INDIANAPOLIS | The Indiana General Assembly will convene Tuesday for its 118th session, a one-day mostly ceremonial meeting where lawmakers will swear their oaths of office and take their seats in the House and Senate chambers for the first time.
Northwest Indiana is sending two new representatives to the Statehouse — state Rep. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell; and state Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville. They replace two region Democrats who chose to retire after their districts were unfavorably redrawn in 2011.
Niemeyer and Slager will have plenty of company on the Republican side of the aisle. The GOP has walkout-proof majorities in both chambers, controlling 69 of 100 seats in the House and 37 of 50 Senate seats. Hoosiers also elected Republican Mike Pence governor.
While Tuesday is the official first day of session, the Legislature's work of governing Indiana really begins Jan. 7 when daily meetings start. The General Assembly is required to adjourn for the year by April 29.
During those four hectic months, the top priority for lawmakers will be crafting a state budget for 2014-15 that takes effect July 1, 2013.
Indiana currently enjoys a structural budget surplus and a $2 billion budget reserve, but legislative leaders worry big tax cuts, a weak economy or implementing Obamacare could quickly turn that black ink red.
"Living within our means is the key, because the fiscal fog is thick," said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. "It's uncertain times."
But Democrats hope at least a portion of the state's reserve funds can be reinvested in education, from which Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels cut $600 million when tax revenues lagged during the Great Recession.
"Early childhood education is crucial to moving ahead in the education system, so we've got to make that a priority," said Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.
At an Indianapolis luncheon Monday, Bosma, Lanane, Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and state Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, also spoke of the need to find jobs for Hoosiers, develop new funding streams for transportation projects, implement Obamacare, improve local government revenue and stop Department of Education actions perceived as attacks on teachers.
"We need to view teachers not as factory workers, but as professionals, as faculty," Bosma said.
The specific agendas of Northwest Indiana senators and representatives are still being finalized, but Gary lawmakers, including state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, are already preparing legislation allowing for a land-based casino, teaching hospital with a trauma center and other economic development projects in the Steel City.