By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – When Speaker Todd Huston walked out of the Indiana House of Representatives on March 11 with the COVID-19 pandemic just beginning to get a death grip on his state, he recalled, “I remember leaving this chamber believing something historic could be taking shape.”

Huston’s premonitions might have matched those of his predecessors like Republican Speaker Cyrus M. Allen in November 1860, or Democrat Speaker Samuel Hamilton Buskirk who took the reins on Nov. 5, 1862, or Speaker Henry C. Crawford in 1932, James Merrill Knapp in October 1929 and again in December 1941, Speaker J. Roberts Dailey in December 1982, or Speaker John Gregg on Sept. 11, 2001.

These were men at the helm of “crisis” General Assemblies, facing a Civil War as in Allen’s and Buskirk’s cases, of the advent of the New Deal during the Great Depression and Gov. Paul McNutt’s sprawling reforms in Crawford’s case, or Speaker Knapp, who handled the gavel at the beginning of the Great Depression and, again, after Pearl Harbor.

In more contemporary times, it was Speaker Dailey who watched state revenues plunge in 1982, and Speaker Gregg following the al Qaeda terror attacks of 2001. These were the men to found themselves presiding as global and national events altered the status quo, forcing them to grapple with instant change and the often bitter economic carnage that followed.

Speaker Huston and his Senate colleague, President Pro Tem Rod Bray, are facing a once-in-a-century pandemic that has killed more than 4,500 Hoosiers, placed many of its 500,000 small businesses teetering, seen the state mow through much of its $2.1 billion surplus, while its jobless rate has spasmed from 3.2% in February, to 16.9% in April, and back to 6.2% in October.

During the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-19, presidents, governors and speakers played inconspicuous roles. Restrictions and remedies were in the hands of county health officials. A century later, in the days of 24-hour cable news cycles and social media, the buck stops at the desks of governors, mayors and, now, legislative leaders (President Trump says he bears no responsibility).

“I severely underestimated the magnitude of the impact of COVID-19,” Huston told the House chamber after being elected by bipartisan acclamation on Tuesday. He is now poised for history and appears to be borrowing a page from Raum Emanuel, former Chicago mayor and presidential chief of staff, who once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

Huston explained, “As we continue to adjust to life living in a pandemic, it would be foolish not to consider what we’ve learned from it and what we can do better. We should never strive to return to a life similar to that of March 11, 2020, as that would mean we have not learned from one of the most monumental and informative experiences of our lifetime.”

Those lessons include the relative poor health of Hoosiers, the “nimbleness and flexibility” of the state’s approach to K-12 education, and the need for more broadband to support hybrid approaches to schooling, as well as to support businesses. “We need a wide array of options for all students,” Huston said. “We will work diligently to provide more of those options to families in the future. Our students have faced an incredibly challenging eight months and we must do everything we can to help them get back on track to a successful outcome they and their families desire.”

This week, Huston and Bray were signaling they were preparing to take the lessons from the 2020-21 pandemic to new levels. A business, school and non-for-profit liability reprieve is likely to pass with bipartisan support and head to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk sometime in January or early February. Huston pledged 100% funding for all schools. At Monday’s Indiana Chamber preview, all four caucus leaders seemed prepared to enact a cigarette tax to cut down on bad health exposed by the pandemic.

Appearing at the Indiana Chamber’s virtual preview session Monday, Huston added, “There’s going to be a whole series of challenges and hiccups. It’s going to be imperfect. We’re going to be making things up as we go.” Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray announced that senators would be limited to 10 bills.

There seemed to be general consensus among Bray and Huston with Democrat leaders Rep. Phil GiaQuinta and Sen. Greg Taylor on using federal CARES Act funds to plug billions of dollars the state owes the federal government on the depleted Unemployment Insurance fund, as well as passing a cigarette tax. The IndyStar reported in September the state has paid out roughly $5 billion to 157,500 Hoosiers under the state and federal programs between March 1 and Aug. 29. Of that amount, more than $1.2 billion was in state benefits.

