The General Assembly is rapidly approaching the half-way mark of the 2011 legislative session. Facing mid-session deadlines, lawmakers are working diligently to get hearings on their initiatives and move them through their respective chambers. Beginning the first week of March, the Senate will begin to review House-approved bills, and the House will begin its deliberation of bills passed by the Senate. This brief summary highlights recent action taken by the Senate and other activities at the Statehouse.
Hundreds of steelworkers from around the state rallied at the Statehouse on Tuesday to relate to lawmakers their concerns on legislation that would negatively impact Hoosier working families. They expressed opposition to bills that would cut unemployment benefits by 25 percent and regulate internal procedures for organized labor. Labor rights advocates argue that the efforts to restrict organization by teachers, laborers and public employees now under consideration would ultimately reduce wages and lower living standards for working families.
Legislation now before the full Senate would eliminate township boards in 2015 and move township budgeting authority to the county level in 2013. Senate Bill (SB) 405 specifies that county councils would become responsible for the review and approval of township budgets, and to levy township property taxes for township funds. The measure would also establish a township assistance planning board in each county to prepare countywide township assistance standards. To address transparency concerns in township operations, the measure would prohibit public meetings of a township official or governing body from being conducted in a private residence, and require each township office to include the address, phone number and regular office hours of the office in a least one local telephone directory.
The House of Representatives has approved House Bill (HB) 1002 which would allow for the expansion of charter schools and virtual charter schools in Indiana. HB 1002 would expand charter school sponsors to include the mayors of second class cities and some private colleges. The bill would also require public schools to set aside transportation funds for charter schools, unless the school offers transportation for charter students. HB 1002 has already been assigned to the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.
With the push for more charter schools, the use of unoccupied public school property has come under scrutiny. SB 446 gained Senate approval and establishes a process by which charter schools may lease unused, closed, or unoccupied school buildings maintained by public school corporations for a nominal fee of $1 per year. Following a two-year period, if a public school building remains unoccupied, it would be placed on a statewide list of all unused school buildings to be maintained and undated annually by the Department of Education. Charter schools could select a building from the list, and would be responsible for the building’s direct expenses including utilities, insurance, maintenance, repairs, and remodeling. The bill now goes to the House for its review.
The House is considering HB 1003, a controversial proposal which would shift public taxpayer money to private schools through a voucher system. The proposal would redirect the state funds for a child’s education at a public school to pay for tuition and fees at a private school. The bill includes a sliding scale based on the student’s household income. For example, if the family qualifies for the federal free or reduced lunch program (annual income less than $40,878 for a family of four), they could receive a voucher equal to 90 percent of the amount that the public school corporation would have received for the student. The vouchers would not be limited to low-income families, though. For a family of four with a household income of about $80,000, the student could receive a voucher in the amount of 50 percent of the school corporation’s per-pupil funding.
The Senate Appropriations committee amended and approved a measure to provide a one-time $3,500 state scholarship for students who complete high school one year early. Under SB 497, the funding for the scholarships would be subtracted from funding that would have gone to the student’s high school. The approved amendment would limit the scholarship for use at Indiana post-secondary institutions. The bill now goes before the full Senate.
By a vote of 38-12, the Senate approved SB 292 which would prohibit, with certain exceptions, local government regulations that ban guns on public property. Specifically, the bill would prohibit, with certain exceptions, local rules regulating any matter pertaining to firearms, ammunition, and firearm accessories. Schools, courts and law enforcement offices would be the exceptions. Those opposing the bill emphasized public safety concerns, as guns could no longer be prohibited in public parks, hospitals or athletic facilities.
Another gun bill raising concerns is SB 506. Approved by a vote of 43-7 in the Senate on Thursday, this bill would allow a person to carry a handgun without being licensed on personal property, in a vehicle, or on private property with consent of the property owner. Opponents expressed concerns that this bill goes too far and includes exemptions for gun licensing that are too broad.
Legislation aimed at reforming Indiana’s criminal sentencing laws passed its first hurdle when members of the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced SB 561 to the full Senate. However, the bill now includes an amendment pushed by prosecutors that would require those convicted of more severe crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence behind bars. The amendment would drastically reduce the bill’s originally estimated savings of $1.2 billion over the next several years resulting from shorter prison sentences for low-level drug and theft crimes. The original proposal is a result of a study conducted by the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments which indicated that over the past eight years, the state’s prison population grew at a rate three times faster than neighboring states due to lengthy prison sentences given for various crimes.
A review of state policies pertaining to marijuana was approved by the Senate Committee on Corrections, Criminal and Civil Matters. SB 192 requests that the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee conduct the review later this year to consider the fiscal impact of state policies and make recommendations on possible alternatives. The study would complement the ongoing work to reform Indiana’s criminal sentencing laws. Testimony indicated that 15 states currently have a medical marijuana program, 13 states have revised sentencing laws for marijuana, and another 12 states are considering legislation this year to decriminalize marijuana. The proposal now goes before the full Senate.
Texting while driving could soon be against the law for all drivers under SB 18, which was approved by the Senate. Current Indiana law prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from texting while driving. The legislation extends this regulation to all drivers, and stipulates a Class C infraction for those caught texting or reading email while driving. Hands free or voice operated technology would be permitted under the bill. Statistics indicate that texting while driving increases a driver’s chance of being involved in a collision by 20 times. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have taken similar action. The bill now goes to the House for its consideration.