Education 2016 Session concludes: 10 key issues that came down to the wire

2016 Session concludes: 10 key issues that came down to the wire

SHARE

Civil rights for LGBT Hoosiers

The 2015 fight over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) revealed the deficiencies that exist within Indiana’s Civil Rights statutes. In some areas of the state, it’s legal for LGBT Hoosiers to be married over the weekend and fired for it on Monday. Ultimately, Senate Republican leadership refused to allow debate or a vote on a controversial bill extending limited protections to LGBT Hoosiers.

There were a number of proposals offered this session regarding LGBT civil rights. In October, the Senate Democrats offered their proposal, SB 2, that would simply add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes within the Indiana civil rights statute so that members of the LGBT community would be protected from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation. Senate Democrats have argued that Indiana must send a message to the country and the world that Indiana is a state that will not condone discrimination against members of the LGBT community. Unfortunately, SB 2 was never granted a committee hearing, and any amendments attempting to insert this concept into other proposals were rejected along party lines.

Senate Republicans’ attempts at providing limited protections to the LGBT community – while attempting to appease religious freedom interest groups – stalled in the first half of session. After testimony was heard on both sides of this issue in the Senate Rules Committee, Senate Republican leadership chose to not call for a vote on the proposal, effectively killing the bill. While Statehouse leadership failed to have a debate or vote on full LGBT Civil Rights protections, Senate Democrats will continue to advocate for Civil Rights protections for all Hoosiers in the simplest, strongest terms, and will offer legislation to that end next session.

Infrastructure Funding

For much of the legislative session, road funding dominated headlines. In the end, the Republican-led Legislature cobbled together a short-term, stop gap measure directing $328 million to state highways and $463 million to local roads over the next four years. A separate bill releases around $430 million in income tax revenue the state holds in reserve for local governments to be used by local governments to repair local roads and bridges. HEA 1001 also creates the Local Roads and Bridges Matching Account. To access the account, local governments must raise or allocate revenue to be matched and utilize an INDOT-approved asset management plan.

Opponents were critical of the bill, noting it came well short of solving Indiana’s infrastructure crisis and pushes difficult revenue raising questions to local governments. Cambridge Systematics – a consultancy – noted Indiana needed to spend $1.5 billion annually just to take care of the state’s current infrastructure stock. According to local transportation advocates, it would take another $500 million annually to properly fund local roads and bridges.

Ultimately, the proposal was approved in the Senate by a final vote of 46-4 and will now head to the governor who can sign the act into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

Local option income tax release for roads

While the governor’s plan for infrastructure funding only focused on state-owned transportation assets, SEA 67 was proposed in an effort to assist Indiana cities, towns and counties with their infrastructure repair needs. The proposal helps counties redistribute local option income tax funds to support local transportation projects. The act mandates that at least 88 percent of distributions made to the county, city or town must be used for transportation or deposited into a rainy day fund. Senate Democrats offered another proposal to provide local units of government with additional flexibility for long-term infrastructure funding, but the proposal was not granted a committee hearing. Ultimately, the proposal was approved in the Senate by a final vote of 50-0 and will now head to the governor who can sign the act into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

See how much your county will receive under SEA 67>>

[MAPS] Explore the data behind Indiana’s mounting bridge problem in your county>>

ISTEP replacement

After a number of controversies surrounding the 2015 ISTEP exam, lawmakers fast-tracked two bills this session to hold schools, teachers, students and communities harmless from falling ISTEP scores. Further, lawmakers started the conversation to replace the high-stakes test altogether. HEA 1395 provides that the ISTEP test program expires July 1, 2017, and establishes a panel to study alternatives to the ISTEP test and make recommendations to replace the program. The act requires that scores under the ISTEP testing program must be reported to the State Board of Education no later than July 1 of the year the test is administered. Additionally, the act requires the Indiana Department of Education to release sample essay responses to highlight the accomplishments of students. The act received final approval in the Senate by a vote of 50-0 and will now head to the governor who can sign the act into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

Career Pathways Program & voucher eligibility expansion

HEA 1005 establishes the Career Pathways and Mentorship Program to provide supplemental pay for classroom teachers who demonstrate effectiveness in their work and take on additional responsibilities in Advanced Placement (AP) classroom roles. The act provides that for the first two full school years that a teacher provides instruction to students in elementary school or high school, the teacher is not prohibited from receiving a raise or increment for the following year if the teacher receives a rating of ineffective or improvement necessary. Opponents of the program argue that the act gives less than a handful of people (two teachers and a principal or a superintendent) the authority to change the educational and salary landscape for every teacher.

Additionally, viewed as an expansion of voucher school funding, SB 334 was inserted into HEA 1005, and gives the ability of some students to receive scholarships from vouchers that they would not have access to otherwise. The act requires the Indiana Department of Education to accept applications for the voucher program from September 2 through January 15 for the spring semester. The act removes the provision that if a student receives a voucher and transfers to another eligible voucher school, the student is responsible for the tuition required for the remainder of that school year. Additionally, the act requires the Department of Education to make random visits to at least five percent of eligible schools, as well as five percent of charter schools, during the school year.

