Social Justice 2015 Session Halftime: A look at key proposals

2015 Session Halftime: A look at key proposals

Wednesday marked the halfway point of the 2015 legislative session as lawmakers worked to gain approval for their proposals. Bills not making it through either chamber are considered dead for this session. Of the 589 Senate bills introduced this session, 220 are heading to the House for further consideration and 174 House-passed initiatives will be reviewed by the Senate. Bills must be approved by both chambers before going to the governor for possible signature into law. This summary highlights some of the action taken thus far.

State Biennial Budget

Indiana Budget

The House of Representatives passed a $31.5 billion, two year-budget that boosts funding for some K-12 education and spends more on domestic violence programs, community corrections, tourism and transit. HB 1001 also includes $400 million on top of existing gas tax revenues and federal funds to boost road construction. The state’s domestic violence programs see their funding double under this budget to $5 million a year, and the budget funds rape crisis programs for the first time. The budget also includes provisions to fund 2-1-1 to help Hoosiers in need of services and assistance. Also, there is $80 million over two years dedicated to community-based programs for low-level felons to decrease the burden on the state to incarcerate low-level offenders. Opponents of the budget pointed to cuts in school funding for urban and rural districts in favor of more money for suburban districts, charters and private schools that receive state funds from voucher students. The measure was approved in the House of Representatives by a vote of 68-29 and it will now move to the Senate for further consideration.

Education Issues

State Board of Education changes

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 members. Currently board members are appointed by the governor. Senate Democrats offered amendments 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 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 its consideration.

2015 ISTEP administration

SB 62 allows the Department of Education to waive certain assessment requirements for the 2015 ISTEP test in an effort to shorten the test for Hoosier students, teachers and schools. The test doubled from about 6 hours to 12 hours this year, outraging parents, teachers and school administrators. Recent mandates by the General Assembly, such as the repeal of Common Core and the replacement of those standards, required this year’s ISTEP test to include additional pilot questions to be used on the 2016 ISTEP. Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, the governor and legislative leaders worked to quickly approve a proposal that would shorten the test this year while directing the Department of Education to investigate the integrity of the 2016 ISTEP test. The Senate and the House of Representatives both unanimously approved the measure and it was signed into law by the governor one day before the administration of the 2015 ISTEP began.

Civics test as a graduation requirement fails

SB 269 would require, beginning in 2016-2017 school year, high school students to obtain a satisfactory score on the United States Civics Test before graduating. This proposal would also apply to individuals that are attempting to obtain a high school equivalency certificate such as the GRE. The original proposal did not include school students that attend a nonpublic school that participates in the CHOICE scholarship program, or voucher schools, but was amended to include those students. Opponents of the proposal argue that this legislation will place an additional burden of students and teachers by administering another “high stakes” test that will determine whether or not a student may graduate from high school. The full Senate rejected this measure by a vote of 17-33 and it is considered dead for this session.

Teacher collective bargaining

SB 538, labeled a “teacher bill of rights” by supporters, would change a number of collective bargaining parameters and diminish the rights of union representatives and members. The proposal would take authority away from the Department of Education concerning teacher salary oversight and give that power to the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board, a board that is appointed by the governor. The full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 30-19 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

Tax credit for teachers’ classroom supplies

HB 1005 would allow an individual that is employed as a teacher to qualify for a tax credit of up to $200 per year for money spent on classroom supplies. The House of Representatives unanimously approved the proposal 97-0 and it will now move to the Senate for further consideration.

Freedom to Teach

HB 1009, a major legislative priority for Governor Mike Pence, would establish the Freedom to Teach grant fund to provide grants to school corporations that establish a Freedom to Teach school, district or zone. The program would also give the State Board of Education the authority to grant schools waivers from some requirements in state regulations that determine teacher compensation. Opponents to the legislation argued that this measure is an attempt to remove teachers’ right to collectively bargain and make schools more like charter schools where teachers pay is based on performance. The measure was approved by the House of Representatives by a vote of 95-2 and it will now move to the Senate for further consideration.

