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December 6, 2012

Head of state budget-writing committee is healer by trade

INDIANAPOLIS — Not long after accepting the assignment as the Indiana House’s chief budget writer, Republican state Rep. Tim Brown invited his Democratic colleagues on the state budget committee to join him for lunch.

It may seem like a minor gesture, but given how contentious the last two years in the Indiana Legislature has been — with repeated walk-outs by the Democratic minority and angry responses from the Republican majority — it was seen as signal from a man who makes his living trying to mend people.

Brown, 56, is the lone physician in the Indiana General Assembly. In his 18 years in the Legislature, the Crawfordsville emergency-room doctor has never had a direct role in crafting the state’s two-year fiscal plan that now amounts to about $28 billion in spending.

But he was picked for the job, said his Republican colleague and friend, state Rep. Eric Turner, because he’s “smart,” “very grounded” and “has a peacemaker personality.”  

He’ll need those attributes as he takes on one of the toughest jobs in the Statehouse. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Brown is one of the key gatekeepers to how taxpayer dollars are spent.

It’s his committee that initiates the legislative budget-writing process and considers all bills with a significant fiscal impact. In that role, he also chairs the State Budget Committee, which includes Republicans and Democrats from both legislative chambers and is responsible for crafting a single, comprehensive budget recommendation to the governor.

“It’s an all-consuming job,” said Turner, who sits on the committee. “You have so many people — agency heads, House members, state senators, special interest groups — who have a piece of the budget now and they want more.”

Already, Brown’s colleagues have joked that he may soon be known as “Dr. No.”

After suffering through some lean years that triggered cuts to education and other state spending, the revenue side of the budget has bounced back. The state now has $2 billion in surplus — and legislators and the newly elected governor, Mike Pence, have a wealth of ideas on how to spend it.

“He’s going to have to say ‘no’ more times than yes,” said Turner.

Brown never sat on Ways and Means until his appointment by GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma. But he’s been chairman of the House Public Health Committee, and in that role carried some big health-related bills.

One was legislation that created the Healthy Indiana Plan, an insurance plan that uses Medicaid funds to provide coverage to the working poor.  

Another was Indiana’s smoking-ban bill, which finally passed last year after a frustrating eight-year effort. One of Brown’s co-sponsors was state Rep. Charlie Brown, a liberal Democrat from Gary who holds polar opposite views from the conservative Dr. Brown on most issues.

The two have become friends. “We both believe that we want the health of Indiana to be better,” said the Republican Brown. “His path may be different but our goal is the same.”

Health care costs will play a significant role in the budget-making process. Legislators will have to make some budget decisions related to expanding Medicaid, a federal program administered by the state. And questions are looming about the impact of the federal Affordable Care Act, and whether the state will decide to set up its own health care exchange or leave it to the federal government to step in.  

In appointing Brown, Bosma cited his experience in health care issues.

Brown sees a certain irony to that. He first ran for the state Legislature in 1994, prompted by his fears of a sweeping, federal health care proposal put forth by then-first lady Hilary Clinton.  

Brown didn’t see much good in government-run health care back then. Before getting involved in state politics, he represented the Indiana State Medical Association on advisory committees on Medicaid and Medicare. It’s in those experiences, he said, where he saw how too much government regulation can lead to the “loss of common sense.”

In his new role, Brown said he hopes to bring “some freshness and the ability to listen.” Those are attributes that are even more important now, he said, given that his party controls both chambers with a supermajority — giving Republicans enough votes that they don’t need a single Democrat to show up for them to pass a budget bill.

“I don’t have a gnawing-in-my-gut feeling that my way is the way things have to be,” Brown said. “I’m not dogmatic that way.”

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