Senate Democrats pointed to the ballooning costs of the voucher program – the costs of which are paid to private schools before public schools receive their funding – as reason to oppose the measure. In the end, the act received final approval in the Senate by a vote of 33-17 and will now head to the governor who can sign the act into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

Abortion restrictions

A controversial proposal that was challenged by Senate Democrats in every step of the legislative process was ultimate approved in the final hours of this session. HEA 1337 restricts women from terminating a pregnancy after a fetus has been diagnosed, or could potentially be diagnosed, with a lethal fetal anomaly. Proponents of the law contend the measure is aimed at protecting women’s health, while opponents assert that it only restricts access to a safe abortion and makes a difficult situation worse by inserting politics and unnecessary record keeping into a patient’s private medical decision-making process. Additionally, opponents of the law argue that forcing women to deliver a fetus with a lethal fetal anomaly without providing appropriate state funding for services through the Family Social Services Administration is unacceptable.

The measure also changes current law and provides that a miscarried or aborted fetus must be interred or cremated by the facility in possession of the remains. The act goes even further to exclude the final disposition of miscarried or aborted fetuses from laws that outline the treatment of infectious or pathological medical tissue. Indiana law already allows for a woman to choose private considerations for remains (SEA 329, 2015) and opponents of the measure argue the new mandate adds unnecessary shaming to women choosing an abortion while invading private decisions made between a woman, her doctor and her family.

The act received final approval in the House by a vote of 60-40 and will now head to the governor who can sign the act into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine purchases

In order to curb illegal methamphetamine production, lawmakers approved SEA 80 this session. The act allows pharmacists to make judgment calls on their customers who buy pseudoephedrine at pharmacies. Arkansas passed similar legislation last year that lead to a 95% decrease in the state’s methamphetamine production. This act will help deter those who supply meth producers while still allowing sick Hoosiers to buy cold medicine without a prescription when they need it. The proposal was amended by the Senate to go into effect July 1st of this year, and compels the Indiana Board of Pharmacy to allow professional determinations to be made by pharmacists and requires the board to keep track of those decisions regarding pseudoephedrine sales.

The act received final approval in the Senate by a vote of 41-7 and will now head to the governor who can sign the act into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

Police body cameras

As more police departments equip their officers with body cameras, a framework is needed for how footage is to be maintained and released. HEA 1019 permits a person depicted in police body camera footage to view the recording up to two times. Anyone depicted – or family members with the assistance of an attorney – can request a copy of specific footage. Although a public agency can deny a request if the release would: prevent a person from receiving a fair trial; interfere with an ongoing investigation; create a significant risk of substantial harm; or would not serve the public interest. If a public agency denies a request, the person can petition a court for the release of the footage.

The final conference committee report removed the provision that would require a public agency to release the camera footage depicting evidence pertaining to excessive use of force or a civil rights violation by a law enforcement officer. The act received final approval in the House by a vote of 96-0 and will now head to the governor who can sign the act into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

Military Family Relief Fund 

In 2014, lawmakers gave priority to qualified service members and their dependents if they had not received grants through the Military Family Relief Fund (MFRF). The MFRF provides assistance with food, shelter, medical services, utilities, child care, education, employment, and other essential expenses that are sometimes difficult for service members or their families to afford. This session, SEA 295 expands eligibility for the MFRF to all veterans and their families facing hardship as a result of their military service, and allows state income tax forms to be modified to enable a taxpayer to donate all or part of the taxpayer’s refund to the MFRF.

A major point of contention occurred late in the process, as funding from the MFRF was going to be reallocated to pay for six district service officers. That provision was later removed after multiple veteran service organizations argued that the MFRF is a dedicated fund with the sole purpose of supporting Hoosier veterans and their families. They argued it should not be used to supplement a budget shortfall for the Indiana Department of Veterans’ Affairs. District service officer funding under the Indiana Department of Veterans’ Affairs will most likely be considered next year in budget negotiations.

Ultimately, the act gained final approval in the Senate by a vote of 50-0 and will now head to the governor who can sign the act into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

Bias-motivated crimes

SB 220 would have added aggravating circumstances to crimes committed that target a victim due to certain characteristics like race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, ancestry, national origin, or sexual orientation. The importance of the measure was underscored by a recent attack on an exchange student in southern Indiana and the spray-painting of racial slurs on an Islamic Center in central Indiana. While Indiana is one of only five states without a hate crimes law in place, House Republicans failed to give the proposal a committee hearing to discuss protecting Hoosiers that are subjected to bias-motivated attacks. Sen. Taylor, who has proposed this bill a number of times, will once again offer it next year.