Tort reform becomes Pence’s first legislative loss

Gov. Mike Pence was dealt his first loss Thursday when a state senator gave up his efforts to push a “loser pays” tort reform bill that was part of the Republican’s first-year legislative agenda.

Sen. Mike Delph, the Carmel Republican who was carrying the measure on Pence’s behalf, filed a motion to pull the bill from further consideration this year. He said he will focus instead on the governor’s proposal to lower Indiana’s income tax.

“I went and spoke with the governor’s office and we agreed it would probably be best to withdraw it and revisit the issue sometime in the future,” Delph said.

The bill would have required the losing side in all civil litigation to pay the winner’s attorney fees and other costs – an idea championed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but that Indiana-based business groups have not sought.

The issue proved tricky for Pence. His staff asked Delph to carry the measure on the governor’s behalf – but since then, Pence has steadfastly refused to address on it.

His press secretary, Kara Brooks, said “no” when asked if the governor’s office would react to Delph’s decision. Pence’s staff has similarly answered other questions about the roposal in recent weeks.

Pence was asked about the bill on the WFYI-Indianapolis television program “Indiana Lawmakers,” and said only that his campaign’s “Roadmap for Indiana” – which does not include tort reform – “was by no means intended to be exhaustive.”

Delph is also the lead author of Pence’s proposal to lower Indiana’s individual income tax rate from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent.

A co-author is Sen. Brent Steele, the Bedford Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the tort reform bill had been assigned. Delph said Steele opposed the tort reform proposal.

“I didn’t want to put him in an awkward spot, and I know the governor doesn’t want to put him in an awkward spot – especially when he’s one of the co-authors of the tax cut proposal,” Delph said.

Delph said his focus will be on pushing that tax cut for Pence. “That’s his top priority,” Delph said, “and that’s my top priority to try to help him.”

Confusion over Pence’s approach to tort reform continues

During a news conference Thursday, Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence held his “Roadmap for Indiana” in the air, pointed to it and said it “will be enough for us to focus on” in terms of his 2013 legislative agenda.

Later that day, state Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, said he’s carrying Senate Bill 88, a tort reform measure that would require the losing side to pay all legal fees in civil litigation because Pence’s team asked him to. That “loser pays” proposal is nowhere to be found on Pence’s roadmap.

So is tort reform part of Pence’s legislative agenda?

On Thursday, his spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.

On Friday, Pence cancelled interviews with multiple media outlets, including the Courier & Press. But he spoke with the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette’s Niki Kelly, who tweeted that he did not answer a direct question about whether he is pushing tort reform. “Our legislative agenda is a work in progress,” he said.

The Indianapolis Star’s Mary Beth Schneider reported in Friday’s paper that Pence’s incoming chief of staff, Bill Smith, said “there’s a difference between having a focus on something and having a position on things” — an implication that Delph’s tort reform is just one of many ideas to come from a legislator that Pence might support.

But Delph told The Star that “a member of Pence’s staff asked me to do it.”

“This was not on my radar till they asked me to do it. I’m just trying to be supportive of the governor-elect,” Delph said.

Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault on Friday afternoon declined to address Delph’s bill specifically and said the governor-elect’s team will roll out his legislative agenda once he takes office next week.

“We’ve talked to a lot of different legislators about a lot of pieces of legislation. We’ll be prepared week one to start talking about specifics of that legislative agenda,” she said.

Delph is also the lead author of one of Pence’s very top priorities: A bill that would cut Indiana’s individual income tax from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent.