Legislative preview: Lots to do, little time

2013-11-25T00:00:00Z Legislative preview: Lots to do, little timeBy Dan Carden nwitimes.com
November 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The Indianapolis 500 always will be the fastest race in the state, but in even-numbered years the legislative sprint by the Indiana General Assembly runs a close second.

For 10 weeks starting in early January, state lawmakers will propose more than 1,100 potential new laws, review them in committees, vote on them, consider measures approved by the opposite chamber, kill those they don't like and ultimately send about 200 or so on to the governor.

It's a no-brakes rush to the mandatory March 14 finish line as lawmakers work furiously to line up support for proposals that may benefit the state, help a local business or bolster their own images ahead of November elections that will see all 100 members of the House and 25 of 50 senators on the ballot.

Here's a look at some of the issues certain to drive the 2014 session:

Marriage amendment: The leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate and Republican Gov. Mike Pence are seeking to add Indiana's existing prohibition on gay marriage and a new ban on civil unions to the state constitution. Their proposed amendment, House Joint Resolution 6, initially was approved by the Legislature in 2011. If a majority in both the House and Senate vote for it again, the amendment will be on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot for ratification or rejection by Hoosier voters.

A business-backed group named Freedom Indiana, led by Republican campaign veteran Megan Robertson, a Portage native, is leading opposition to the amendment. Freedom Indiana claims the amendment will harm the state's economic competitiveness by sending the message that Hoosiers are intolerant and Indiana is not welcoming to individuals and businesses with diverse backgrounds. Pence shrugs off those concerns by pointing out many of the low-tax, low-regulation states Indiana competes against for jobs enacted constitutional gay marriage bans years ago.

The politics on this issue are tricky as lawmakers must decide whether to side with social conservatives, who strongly favor the amendment, or listen to business allies that mostly oppose it. There's also the risk that having the amendment on the ballot will bring out new voters committed to defeating it, who also may toss out the legislators that put it on the ballot in the first place. Minnesota legalized gay marriage this year after voters there rejected a Republican-led marriage amendment in 2012 and elected Democratic majorities to the House and Senate.

Health care: Indiana continues to fight implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, by not expanding Medicaid to cover some 400,000 low-income Hoosiers that otherwise would be eligible, releasing inaccurate cost estimates to discourage individuals from buying insurance through the state's federally-run marketplace and filing a lawsuit aimed at eliminating the federal subsidies that help individuals earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level pay for their health insurance.

Democrats and a few Republicans in the General Assembly are ready to fully embrace the state's options available under Obamacare and will propose legislation to expand Medicaid and create a state-run marketplace. But there likely will not be enough votes to garner a majority and Pence stands ready with his veto pen should any pro-Obamacare proposal make it to his desk.

As a result, about 1 in 7 Hoosiers will be forced to continue relying on emergency room care, the unpaid bills from which drive up insurance premiums paid by all other Hoosiers and Indiana businesses. The state's population also could decline as low- and moderate-income residents of Northwest Indiana, and other border population centers, realize that by moving to Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky or Ohio they can obtain free or low-cost health insurance that Indiana refuses to provide.

Education: Lawmakers left the Statehouse in 2013 without resolving several major education issues that cut across traditional partisan divides. Decisions must be made next year on whether to keep the new A-F school grading model approved in November by the State Board of Education, and whether to continue using Common Core as Indiana's educational standards or adopt state-created college- and career-ready standards. Many Hoosiers also are hoping for a solution to the ongoing conflicts between the Republican-appointed state education board and Glenda Ritz, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction.

Senate Democrats plan to focus their legislative efforts on expanding early childhood education options by requiring kindergarten attendance and providing a state subsidy for preschool. Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said early education programs "produce students more likely to graduate, they earn higher incomes, they own homes and are less likely to require remediation or commit crimes."

Transportation: The two-year state budget Pence signed in May grows state transportation spending by $210 million a year by dedicating 1 percent of state sales tax revenue and 100 percent of gas tax proceeds to roads. Experts say that's probably not enough to adequately maintain and develop Indiana's highways. Some lawmakers are aching to spend the $200 million set aside in a Major Moves 2020 fund. State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, is planning to sponsor legislation calling for a test of per-mile road taxes in lieu of the gas tax.

Northwest Indiana lawmakers likely will propose measures to extend the South Shore Line to Lowell and Valparaiso, prompted by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, who has promised federal funding for the expansion. Tying that plan to a proposed Central Indiana light rail or bus rapid transit referendum may garner enough votes to get it to the governor's desk. Legislators still need to devise a permanent funding source for Hoosier State Amtrak service or give up the four-day-a-week train that stops in Dyer as it travels between Indianapolis and Chicago.

Revenue: Between July and September, state revenue was $73.5 million, or 2.1 percent, less than predicted by the revenue forecast used by lawmakers to craft the 2014-15 state budget. Even though it's not a budget year, if revenue remains sluggish into March, lawmakers may consider delaying the 0.1 percent income tax rate cut that's due to begin Jan. 1, 2015.

Social issues: Depending on who House Republicans choose to replace state Rep. Bill Davis, R-Portland, as chairman of the Public Policy Committee, long-blocked proposals for Sunday carry-out alcohol sales, cold beer sales and gaming expansion may finally have a chance to get a vote. Davis, who resigned in November to join the lieutenant governor's staff, regularly killed such measures without even holding a hearing. New abortion restrictions, marijuana legalization and liberalized gun laws also are likely to to be considered by that committee.

Criminal code: Lawmakers will put their final touches on the state's new criminal code, set to take effect July 1. It expands the number of felony classes from four to six to better match specific crimes with appropriate punishments, while aiming to reduce state prison expenses by directing low-level felons into community corrections and similar rehabilitation programs. Counties are clamoring for specifics about who will pay for the new diversion programs.

Regulations and labor: Despite repeated unsuccessful attempts to raise the minimum wage and eliminate most occupational licenses, prevailing wage requirements and the withholding of union dues from member paychecks, the four items are all but certain to again be debated by the Legislature.

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