Education What’s still on the table: Session reaches final week

What’s still on the table: Session reaches final week

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SessionDeadlines_2014With the 2014 legislative session winding down, a number of issues are yet to be finalized. Proposals that were modified from their original version and subsequently approved in the second house are eligible for a conference committee. Below, read where a number of issues are heading into session’s final days.

What’s a conference committee?>>

High school athletes and concussions

High school student athletes would be required to be removed from play because of a suspected concussion or head injury for at least 24 hours under Senate Bill (SB) 222. Current law stipulates that a student athlete may not return to play until the athlete has been evaluated by, and has received written clearance from, a licensed and properly trained health care provider. Under the bill, athletes suffering head injuries would also have to sit out the required 24 hours. Additionally, the legislation would require high school and youth football coaches to take concussion awareness courses at least once every two years beginning July 1, 2014. The bill also stipulates, except in cases of gross negligence, that a coach who completes the required coaching certification training would not be held personally liable if an athlete under the coach’s supervision suffers a concussion or head injury. Some concerns about the bill center round the cost of the program and who would pay. The National Federation of High School Associations certification program is available on-line for a $10 fee. USA Football also has a certification program consisting of two levels. Level 1 costs $25, which includes membership in USA Football. Level 2 consists of age-specific courses for ages 6 to 14 and the cost is $10 per course. According to a USA Football spokesman who testified on behalf of the bill, the money would be used to build the infrastructure of the online education course. USA Football also includes training for “Heads Up Football,” a national initiative supported by the NFL and more than two dozen other entities to promote safety. A conference committee will attempt to negotiate a compromise on differences between the House and Senate-passed versions of the bill.

Pre-K initiative

Along party lines, the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development voted to gut House Bill (HB) 1004, a proposal that would have established a five-county pre-kindergarten pilot program. HB 1004 now calls for the creation of a summer study committee to examine pre-K issues, such as appropriate family income standards, which agency would oversee the program, and financing. Attempts by Senate Democrats to reinsert the pilot program were blocked during Senate debate on the bill. The measure was later approved by the Senate, but the House chose not to agree with Senate changes and sent the measure to a conference committee. Proponents of a pre-kindergarten program believe that a quality preschool option is a critical part of ensuring that Hoosier children get a head start on education and develop the skills to be lifelong learners. Indiana is now one of only 9 states that do not provide state funding for pre-K programs after Mississippi began rollout of a state-funded option earlier this year.

Road funding

The Senate made considerable changes to House legislation calling for the release of $400 million from the Major Moves 2020 Trust Fund created last year for the purpose of contributing $200 million per year for major road projects until funds reached more than $1 billion in savings in 2020. New language contained in HB 1002 would authorize the State Budget Agency to transfer before July 1, 2014, not more than $200 million from the Major Moves 2020 Trust Fund to the Major Moves Construction Fund. The funding would be used immediately for various road projects including the widening of Interstates 65, 70 and 69 to six lanes in certain areas. In addition, language was deleted that would have allocated $25 million for local road projects. Attempts by Senate Democrats to restore this provision, which was approved by the House by a vote of 91-2, failed along party lines. The bill is headed to a conference committee.

Business tax cuts

A House measure aimed at cutting business taxes was significantly altered by the Senate and approved by a vote of 33-15. Among the new provisions of HB 1001 is an enhanced property tax abatement option for business personal property that costs at least $3 million, including expanding the abatement term to 20 years. Other provisions would exempt business personal property tax for taxpayers with business personal property that costs less than $20,000 and further cuts the corporate income tax from 6.5 percent in 2015 to 4.9 percent after June 30, 2021. In addition, HB 1001 includes the establishment of a commission to study various business tax issues during the 2014 interim.

SB 1, approved by a vote of 63-36 in the House, now gives counties the option to exempt any business personal property located in the county other than utility personal property. Both proposals repeal numerous tax credits. At this point, neither bill includes replacement revenue that local units of government, schools and other taxpayers would lose. Negotiations on both bills will continue in a conference committee.

SB 1 and HB 1001 are scaled-down versions of the Governor’s proposal to eliminate the business personal property tax, which generates about $1 billion a year statewide. Of this $1 billion, two-thirds would be revenue lost to local units of governments and one-third would be higher taxes for other taxpayers, including homeowners.

Industrial hemp

Subject to federal approval, SB 357 would authorize the State Seed Commissioner at Purdue University to license the cultivation and production of industrial hemp in Indiana. Although related to marijuana, hemp does not contain the intoxicating qualities of its cousin. During World War II, Indiana was a leader in hemp production when it was used for making rope. Today, hemp is used in the manufacturing of various products, including plastics, paper, food, textiles, construction materials, auto manufacturing materials, beauty products and medicines. However, hemp is expensive because it must be imported from other countries, like Canada and China.

