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Indiana General Assembly gets back to basics

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It's the first week of January, which means the new legislative session has begun. Over the next several weeks our elected state officials will set the pace for the future of Indiana.

There's no question that November's presidential election results changed the focus of our nation. But how did the election effect state politics? Legislators from each party are openly discussing how getting back to basics will be the future for Indiana government.

Republican Focus

For those on the outside looking in, there may be an assumption that life is pretty easy for the GOP. After all, the Indiana Republican Party has control of both the House of Representatives, the Senate and the governor's office.

And not only do they have a majority, they also have what's known as a "super majority" — meaning they have the numbers to pass legislation without Democrat votes.

But House Speaker Pro tempore Bill Friend, R-Macy, says being in the majority is not as easy as it may appear on the surface, especially right now in Indiana.

"A majority of the majority have never served in the minority," says Friend.

While that simple statement may sound like a cryptic riddle from sphinx, it cuts to the core of the issue those in the Republican leadership face among those caucus.

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"People like myself have remember what it is like to serve in the minority," says Friend.

"There are only a few of us who were here when [John] Gregg and [Pat] Bauer were in the speaker's chair and we [Republicans] were in the minority. Several in our caucus have only been here with Republicans in power."

And that can cause a lot of discourse within the caucus, according to Friend.

"We will have members that are aggressive and will want to move forward, but we have to give them some good counsel. We may tell them this isn't the time, the year, we don't want to go there, etc. [There are a lot of conversations in individual offices where we try to translate a philosophy of the office."

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Warnings of "tyranny of the majority" came from political leaders and philosophers for centuries; and they are warnings Friend says Republican leaders heed and try to instill in the caucus members who haven't had the "misfortune" of serving in the minority. Remembering those times and acknowledging that the minority — in this case, the Democrats — can also have good ideas is imperative to achieving the best possible outcomes for our state democracy.

"Not all the great ideas come from the majority," says Friend. "You have to give everyone some kind of consideration. It's imperative that we don't fall into the trap of overreach. If we overreach we will find ourselves in some peril."

For the political majority (with a caucus that has not experienced the other side), that can sometimes be the hardest lesson to teach, especially when individual legislators come in to the position with a personal agenda. Friend recalls the realization he had when he moved into a leadership role within his caucus — he was not just serving the constituents of his district, but every citizen in the state of Indiana. And among all of those citizens, perspectives and needs can vary greatly. And ultimately, all of those perspectives and needs have merit and should be considered when determining a path for the greater good.

Just because Democrats are in the minority doesn't mean that their issues, proposals and their voices deserves any less respect.

"Just because we can doesn't mean that we do so without consideration of the minority. It's extremely important," says Friend.

Friend went a step further, crediting Democrats for something that Republicans struggle with at times — a strong sense of solidarity in motive and message.

Part of the struggles the Republican leadership has — when working with caucus members who want to charge ahead with the advantages of the being in the majority — is keeping everyone on task and message. Friend credits the Democratic party's ability to do that.

"Democrats understand the value of solidarity, sticking together and supporting a common cause," says Friend. "Our strength comes from sticking together."

Many of the caucus conversations occurring behind closed doors will be pep talks to inspire that solidarity, according to Friend.

So what is it that Indiana Republicans plan to focus on this legislative session?

First and foremost will be approving a two-year budget. After all, that is the only thing required by the state constitution that legislators have to accomplish. The second highest priority on the GOP agenda is the long-term funding of road infrastructure improvement.

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This may be the biggest pill for all sides to swallow as the GOP leadership plan calls for that dreaded two-word phrase — tax increase.

Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, outlined the plan on the opening day of session last week. The plan calls for increasing the current gas tax from 18-cents-per-gallon to 28 cents. The plan also calls for a $15 hike on standard vehicle registrations and a $150 added fee on electric vehicle registrations. The electric vehicle cost is justified because of the assumed lack of gas taxes paid by electric vehicle users. (Driving electric vehicles make help reduce emissions, but the lack of gasoline purchases damages the road construction budget apparently.)

The overall goal is to raise millions to achieve the funding to create and maintain a long term transportation and highway maintenance plan that will create jobs, and really put the "roads" back into "Crossroads of America."

Outside of those two big issues, Friend cites education and public safety as the next things on the agenda, both of which are guaranteed to generate lively debate both within and outside of the Republican caucus. Friend would like to see a definite solution to ISTEP and increases in school funding that keep struggling rural school districts in mind. The state's "the money follows the kids" philosophy lies at the heart of the funding formula. It's a noble philosophy in theory. The essence of schools and education should be about the students. While the loss of 200 students in Marion or Hamilton counties may sting the bottom line, the loss of that many students in a school district in rural Indiana can be devastating.