Crime reduction proposals

Crime fighting pilot project

In an effort to reduce crime in the state’s top 3 counties, SB 551 would establish a crime fighting pilot program in Marion, Lake and Allen counties. The original proposal allocated $200,000 for each of the three counties to increase the number of law enforcement officers on duty in high crime districts. The funding mechanism for the pilot project was removed by the Senate Appropriations committee, but supporters of the legislation aim to have that appropriation restored. The full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 49-0 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration. Senate Democrats point to other measures to reduce crime, such as an increase in funding for mental health and substance abuse services as well as an increase in funding for community corrections programs and early childhood education.

Increased penalty for crimes of violence

SB 559 would establish an enhanced 20 year penalty for a person who points or discharges a firearm at a police officer. The measure also adds the unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon to the definition of “crimes of violence” Under current law, for the purposes of imposing consecutive sentences, the unlawful possession of a firearm is not included in the list of violent crimes. Adding this offense would permit a sentencing court to impose a consecutive sentence that would exceed the caps on consecutive sentences in current law.  Unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent offender is a Level 4 felony. The current cap on this sentence is 9 years if unlawful possession is the most serious felony in the commission of a crime. As proposed, the new cap would be 15 years. The full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 42-6 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

Enhanced penalties for crimes with deadly weapons

Under current law, a person who uses a firearm that results in death or serious bodily injury, kidnapping or criminal confinement commits a Level 2 or 3 felony, and could be sentenced to an additional 5 to 20 years in prison that could be suspended or placed on probation. Under SB 92, a prosecuting attorney would have the discretion to request an additional sentence that could not be suspended if a deadly weapon was used in any crime against a person, in an act of arson for hire, resisting law enforcement as a felony, or rioting. The proposal also provides that a sentence may also be enhanced when a deadly weapon is used during the commission of controlled substance drug dealing. The proposal also provides that a person is a habitual offender if the state can prove that the individual has been convicted of three prior unrelated felonies of any level. The full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 43-5 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

Expungement of crimes involving deadly weapons

Similarly, SB 164 provides that a person convicted of two or more felony offenses involving the unlawful use of a deadly weapon (that were not committed as part of the same instance of criminal conduct) may not have the person’s convictions expunged. As a result, the number of petitions for expunging criminal convictions will most likely be reduced; however, the reduction in the number of petitions is unknown. The full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 40-8 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

Religious freedom proposals

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 policies 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 insert a ban on same sex unions in the state’s constitution – the full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 40-10 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

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.

Abortion regulation proposals

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. Authors of the measure say this bill prevents women from moving forward with an abortion based on gender or disability diagnoses. Opponents stated that women struggling with a developmentally-disabled fetus should have the ability to make a decision with the consultation of their family and physician without government intervention. The full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 35-15 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

Disposition of aborted remains

SB 329 would require women receiving an abortion to determine how they would like the aborted remains disposed. The proposal would require the woman to be informed, orally and in writing, of her choices for the final disposition of the aborted remains as well as available counseling services. Advocates argue that this proposal will level the playing field for women that were affected by legislation enacted last year that gives women the choice of how to handle miscarried remains. Opponents of the proposal argue that this bill is yet another means of shaming women seeking abortion services and raises the potential for abortion facilities to need to engage in duties of funeral directors. The full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 43-7 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

Resolutions to amend the Indiana Constitution

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). After receiving overwhelming opposition to the proposal, the measure was rejected by a vote of 22-28. The proposal is considered dead for this session.

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 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. Sen. Karen Tallian 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 full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 47-3 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

 Other  major legislation considered before first half deadline

Ethics reform

HB 1002 would require lawmakers to be more transparent regarding their finances and business interests, as well as restrict elected officials from using state resources – employees and equipment – from being used for political gain. The proposal mandates ethics training for lawmakers and creates an ethics oversight office within the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA). There was a call for the General Assembly to revisit ethics reform after ethical questions were raised involving a former lawmaker and his support for legislation that financially benefited his business interests. The proposal sets new requirements for legislative statements of economic interests that would require lawmakers to disclose active business investment of at least $5,000 (current law does not require disclosure unless investments reach $10,000). The House of Representatives unanimously approved the proposal 97-0 and it will now move to the Senate for further consideration.

