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Democrats are still confident

Randy West, Editor

A year ago, Indiana’s top Democrats were in rare form when they gathered in French Lick for their traditional weekend of political meetings, campaign strategy sessions, luncheons and camaraderie. At that time, Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon was way ahead of his hapless Republican opponent, David McIntosh, in the race for governor. O’Bannon had just scored a PR touchdown by invoking special powers and rolling back the gas tax. The state had a huge surplus, and the economy was still growing.
The Democrats exuded confidence.
This year in French Lick, things had changed. O’Bannon is still a popular governor, but he and the legislature had been at loggerheads over several issues, and that friction had clearly worn on a man who has spent most of his political life working well with legislators of all stripes.
The state and national economies have weakened, and therefore so has the state budget surplus. In fact, the General Assembly unwisely passed a tight budget this spring that calls for spending $500 million more than it will take in. O’Bannon refused to sign it.
The public has forgottent that in the first four years of the O’Bannon-Kernan administration, the Indiana General Assembly cut $1.4 billion in taxes. That’s where a lot of the money has gone.
Taxpayers, Republicans and some big city newspapers that constantly seek sensational news are biting at the governor’s heels, demanding property tax and reassessment reform (ordered by the courts) that will not devastate homeowners with huge tax increases. Oddly enough, if Republicans have a good plan for property tax reform, they have not revealed it.
So, with all this hanging fire, what was the mood of the top Democrats as they looked forward to the next round of elections and legislative sessions?
The Democrats know they have the best leaders in the state in Frank O’Bannon, Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh and Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. They have able mayors, Congressmen and state legislators, like Sen. Richard Young and Rep. Paul Robertson. I can’t think of a time when O’Bannon, Kernan and Bayh have lost an election. Bayh is clearly considered presidential timber, and Kernan, the former Mayor of South Bend, is an excellent administrator and gifted speaker. He’s widely considered unbeatable as O’Bannon’s successor.
The Democrat state party is a very strong organization, led by bright people like Joe Andrew and Robin Winston. Their hard work and attention to detail is aimed all the way to the township and precinct level, and that has paid off for Democrats.
The convention crowd at French Lick was huge, about 800 people, even though it’s not a big election year, the state Democrat Party campaign strategy sessions (now officially known as “Camp O’Bannon at French Lick”) were good, and there were many able Young Democrats there, a healthy sign for the future. One of the bright stars of the horizon appears to be John Fernandez, the mayor of Bloomington. He’s running for secretary of state, an office often used as a springboard to the governor’s office.
As a two-term governor, O’Bannon cannot succeed himself, and at age 71, he’s not looking to run for another office, but he knows he’s got plenty to do the next two years, a lot of problems to solve. He has given Kernan the huge responsibility to lead the Democrats’ efforts to come up with a solid, fair, equitable plan to restructure the tax burden to pay for schools and county government without burdening homeowners, business or farmers.
O’Bannon said that the way things stand now, the property tax bill on the old house that he and Judy shared in a changing neighborhood in Indianapolis when he was lieutenant governor would double. Maybe he and others should have paid more in the first place, but O’Bannon, Kernan and other Democrats are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.
There are some essential government services, like education, prisons, Medicaid, welfare, that must be funded and whose budgets won’t be tampered with, O’Bannon told a group of newspaper editors from around the state. So other budgets must be cut. He’s asked all state departments to cut their budgets by five percent, then seven percent, but that’s only 15 percent of the total state budget.
O’Bannon said when you cut state spending it always comes down to what do you want to cut? No one wants their ox gored.
When push comes to shove, there are many factors to be considered in the tax equation, and getting a perfect plan won’t be easy, but O’Bannon and Kernan and others are determined to get the job done, as they have repeatedly said they would. The next few months will reveal a lot about our lieutenant governor, and I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised.
Budget problems aside, O’Bannon told the editors, “The state’s still doing great, and it’s great being your governor.”