The original proposal, authored by Sen. Richard Young, passed the Senate by a unanimous vote. However, the House of Representatives added language during the committee process that would regulate the storage of various domestic transportation fuels, like fuels containing ethanol. Sen. Young will be working in the conference committee process to ensure the proposal pertains only to the cultivation and production of industrial hemp. Passage of this bill will allow Indiana to move quickly to promote the growth and marketing of industrial hemp.

Central Indiana mass transit

Under SB 176, the expansion of mass transit services in Delaware, Hamilton, Hancock, Johnson, Madison and Marion counties would be approved through local public questions placed on the ballot this November. The measure authorizes eligible counties to fund approved public transportation projects through raising various tax rates slightly, including income tax rates, while fares will cover 25 percent of the costs associated with expanded mass transit services.

As the initiative passed the Senate, the use of light rail in the project was expressly denied. However, the bill was amended in the House of Representatives to reverse the provision banning light rail as a part of the expansion of mass transit. As the proposal moves through the conference committee process, issues such as the use of light rail, which counties will be included in the public vote and subsequent expansion, and whether or not businesses will pitch in 10 percent of the operating costs will be discussed. Additional concerns linger regarding the long-term effects on labor agreements that still exist in the proposal as well.

The amended version of the proposal was narrowly approved by the House of Representatives by a vote of 52-47. This year’s measure will now go to conference committee next week, where House and Senate appointees will try to merge their two bills. The legislation that emerges from that process will then go back to both chambers for a final vote.

Child care regulations

Providing better quality day care programs is the goal of HB 1036, legislation which specifies certain conditions that a child care provider must meet to be eligible to receive taxpayer-funded federal Child Care and Development Fund voucher payments. The vouchers assist low income families with child care costs. A Senate committee amended the proposal to include new limits on how many children can attend a day care, staff-to-child ratios and mandated ongoing training for workers. Although concerns were expressed regarding key components of the original bill that were stripped, like fire inspection, building safety, food preparation and sanitation requirements, supporters explained that federal regulations due to be enacted in 2015 could potentially cover those issues. Led by Senator Greg Taylor, Senate Democrats have continued to advocate for all child care providers receiving taxpayer funding to meet basic safety and sanitation requirements. HB 1036 heads to conference committee.

School transportation funding

Due to the impact of property tax caps, a  number of school corporations are struggling to find the funding to provide transportation to and from schools.  HB 1062 aims to provide some flexibility to meet those obligations by allowing a school corporation that experiences at least a 10% revenue loss to the corporation’s transportation fund due to the property tax caps in 2014, 2015 or 2016 to use a proportional tax cap allocation for that year.

The proposal was also amended to allow for three school corporations to implement a pilot program allowing commercial advertising on school buses. Opponents argued that a more comprehensive approach to addressing school transportation funding than placing ads on buses is needed. The measure heads to conference committee.

Drug testing welfare recipients

A measure requiring Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients to undergo controlled substance testing is heading to conference committee. HB 1351 would require adult TANF recipients who also have a prior drug conviction to submit to testing. No data was provided on how many of the roughly 4,000 adult recipients meet those criteria. The proposal also requires drug treatment before reinstatement of benefits, but provides no funding for such treatment. Opponents argued the program  could be more effectively implemented if it were tied to substance abuse rehabilitation programs and the cost – previously estimated at over $1 million – would be better allocated toward supportive programs rather than punitive measures. For comparison, the program’s original price tag, $1.4 million, could fill more than 55,000 potholes or hire more than 40 new teachers at Indiana’s average starting salary.

The bill’s original language would have placed restrictions on the products that could be purchased with SNAP benefits. Federal requirements already prevent SNAP benefits from being used to purchase alcohol, tobacco products, nonfood items, vitamins, food that will be eaten in the store or hot foods. The measure will be considered by a conference committee where the House and Senate members will work to combine the two versions of the bill before a final proposal will be voted on by the full Senate and House of Representatives.

Criminal code reform follow up

In the 2013 legislative session lawmakers signed off on a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s criminal code.  This year, in HB 1006 legislators are back to resolve a handful of remaining issues and provide additional clarity. While some changes are largely technical – like changing nomenclature for felonies from classes to levels – some modifications are more contentious. The proposal would raise the advisory sentences for Level 3, 4 and 5 felonies, increase the number of crimes that are non-suspendible, and prohibit a credit-restricted felon from obtaining sentence modification. The measure requires a court to sentence a person found to be habitual offender to an additional fixed term of imprisonment depending on the severity of the crime. Additional changes include allowing persons convicted of a Class A misdemeanor or Level 6 felony to earn one day of credit time for every day served.