The legislature is officially in session and lawmakers have just 10 weeks to accomplish an ambitious agenda.
Many of the topics that will dominate their debates aren’t new. Here’s what you can expect to dominate the conversation during this year’s session.
Photo: Jamison Wieser (Flickr)
Indiana’s statehouse became the subject of nationwide scrutiny last year after Governor Mike Pence signed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law.
The backlash was swift and Democrats argue the damage hasn’t been repaired.
“Our state’s economic future demands that we attract new Hoosiers and retain current ones of all kinds,” House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, told legislators on the opening day of the legislative session. “If you have dreams for a better future, we want you here in Indiana. Already our civil rights statute has engendered much discussion in the post RFRA era.”
House Democrats are putting that issue at the top of their agenda for this year’s session.
They want to pass civil rights protections that will ensure people can’t be discriminated against based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I recognize that for some of you this change might violate longstanding points of view,” Pelath said. “That’s OK. But a decisive amendment to our civil rights law will make the questions go away. It will fully heal our state’s image in the modern world by ensuring equality and fairness. And if you’re unsure if it’s the right thing to do, embrace the end of the thing.”
Senate Republicans unveiled their own proposal before the session kicked off. It includes exemptions for religious institutions.
Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, unveiled an alternative bill Thursday that doesn’t include civil rights protections for transgender Hoosiers. The gender identity portion would be moved to a summer study committee.
“I think to give the transgender community the center stage on this issue in a summer study committee basically responds to their concern that we don’t understand their issue,” Holdman says.
But pushing through an LGBT bill isn’t one of the GOP’s legislative priorities.
“This is a group effort and we don’t have consensus on the LGBT bill,” says Senate Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne. “Understandably so, it’s controversial. Qe have people all over the place on those issues and we’re going to be discussing that throughout the session.”
One issue that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on is that road funding needs to be a priority.
Pence has proposed a four-year, $1 billion funding plan that would cover maintenance and improvement costs for state roads using a combination of reserves and money from future state budgets.
Pence has also spoken out in support of a plan authored by Republican Senator Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, which would take more than $400 million out of the state’s reserve funds and funnel that into local road improvements.
“Obviously we have to have a long-term discussion about transportation funding but putting close to half a billion dollars into local communities around this state in an immediate fashion to help them with infrastructure issues at no cost to taxpayers makes a very strong statement,” Hershman says.
Democrats call the Republican plans short-sighted.
They want to divert sales tax revenue from gasoline and special fuels and split the money between state and local roads.
“Before discussing new revenue we first have to use the dollars we’ve already taken from the people,” Pelath says. “If much of it’s being merely being banked away in an account, well the storm clouds are bursting and the rain is starting to fall. We will not generate new income for the public good if the basic economic needs of our state and its hundreds of communities aren’t met.”
Legislators also hope to tackle the ongoing controversy surrounding the ISTEP exam.
There’s talk on both sides of the aisle of ditching the assessment altogether and moving toward a nationally-crafted test.
“It’s time to pull the plug in favor of something less sensational and more functional,” Pelath says. “Let’s return these tests to being the boring diversions that they are so our teachers can again dedicate their energies toward the joy of science, reading and critical thinking. Let’s first stop doing harm by continually disrupting a key economic pillar of the state.”
Legislators promised to fast track two education bills this session that will ensure teachers and schools will not be punished for lower ISTEP+ scores. The bills moved out of committee Wednesday.
One bill, passed unanimously by the House Education Committee, would prohibit this year’s ISTEP+ scores from being calculated into a teacher’s evaluation if it makes the evaluation worse. The scores must be used though if the scores would boost a teacher’s evaluation.
“We know this is a short session and things need to be done quickly,” said John Barnes, Director of Legislative Affairs for the DOE. “We’re satisfied with this language.”
With the committee passing the bill it will now move to the full House floor and is expected to be passed by both chambers in the coming weeks.
The Senate took up the other bill addressing consequences from ISTEP+ scores, which would alter the A-F system for one year to avoid a large portions of schools and school districts from being considered ‘poor performing’.
The Senate passed the bill 10-1 it will now leave committee and go to the full Senate.
Under this bill, the state will still calculate A-F grades using this year’s lower ISTEP+ scores, but if the grade for the 2014-2015 school year is lower than its grade from 2013-2014 school year, the old grade will stay in place. If it’s higher, the higher score will be used.
Legislators have said they hope both bills will be signed into law by the governor before January.