Local Government and Elections Week 15 in review at the Indiana General Assembly

Week 15 in review at the Indiana General Assembly

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As the legislature moves into its final weeks, the pace has accelerated. Work on the state’s two-year budget plan and the completion of drawing new boundaries for the state’s legislative and congressional districts has intensified.

Joint House-Senate conference committees also have begun to meet to work out differences in bills that have moved through both chambers. Including two members appointed from each chamber and each political party, these committees work to develop compromise language when two different versions of a bill exist. Once a compromise is approved by all four members, the new language must gain approval of both chambers before advancing to the governor for final consideration.

The following brief report summarizes some of this week’s activities in the State Senate.

Redistricting update

Redistricting the state’s 150 legislative districts and nine congressional districts takes place every 10 years utilizing new census data. The General Assembly has placed an emphasis on redrawing the boundaries to create new districts that are compact, preserve communities of interest, and are competitive. Senate Democrats introduced their proposed statewide maps in March. House and Senate majority Republicans have now brought forth their redistricting proposals, which include numerous proposed changes to current districts and undoubtedly favor Republican control of both chambers. In the House, as many as 12 of the new districts have no incumbent, four districts have both a Democrat and a Republican incumbent, three districts include two Republican incumbents, and three districts include two or more Democrat incumbents. No incumbents were pitted against one another in the proposed Senate district map. These proposals are included in Senate Bills (SB) 256 and 258, and House Bills (HB) 1601 and 1062.

However, under the proposed Senate map, Michigan City has been excluded from the district Arnold now represents. “They could give me a district that is 90 percent Democrat, but if it doesn’t include my hometown of Michigan City, I am very displeased and disheartened. I have already had several meetings with key Senate Republicans who have assured me that they will re-evaluate Senate District 8 as currently drawn,” Arnold commented.

Maps of each proposal and an opportunity for constituents to engage and provide feedback are available at www.redistricting.IN.gov. Constituent input is also being sought at www.facebook.com/INRedistricting. The newly-drawn districts are expected to be approved by the April 29 session deadline.

Education issues

Charter schools are public schools which are independently operated using state funding and free of most state regulations. The Senate approved a controversial bill which would provide for unlimited charter school expansion in Indiana. HB 1002 was amended heavily by the Senate. Included in the Senate changes is the elimination of teacher approval needed for a traditional public school to be converted to a charter school. The bill now allows conversion of a traditional public school to a charter school by either a school board decision or if 51 percent of the parents sign a petition requesting the conversion. The Senate amended language providing new charter sponsorship privileges to state universities and private colleges or universities, limiting that privilege to only those schools with education programs. The Senate also added education service centers to the list of entities that can sponsor new charters and increased from 75 to 90 the percent of teachers at a charter school who must be licensed. The limit on virtual charter schools (schools where courses are taught primarily online) was eliminated and state funding available to those schools was increased. In addition, the bill now allows the sponsorship of a charter school to be transferred if the school remains in the lowest performance category for 5 years. Opponents expressed serious concerns about how the expansion of charter schools could negatively affect the future of traditional public education in Indiana. HB 1002 was approved by a vote of 29 – 20 and now returns to the House of Representatives for consideration of Senate changes.

Several other bills affecting public schools are moving through the Senate. HB 1003 has advanced out of the Senate Education Committee. The bill would allow state tax dollars to be utilized to provide vouchers for students to attend private or religious schools. Also approved was HB 1369, which pertains to school administrators. Among other things, the bill would repeal a requirement that a school superintendent have five years of successful teaching experience. Both bills are now eligible for review by the full Senate.

The House Education Committee has advanced SB 1, legislation that would tie teacher evaluations to student performance and test scores. The legislation would establish an annual staff performance evaluation that would categorize teachers as highly effective, effective, improvement necessary, or ineffective. Although the bill would not cut teachers’ pay, it would allow schools to withhold salary increases due to poor performance ratings. The bill specifies that a teacher rated ineffective or improvement necessary may not receive a raise or salary increment for the following year. In addition, SB 1 provides that a student may not be instructed for two consecutive years by two different teachers who have been rated as ineffective if avoidable. If not avoidable, parents must be notified prior to the start of the second consecutive school year. The bill now goes to the full House for its consideration.

Unemployment benefits
State legislative action was required to help Hoosiers receive extended unemployment benefits. Recently approved by Congress, the Extended Unemployment Benefits (EUB) program will provide additional weeks of funding for Hoosiers still out of work. With the passage of SB 86 and the federal EUB program, Indiana residents will be able to continue or file for up to 13 additional weeks of benefits. In addition, the bill includes a requirement that the Indiana Department of Workforce Development suspend unemployment benefits for individuals failing to take or pass drug tests for prospective employers. An appeal process is also included in the legislation. SB 86 is expected to be signed into law.
Local government issues
Legislation which would aid in eliminating conflicts of interest issues in local government has been approved by the Senate. HB 1022 would require public employees elected to serve on an executive or fiscal body of a county, city, town or township that oversees agencies to choose between their job in a public agency or their term as an elected official. The measure also deals with conflict of interest issues that may arise when elected officials hire family members and use public funds to pay them, a practice referred to as nepotism. Under HB 1022, an elected local government official serving as a policymaker or responsible for making fiscal decisions for the county, city, town or township would be prohibited from hiring a relative to work for the local unit. The legislation would also require elected officials to certify in writing annually to the State Board of Accounts that they are in compliance with the nepotism law. The bill was approved in the Senate by a vote of 34-16 and now returns to the House for consideration of changes made to the bill by the Senate.

Upcoming deadlines

April 18             Deadline for Senate committee hearings on House bills

April 21             Deadline for Senate to consider House bills

April 29             By law, session must conclude business and adjourn by midnight

To stay informed about bills moving through the General Assembly or to track legislation, log on to www.in.gov/legislative. From this site, you can also watch House and Senate committee hearings and session floor debate.  For information on the redistricting process, go to the Senate Democrats’ web site at http://www.in.gov/legislative/senate_democrats/redistricting.