That 1997 legislative session and the community college system are the two greatest aspects of Gov. O’Bannon’s legacy.
There were disappointments along the way. O’Bannon didn’t pull the trigger on property tax reform until a full-blown crisis in 2001 threatened to dislocate many Hoosiers who could no longer afford their homes. There were dislocations and loss of life as the state struggled to decentralize homes for our mentally challenged brothers and sisters.
But in retrospect, we find policy architects building foundations.
Gov. O’Bannon’s top priority in 1999 was full-day kindergarten. The seething rivalries between the governor and Senate Republicans, and the fratricide between House and Senate Republicans got in the way of what was best for our children. It was Gov. Mitch Daniels that was able to take the foundation O’Bannon had identified and bring it to reality. And Daniels would give glowing commencement addresses to Ivy Tech, rightfully pointing out how vital it has become for our state.
Daniels was clearly an activist governor. Frank O’Bannon was a facilitator and an arbitrator, allowing the legislature to thrash out the details. I asked him about that after the 2002 special session that brought about temporary property tax relief and he said, “I’d say that’s a good observation. We’ve got split houses here, one Democrat, one Republican.” He noted that Govs. Doc Bowen and Bob Orr had GOP legislatures, and yet barely got their historic tax and education initiatives passed. “It’s a tremendous difference,” O’Bannon said.
He governed the way Gov. Roger Branigin did back in the 1960s. A reporter once asked Branigin about his policies. “Son, I don’t do policies, I do personalities,” Branigin responded.
So that fateful May in 1997, as Mayor Goldsmith was appealing to Democrats, Gov. O’Bannon went to speak to House Republicans. “It was a great experience,” O’Bannon said. When he finished speaking, O’Bannon heard a Republican ask, “Well, how can we trust people on the other side?”