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Pence's legislative win to be tested in campaign

Posted at 12:54 PM, Mar 12, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS -- Gov. Mike Pence says the recently adjourned legislative session yielded actions that are a "big win for Indiana," providing millions for road improvements, increasing funding for an economic development effort he's spearheaded and eliminating the state's widely criticized ISTEP student exam.

It's a tidy list of accomplishments for the Republican governor to use during what's expected to be a difficult re-election campaign against former Democratic House Speaker Johns Gregg.

"We have plenty of time for campaign politics this fall. There will be a lot to debate and I'm excited about having the chance this summer and this fall to talk about our record," Pence said Friday, noting the road-funding bill was supported by many Democrats. "This is really about Indiana, this is really about all of us sitting down and saying what are the needs? How do we meet those needs in a fiscally responsible way?"

Yet, political observers question whether the lawmaker-aided victories will be enough to whitewash some deeply unpopular decisions Pence has made, among them last year's controversial religious objections law, which damaged the state's reputation and inflicted economic harm. That was followed in November by Pence's opposition to granting state aid to Syrian refugees settling in Indiana, a directive that a federal judge recently said "clearly discriminates" against people from the war-torn country.

The GOP's business wing, including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, had hoped lawmakers would try to help rectify some of the public relations fallout this session by enshrining gay civil rights protections into state law. But Pence was disinterested and GOP lawmakers killed proposals amid fierce pushback from social conservatives.

"That is going to become an issue in the campaign," said Paul Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne who is now a public affairs professor at Indiana University. "Everyone was expecting something to be done on that issue and nothing got done."

There's also a genetic-anomaly abortion ban that Pence, who needs a strong turnout from his evangelical base, must now consider signing into law. The bill was passed by the predominantly male Legislature during the waning days of the session despite an open revolt by female GOP lawmakers who say it goes too far and could harm the health of women with difficult pregnancies.

MORE | Indiana House passes controversial abortion bill

Republican women voters were already lukewarm to Pence, says GOP consultant Christine Matthews, who was former Gov. Mitch Daniels' pollster.

"It's a bad thing when you have pro-life women lawmakers in you own party saying this just isn't right," Matthews said of the bill, which she expects Pence will sign.

Added Helmke: "The suburban Republican woman vote is taken for granted in the party and this is an election where that could be a dangerous thing."

Pence said Friday that he is "pro-life and I strongly support the sanctity of life" but declined to reveal whether he'll sign the bill.

While Pence may be vulnerable on social issues, GOP lawmakers and political analysts agree the road-funding measures will likely play well with voters and help restore the state's crumbling infrastructure, which Republican House Roads committee Chairman Ed Soliday says ranks in the bottom third of states.

The diminished plan, approved before lawmakers adjourned Thursday, give Pence just a fraction of the $1 billion he initially sought for state highways and bridges, but still will pump millions into local roads and byways in cities, towns and counties. And Pence can massage the numbers to declare he is investing $1 billion in roads.

"This is a very balanced plan," Pence said. " I don't really discriminate between roads."

He also secured $42 million in funding for his Regional Cities economic development initiative, which will pay for quality-of-life improvements in the Evansville, South Bend and Fort Wayne areas. Many Republican lawmakers were skeptical of the program when they awarded Pence funding for two regions last year.  Some, including Republican Houser Speaker Brian Bosma, seemed downright irritated this session after Pence added a third city and promised even more money that the Legislature hadn't yet approved.

Still, the money was included as part of an 11th-hour roads deal as the clock ticked down on the session.

Despite these accomplishments, the Gregg campaign has been more than happy to steer any conversation back to where they think Pence is vulnerable.

"I think there was an expectation by Hoosiers that the governor would lead on addressing the debacle he created," Gregg campaign spokesman Jeff Harris said, alluding to uproar over the religious objections law. "That didn't happen and it's still plaguing our state's reputation."


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