INDIANAPOLIS — The nine Democrats serving in the 50-member Indiana Senate are few in number, but united behind policies they believe will make the state work better for all Hoosiers.
Last week, the Senate Democratic caucus, including state Sens. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond; Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville; Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago; and Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, vowed to fight in the upcoming legislative session for long-sought changes to Indiana law concerning voting, employment, health care and bias crimes.
"We've accomplished some things in the General Assembly, but we've dropped the ball on several important issues," said Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.
Lanane declared the Democrats' top priority is taking the redistricting process out of the General Assembly's control and instead having a nonpartisan commission redraw legislative district boundaries following the 2020 U.S. Census.
He said it's wrong for legislators to be able to draw districts that contain those voters who are most likely to keep them in office, when it's supposed to be the voters deciding who should represent them at the Statehouse and in Congress.
"The public is fed up with that," Lanane said. "It's discouraged voter turnout and it's made people feel like their votes don't count."
The Democrats also aim to make voting easier for Hoosiers in general by changing the closing time for polling places to 7 p.m. from 6 p.m., allowing any voter to cast a ballot by mail with no excuse required and permitting college students to use their university identification card to comply with Indiana's voter ID requirement.
"We will have bills to enact every one of these reforms," Lanane said.
Mrvan promised come January he once again will file legislation seeking to gradually increase the state's minimum wage beyond the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, a rate that has not changed since 2009.
"Minimum wage is no longer a teenager in a temporary job," Mrvan said. "With the loss of manufacturing and the further economic decline of rural areas in Indiana, more and more families depend on the minimum wage just to make ends meet."
"No person should work 40 hours a week and still not be able to put food on the table, pay their electricity bill, afford child care or put gas in their car," he added.
A second employment issue that Tallian and the other Democrats plan to push is encouraging companies to voluntarily offer paid family leave to their workers; a benefit Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb already plans to extend next year to state employees.
"This is an economic and it is an emotional issue that our families face too often: having to do what's right for their family and not being able to pay the bills; or go to work and leave behind a sick family member — it's an impossible choice," said state Sen. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend.
Other key priorities
Senate Democrats said they also are closely monitoring pending changes to federal health care laws and will be prepared to file state legislation to preserve essential health benefits and other popular features of the Affordable Care Act, should that be necessary.
"No one should lose access to Medicaid coverage just so we can propose tax breaks for millionaires," said state Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis. "We will do all we can to make sure that in Indiana, Hoosiers that want access to health care will have some form of health care coverage."
In addition, state Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, plans to try again to enact a sentencing enhancement for bias-motivated crimes, as Indiana is among just five states in the nation without a hate crime statute on its books.
"We need to demonstrate to the rest of the country that Indiana is a place that welcomes all people," he said.
Hoosier lawmakers convene Tuesday at the Statehouse for Organization Day. The one-day meeting ceremonially opens the 2018 General Assembly.
Daily legislative sessions are scheduled to begin Jan. 3, and continue until next year's mandatory adjournment date of March 14.
House and Senate Republicans, as well as the House Democrats, are expected to announce their legislative agendas prior to year's end.