. Vehicle bills have no subject. They are filed so legislation that is not introduced at the beginning of the session can be amended into them later. It is a way of circumventing the usual committee process and thereby limiting public scrutiny and open debate on politically charged issues.
The first vehicle bill in the House was House Bill 1367, which concerns education. The House Education Committee, of which I am a member, heard the bill on Monday morning, having seen it for the first time the previous Friday.
The bill would delay implementation of two reform initiatives the legislature passed last year - the School Scholarship Tax Credit and the Virtual Charter School Pilot Program. It would suspend PSAT testing and take money away from ACT/SAT preparation. The short-term savings would net schools an estimated $4.61 per student - that's right, less than $5 per student - while delaying two programs designed to help disadvantaged and at-risk children and curtailing college preparation. In addition, the bill effectively would prevent the creation of new charter schools and could jeopardize Indiana's ability to qualify for federal Race to the Top education funding.
It also would allow unrestricted spending from various funds to make up school budget shortfalls. According to an analysis, about 85 percent of the proposed spending already is allowed under current law. The bill is political, and it passed out of committee along party lines. It was scheduled for action by the full House yesterday.
The other Republican members of the Education Committee and I offered an alternate plan that would give schools greater financial flexibility by allowing them to transfer money among funds, which is prohibited by current law. In exchange for this new flexibility, schools would have to agree not to increase salaries next school year. Our plan would prevent the layoff of thousands of teachers statewide - which would keep class sizes from growing - and would do it in a fiscally responsible way.
The second vehicle bill popped up Wednesday morning. Members of the House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee received a 31-page amendment to House Bill 1369 - a vehicle bill - four hours before the committee was scheduled to meet.
The amendment had nothing to do with government and regulatory reform. It would have made numerous changes to the law governing public-private agreements concerning toll roads. It also could have jeopardized the Ohio River Bridges Project. The Roads and Transportation Committee would have been the appropriate committee to hear the bill, but Bauer assigned it to Government and Regulatory Reform, ostensibly because of political wrangling and unrest within his own caucus.
After about an hour of testimony and committee discussion, the amendment was adopted and the bill advanced to the full House, where, on Thursday, it failed when the House did not adopt the committee report, which is almost always an uneventful voice vote. A roll-call vote was requested, and the vote was 49-49. The House is controlled 52-48 by Democrats. In this case, the speaker pro tempore - the Democrat who takes over as speaker in Bauer's absence - voted with all 48 Republicans to keep a terrible bill from moving forward. Two Democrats were absent. After the vote, Statehouse veterans were having trouble remembering the last time something similar had happened.
Bauer adjourned shortly after the vote was tallied, killing six other bills that fell victim to his political games.
In his second inaugural address, Gov. Mitch Daniels used springtime as a metaphor for Indiana's coming prosperity:
"Not even the cold realities of a wintry world economy can obscure the signs of spring in our state. Out of economic erosion and indistinction, Indiana now excels in every assessment of appeal to new plantings of future jobs and prosperity. A blossoming culture of enterprise foretells the coming vigor of a youthful economy that regenerates new sprouts faster than its trusted old branches decay and fall away."
The governor delivered the speech more than a year ago, and it is even more relevant today.
"Spring's first flowers are always at risk. The frosts of fear can nip the most promising and beautiful of buds. If Hoosiers emerge from our winter's sleep only to see the shadows of our doubts and retreat from them, then winter will return, all the more frigid for the fragile hopes it cuts short. But, unlike the groundhog of fable, we have the outcome in our power. If we choose to face forward, into the sun, casting our shadows behind us, we can summon the springtime, and command it to come."
The legislature must adjourn by March 14, which is less than six weeks away. Tomorrow is the deadline for House and Senate bills to pass out of their respected chamber. The House will spend the rest of this month considering Senate bills, and vice versa.
Today is Groundhog Day. Will Bauer see his shadow and subject Hoosiers to six more weeks of political winter, or will he allow the first shoots of spring to flourish?