House’s new chief budget writer talks about his budget-crafting decisions

Indiana Rep Jeff Thompson
Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, takes notes as Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, speaks on the two-year state budget plan. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

Rep. Jeff Thompson is one of the most powerful Hoosiers. As chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, the Lizton Republican leads the budget-writing process in the House and helps decide how the state spends billions of taxpayer dollars.

While Thompson is new to chairing the influential committee, replacing former Rep. Tim Brown, he’s no stranger to the Statehouse. Years before he was first elected in 1998, Thompson watched his father serve in the Statehouse for almost two decades. 

Prior to his appointment as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Thompson garnered little media attention due in part to his reserved nature. 

State Affairs sat down with Thompson to talk about his new role, what he likes to do in his free time and how he decided what to spend money on in the budget. The budget bill recently passed the House chamber and now moves to the Senate for consideration. He also weighed in on property tax relief and a budget amendment prohibiting any funding from going to Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, a sex, gender and reproduction research institute. 

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Q. Your dad was a state lawmaker too. Did you always know you wanted to be one yourself?

A. When he was about six months in, I thought someday I might want to do this. And 20 years later, it’s a different seat and not the one he represented because [the districts] move every time you redistrict, but I think being around it made me interested in doing it. So yes, but it's all timing, being at the right place at the right time, and knowing when the right time was.

Q. Did you know you wanted to be the House Ways and Means Committee chair or was that something that the speaker had to encourage you to take?

A. That would have never entered my mind [when I was first elected]. When Dr. Brown decided not to run again, [I thought] if I'm the best person, so be it; if I’m not the best person, so be it, too. I'd still be working and doing stuff, but the speaker thought [I should be chair].

Q. You just crafted your first budget. What was the most challenging part of that?

A. I’m going to answer what made it so nice. The staff is so good. We spent a lot of nights until 9 p.m. I knew that going into it. It’s just a very methodical process, and you may have heard me say it a couple of times even in committee, the hay is on the ground. I still bale hay some. You’ve got to bale it. It’s going to be difficult at times.

Q. Was it difficult to have to tell your fellow lawmakers “no” on some things?

A. Well, you don’t look forward to it. It isn’t the highlight of your day. That’s kind of the territory; you know it going into it. You try to have reasons and rationale. And no doubt the fact that we had some additional dollars that really were one-time dollars, made it more difficult, but again, I knew that when I showed an interest in being here.

Q. You don’t seem like a big talker. Do you think that’s helped or hurt you in this role?

A. Yeah, I don’t put my foot in my mouth quite as often. That’s one of my favorite sayings. It doesn’t hurt anything: You don't have to talk a lot. It’s the words you do say [that matter]. And obviously I’m not a natural one to get up and talk for hours on end. But, that’s part of the role, too, and I accepted that when I signed up. 

Q. In what policy areas do you think you differ from your predecessor, Dr. Tim Brown?

A. I think we’re very, very similar, really similar, in a sense of what we have in a big picture. I would say that the difference is I know that [Brown, known as] Doc had a much better handle on the whole health care industry, his profession. And I probably have a better handle on education, my profession. That's going to happen regardless. We're a citizen Legislature and so what you’ve done [for work], you probably are more aware of.

So I’m not saying that Doc is better or Doc is worse, but Doc is just different. And Doc did a great job. I loved working with Doc. I encouraged Doc to run again. That was Doc’s call.

Q. You mentioned that you were a teacher. How does that inform how you approach the budget, especially because this budget is a pretty significant expansion of vouchers?

A. Well it’s a philosophy, more than being a teacher in some regards, that I want to treat children the same. And as I said on the floor yesterday, I’m OK if all the parents choose to send their children to public schools. But likewise, if parents believe it’s the best choice to have their child in a different school than a traditional public school, I’m very supportive of that.

I philosophically believe parents should be the one deciding and [it shouldn’t be] the way we fund that drives them to one side or the other. So really it’s a philosophy of do you put parents in a box or give them options. I want to give parents options. Let them be the ones to decide. I know that’s something that maybe my profession [doesn’t agree with], but there are some that agree with me, more than you might think. 

Q. What do you think the main sticking points between the House and the Senate will be on the budget?

A. I suppose, it could be maybe the tax cuts. It could be the amount of the [contribution to the] pre-96 fund [Editor’s note: Lawmakers are working to pay off the unfunded liability of this teacher pension fund]. We obviously put $250 million in the second year. The governor's budget had $100 billion up front. We'll see. We'll find a spot to land.

