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Hot issues will keep Indiana General Assembly cooking in cold months ahead
2019 Indiana General Assembly

Hot issues will keep Indiana General Assembly cooking in cold months ahead

Indiana legislative session begins with bipartisanship — but it may not last long

A view of the Indiana Statehouse on Jan. 3, the first day of the 2019 legislative session.

INDIANAPOLIS — The work of the Indiana General Assembly begins in earnest this week as lawmakers approach Thursday's deadline for filing legislative proposals, and House and Senate committees begin meeting to evaluate them.

Altogether, more than 1,200 suggested new laws are expected to be submitted by the 100 representatives and 50 senators serving in the Republican-controlled chambers.

Most will fail to advance out of committee by the session's late February midpoint and receive no further consideration.

But there will be plenty of other proposals, many divisive and controversial, to keep lawmakers busy hearing from Hoosiers, debating among themselves and working on compromises until their four-month session adjourns sometime around April 29.

Here's a look at some of the major issues set to dominate the 2019 General Assembly:

Budget — Put simply, there doesn't appear to be enough money for everything that Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and Republican legislative leaders want to do, let alone funding the other priorities for rank-and-file lawmakers of both political parties.

The December state revenue forecast estimated that Indiana will have $828.8 million in new revenue for the two-year, roughly $32 billion budget set to be approved this session. But after covering the anticipated growth in Medicaid and Department of Child Services expenses, the remaining money won't be enough for even an inflation-level funding boost to elementary and high school education or any meaningful expansion of pre-kindergarten availability.

Holcomb, who is due Thursday to present his budget proposal to the Legislature, also has pledged to work toward increasing teacher salaries, spending more on workforce development programs, expanding drug treatment options and reducing taxes on some businesses and military pensions.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, last week said he thinks it may be possible to fund teacher pay hikes by reducing appropriations for some state agencies, without specifying how they will maintain services following the cuts. "It will be a tight budget year," he acknowledged.

Meanwhile, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and health advocacy groups are urging lawmakers to boost the state's cigarette tax by $2 per pack to reduce Hoosier smoking rates and generate additional funds for budgetary needs.

Gaming — Gary's plans to open Buffington Harbor for development as an intermodal transit and warehousing center require the Majestic Star casinos be moved to a different location. The city wants the casino to become a new attraction adjacent to the Borman Expressway; competing Region casino operators and municipal leaders aren't keen on that idea.

The Majestic Star's two boats currently operate on two gaming licenses, one of which wouldn't be needed at a single, land-based facility. Already, officials from Hammond, Portage and Terre Haute have expressed interest in the second license. That's certain to become a point of contention during the legislative session and possibly interfere with plans to legalize sports wagering in Indiana.

Bias crimes — Holcomb and many in the state's business community are seeking to remove Indiana from the list of five states lacking a bias crime statute, sometimes called a hate crime law.

Previous proposals to permit judges to increase a felon's prison term when the crime was demonstrably motivated by hate or bias to a particular group repeatedly have failed to pass, due to Republicans opposing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals as a protected class. However, some of this year's measures are so broad that, in effect, every crime against a person would qualify as a bias crime.

School safety — With a tight state budget, there likely will be no more than $14 million made available again for school safety grants, forcing some districts that want to better secure their buildings or hire safety officers, to borrow from the state's Common School Fund or seek voter approval for a property tax hike. Lawmakers also are expected to consider arming teachers to directly confront potential threats.

In addition, several proposals to require school bus stop arm cameras, or increasing the penalties for passing a stopped school bus, are likely to be debated, after a Fulton County motorist blew past a stopped school bus in October and killed three children preparing to board. Camera enforcement also could be considered for use in highway work zones.

Marijuana — State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, is leading the charge to legalize and regulate either medicinal or recreational marijuana, in light of overwhelming public support and recent voter approval for legalization in Michigan. Gov. Holcomb said he opposes legal marijuana in Indiana so long as it's considered by the federal government to be an addictive drug with no medical use.

Abortion — Anti-abortion advocates want Indiana to be first to potentially outlaw abortion by enacting a statute prohibiting the procedure and fighting for the law all the way to U.S. Supreme Court, where a new conservative majority might be inclined to legitimize it. Nearly all of Indiana's incremental abortion restrictions enacted this decade have been deemed unconstitutional by federal courts.

Voting — Democrats in both chambers are proposing numerous measures to make it easier for Hoosiers to vote, and to bar Republicans from drawing new legislative district boundaries following the 2020 U.S. Census to advantage GOP candidates. Similar efforts in prior sessions quickly faltered, though this year multiple advocacy groups have taken on the cause of ending gerrymandering.


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