On the cig tax, Huston said, “On the budget side, to clarify, I think the concern is how do those dollars get used? It’s been slow to reduce rates, but it will be a declining revenue source.” Bray added, “I agree with the speaker. We want to be very thoughtful on how the money will be spent on the front end,” adding that he wants it to be directed to “improve health standards.”

Huston was reflective, at one point saying, “One of the big takeaways is what do we learn from the pandemic? Great companies have adapted to the pandemic. Government has to be the same way. What are the things we should and should not do?”

Throughout Indiana’s 204-year history, there have been a number of “crisis” sessions of the General Assembly, dating back to the collapse of the state’s economy due to canal bankruptcies of the 1840s, which paved the way for the 1851 Constitution. We’ve isolated five other “crisis” sessions from the Civil War, to the Great Depression, the oil shock recession of 1979-82, and 2002 following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Here are five other “crisis” General Assemblies that faced unprecedented situations that forced speakers and governors to become experimenters and innovators.

Civil War in 1860 and 1862

Speaker Cyrus M. Allen was just the second Republican House speaker, voted in on Nov. 7, 1860, as Republican Gov. Henry Lane and Lt. Gov. Oliver P. Morton took power. Lane quickly resigned, Morton ascended and appointed Lane to the U.S. Senate a month before South Carolina seceded from the Union. By the time Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office as president, 11 southern states formed the Confederate States of America, launching the bloody Civil War.

Gov. Morton raised an army and kept a lid on the General Assembly, but Democrats took control in 1862, electing Buskirk speaker on Nov. 5, 1862, less than two months before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In what Wikipedia describes as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run, Gov. Morton had soldiers disrupt a Democratic state convention, where many leaders of the Democratic Party were arrested, detained, or threatened. With copperhead Democrats in control, Morton feared they would force Indiana out of the Union and seize control of the Statehouse. Morton instructed Republican legislators to flee in Madison, where they could easily cross the Ohio River into Kentucky if the copperheads sought their return to Indianapolis by force to forge a quorum. Gov. Morton then surpassed his constitutional powers, negotiating with New York banker Henry Lanier to fund the state and its troops in the Union army. Buskirk apparently never did gavel the House into session.”

Following General Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta, Lincoln and Morton were reelected in 1864, bringing Republicans back in control of the General Assembly on Nov. 9, with Republican Speaker John Petit of Wabash gaveling the House back into session.

McNutt New Deal era reforms in 1933

With Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide victory over President Herbert Hoover in 1932 following the 1929 stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, Democrat Gov. Paul McNutt found huge Democratic super majorities in the General Assembly. In 1933, Gov. McNutt and Speaker Crawford used this opportunity to install the Executive Reorganization Act.

Wikipedia explains: “The act effectively rolled back over 50 years of restrictions the legislation had placed on the governor in appointing officials, in having control over policy, giving him a measure of control over the more independent branches of the administration, and also granting new and expanded powers to the lieutenant governor. Also passed in the opening weeks of the 1933 General Assembly (pictured above) was the gross income tax. Previously almost all state revenue had come from property tax which fell disproportionately on farmers and rural citizens, while since the 1920s the majority of citizens were living in Indiana’s cities.”

The other notable contribution McNutt and Crawford made was the creation of the three-tiered alcohol distribution system put in place following the passage of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Oil shocks, inflation and 1982

In 1979, revolution toppled the Shah of Iran, which was followed by oil price shocks and then the American embassy hostage crisis. Even more significantly, to counter inflation the Federal Reserve had a series of interest rate increases (a mortgage in this era came with an 18% interest rate), and home sales plummeted by 30%. Heavy manufacturing, including steel production in The Region and the auto plants were hardest hit, with Indiana losing more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs. The term “rust belt” began to be used to define the Midwest.