I encourage [people to] find ways to make this budget better. I like to claim it's picture perfect, and the Senate should just take it and they just agree to it, no amendments, but that's probably not going to happen. We can improve things. Why should I stand in the way of that?

Q. Your budget contains some property tax relief items that were in House Bill 1499, but it only kicks in during future years. Why did you decide against doing something to provide relief this spring?

A. Well, that is extremely difficult — to do things to delay tax bills that will cause a massive disaster, and we have some things you can do next fall [to ease the burden]. But I can tell you local officials do not want [to delay tax bills]. They really pushed back and rightfully so. I would like to do something, but there's no option.

Q. Your budget doesn't provide as much money for public health as Gov. Eric Holcomb called for. Why did you land on the number that you did in terms of how much to contribute to that?

A. Well, I don't believe you'll have all counties opt in [to the program], for one thing. It's going to be a process and we also think  that we're going to somehow engage the providers and the providers are going to be the key. This is a work in progress. 

Q. You were among those that voted for the amendment to the budget prohibiting state funds from going to the Kinsey Institute. Is that something you'd push for in the final version of the bill?

A. I think that was just a statement from people that voted for that, about just the idea, but it's not going to have any effect, I don’t think, in the end. IU receives about 15% of their revenue from the state, but we'll see what happens. 

Q. Does that mean you think it won't be in the final budget or does that mean you just think it won't have an impact on IU if it is in the final bill?

A. I’m not sure at this point what is going to happen. Obviously the Senate will have their way, if they want to leave it in there or not, and we’ll go from there. 

Q. What do you wish normal Hoosiers knew about the budget process or the budget? 

A. Just how sound Indiana's fiscal state is. It is really, really sound. 

And there's a reason why we have the highest growth in terms of population of any of our four surrounding states. We exceed all of them. People are coming here for a reason. People are speaking with their feet across this country, and you're seeing a move to certain select states and leaving others. Some states are extremely poorly managed in the fiscal sense, and some are just like Indiana, and we’re seeing those are the ones that are growing, and businesses are coming there. People want to be there.

Q. Are there any areas of the budget that you wouldn’t want to compromise on?

A. It’s probably premature to say that you won’t do something. You have to be really careful, because you’ve got to land at a spot. Yeah, there’s some things I feel pretty strong about in there, but I just don’t want to put a stake in the ground right now. It’s over two months away until we’re done with this process.

Q. What do you feel pretty strongly about then? 

A. In education, the fact that we have parental choice. And obviously, I like the tax cuts. But to say it has to be identical to the letter, you can’t change a single word, I would want to be careful making that statement. I still feel strong about it. We’ll work with the Senate and we’ll find a spot to land.

Q. I want to use this Q&A to help people get to know who you are as a person, as well. What do you like to do for fun? 

A. I love working in the garden. I’ve got four gardens. If you can imagine it, I grow it.

Tomatoes and potatoes and onions and peppers and green beans and kale and spinach and lettuce and cucumbers.  I can't name them all right now. I have a list. It's in my car. It's that long, of all the stuff that I’ve got seeds for and am planting.

Q. How did you get into gardening?

A. I farmed before I got into politics, and so when I gave it up I kind of jokingly teased my wife: I could start playing golf now or I could have all these vegetables. It’s expanded quite a bit because a lot of our meals, [they’re] from the garden.

And I like to go to state parks. I love state parks. Go walk out in the woods.

Q. What’s your favorite if you had to name one?

A. I would probably say Clifty Fall in Madison. You haven’t been there? You’re really missing out.

Q. Last question: You've been in office for a while. How would you say the Statehouse has changed since you were first elected?

A. The biggest thing is probably the use of technology. I was probably slower than most to embrace it, but I have.

But you know how we get along. We have differences of opinions, but we still have good relationships between the members of the two respective parties and mutual respect. I just think that’s critical. Hoosiers should expect that. 

Obviously, you look to the east a few hundred miles and we don’t see that, and we don’t want our state to become that way. We’re going to disagree, and that’s OK. We want to have it in a civil and respectful way. And just because someone disagrees with you doesn't mean that you can't treat them with respect and be a friend even. 

Contact Kaitlin Lange on Twitter @kaitlin_lange or email her at [email protected]

Twitter @StateAffairsIN
Facebook @stateaffairsin
Instagram @stateaffairsin
LinkedIn @stateaffairs

In case you missed it: Budget 101: A look at how Indiana decides what money goes where