Indiana Statehouse

The Indiana Statehouse

INDIANAPOLIS — Depending on who you ask, the 2017 Indiana General Assembly either produced legislative achievements that will improve Hoosier lives for decades to come, or was marked by a series of missed opportunities to truly move the state forward.

The Republicans in control of the House, Senate and governor's office tend to share the first perspective.

They point to passage of an honestly balanced budget, a once-in-a-generation road funding package, improvements to Indiana's workforce development programs, the expansion of pre-kindergarten availability and myriad other measures enacted into law.

"In short, the Legislature over-delivered," said Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Statehouse Democrats believe lawmakers could have done much more, including hike the minimum wage, enact a hate crimes statute, reform the legislative redistricting process and extend civil rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers.

"Hopefully, next year we can come back and convince them that these are good ideas that should be advanced for the future of the state," said Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.

Social issues minimized

Leaders of both political parties said they were pleased the General Assembly largely stayed away from hot button social issues that in the past have dominated the four-month legislative session.

While Indiana did enact a law restricting access to abortion, the measure mostly sought to limit the ability of pregnant teenagers to obtain an abortion without their parents knowing about it — and it passed with strong bipartisan support.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he decided early on that more radical proposals, such as an attempt to outlaw abortion in Indiana, would not see the light of day this year.

"I know people want to have the policy discussion, but it's really not productive," Bosma said. "It won't make progress for the Hoosier unborn."

House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said there are still problems any time lawmakers wade into social issue debates.

"It gets so much attention as it's happening, and it causes a lot of anxiety in the public," Pelath said. "Even when some of it isn't enacted, the people always feel like they're being dragged through it."

In fact, the session nearly derailed after lawmakers decided in March to try shutting down two central Indiana convenience store burrito stands that have been using their "restaurant" alcohol permit to sell cold beer for carry-out, even on Sundays.

State law generally limits cold beer sales to package liquor stores and prohibits nearly all carry-out Sunday sales.

Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said the controversy showed lawmakers the need to take a deep dive into Indiana's alcohol statutes, some of which have been in place since the end of Prohibition in 1933.

"A lot of them just don't make sense in the modern economy," Long said.

New governor embraced

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle gave Holcomb high marks in his first legislative session as Indiana's chief executive.

Pelath and Lanane said the new governor earned a "solid B" for his mostly behind-the-scenes approach to working with lawmakers, in contrast to his two most recent predecessors who liked to exert their influence by taking the case for their policies directly to Hoosiers.

"He put out an agenda, and he didn't pound about it," Lanane said. "He sort of let the legislative leaders do the work."

Pelath said, "He listens, and he doesn't speak from the clouds, so that's a big improvement."

Bosma and Long agreed that Holcomb respected the independence of the legislative branch while also acting to shape policies through one-on-one meetings with numerous lawmakers, Republican and Democratic.

"I love the guy, I think he's terrific," Long said. "He thinks we hit a grand slam; I agree with him."