INDIANAPOLIS | State lawmakers return to Indianapolis on Tuesday for the ceremonial first day of the 117th Indiana General Assembly.
While there will be plenty of smiles and handshakes as lawmakers are sworn in and take their seats, partisans on both sides know the legislative landscape changed dramatically following the Nov. 2 elections.
Republicans won back control of the 100-member Indiana House for the first time since 2006, and they widened their seemingly permanent majority in the Indiana Senate, leaving only 13 Democrats in the 50-member body. Republican control of both chambers gives the GOP nearly free rein to do as it wishes, especially since Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is likely to sign off on any measure passed by a Republican-controlled General Assembly.
With that in mind, The Times examined nine major issues expected to come before the General Assembly this session, spoke with the governor, legislative leaders and Northwest Indiana lawmakers and rated the chances of their passage as either "likely," "maybe," or "unlikely."
- State budget -- likely -- Lawmakers must approve a state spending plan for the 2012-2013 budget period, which begins in July 2011, making this the most likely of legislative outcomes. What that budget will look like is a question on the minds of many lawmakers. The nonpartisan Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute estimates the state faces a $1.2 billion revenue deficit for the two-year budget period. No one at the Statehouse is advocating a tax increase, leaving spending cuts as the primary tool for balancing the budget. The governor has said he doesn't want to cut education, following a $300 million cut he imposed on local schools in the current budget. But education accounts for more than half of all state spending; taking it off the table means cuts in other areas will have to be deeper.
- Redistricting -- likely -- Another item that must be completed this session is the redrawing of legislative district maps. Every 10 years, following the U.S. census, the General Assembly redraws legislative districts to reflect shifts in population. Total Republican control of the process means the GOP could draw maps that would favor their party for the next 10 years. House Speaker-elect Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has said he won't do that and will push for maps with logical boundaries instead of the squiggly districts Indiana has now.
The real map-drawing challenge for lawmakers will be the calendar. Indiana is scheduled to receive its census data in February and the General Assembly must adjourn by law at the end of April, leaving only two months for legislators to come up with new maps while also working other contentious issues.
- Education reform -- likely -- Gov. Mitch Daniels this month proposed changing state law to base teacher pay on student achievement, replace principals and teachers at schools where students aren't learning and expand charter schools. State schools Superintendent Tony Bennett has traveled the state over the past two years laying the groundwork for major changes and the Republican legislative majorities make it more likely than ever that at least some of what the governor is asking for will be approved.
State teachers unions and House Democratic leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, will fight to keep things as they are, especially collective bargaining rights, but Bauer simply doesn't have the votes anymore to stop the governor's education agenda.
- Local government reform -- maybe -- Township government will be on the chopping block again this session as Gov. Daniels pushes to eliminate what he considers an outdated level of government. The problem for Daniels is that affection for township government cuts across party lines, with urban Democrats and rural Republicans both tending to support continuing township government, while most suburban Indianapolis Republicans would vote to end it. Townships are a creation of state law and are not in the constitution, so they could be eliminated by simply passing another law that gets rid of them.
The challenge will be mustering a majority of legislators to vote to put thousands of local township officials (usually their supporters) out of office.
- Social issues -- maybe -- Social conservatives have been stymied for years by former Speaker Bauer, blocking debate and votes on legislation concerning abortion, sex, homosexuality, religion and other social issues. Expect proposals on these issues to flourish during this session, including a potential state constitutional amendment that would ban nearly all abortions.
However, the governor has said state legislators have enough work to do this session that social issue legislation can wait until at least 2012. Speaker-elect Bosma will have a tricky balancing act trying to enact the governor's agenda while also satisfying his own Republican members hungry to enact social policy.
- Immigration -- maybe -- One social issue likely to stand apart is immigration reform. State Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, is expected to sponsor an Arizona-style immigration measure, giving local police expanded authority to enforce federal immigration law. Delph has advocated for tighter immigration laws in Indiana for several years, winning approval of his proposals in the Republican-led Senate only to see them die in the Democratic-controlled House.
With Republicans now in charge in the House, the prospects for Delph's plan never have been brighter. At the same time, Delph is a likely candidate for statewide office in 2012, possibly challenging U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar in a Republican primary. Lugar fans, including Gov. Daniels, might block Delph's plan to avoid giving him a legislative victory to run on.
- Unemployment fix -- maybe -- Indiana's unemployment program is broke, paying out more in benefits than it receives in employer-paid premiums. The state has continued to pay benefits by borrowing money from the federal government, nearly $2 billion so far. Starting next year, Indiana will have to begin paying that money back, as well as interest on the debt, or face increasing penalties, including an extra payment by businesses of $21 per worker per year until the debt is paid.
A hike in employer-paid premiums is scheduled to take effect in January. The governor said that should go through, unlike this year when lawmakers voted to delay the increase. Daniels also has suggested cutting unemployment benefits to balance the system. Bauer said he will fight that proposal.
- Smoking ban -- unlikely -- State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, has said he will try again this session to ban all indoor smoking in public places in Indiana, with no exceptions. A smoking ban with many exemptions was approved twice by the House last session but never got a vote in the Senate. It's possible Brown might persuade his fellow representatives to approve a smoking ban, but the Senate remains unlikely to vote for such a measure. Pro-business Republicans in the Senate hate the idea of state government telling business owners what they can and can't allow inside their establishments.
- Land-based casinos -- unlikely -- State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, and Brown came close last session to getting the Legislature to allow Indiana casinos on water to relocate on land. That deal fell apart due to infighting among Democrats. With Republicans now in charge, Bosma has said he doesn't anticipate lawmakers approving new gambling legislation.
But Bosma said he will allow debate and a vote on a gambling measure if one comes up. It's possible Indiana lawmakers might be persuaded to allow land-based gaming if Illinois lawmakers approve a Chicago casino or land-based gaming in the Land of Lincoln.