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Four Issues To Watch In The 2014 Legislative Session

Legislators plan to debate a range of issues from a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to a tax on office furniture.

The 2014 legislative session begins this week, and several items are already on the agenda.

On Indiana Newsdesk, Statehouse reporter Brandon Smith and host Joe Hren discussed four key issues to watch. You can also read summaries of the topics at play below.

1. HJR 6

House Joint Resolution 6 is a proposed state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Indiana’s state code already bans same-sex marriage, but amending the constitution would make it more difficult for the state legislature to allow same-sex marriages in the future.

Here’s how it works:

To amend the constitution, the General Assembly must pass the proposed constitutional amendment a first time. In the case of HJR 6, this happened in 2011 when the House passed the measure by a 70-26 vote and the Senate passed it 40-10.

An election must be held. Then, the legislature must pass the proposal again, which it is seeking to do this year.

If it does, the amendment will be put on the November ballot and must be approved by the voters.

As our statehouse reporter Brandon Smith points out, that means the governor’s approval is not required.

Smith predicts the proposal will pass, which is why he says people on both sides of the measure are gearing up for a fight at the ballot box.

2. Criminal Code Overhaul

The Indiana legislature passed an overhaul of the state’s criminal code last year aiming to make sentences for the worst criminal offenses more severe while reducing the penalties for low-level crimes, particularly first-time drug offenses.

But some lawmakers are concerned the law will actually increase the state’s prison population.

Legislators are also weighing the cost of the overhaul.

“One of the things that the fiscal people have asked us to do is to try to give them a more concrete sense of what are the actual programs that will work and what are the actual cost to those programs and what do you really need to invest in to really make it work on the ground,” says Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, who co-authored the criminal code legislation. “Because they’re worried about putting a lot of money into something and then not having it pan out.”

Because of these concerns, lawmakers will likely make some changes to the law and could decide how to pay for it.

3. Business Personal Property Tax

Gov. Mike Pence is pushing for a repeal of the business personal property tax, which is a tax on business equipment. That could include a wide variety of property such as laptops, office chairs or factory machinery.

The tax brings in about a $1 billion a year, which goes to local governments, and the loss of that revenue has some members of the legislature, including Republicans, questioning whether a repeal is the best option.

“I’m real concerned about eliminating a tax and making it harder on local units because they’ve told me they’ve already looked at ways to combine services and that they really can’t combine any further,” says Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus. “Therefore, they’re going to want a new tax, and I’m just really uncomfortable with creating a new tax.”

Pence has mentioned several ways he could help pay for that tax and soften the burden on local governments. That includes eliminating the tax gradually and only eliminating the taxes on new purchases.

4. Medicaid Expansion

Gov. Mike Pence is making plans to meet with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in February. He is seeking to negotiate an expansion of health care coverage using the Healthy Indiana Plan, the program the state uses as a part of its Medicaid waiver.

With the Affordable Care Act, more Hoosiers are eligible for health insurance through the federal exchange, but an estimated 400,000 are still falling through the cracks.

If the federal government rejects the governor’s plan, the legislature may have to take additional steps to help close that gap in coverage.

Gretchen Frazee

Gretchen Frazee is a reporter/producer for WFIU and WTIU news. Prior to her current role, Frazee worked as the associate online content coordinator for WFIU/WTIU. She graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia where she studied multimedia journalism and anthropology. You can follow her on Twitter @gretchenfrazee.

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