INDIANAPOLIS | The 2014 Indiana General Assembly opened for business Tuesday — barely.
Just enough representatives and one extra senator persevered through long drives on snowy and icy roads for the chambers to reach the minimum required attendance necessary for legislation to be officially filed and eligible for committee consideration this week.
State Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, was the final senator to arrive, taking his second-row seat at 3:45 p.m. region time, nearly seven hours after leaving his Valparaiso home.
"The whole way down it was just like driving on a sheet of ice; it was packed snow, but you're sliding all over the place," Charbonneau said.
Despite witnessing numerous slideoffs and wrecks along state highways from Porter County through Lafayette and into Indianapolis, Charbonneau said the trip was worth it to ensure the 10-week legislative session could begin.
"Until we have this first session and start having bills moving through the system, committees don't have any bills to hear," Charbonneau said. "So it's something that needed to get done."
Nearly all other Northwest Indiana lawmakers followed the advice of state police and stayed home Tuesday. Some who tried to leave for Indianapolis were turned back when Interstate 65 was closed again.
At the Statehouse, legislative leaders were generally tight-lipped with details on how they plan to handle hot-button legislation during the session, which runs through March 14.
That includes a proposal to add Indiana's existing ban on gay marriage and new prohibition on civil unions to the state constitution, and Republican Gov. Mike Pence's plea to eliminate the business personal property tax, which would sap $1 billion a year from the budgets of schools and local governments.
Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, did reveal the House would act first on the marriage amendment. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, hinted each county may get to decide whether to enact the business tax cut.
House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, recommended both the marriage amendment and business tax cut be scrapped in favor of legislation that improves the quality of life and incomes of ordinary Hoosiers.
"What our constituents really demand is functionality: they insist on a frank and honest discussion of problems, some common-sense solutions and a credible effort to make their lives a little bit better," Pelath said. "We love our state but we can do much, much better."
To that end, he vowed to sponsor legislation annually giving the top 1,000 Indiana college graduates in science, technology, engineering and math a total exemption from state income tax for five years to keep the "best talent" in the state.
Overall, the Statehouse was quieter Tuesday than a typical session day, with few Hoosiers venturing out to speak with lawmakers or watch legislative action from the House and Senate galleries.
But supporters of Freedom Indiana, the business-backed group opposing the marriage amendment, were out in force. They delivered to lawmakers more than 6,000 personalized letters from Hoosiers asking that the amendment be voted down.
Freedom Indiana campaign manager Megan Robertson, a Portage native, said she hopes lawmakers will take to heart messages from the people they represent.
"My experience is that they (lawmakers) want to be good representatives of their constituents, so if their constituents reach out to them they're going to listen to that," Robertson said.