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Opening Arguments

Power plays

Members of the Indiana General Assembly stopped playing chicken in time to pass a new budget just before the special-session deadline of midnight arrived, so the state government won't have to shut down. Crisis averted.

And now that the compromise is in place -- a two-year budget instead of a one-year one, slightly more education funding, no new taxes, $1 billion held in reserve -- it seems so obvious that we're left to wonder why it couldn't have been achieved during the regular session. But that overlooks the real passion -- to put it politely -- that attended legislative sessions this term. I've been watching the General Assembly for more than 30 years, and this was the first time I actually thought they might not get a budget done in time.

And if this was, as many suggest, a battle of titans (short titans, admittedly) Mitch Daniels and Pat Bauer, it's pretty clear House Speaker Bauer won many of the battles but Gov. Daniels won the war:

Daniels, a Republican, sees each legislative session as a chance to push big -- and at times controversial -- policy ideas. He's a man in a hurry; a politician who grows frustrated with roadblocks that stand in his way; a man who has trouble tolerating a legislative culture that so often rewards inaction and political back-slapping. Bauer, meanwhile, is a creature and master of the methodical legislative world. The Democratic speaker is more than willing to serve as a one-man roadblock against the governor's policy proposals, and he did so again and again this year.

[. . .]

This year, Bauer was able to kill a series of proposals offered by Daniels -- including those aimed at restructuring local government and putting property tax caps in the state Constitution. During the regular legislative session, Bauer clearly came out the victor.

But everything was different in the special budget session that ended Tuesday. Daniels united Senate and House Republicans in recent weeks and effectively tarnished the Democratic message during a series of public appearances. In the end, Republicans celebrated, and Bauer saw a budget become law despite overwhelming Democratic opposition.

I'm much closer to Daniels than Bauer philosophically, and the speaker too often comes across as a buffoon. But he's a very powerful buffoon as long as Democrats control the House, and that's not always a bad thing. As we've seen in Washington, it can be dangerous for taxpayers when one party controls both the executive and legislative branches, even when it's the supposedly more conservative party. As long as Bauer is throwing up his roadblocks, Daniels has to work a little harder to get his agenda approved; since many of his plans are so sweeping, a little more time to think about them doesn't hurt, as impatient as the governor might be. It works the other way, too. Bauer's unfortunate inclination to spend everything in sight can be check by the governor and Senate Republicans.

Indiana has a part-time legislature and a divided government. In an era of such explosive growth in the public sector, that's probably about as good as we can hope for.