Education Controversial Senate bills moving through legislative process

Controversial Senate bills moving through legislative process

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Proposals approved by committees before deadline

Right to farm and ranch

SJR 12 provides that the General Assembly may not pass a law that unreasonably abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ or refuse to employ effective agricultural technology and livestock production and ranching practices. Although two state laws already provide protections for Hoosier farmers, SJR 12 would guarantee those protections in the state constitution. Opponents maintained that passage of the resolution would result in unintended consequences including excessive protections to industrial farming operations, such as large scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Despite overwhelming opposition in public testimony, SJR 12 gained approval from the Senate Committee on Agriculture and proceeds to the full Senate.

Balanced Budget Amendment

SJR 19, a major legislative priority for Governor Mike Pence, would enshrine a Balanced Budget amendment in the state’s constitution. The proposal provides that the total amount of expense appropriations enacted by the General Assembly for a budget period may not exceed estimated state revenue. Supporters explained that SJR 19 would protect pension funding and require all expected expenses to be included in the budget. Opponents contended that the constitution already includes language that prohibits the state from taking on debt. One Senate Democrat  member cited that a review of budgets over the past 35 years reflected all were balanced, and putting this amendment into the constitution would reduce flexibility and restrict the ability of budget negotiators to make adjustments during economic downturns. The proposal was approved by a vote of 9-1 in the Senate Tax and Fiscal Committee and will now be considered by the full Senate.

Religious freedom restoration

SB 101, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, would allow additional protections for individuals, businesses and churches that decline services based on religious beliefs. One of the biggest concerns raised about this proposal is that people and businesses would be able to use this law to discriminate against LGBT individuals by refusing them service based on personally held religious beliefs. In 1993 a similar federal bill was signed into law but was intended to protect individuals’ religious rights when federal impeded religious practices. However, a Supreme Court decision in 1997 held the law only applied to the federal government. Although this is a highly controversial bill – as it is considered a response to the failed attempt to completely ban same sex unions in the Indiana Constitution – no testimony was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee and a vote was taken minutes after the meeting’s start time without any Democrats present. The measure will likely be considered by the full Senate next week on second reading when any senator can attempt to amend the proposal.

Abortion prohibition based on sex or disability 

SB 334a proposal prohibiting women from seeking abortions after receiving potentially life-threatening diagnoses passed largely along party lines in the Senate Committee on Health and Provider Services. Authors of the measure say this bill prevents women from moving forward with an abortion based on gender or disability diagnoses. Opponents of the bill note that this measure would prohibit families dealing with a diagnosis of severely disabled fetuses to make decisions that could put the life of both the fetus and mother at risk. Further, opponents stated that women struggling with a developmentally-disabled fetuses should have the ability to make a decision with the consultation of their families and physicians without government restrictions.

CHOICE school student assessments

SB 470 would allow private schools receiving state funds from voucher payments to be exempt from administering the ISTEP test and to take instead another nationally recognized assessment of their choice. The measure also instructs the State Board of Education to develop an A-F system just for voucher schools taking alternate assessments. The voucher program was approved in 2011 by state lawmakers assuring that private schools would take the ISTEP and would be measured like all public schools in the A-F system. Now after 4 years, we have seen the voucher program explode into the largest in the nation while state lawmakers have removed restrictions for additional voucher enrollments. Opponents claim this proposal will create a direct advantage for private schools that would be able to attract parents who dislike excessive testing mandated by the General Assembly and the State Board of Education. This measure simply removes another layer of transparency and accountability for the private schools that are receiving state funds to educate children at the expense of traditional public schools. SB 470 was approved by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee on a party line vote of 7-3. An amended version of the bill that would direct the issue to a summer study committee was then approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee by a vote of 10-3. The measure will likely be considered by the full Senate next week on second reading when any senator can attempt to amend the proposal.

Proposals considered by the full Senate

State Board of Education

SB 1 would remove the Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz as the chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE) and would give the power to appoint a new chair to board appointees. Current board members were appointed by the governor. Senate Democrats offered amendments to SB 1 to restore the duties and responsibilities of the superintendent as well as remove the politics associated with the current board’s appointment process. Those attempts were defeated by the Republican-controlled Senate. Despite the fact that more than 1,000 people gathered at the Statehouse earlier this week in support of public education and Superintendent Ritz, SB 1 was ultimately approved by a vote of 33-17 to strip Superintendent Ritz of her ability to steer education policy in the state. The proposal now moves to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

Lawsuits against gun manufacturers 

SB 98 would prohibit a person from bringing or maintaining certain actions against a firearm manufacturers, ammunition manufacturer, trade association or seller of firearms or ammunition. Opponents of legislation claim that the measure puts the interests of the firearms industry ahead of citizens. This proposal is also retroactive to 1999 in order to, as critics say, block an ongoing lawsuit against gun manufacturers and sellers currently being decided in Gary, Indiana. The proposal passed second reading and will now go up for a final vote before the full Senate next week.

Religious exemption in state and local contracts

SB 127 would allow faith-based recipients of state funds to hire employees based on religion. The bill would also permit religious organizations to require employees and applicants to conform to religious tenets. Supporters argued that employers of religious organizations should be able to hire their employees based on credentials and beliefs. Opponents expressed concerns that this bill is an overreach and goes beyond what’s stipulated by federal law. The full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 39-11 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

Winter holidays in schools, cities and towns

For the second consecutive year, the Indiana Senate considered a proposal that would allow school corporations to celebrate Christmas in the classroom, with legal protection to do so. The measure would allow schools to have Nativity scenes and other Yuletide decorations as long as another secular holiday is recognized. SB 233 would also allow local cities and towns to adopt ordinances to allow for employees to use traditional Christmas greetings and display religious Christmas decorations like Nativity scenes on city or town properties, such as courthouses and town halls. Critics of the measure voiced doubts on whether or not this proposal was necessary since celebrating Christmas is already a legal activity in Indiana. Ultimately, the proposal was approved by the full Senate by a vote of 48-2 and now moves to the House of Representatives for their consideration. Last year’s proposal stalled in the House.

Energy efficiency programs

After the state’s energy efficiency program, Energizing Indiana, was dissolved last legislative session SB 412 aims to promote energy efficiency around the state. However, critics argue that this legislation is too friendly to the utility companies and does not promote participation in energy efficiency programs when additional burdens are placed on ratepayers. The proposal allows the utility companies to dictate their own energy efficiency goals and programs while receiving more state funds to do less. The measure also allows the utility companies to recover millions of dollars through rate increases to make up for the money lost due to less consumption by consumers participating in the programs. Finally, the proposal continues to exempt large industrial and commercial customers from participating in the efficiency programs, negatively impacting residential customers who are burdened with rate increases. After attempts by Senate Democrats to amend the legislation and make it energy efficiency programs more effective, SB 412 passed the Senate by a vote of 42-8 and will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.