Gov. Robert D. Orr was on a “stay the course” mission to maintain his legislative majorities during the 1982 mid-term. “Democrats were calling on the governor to tell Hoosiers what bad shape we were in,” Speaker J. Roberts Dailey recalled in his book, “Mr. Speaker: Inside Six Sessions of the General Assembly.”

“The governor never misled anyone about the gravity of the situation, but he did not indicate a tax increase would be necessary,” Dailey wrote. “In 1982 we did not win by as great a majority as in 1980, but we kept a healthy majority. I believe we kept that majority because the governor refused to say, ‘We’re out of money; we’ve got to raise taxes.’ If he had done so, it would have been a much more difficult election.”

South Bend Tribune columnist Jack Colwell observed: “Gov. Bob Orr laughed five days before the election when asked at a news conference in South Bend about Democratic claims that his administration was heading toward a debt approaching $400 million. Republicans retained control of both houses of the legislature in the Nov. 2 election, although with reduced margins. Right after the election, the State Budget Agency provided the red ink figures.”

The deficit facing them was $450 million. Ways & Means Chairman Pat Kiely recalled he and Gov. Orr sitting Republican legislators in the Governor’s Office, telling them, “Without a tax increase, we’re going to have to shut down the schools.”

“At that time, Indiana income taxes for individuals and corporations were extremely modest when compared with taxes in other states,” Dailey said. “We agreed to present the problem to our caucuses, get their input and get back with the governor. We strongly favored retaining funding for schools and essential state services rather than tackling the difficult process of cutting back appropriations, so we decided to proceed with a tax increase. In three days of special session, we approved a modest increase in taxes, but without any help from the Democrats.

“The special session generated an overwhelming feeling that what we were doing was bad medicine, but necessary,” Dailey continued. By the 1983 biennial budget session, Dailey regretted the action. “The 1983 budget spent most of the increase, and we weren’t prudent in our spending. Although Republicans were in the majority, they gave in to the Democrats’ spending programs.”

Gov. Orr paid a political price, defeating Democratic State Sen. Wayne Townsend by a 52%-47% margin in 1984 while President Reagan was reelected in a 49-state landslide. Orr had won office 57.7% to 41.9% over Democrat John Hillenbrand in 1980.

Dailey added, “We did learn one thing, however. When you have an unpleasant task, it’s best to get it over with as quickly as possible.”

Sept. 11 and the 2002 special session


There were warning signs that the prosperity forged by President Reagan in the 1980s and maintained by President Clinton (who actually presided over federal budget surpluses in his final four years in office) was doomed. There was the dot.com bubble burst of 2000, an over-inflated Nasdaq which saw 75% of its value wiped out, as well as accounting scandals at Enron and Swissair. The S&P 500 had lost 43% of its value between 2000 and 2002.

Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed more than 4,000 Americans at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93 where a passenger uprising spared the U.S. Capitol. Gov. Frank O’Bannon faced a very different economy than his first four years in office.

HPR observed: “The year 2001 presented the ‘day and night’ division of the O’Bannon tenure. He had won a 15% victory over David McIntosh in 2000 on a record of decreased crime, more cops, 300,000 new jobs, his ‘Taxpayer Protection Plan,’ and, by the way, tax cuts that inspired the bumper sticker, ‘Thanks a billion.’ Shortly after his 2001 inaugural, the bad news began tumbling out of a national recession. O’Bannon’s priorities were the budget (which he let become law without his signature) $600 million out of balance, and a full-day kindergarten plan, which ultimately was killed by Ways & Means Chairman B. Patrick Bauer. Senate Finace Chairman Larry Borst was calling for dealing with reassessment in 2003. By Sept. 11, 2001, when terror struck the nation, Indiana was reeling with the loss of more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs, a decline in personal income, and virtually no cogent economic development strategy.”

In early 2002, O’Bannon announced his “Deficit Management Plan” that called for $366 million in permanent spending cuts, $406 million in one-time spending cuts, and $1.09 billion in transfers from other funds, for a total of $1.86 billion. “I have preached and preached against one-time fixes that do nothing to address the gaping budget deficit Indiana faces,” O’Bannon said. “Band-Aid fixes are ill-advised and spending cuts are hurting Hoosiers.”

