STATEHOUSE, March 3, 2009 - If the legislative session were a marathon, then last week would have been the halfway point.
In the Greek legend on which the marathon is based, the runner collapses and dies upon completing his mission.
After three consecutive, lengthy days and nights in session, some members of the House of Representatives appeared to be close to collapse. All three nights, food was brought into the chamber, and we ate at our desks. On Tuesday, it was White Castle, so we were at least tempting death, albeit not in the way of the fabled runner.
Because we did little during the first weeks of the session, we had a very full calendar last week. Wednesday was the deadline for House bills to pass out of the House. During the second half of the session, we will consider Senate bills, and the Senate will consider the bills we passed.
And pass bills we did.
We passed 246 bills, about half of them in the final three days.
Some of the bills we passed were good, if not great, legislation, and I was pleased to be able to support them. I was somewhat ambivalent about many, and I was adamantly opposed to a lot of the bills I voted against.
First on that list is the budget, which passed 52-44 along party lines.
In voting against the budget, I voted against a thousand things I support. But the budget is a package deal, and I had to vote either for it or against it. Because it was unrealistic and irresponsible, I voted against it.
Indiana has a longstanding tradition of operating on a two-year budget. In fact, no one can document an exception to that in modern times. The budget that was presented was a one-year budget.
The rationale was that it's too hard to make projections in these difficult economic times.
By that logic, we should budget month to month, or maybe not at all. It has been suggested that moving to a one-year budget would set the stage for a full-time legislature.
We shouldn't use hard times as an excuse for expanding government, and here I'm not just talking about a one-year budget and its possible implications.
Passing a two-year budget requires some measure of discipline, and the budget that passed is long on unrealistic hope and short on discipline.
The budget appropriates $1 for so-called outside spending and revenue reductions, which includes all the non-budget bills we passed that either involve new spending or reductions in revenue. Analysts have estimated the cost of those bills at $150 million.
That means the budget is short $149,999,999 when it comes to paying for all those new initiatives, some of which I supported.
Examples include a pre-kindergarten grant pilot program, a sales tax exemption for low-income energy assistance, a tax deduction for solar powered roof vents and a tax credit for parent care expenses. I supported these initiatives because I believe they are good ideas, but I supported them knowing we would need to cut elsewhere to make room for them in the budget.
Instead, the Democrats who wrote the budget allowed $1 for these initiatives and almost two dozen others. That's unrealistic and irresponsible.
Also irresponsible is the deficit spending that is all but assured by the budget, inevitably leading to higher taxes down the road.
I couldn't vote for that budget.
I hope I will be able to vote for the budget in two months. The budget is one of the General Assembly's most important policy statements, and if I am unable to support the final product, it will be because it represents bad policy.
Under the Indiana Constitution, the state budget must originate in the House. It then goes to the Senate, which is where it is now. After the Senate passes its version, a conference committee reconciles the two versions and each house votes on the final product.
I am certain the Senate will make many changes.
The legislative process has been compared to sausage-making; most people enjoy the finished product but would be sickened to see how it's made. I suspect the analogy is most apt when it comes to final budget negotiations.
There will have to be a lot of give and take, and both sides must be willing to compromise.
Some of my priorities won't get as much funding as I would like. Some will, at the cost of other legislators' priorities.
But I won't compromise when it comes to the structural integrity of the budget. We promised an honestly balanced budget that is free of gimmicks and accounting tricks, and I will vote for nothing less.
Getting past our current economic woes will require a marathon-like effort, and we won't make it to the finish line on White Castles and wishful thinking.