INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana House unanimously approved legislation Monday defining how the state will finance the potentially transformative South Shore Line double-tracking and West Lake extension projects.
It was among 27 proposals that passed the Republican-controlled chamber on the final day for measures originating in the House to advance to the Senate. The deadline for Senate legislation to win approval to go to the House is Tuesday.
House Bill 1374, sponsored by state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, authorizes the Indiana Finance Authority (IFA) to sell bonds, backed by previously allocated state and local tax revenues, to pay for improvements to the commuter rail line connecting Northwest Indiana to Chicago.
It also designates the IFA, Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District as the entities responsible for the construction, leasing and ownership of the rail projects, and allows each to contract as necessary to complete the work.
Construction on the $665 million West Lake expansion between Hammond and Dyer, and the $312 million double-tracking between Gary and Michigan City, won't begin in earnest until the federal government approves funding for its half of the total cost.
Other measures winning House approval Monday, and now eligible for consideration by the Senate, included:
Handguns — House Bill 1424 makes the current four-year license for carrying a handgun in public a five-year license, and directs state officials to seek federal approval to exempt five-year license holders from having to obtain separate National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) approvals every time they purchase a firearm. It also eliminates the $140 cost of obtaining a lifetime carry license. However, a state license still would be required to carry a handgun in public.
Workforce — House Bill 1002 promotes workforce development in Indiana by incentivizing businesses to train their employees for high-wage, high-skill positions at their companies. It also dedicates all state corporate income tax revenue solely to state job training and workforce programs. The Department of Workforce Development would be directed to assign two employees at each local office to make presentations about job training programs to students at local schools.
Diplomas — House Bill 1426 streamlines Indiana's four different high school diplomas into a single diploma with four designations to comply with changes in how the federal government calculates graduation rates. In addition, the legislation requires all high school students take a college entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT, beginning in the 2019-20 school year, in lieu of traditional end of course assessments.
Pharmacy deserts — House Bill 1382, sponsored by state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, requests a legislative study committee determine how many low-income residents of urban and rural areas throughout Indiana lack sufficient access to pharmacy services. Brown said he was motivated to act after reading an article in The Times about the increasing number of shuttered pharmacies in Northwest Indiana.
School discipline — House Bill 1421 directs the Indiana Department of Education to develop plans and work with local schools to reduce the number of students subjected to out-of-school suspension or expulsion. According to DOE, nearly 10 percent of Hoosier students were suspended or expelled during the 2016-17 school year.
Failed bills — One proposal failed to pass the House because it did not garner the 51 "yes" votes required to send it to the Senate.
House Bill 1016, which had 47 "yes" votes and 45 "no" votes, would have guaranteed middle and high school student journalists the freedom to publish with limited administrative oversight, so long as their writings were not libelous, violated the law or incited negative behavior.
Opponents of the measure said school principals and administrators need to control student publications because the potential for disruption within a school is so significant.
A second measure did not advance to the Senate because its sponsor did not call the controversial proposal for a final House vote, and therefore it is dead for the year.
House Bill 1005 would have required townships with fewer than 1,200 residents to merge with a neighboring township and save taxpayer money by reducing administrative and operating expenses.