In April, O’Bannon called a special session. In the April 11, 2002, edition of the Howey Political Report, we observed: “Gov. O’Bannon did what had to be done: Call a special legislative session. But in doing so, he retreated from an earlier stated notion that a deal had to be in the works before calling the kids back. He offered no specific starting point. Between the time Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan announced his plan last fall and when the regular session ended March 14, O’Bannon and his key legislative liaisons had virtually no contact with Republican leadership. This tired, tired governor didn’t have the stamina to gear up a campaign and make his case before the people in all corners of the state.”

In the May 16 edition, we reported: “This past week, after Gov. O’Bannon reneged on a promise to provide a tax restructuring plan as the Indiana General Assembly convened in special session on Tuesday, he deferred to Ways and Means Chairman Bauer, whose revamped plan included pull tabs for Marion County as a way to provide $500 million in new revenue. Bauer suggested that O’Bannon may have to accept some things he finds odious.”

What ensued was what HPR described as a “surreal atmosphere.” As Gov. O’Bannon equivocated, State Rep. Jim Buck camped out in a tent on the Statehouse lawn to protest, while the Senate reconvened to the song of Seymour grade schoolers singing, “What Is Hoosier?”

House Minority Leader Brian Bosma (who had to shake off a case of histoplasmosis) and retiring Democratic Speaker Gregg “both appear to have recalibrated the gravity of the crisis at hand, in part due to the $86 million deficit in April revenues, with a similar dent expected later this month. ‘We are in extraordinary times in our state, perhaps extraordinary in institutional memory,’ Bosma said. ‘We are willing to talk about solutions and we are willing to talk about compromise.’”

Chairman Borst added, “I have no idea what the governor is even for or against.”

In the May 16 HPR edition, we observed: “This year, with O’Bannon aloof and Budget Director Betty Cockrum leaving, House Speaker John Gregg and majority leadership retiring, and Bauer aggressively running for speaker, the context for who cuts a deal and how is as murky as an Indiana cornfield on a May flood plain.”

As the special session began and wandered, HPR reported: “Not only did Bosma find four additional GOP votes on Saturday, he personally directed an agonizing stare-down vote on June 6 that sent the bill to a Senate in turmoil. In the subtle pandemonium of that day with an elusive 51st vote, Bosma began protesting. ‘Chill, Bosma, or you’ll be back in the hospital,’ Gregg shouted 

Bosma rushed from his front row seat to Rep. Mary Kay Budak, whose light was glowing nay. ‘Is it 50 now?’ the LaPorte Republican nervously asked her caucus leader. Bosma glanced up at the board and faced the most dramatic decision of the year. If House Bill 1001ss didn’t get 51 votes, the issue would be dead. (State Rep. Matt) Whetstone’s light on the tally board finally went nay, and Budak nervously fingered her button. Bosma glanced at the tallyboard one last time, then grimaced and told her, ‘Do it.’”

It wasn’t until late June that a deal was struck, driven by Borst, with Lt. Gov. Kernan working in the hallways, and Gov. O’Bannon finally stepping up, with HPR observing: “It took God six days to create the heavens and earth; and it took the O’Bannon-Kernan administration and the Indiana General Assembly eight months and seven mind-numbing days with little rest to accomplish something that appeared to be much more complex – to bring Indiana’s tax code into the 21st Century ... less than five months before an election.

“O’Bannon’s most vital 72 hours weren’t at the beginning, but at the end of the process. At his tactical best, it was O’Bannon who pressed for the ultimately successful concurrent resolution course. ‘The governor made some right decisions in the last few days,’ said Kiely. ‘Bauer pretty much put his plan together in isolation of the governor’s office. The governor was helpful in the end, the lieutenant governor was more helpful to get more Democrats to pass the thing. We were adjusting our plan.’”