Independent redistricting study committee

HB 1003 would establish the special interim study committee on redistricting to evaluate the benefits and best practices involved with changing the method by which congressional and state legislative districts are determined. Supporters of the proposal argue that legislators in the General Assembly should not be charged with drawing new legislative maps of the districts they represent. The state constitution mandates that legislative districts shall be drawn every 10 years after the Census delivers its data to the General Assembly. This proposal would establish a 12-member study committee selected by legislative leaders in the House and the Senate (each leader would choose two members of their corresponding chamber, and one lay person that has expertise in redistricting). The House of Representatives unanimously approved the proposal 97-0 and it will now move to the Senate for further consideration.

Repeal of Common Construction Wage

HB 1019 would repeal the state’s common construction wage provision that sets wages on public construction projects. The common construction wage has been in place for 80 years. Under current law, local boards set the wages for each state or local project costing more than $350,000. Those five-member boards include members from labor unions and an association of non-union contractors and they, in turn, set the wage that a contractor must pay workers for public works projects. Supporters of the proposal argue that the measure would save local units of government millions in construction costs. However, opponents see this legislation as the most recent attack on organized labor and claim that those wages are driving economic development in local areas. The House of Representatives approved the proposal 55-41 and it will now move to the Senate for further consideration.

Sunday sales of alcohol

A measure to allow Sunday sales of alcohol died after the bill’s author withdrew his proposal for lack of support. The original draft of HB 1624 would have permitted the sale of alcohol on Sundays for home consumption, but was amended during the committee process to place additional restrictions on how alcohol could be sold in grocery, drug, and convenience stores. Contention over this piece of legislation arose largely between package liquor stores and large retail corporations. Package stores argue that Sunday sales without further restrictions puts box retail shops at a much greater advantage as shoppers have no need to go to separate businesses on the most popular grocery retail day of the week. Large grocery and convenience stores, represented by the Indiana Retail Council, say they would have to spend nearly $100 million to comply with new restrictions of alcohol sales in their stores. Ultimately, a reconciliation of language attempted to find a level playing field did not garner enough support from either side and was withdrawn from the calendar just before the final round of legislative deadlines.

Regulation of e-liquids

SB 539 would bring additional regulations to the e-liquid and e-vaporizer industry in Indiana. The proposal would allow the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission (ATC) to take part in the regulation of e-liquid and vaporizer products, including child-proof packaging for the products, the inclusion of ingredients on the packaging and restricting minors from being able to purchase the products, as well as other regulations. The full Senate approved this measure by a vote of 43-6 and it will now move to the House of Representatives for their consideration.

Gaming matters

A gaming proposal gained final approval by the House of Representatives that would allow for a number of changes to Indiana’s casino and racino laws. Live table games for the state’s horse racing casinos would be permitted under HB 1540. Proponents noted this would only allow for the conversion of current electronic games to live dealers. Contention arose early in debate surrounding whether or not admission taxes would revert to the state’s coffers or stay in the communities where casinos operate. Ultimately, that discussion was sent to a summer study committee where the Indiana General Assembly will take a closer look at how gaming revenues affect local communities. Additionally, the bill provides greater access to funding for the maintenance of West Baden Springs Hotel, exempts riverboats from admissions tax with a call for a five percent wagering tax of their gross earnings, and requires racinos to pay a Historic Hotel District Community Support fee to be allocated to communities, schools, and the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. The House of Representatives approved the proposal 76-19 and it will now move to the Senate for further consideration.

Medical Marijuana

An initiative led by Senator Karen Tallian would have permitted physicians to prescribe medical marijuana to Indiana patients. The bill 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.