2014 Indiana General Assembly

Legislature wraps session with busy final day

2014-03-13T21:00:00Z 2014-03-13T21:36:23Z Legislature wraps session with busy final dayBy Dan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com

INDIANAPOLIS | The Indiana General Assembly adjourned for the year late Thursday night, ending a 10-week session dominated initially by the marriage amendment, but concluding with proposals to significantly improve the state's roads, preschool education, criminal code and other matters.

The Republican-controlled House and Senate chambers were a flurry of activity on the final day, with lawmakers hurrying to reach compromises on dozens of still unresolved legislative proposals as the clock ticked toward the final slam of the speaker's gavel.

Nearly all of the 100 representatives and 25 of the 50 senators now head home to face primary election opponents in May, and must defend their accomplishments in a general election contest this November — if they are to return to the Legislature in 2015.

Here's a look at how some of the major remaining issues fared. They now go to Republican Gov. Mike Pence for his signature or veto.

Road funding — House Enrolled Act 1002, sponsored by state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso; and state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, authorizes Pence to spend $200 million on state road projects across Indiana this summer, and an additional $200 million if the State Budget Committee deems it appropriate.

Soliday said those funds, which were set aside in last year's budget for future transportation projects, can be leveraged now to obtain up to four times as much money for state roads from the federal government.

The addition of a third lane to Interstate 65 in both directions between Merrillville and Lowell is among the projects expected to be supported by the legislation. However, Soliday's efforts to direct some of the money to local road needs repeatedly were thwarted by the Senate.

"After three years of work on this, I'm pretty pleased," Soliday said. "We're talking a lot of jobs, we're talking a lot of congestion mitigation — I think it's a good bill."

Preschool — House Enrolled Act 1004, sponsored by state Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point; state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary; Soliday and Randolph, restores the pilot preschool voucher program initially approved by the House, that was reduced by the Senate to a preschool study committee.

Under the plan, at least 1,000 low-income children in five to-be-determined counties will receive a voucher worth up to $6,800 to pay for high-quality prekindergarten classes at a public, private or religious institution. The children will not be eligible for vouchers for life as proposed in an earlier version of the plan.

The $10 million cost of the program will come from shuffling existing Indiana Family and Social Services Administration funds. The Legislature this summer still will study the need for preschool education and how the state might fund a broader preschool program.

"I really believe that this is the most significant piece of legislation that we have passed for the impoverished and also for kids in the last several years," VanDenburgh said.

Criminal code — House Enrolled Act 1006, sponsored by state Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, makes final adjustments in sentencing guidelines to the massive criminal code overhaul enacted last year that takes effect July 1.

Overall, the plan replaces the current four classes of felonies with six levels to more appropriately match crimes with punishments and focus on reducing recidivism. Many low-level felons will serve their time in county jails or community corrections programs and not in state prisons.

The goal is to reduce the state's prison population and save money. The state is redirecting at least $11 million to local governments to support their new roles until the next state budget is enacted in 2015.

"This reform has not happened yet," said state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes. "We have to be diligent and responsible to make sure this is funded or it will not work."

Guns — Senate Enrolled Act 229 authorizes Hoosiers licensed to carry firearms to bring guns into school parking lots, provided the guns are kept out-of-sight in a locked vehicle. It still would be a felony to bring a gun into a school building. Municipal gun buyback programs could continue, so long as they are not funded with tax dollars.

Lake County tourism — A provision added to House Enrolled Act 1380 by state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, that would have required the Lake County Council approve any spending by the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority was dropped from the final text of the legislation. The county tourism board instead will be required to post its budget on the state's transparency website.

Lake County elections — Senate Enrolled Act 385, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, requires the Lake County Board of Elections and Registration to study whether precincts with fewer than 500 active voters can be combined with one or more adjacent precincts. Any recommended changes wouldn't occur until after the 2014 general election.

Hemp — Senate Enrolled Act 357, sponsored by Tallian, authorizes Hoosier farmers to grow hemp for industrial purposes — including rope, apparel, food and fuel — subject to regulations enacted by the state seed commissioner and only with the approval of the federal government. Hemp is derived from the same plant as marijuana, but lacks the psychoactive compound that makes marijuana a recreational and medicinal drug.

Concussions — Senate Enrolled Act 222, sponsored by Randolph; state Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso; and state Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, prohibits a high school athlete who suffers a suspected concussion from returning to play for at least 24 hours. Football coaches and their assistants also would have to take a biannual training course in player safety, concussion awareness and equipment fitting.

Daycare — House Enrolled Act 1036, sponsored by Lawson, requires child care facilities meet state standards for safety, staff ratio, play time, nutritious snacks and employee training to continue receiving federal Child Care and Development Fund voucher payments.

Government finances — Senate Enrolled Act 106, sponsored by Charbonneau, Rogers and state Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, directs the Department of Local Government Finance to develop financial health indicators for local governments, including school corporations. The ratings must be published on the state's transparency portal.

Tax appeals — Senate Enrolled Act 266, sponsored by Randolph, requires the assessed value of a property, as determined following a taxpayer appeal, serve as the basis for the next year's assessment — ending the need for taxpayers to repeatedly appeal their property assessments.

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