INDIANAPOLIS — Spring is in bloom outside the Indiana Statehouse, but lawmakers inside are getting ready to light up the state's biggest "Christmas tree" — the state budget.
Any bill can become a "Christmas tree" — a place for lawmakers to hang a priority that has struggled to win approval on its own. But the budget often looks best to desperate lawmakers because it is the one piece of legislation they must approve before they can split town.
The Indiana General Assembly could wrap up its 2013 session by the end of the week. Lawmakers have already sent at least one hot-button measure, placing new limits on abortion pills, to Gov. Mike Pence. But the majority of contentious items are still being hashed out.
"There's been all sorts of thing put in the budget," said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, when asked to reflect on last-minute surprises he's spotted over his 14 years in the Legislature. He pointed out a tax cut approved in 1999 with aid for developers of mobile home parks. The 2006 legislation authorizing tax increases to pay for Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis also included creation of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority to coordinate projects in that corner of the state.
The germaneness of an issue — how closely it relates to the subject of the original legislation — is often of little concern as legislators scramble, Pelath said.
"Legislative leaders usually find a way if they want to do something, they're usually not perturbed by their germaneness banalities."
Former Gov. Mitch Daniels pushed for years to win his automatic tax refund, introducing it as a stand-alone measure without luck until it was affixed to the budget passed in 2011. Another measure that year, to defund Planned Parenthood, slid through just before the deadline attached to a bill. A federal injunction on the state law remains in place as the issue is being litigated.
There are plenty of contentious measures still seeking a home this year.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, ticked down the list:
•An effort to back major improvements at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, either through state grants or state-backed loans, is still being hashed out.
•A possible gambling expansion is still on the table, along with changes to how much the industry pays in taxes. Lawmakers are considering adding table games at the state's two horse racing tracks.
"That is obviously one that will keep folks busy, in discussion, right up until the end," he said.
•A compromise plan to expand the state's school voucher program is still being worked on, and lawmakers must still decide whether Indiana will participate in the national Common Core education standards.
•And lawmakers still have to decide whether they will seek an additional review of the state's plan to buy coal-fired gas from the developers of a plant in Rockport.
"I feel pretty good about reaching a resolution with all of these, with about a week to do so," Bosma said.
That's not to say the state's largest "Christmas tree" is bare. Lawmakers have been putting up and taking down priorities throughout the session.
The budget that passed out of the House included money for one of Bosma's top priorities, a pilot program giving children vouchers to attend preschool. Senate lawmakers took that down and hung their own proposal for expanding Medicaid using the state's Healthy Indiana Plan in its place.
They might look a little worn out as they traverse the hallways of the Statehouse during their final, grueling week. But most lawmakers will leave town with at least a little "Christmas" cheer.