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Pinpointing governor’s influence a tough task

– When Gov. Mike Pence signed the new preschool pilot program into law last week, he heaped praise on a bipartisan group of lawmakers who gathered around him at the DayStar Childcare Ministry in Indianapolis.

The new law creates a pilot program to pay for roughly 2,500 low-income children to attend preschool. It’s far short of the 40,000 children Pence originally hoped would be covered by the program, but still quite a bit more than what seemed possible in the middle of the session: a mere study of the issue over the coming year.

The 2014 session was hardly a banner event for Pence – many of his top priorities, including preschool, were either watered down or failed outright – but legislative leaders delivered just enough on the governor’s top priorities to declare victory at the end of their 10-week meeting this year.

Moving forward, the question of Pence’s influence will remain important as his supporters continue floating his name for a potential White House run.

Pence’s term has been a far cry from the years with former Gov. Mitch Daniels, whose policy proposals were often matched in boldness by his strong-arm political tactics, which included recruiting candidates to run for office against incumbents with whom he clashed. Daniels hardly won every agenda item he sought from lawmakers, but he typically started each session with clear goals, and lawmakers were able to pinpoint his influence in the Statehouse – good, bad or otherwise.

But Pence’s touch has been far lighter. It has alternately been described as deferential and respectful to the legislative process (drawing on his 12 years as a federal lawmaker) or almost nonexistent. But legislative Republicans still rally to Pence’s side.

Talking the day after the 2014 session ended, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis spoke highly of the governor’s involvement.

“The details were worked out among legislative leaders, but the governor was very encouraging on the adoption of each of these initiatives,” he said.

But asked about the specific items Pence contributed to on the preschool compromise, Bosma drew a blank: “I don’t know that a comment on that would be productive. I don’t know. There were so many details – we had a thousand details – and I’m not sure how many of those are attributable to the governor.”

House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, has worked closely with Bosma on education issues in the past few sessions and was closely involved in the passage of the preschool plan.

“The governor was very involved all along, and he obviously wanted to make this happen,” Behning said. “If it hadn’t been for him, especially with ... this not being a budget year, we would have not had a lot to barter with. But the governor was very adamant that he wanted something.”

The modest win comes at a critical juncture for Pence. His supporters in Washington are pumping his name for the White House in 2016, spying a key window in the Republican nominating contest with the political scandal of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The most recent example came in a Politico piece sizing up the 2016 playing field, in which Pence’s pollster touted his credentials as a bedrock conservative.

Pence he has become fairly deft at dodging questions about any presidential ambitions. When asked, his standard answer is to say that’s he’s focused on the job he has right now. (Daniels got incredibly practiced at dodging the White House question during his final years in office.)

The preschool program will give Pence ammo for whatever his next move is – a run for re-election, the White House or any other office – but this year’s battle ended up becoming quite a slog for a Republican governor with strong Republican majorities inside the Legislature.

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