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Democrats convinced they’re on right track

Democrats are convinced they did the right thing by pushing hard for bipartisan tax restructuring, court-ordered reassessment reform and preserving funding for education in the historic special legislative session despite many obstacles. Those included election year maneuvering, a split Indiana General Assembly, the recession, anti-terrorism climate, stock market collapse, corporate fraud on a massive scale, and many political careers on the line.
The special session and the way Indiana’s governmental leaders are grappling with a dismal revenue picture came up repeatedly at the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association convention last weekend in French Lick. The annual gathering of state Democratic Party officials, statewide candidates and smalltown newspaper publishers and editors traditionally kicks off the political campaign season. The historic 500-room French Lick Springs Resort and Spa was full with the largest IDEA crowd in its 122-year history.
Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon of Corydon is a past president of IDEA (1961). So was his father, the late Corydon Democrat Publisher Robert P. O’Bannon (1946), and his grandfather, Lew M. O’Bannon (1915).
Gov. O’Bannon described the state’s fiscal crisis as much like the federal government’s. Four years ago, under President Clinton, there was a huge federal surplus and widespread prosperity. The economic future looked rosey. President George W. Bush ordered tax cuts, which were followed by a recession and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The long-term bull market and corporate meltdowns contributed to the malaise. Now, states all over the country are hurt by decreasing revenue and increased services.
O’Bannon started cutting state spending as much as he could — up to $682 million last year, $900 million this year. Indiana ranks 45th in state spending, and the state is still short $600 million to $700 million. “It’s a constant worry,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is to get through the next year without cutting education,” the governor told editors at a Saturday breakfast. “It’s touch and go. We look at it month by month.”
He praised courageous legislative leaders of both parties for coming together at literally the last hour of the special session “by doing the right thing” and finally agreeing on a budget that no one liked. They raised sales and cigarette taxes to help pay for the property tax cut. The inventory tax will be phased out over the next several years to help business. Education spending was relatively spared.
O’Bannon said Indiana’s school test scores continue to go up in science, math, social studies and English. Schools are being held more accountable. Principals and teachers are writing their own improvment plans. With regard to President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative, “We’re one year ahead,” said O’Bannon. Sixty percent of Hoosier high schoolers now enroll in college.
Asked how he deals with the constant criticism that comes with a recoiling economy and occasional lawsuits that name the governor, O’Bannon said, “You can’t take it personally. It’s part of the job. This is where the buck stops.”
He added, “You feel fortunate to have served during the good times, and in the bad times you also feel fortunate to have served, especially when you’re convinced you’re doing the right thing.”
There are times when he’d rather not read the newspapers. Every morning when he looks at The Indianapolis Star, First Lady Judy O’Bannon asks, “How bad is it?” Sometimes he’s able to say, “Not bad today.”
O’Bannon still supports the idea of a new I-69 highway, “the missing spoke” that would link Indianapolis and Evansville. It has been under discussion since O’Bannon was in his first term in the state Senate, in the early 1970s. He thinks the highway is essential to boost the economy of the southwest section of Indiana for the next 50 to 100 years.
Regarding new requirements to get driver’s licenses, O’Bannon said the state must make it clear what kind of documents are needed. Years ago, the state wanted to make it easy for people to get a license, but now, with the heavy influx of immigrant laborers and the threat of terrorism, the state has made it too difficult. “We’re still trying to work that out,” O’Bannon said.
About a casino in French Lick, O’Bannon generally does not support expansion of gambling, and he doesn’t like pull tabs either. However, the original gambling bill called for 11 riverboat casinos, including one on Patoka Lake. A casino at French Lick, conceivably on a man-made lake in front of the West Baden Hotel, one of the wonders of the world, could be the 11th casino.
At the Saturday night banquet, 15-term Congressman Andy Jacobs of Indianapolis delighted a large crowd with humorous anecdotes, brilliant commentary and political insights from his colorful career in Washington, D.C. As an infantryman who was badly wounded in the Korean War, Jacobs is wary of getting this country involved in an ill-conceived war with Iraq. He said he is tired of “killing our kids for points in the polls.”
Indiana Democratic Party Chair Peter Manous introduced Judy O’Bannon — who’s active all over the state in Main Street rejuvenations, community building and historic restoration programs, as well as advocating early children reading and assisting the handicapped. Manous said she is “the finest First Lady Indiana has ever had.”
Judy O’Bannon described a trip to a shantytown in South Africa, where she met a woman named Rita Cookman, one of the “most amazing, innate leaders I’ve ever seen.” Cookman was “the man” in her community because she knew how to get things done for her people. She didn’t ask what people wanted, she asked what they needed. And then she found the means to help them. But she always put herself last. “That’s a servant leader,” O’Bannon said. “There was no corporate greed, no need for power, no ego.”
She complimented the people in the audience that night for being the same kind of selfless leaders.
Former U.S. Sen. Vance Hartke, 83, a three-term Democrat, returned to French Lick for the first time in many years to promote his nephew Bryan L. Hartke’s race against Eighth District Congressman John Hostettler. Hostettler is a conservative Republican who recently stunned a group of breast cancer survivors who asked for his support for breast cancer research. Instead, they got a lecture on a controversial study that links abortion and breast cancer.
Bryan Hartke, 51, of Evansville, heads engineering and strategic planning for Bristol-Meyers Squibb Indiana Technical Operations World-Wide Medicine Group. He is married and has two children.
The IDEA elected officers for 2003. Tom Gettinger of The Sullivan Times will be president; Randy West of The Corydon Democrat will be vice president, and Stephanie Taylor, editor of The Salem Democrat, will be secretary-treasurer. Curt Kovener, long-time publisher of The Crothersville Times, will continue as executive director.