2013 sees new leadership for Indiana

2013-12-28T23:00:00Z 2014-09-13T17:09:06Z 2013 sees new leadership for IndianaTimes Staff nwitimes.com
December 28, 2013 11:00 pm  • 

Donnelly replaces Lugar in Senate, tries bipartisanship

Democrat Joe Donnelly was sworn in as Indiana's newest U.S. Senator on Jan. 3, replacing six-term Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar.

Following in his predecessor's highly praised footsteps, Donnelly staked out a position as one of the few moderates willing to work across party lines in the sharply divided chamber.

Throughout the 16-day federal government shutdown and debt crisis in October, Donnelly huddled with a bipartisan group of 14 senators to craft the framework of the temporary spending plan and debt-limit extension that reopened the government and prevented the United States from defaulting on its national debt.

Donnelly later donated his pay from the shutdown period to food banks in Gary and nine other Indiana cities.

Era of Gov. Mike Pence begins, promises to be bold, optimistic

Gov. Mike Pence took the oath of office from Chief Justice Brent Dickson, a Hobart native, to become Indiana's 50th governor Jan. 14 during a frigid ceremony outside the Statehouse.

Borrowing imagery from the state's flag, the Republican vowed to make Indiana a "torch of opportunity and hope, inspiring our people and inspiring our nation."

His inaugural address was light on specific policy proposals, but Pence promised to be "bold, optimistic and relentless" in maintaining a balanced budget, reducing taxes and promoting educational choice.

"I am humbled by your trust, honored that you've chosen me to serve and I am eager to be the governor of all the people of the state of Indiana," Pence said.

Pence signed 14 executive orders on his first day in office aimed at reducing government regulations and ensuring state actions are "family friendly."

Indiana resists Obamacare, sues IRS over law's mandate

Gov. Mike Pence and the Republican-controlled General Assembly this year turned down a projected $10 billion in federal funds that would have provided Medicaid health coverage to an estimated 400,000 low-income Hoosiers through 2020.

The state also refused to create its own online insurance marketplace, leaving Hoosiers at the mercy of a federal computer system that failed to function for most of the first month it was open.

In October, Republican Attorney General Greg Zoeller sued the Internal Revenue Service seeking to permanently block the "employer mandate," which requires large employers, including government employers, provide adequate health coverage to all full-time employees or face a fine.

Zoeller's lawsuit, which is still pending, also could bar Hoosiers from receiving federal subsidies to purchase private health insurance.

2013 was a year of three state auditors for Indiana

The sleepy state office whose main task is paying Indiana's bills on time was unexpectedly thrust into the limelight following the resignations of two state auditors in just four months.

Tim Berry, who was elected in 2010 to a second term as state auditor, resigned in August to become head of the Indiana Republican Party.

Gov. Mike Pence selected Dwayne Sawyer, president of the Brownsburg Town Council, to replace Berry. The appointment made Sawyer the first black Republican to hold statewide office.

Sawyer resigned in December, citing unspecified "family and personal" reasons.

Pence has selected state Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville, to succeed Sawyer. She takes office Jan. 2.

Judge strikes down Indiana's right-to-work legislation

Lake Superior Judge John Sedia declared Sept. 5 that Indiana's right-to-work law violates the state constitution's just-compensation guarantee by forcing unions to provide bargaining and grievance services to nonunion members for free.

Republican Attorney General Greg Zoeller is appealing Sedia's ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court.

The 2012 law enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly remains in force until the state's high court rules in the case, likely in late 2014.

The Merrillville-based International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150, challenged the law, which many union leaders believe is aimed at diminishing the political power of organized labor.

Former state official has bad year after records released

When Republican Tony Bennett lost his 2012 bid for a second term as state superintendent of public instruction he probably thought things couldn't get worse in his life.

But they did.

Bennett resigned as Florida schools chief in August, after just seven months on the job, when records surfaced suggesting he manipulated Indiana's 2011-12 school grades to benefit a charter school run by a top campaign donor.

He denied doing anything wrong and demanded Indiana's inspector general investigate and clear his name.

Inspector General David Thomas instead found evidence that Bennett used state computers for campaign purposes in violation of Indiana's ethics laws.

A hearing on that allegation is set for Jan. 9. If proven, Bennett could be permanently barred from lobbying the General Assembly or working for the state. He also could face criminal charges.

Pence gets compromise, calls it 'largest tax cut in state history'

The Republican-controlled General Assembly in April rejected Gov. Mike Pence's plan to reduce Indiana's personal income tax rate to 3.06 percent from the current 3.4 percent, a 10 percent reduction.

But it did give him a 5 percent cut spread over four years, with the rate set to drop to 3.3 percent in 2015 and 3.23 percent in 2017.

Lawmakers packaged that cut with repeal of the inheritance tax retroactive to Jan. 1, a tax cut for banks and the continuation of a previously approved reduction in the corporate income tax rate that combined keeps more than $1 billion out of government coffers.

Pence has dubbed the compromise the "largest tax cut in state history" and repeatedly has said he's happier with it than his original proposal just to cut the income tax rate.

Hoosier congressmen butt of jokes during shutdown

U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita, R-Indianapolis, and Marlin Stutzman, R-Howe, drew national attention in October when Republicans refused to approve a federal budget if it included funding for the Affordable Care Act, leading to a 16-day federal government shutdown.

Rokita, a Munster native, declared on CNN that Obamacare is "one of the most insidious laws ever created by man."

For that he was mocked on "The Daily Show" where host Jon Stewart suggested laws permitting slavery or banning interracial marriage were more insidious than a requirement to purchase health insurance.

On a second CNN appearance, Rokita earned additional scorn after he told the female anchor she was beautiful but didn't understand politics.

