Social Justice 10 key proposals from the 2015 legislative session

10 key proposals from the 2015 legislative session

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Legislators completed their work late Wednesday night sending numerous last-minute proposals to the governor’s desk. Of the 1258 bills that were introduced to the General Assembly in January, 309 bills gained final approval and will be sent to the governor for his final approval. Here are the top ten most talked-about proposals passed by the Indiana General Assembly this year.

Superintendent Ritz and the State Board of Education

SB 1 moves the date when members of the State Board of Education (SBOE) could remove Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz as the chair of the board to 2017 if she wins reelection to the post. The final version awards the governor eight appointees to the board of which six must have educational experience and no more than five may be of the same political party. The Speaker of the House and Senate President each appoint one member to the board, for a total of eleven members. Board appointments will be made June 1, 2015 and a new chairperson will be elected annually.

In a controversial last minute move, Republicans added language that would require the Department of Education to share confidential student data with the State Board of Education and its expanded staff.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

One of the most controversial bills approved this session contained language that some believed would open the door to discrimination against the state’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. The original language for SEA 101, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, exposed the state’s civil rights law as being embarrassingly deficient and could allow a company or business to use the law as a defense for refusing service to LGBT individuals. After gaining world-wide attention, the legislature needed to revisit the topic with companion legislation that clarifies bill’s intent. Senate Democrats called for a full repeal of RFRA while simultaneously adding lasting protections for the LGBT community into the state’s civil rights laws. However, the final companion proposal stated that an individual or business cannot refuse services, goods, employment or housing to a person “on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service.”

Under current Indiana law, it is lawful to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity unless those people are protected by local ordinances. At the close of session, Senate Democrats pointed to the two week debate over RFRA as a distraction from the real issues facing Hoosiers. Senate Democrats have therefore committed to making statewide protections for all Hoosiers their number one priority when the Indiana General Assembly reconvenes next year.

Biennial Budget

Lawmakers signed off on the state’s two-year $30.9 billion spending document late Wednesday night. The budget increases funding for some K-12 schools and allows universities to issue bonds for specific capital projects. It increases community corrections and mental health and addiction treatment funding to help with an expected shift of the state’s prison population to local jail and mental health programs following the overhaul of the state’s criminal code. The budget also authorizes the State Budget Agency to transfer $200 million to fund Major Moves road construction projects and funds an expansion of the South Shore Rail Line in Northwest Indiana.

After pressure from Senate Democrats and the public, budget writers fully funded the Department of Child Services, enabling them to hire 100 new caseworkers tasked with investigating cases of child abuse and neglect.

School funding

The state’s budget increases school funding by $464 million – 2.2 percent and 2.5 percent in Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017, respectively. Controversially, budget writers slashed complexity index funding – money directed to schools serving high poverty and at-risk students – by $250 million and changed how poverty is measured in schools from free textbook eligibility to SNAP, TANF and foster care figures over three years. Democrats argued that to truly invest in education, we should not cut funding to schools serving high poverty students to finance the growth of other schools. The result, Democrats argued – were some schools that saw funding gains and some that did not. The budget also bumped up money allocated for students with disabilities and funds full-day kindergarten.

$10 million in charter school and innovation network school grants will be available annually.

Budget writers removed the $4,800 cap on vouchers the state provides to students attending private school. That move coupled with explosive growth will see the price tag associated with the controversial program rise to nearly $175 million in 2017.

Indiana Syringe Exchange

In response to an unprecedented outbreak of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in Scott County and high rates of Hepatitic C infection in some areas of the state, SB 461  authorizes certain counties and municipalities to begin needle exchange programs. After hours of behind the scenes negotiating, the bill requires local entities to declare a Hepatitis C or HIV epidemic and the State Department of Health Commissioner to confirm that declaration. Local entities can begin exchanging dirty needles for clean syringes and must offer any participants information on drug and addiction counseling. Participants cannot be prosecuted for exchanging needles used to inject illegal drugs. The declaration of a health epidemic required for any needle exchange program run by a municipality or county expires after one year but can be renewed by the State Health Commissioner.

Improving Indiana’s Gaming Industry

Senate Democrats advocated for a measure that will help to improve the state’s casino and gaming industry around the state. In a move to cut maintenance costs, open harbor space, and encourage interstate competition with neighboring states, SEA 1540 improved Indiana’s gaming industry in Northwest Indiana by allowing riverboat casinos to move inland and convert to land-based operations. The act also opens the door to allow live dealers to replace electronic table games at the state’s two racinos in the future, a move that when enacted in 2021, could generate hundreds of jobs for the racinos in Anderson and Shelbyville. Since taxes collected through the state’s casinos and gaming industry are a major source of revenue for the state, the act also urges study of the revenue and taxes generated from gaming to determine how gaming revenue is shared with local municipalities.

Repeal of the Common Construction Wage

Senate Democrats also fought to maintain the state’s common construction wage, a law that has effectively set wages on public construction projects for 80 years. To achieve the 20 percent savings proponents of repealing the common construction wage claimed, skilled local workers would have to work for virtually nothing. At a time when Hoosier incomes lag the rest of the nation, Senate Democrats repeatedly noted we should be working to raise wages, not lower them. Unfortunately, Statehouse Republicans repealed the common construction wage law, effectively lowering wages for thousands of working Hoosier families.

Funding for community corrections

Cited as a shift in philosophy, crafters of the state’s two-year budget increased funding for community corrections to $151 million over the course of 2 years. While the governor called for additional funding in the budget to build more prisons to house low-level nonviolent offenders, Senate Democrats pointed to community corrections programs as an effective solution rehabilitating these individuals. Specifically, Senate Democrats advocated for additional funding to invest in offender mental health and addiction treatment. The state budget bill raises funding for those programs by $30 million over the course of the next two years. Studies from the National Institute of Mental Health have shown that as many as 64 percent of inmates in local prisons suffer from mental health and/or addiction issues. Senate Democrats see these programs as an investment by helping these individuals with providing treatment to ensure they are able to become contributors in society once rehabilitated.

Medical marijuana reform

An initiative led by Senator Karen Tallian would have permitted physicians to prescribe medical marijuana to Indiana patients. The bill would have created a state agency to police the program and assembled an advisory panel to make recommendations and review the effectiveness of medical marijuana. Research facilities in Indiana would also have been granted licenses to perform testing. Even after sustained, grassroots support for the bill to be considered, it failed to receive a committee hearing. Tallian has stated she will continue to advocate for common sense marijuana legislation.

Regional Cities

The “Regional Cities” initiatives aims to promote job creation by encouraging collaboration among Indiana cities and towns. Promoted by the governor and the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, the initiative hit a snag when budget writers slashed funding. A last minute compromise was reached allowing the governor to tap uncollected tax debt – up to $84 million through an amnesty program outlined by the Department of Revenue. The first $6 million collected beyond $84 million is earmarked for the Hoosier State Rail line with anything else directed to the state General Fund.