Let's put the numbers in perspective. Carmel Clay Schools in Carmel, Indiana have a total K-12 student population of 16,082. There are 5,000 students alone at Carmel High School with 1,245 expected to graduate this spring. North Miami Community Schools in Northern Miami County — located in the district Friend represents — has 958 students in the entire district, kindergarten through grade 12. A little more than half of those students are in grades 7-12. The North Miami graduating class of 2017 currently has a mere 76 students. That difference in student population defines everything from teachers and class offerings to facilities and amenities.

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Despite the pending discussions and differences of opinion the Republican leadership expects to navigate through, there are a few things that will not be a part of the conversation — divisive social issues. Friends says the issues that have plagued the General Assembly over the last couple of years — from Religious Freedom to LGBT rights and more — will not be a priority.

Friend says this will be a challenge to navigate — both from within the caucus as well as outside of the party — but it's necessary for the good of the state.

"It's our preference to take a step back from the divisive social issues," says Friend. "We have more pressing things to deal with."

With a new governor who has never held elected office before and legislators on either side of the aisle who want to push the boundaries to the extreme, the most pressing issues for the Republican leadership may be trying to find middle ground.

Democratic logic

For the Indiana Democratic Party, there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the last election. By all election logic and the polling numbers for most of the campaign, John Gregg should be preparing for a swearing in ceremony Jan. 9 instead of Eric Holcomb.

Then again, in the perfect Democratic world, Eric Holcomb wasn't supposed to be at the top of the ticket. He was supposed to be a somewhat innocent bystander in the fall of Mike Pence.

So what happened? What got lost in translation that resulted in such a huge win for the GOP and such a devastating loss for the Democratic Party?

According to State Rep. Dan Forestal, D-Indianapolis, it was the basic message that was missed.

"We did not connect with the working class," says Forestal. "We missed the economic struggle that everyday people face every day. The Republicans didn't."

Forestal — who serves as the assistant Democratic whip in the House — is a firefighter by trade and says he hears and sees the struggles of people and the picture isn't exactly pretty. He believes that Democrats both locally and nationally tried so hard to appeal to all of the individual groups that feel disenfranchised that the one basic thing that unifies all of us in this struggle we call life was overlooked.

And that one basic thing — economic stability — is the biggest thing facing so many people today.

"I'm not saying women's rights, LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter and everything else the Democratic Party champions are not important. Of course they are important," says Forestal. "But it's difficult to care or focus on those issues when you are constantly struggling with keeping a roof over your family's heads or food on the table or if you are worried about losing the only job you've ever had. It's those worries that are keeping more and more people up at night."

That disconnect from the working class is the part that really stung for Democrats. The party has prided itself on being able to effectively represent laborers and those who aren't corporate America. Yet somehow, over time, that segment of the population hasn't found what they have been looking for in the Democratic Party.

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Forestal says it's time to change that. Taking the party back to its roots and championing the little guy is what Forestal believes needs to happen. Not that Democrats have purposefully left the working class behind, but speaking to the issue of economic stability and doing it in a manner that isn't condescending will be the key to Democratic revitalization.

"I think sometimes we Democrats get so caught up in the facts and figures and trying to prove that we are right and 'here's why' that we lose what people relate to the most," says Forestal. "We have been talking to the head and not the gut. And credit has to be given to Republicans because that's what they did. Their message spoke to the heart and gut of what people are feeling. They didn't sweat the details up front. People related to that because they felt they were being heard."

Forestal says the Democratic mantra and principles have not changed. But how the message is delivered and how the party reconnects with its base will — because it has to change.

One immediate change that Forestal is choosing to take on personally is re-connecting with the rural parts of the state. With the exception of a few legislators, nearly all of Indiana's Democratic representation is from the most urban populated areas. Indianapolis, Bloomington, Lafayette, Gary and South Bend send the majority of legislators from the donkey side of the aisle. Forestal believes the party has lost touch with rural Indiana.

"So, I plan to visit those parts of Indiana that don't get a lot of attention or representation from Democrats," says Forestal. "They may not welcome me openly at first, but I intend to go and keep going back. I plan to listen and to show that the Democratic Party isn't disconnected from their issues. Their issues are our issues." 


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