Stutzman became the face of the shutdown for several days when he revealed Republicans had no strategy to end it: "We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is," he said.

New expungement, state criminal code win passage

The General Assembly approved a massive overhaul of Indiana's criminal laws in 2013 that recalibrates nearly all prison terms and allows most low-level felons to serve their sentences in county jails, community corrections or drug treatment.

Lawmakers said their goal was to save the state money by halting the growth of and eventually reducing Indiana's prison population. They still have to determine how counties will pay for prison alternatives.

The new criminal code takes effect July 1, 2014, though some "tough on crime" lawmakers are expected to try to delay or undo the changes during the upcoming legislative session.

Also enacted this year was a criminal expungement law that allows Hoosiers with criminal records to officially wipe them clean if they don't commit another crime for at least five years after completing their sentences.

State revenue is lackuster during year

Lackluster income tax revenue forced Republican Gov. Mike Pence to order $172 million in spending cuts this year to avoid tapping the state's $2 billion budget reserve.

State budget experts could not explain why income tax revenue fell below last year's levels despite more Hoosiers getting paychecks. The state's unemployment rate dropped 1.1 percent between July and November, though still remains above the national average.

The state's revenue forecast was revised in December to eliminate another $298 million in expected tax revenue. However, Indiana still should end its budget year in June 2014 having taken in more money than it spent.

ISTEP+ tests plagued by computer glitches in April

The high-stakes ISTEP+ standardized test that measures student achievement and partially determines teacher wages and school grades suffered numerous computer glitches during the April testing period.

A total of 79,442 students had at least one segment of the online test interrupted due to server capacity issues at CTB/McGraw-Hill, the test vendor.

Fears that all student test results might have to be thrown out were mitigated after an independent analysis in July found no negative effects on the results of students that experienced test interruptions.

Indiana is opting out of Common Core standards

The state "paused" its implementation of Common Core educational standards this year out of fear that the state-created standards will enable a federal takeover of local schools.

Indiana was among the first states in 2010 to adopt the rigorous expectations of what students should know and be able to demonstrate at each grade level, with an eye toward being able to compete nationally and globally.

The Republican-controlled Legislature appears likely in 2014 to decide that Indiana should create its own college- and career-ready standards, independent of 46-state Common Core standards.

Hoosiers testifying this summer during more than 30 hours of Common Core study committee hearings said they found the new standards simultaneously too tough, too easy, too foreign, too indifferent to British literature and designed to promote liberalism, among other criticisms.

New state education agency riles education leader Ritz

In August, Republican Gov. Mike Pence issued an executive order creating the Center for Education and Career Innovation, a new state agency he claims will better integrate state educational and career training programs.

Glenda Ritz, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, insisted CECI's real purpose is to undermine her authority to administer Hoosier schools through the Department of Education.

Among CECI's duties is serving as staff and legal counsel to the Republican-appointed State Board of Education, which seemed determined at times to prove Ritz's point by repeatedly seeking to delegate new powers to CECI.

Ritz, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, abruptly adjourned the November meeting after she claimed board members were taking illegal action by again expanding CECI's role in education policymaking.

Clashes galore at state education board meetings

Glenda Ritz, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, and members of the Republican-appointed State Board of Education spent much of the year fighting each other instead of focusing on Hoosier students.

Led by Daniel Elsener, who claims to be a political independent but an investigation by The Times found his political contributions and primary votes almost always go to Republicans, the board chafed publicly and privately at being led by Ritz.

Board meetings, which previously took a couple hours, often lasted well into the afternoon, as board members insisted their staff and counsel comment on nearly every point made by Ritz's Department of Education staff.

After board members signed an email message in October seeking assistance from a legislative agency to calculate school grades, Ritz sued the board for taking official action behind her back.

Foes of marriage amendment preparing for efforts of 2014

Opponents of a proposal to add Indiana's existing ban on gay marriage and a new prohibition on civil unions to the state constitution picked up bipartisan support throughout the year.

Dubbed Freedom Indiana, the effort to defeat the marriage amendment next year in the Legislature or at the ballot box is bankrolled by some of Indiana's largest companies, including Eli Lilly and Co. and Cummins Inc.

The group's leader, Megan Robertson, a Portage native and veteran of several Republican campaigns, said the amendment harms Indiana's economy and undermines "Hoosier hospitality" by saying not everyone is welcome in the state.

The mayors of Hammond and Valparaiso, many public and private Indiana universities and a growing number of Hoosier businesses and local governments endorsed Freedom Indiana's efforts throughout the year.

Marriage amendment supporters worked quietly in churches and other similar venues to rally support for their position.

Indiana Senate president leads call for constitutional convention

Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, headed a conservative-driven effort to persuade state legislatures to demand a Convention of the States to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

If 34 states request a so-called "Article V" convention, delegates then can meet and propose amendments without needing Congress to approve the amendments. Any convention-proposed amendment also must be ratified by 38 states.

In December, Long met at George Washington's Mount Vernon home with like-minded lawmakers to plot how such a convention would be organized.

A followup meeting is scheduled for May 2014 in Indianapolis.

Former Lake County judge heads child services agency

After 20 years as judge of Lake County's juvenile court, Mary Beth Bonaventura was appointed director of the Indiana Department of Child Services in January.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence said he selected Bonaventura to head the formerly troubled agency because "she is a strong leader who has an impeccable reputation of integrity and compassion for children."

Bonaventura worked quickly to implement the DCS reforms enacted by state lawmakers this year following a spike in unexplained child deaths.

The agency now has more staff, better communication with law enforcement and new systems to ensure abuse or neglect reports no longer fall through the cracks.

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