2014 Indiana General Assembly

State lawmakers face packed agenda

2014-01-06T00:00:00Z 2014-01-22T20:41:17Z State lawmakers face packed agendaBy Dan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
January 06, 2014 12:00 am  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | Hoosier lawmakers return to the Statehouse on Tuesday -- postponed from Monday due to snow and extreme cold -- for a 10-week session that's almost certain to garner national attention, put more than $1 billion in local government funding at risk and determine the future of Indiana's schools.

Here's a look at some of the issues the 2014 General Assembly is expected to take up through March 14, its mandatory adjournment date.

Marriage amendment: The leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate and Republican Gov. Mike Pence are seeking to add Indiana's existing prohibition on gay marriage and a new ban on civil unions to the state Constitution, even as other states, like Illinois, legalize gay marriage and federal courts have recently ruled similar state amendments run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

The proposed Indiana amendment, House Joint Resolution 6, initially was approved by the legislature in 2011. If a majority in both chambers vote for it again, the amendment will be on the Nov. 4 ballot for ratification or rejection by Hoosier voters.

A business-backed group named Freedom Indiana, led by Republican campaign veteran Megan Robertson, a Portage native, is leading opposition to the amendment. Freedom Indiana claims the amendment will harm the state's economic competitiveness by sending the message that Hoosiers are intolerant and Indiana is not welcoming to individuals and businesses with diverse backgrounds.

Pence shrugs off those concerns by pointing out many of the low-tax, low-regulation states Indiana competes against for jobs added gay marriage bans to their state constitutions years ago.

Business property tax cut: The top item on Pence's legislative agenda is eliminating the business personal property tax, which he claims is necessary to attract new jobs and maintain Indiana's already top-rated business tax climate.

The tax on business and manufacturing equipment raises more than $1 billion a year, all of which goes to schools and local governments. The governor has said he's leaving decisions about how to replace that money to the Legislature.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency determined that if the tax were eliminated, schools and cities in Lake County would lose $74.2 million, Porter County $14 million and LaPorte County $7.2 million. That's about the same annual impact as property tax caps, which have decimated government services in all three counties.

Education: Decisions must be made on whether to keep the new A-F school grading model approved in November by the State Board of Education, and if Common Core should remain Indiana's educational standards. Top GOP lawmakers already have signaled their intent to dump Common Core for more costly state-created college- and career-ready standards

Democrats and Republicans agree Indiana should fund high-quality prekindergarten education but remain far apart on how many children would be eligible and how to pay for it.

Legislation also is expected that restricts the powers of Glenda Ritz, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, and legitimizes the Center for Education and Career Innovation, a new state agency Pence created in August that Ritz claims already is usurping her authority.

Transportation: The two-year state budget Pence signed in May grows state transportation spending by $210 million a year by dedicating 1 percent of state sales tax revenue and 100 percent of gas tax proceeds to roads. This year he will ask lawmakers to tap the $400 million set aside in the "Major Moves 2020" fund for unspecified 2014 road projects.

Northwest Indiana lawmakers likely will work to craft a local tax option to fund extending the South Shore Line into south Lake County. U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, has promised matching federal funds for the expansion. Tying that plan to a proposed central Indiana light rail or bus rapid transit referendum may garner enough votes to get it to the governor's desk.

Health care: Indiana continues to fight implementing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, by not expanding Medicaid to cover some 400,000 low-income Hoosiers who otherwise would be eligible. Proposals to accept the federally funded expansion will be offered by state lawmakers but likely won't get anywhere.

As a result, emergency room bills for the uninsured will drive up insurance premiums paid by all other Hoosiers and Indiana businesses. The state's population also could decline as low- and moderate-income residents of Northwest Indiana, and other border population centers, realize that by moving to Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky or Ohio they can obtain free or low-cost health insurance that Indiana refuses to provide.

Social issues: State Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, has promised to bring an open mind to his new chairmanship of the House Public Policy Committee. That could mean long-blocked proposals for Sunday carry-out alcohol sales, cold beer sales and gaming expansion may finally get a vote. New abortion restrictions, medicinal marijuana legalization and liberalized gun laws also are likely to to be considered by that committee.

Criminal code: Lawmakers will put their final touches on the state's new criminal code, set to take effect July 1. It expands the number of felony classes to six from four to better match specific crimes with appropriate punishments, while aiming to reduce state prison expenses by directing low-level felons into community corrections and similar rehabilitation programs. Counties are clamoring for specifics about who will pay for the new diversion programs.

Regulations and labor: Despite repeated unsuccessful attempts to raise the minimum wage and eliminate most occupational licenses, prevailing wage requirements and the withholding of union dues from member paychecks, the four items are all but certain to again be debated by the legislature.

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