Mid-session review of Senate bills

This week was the mid-session deadline for Senate bills to advance out of the Senate. Beginning February 28, the Senate will begin work on House bills that were approved in that chamber. This brief summary includes highlights of a few of the 198 bills approved by the Senate that are now eligible for action in the House of Representatives:

Controversial bills restricting organized labor
Thousands of laborers, teachers and students came together at the Statehouse this week to rally against bills that would have a negative impact on working families, including measures that would restrict their ability to organize and limit collective bargaining with employers on a variety of topics.A controversial bill that would strip collective bargaining rights and limit due process for teachers was approved by the Republican-led Senate. Among other things, Senate Bill (SB) 575 restricts which subjects can be bargained collectively between teachers and school districts. The bill also provides that collective bargaining begin no later than May 1. Senate Democrats strongly opposed the proposal which was approved in the Senate by a vote of 30 to 19.

Senate Joint Resolution 10 calls for an amendment to the state’s constitution prohibiting an option for employees to use majority sign-up rules to form unions instead of the traditional secret ballot method. In January, the National Labor Relations Board advised the Attorneys General of Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah that similar constitutional amendments approved in those states, which govern the method by which employees choose union representation, conflict with federal labor law and, therefore, are pre-empted by the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Opponents pointed out that this anti-worker proposal is being pushed by large corporations to make it harder for workers to organize and bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. In addition, many believe the state’s constitution is not a document to place language directing unions on how to conduct internal business. The resolution was approved in the Senate by a vote of 32-16. This proposed amendment must be agreed to by two consecutive General Assemblies and ratified by a majority of the state’s voters to be added to the state constitution.

Also approved in the Senate was legislation that would allow for 60-day probationary contracts for teachers hired new to a school corporation, regardless of the teacher’s experience in other corporations. SB 294 was amended to require an evaluation of a probationary teacher by the principal after 30 days. Under the bill, after 60 days, the corporation may terminate the teacher or enter into a regular contract. Supporters said this bill would provide principals with another tool to better handle ineffective teachers. Opponents express concern that, if terminated, the probationary teacher would not be entitled to the normal due process of a permanent teacher.

[On a related note: While it is not a bill yet considered by the Senate, much attention was given this week to a so-called “right to work” proposal. Undaunted by the opposition expressed in the Statehouse halls, a Republican-controlled House committee advanced House Bill (HB) 1468, a bill that would make it illegal for a group of unionized workers to require each employee who enjoys the benefits of a negotiated contract’s terms to pay organizational dues for negotiation and policing the contract. While the bill has been portrayed as a matter of employee choice, the National Labor Relations Act within federal law already affords protection for workers from forced union membership. The future of the bill is unknown at this point, as House Democrats continue to caucus outside of the state to block action on this and other labor-related bills.]

Education Issues
A new salary schedule for teachers based on results of evaluations tied to test scores would be created under SB 1. The bill also stipulates that teachers would no longer qualify for salary increases based on the completion of additional college degrees or graduate credit hours. In addition, SB 1 includes an exception for charter schools that would require only 50 percent of charter school teachers to be licensed. That number could be further reduced if waivers are sought. All public school teachers are required to be licensed under current state law.Also approved in the Senate was legislation that would allow for 60-day probationary contracts for teachers hired new to a school corporation, regardless of the teacher’s experience in other corporations. SB 294 was amended to require an evaluation of a probationary teacher by the principal after 30 days. Under the bill, after 60 days, the corporation may terminate the teacher or enter into a regular contract. Supporters said this bill would provide principals with another tool to better handle ineffective teachers. Opponents express concern that, if terminated, the probationary teacher would not be entitled to the normal due process of a permanent teacher.

The Senate approved SB 497, a proposal from Governor Daniels that would redirect state funding from high schools to in state universities for each high school student that graduates one year early. The bill provides that the student would have to complete necessary courses by the end of their junior year, apply for the grant, and enroll in an approved postsecondary education institution to qualify for a one-time $3,500 scholarship. The high schools attended by the scholarship recipients would not receive any funding for the student during what would have been that student’s senior year. Concerns about the proposal include legal issues for universities presented by students younger than 18.

With the push for more charter schools, the use of unoccupied public school property has come under scrutiny. SB 446 gained Senate approval and establishes a process by which charter schools may lease unused, closed or unoccupied school buildings maintained by public school corporations for a nominal fee of $1 per year. Following a two-year period, if a public school building remains unoccupied, it would be placed on a statewide list of all unused school buildings to be maintained and undated annually by the Department of Education. Charter schools could select a building from the list and would be responsible for the building’s direct expenses including utilities, insurance, maintenance, repairs and remodeling.

Illegal immigration
Based on Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB 590would allow law enforcement officers to verify the citizenship or immigration status of individuals when making a stop, detention or arrest if the officer has reasonable suspicion of the individual’s status. Opponents of that provision warn that the measure will lead to racial profiling. The bill also includes an “English only” provision, which would require that only English be used in public meetings, public documents, information provided on government web sites and by state or local government employees. For employers, the bill requires that E-Verify be used for state agencies, political subdivisions, contractors with public contracts for services with a state or political subdivision and certain business to verify the legal status of employees hired after June 30, 2011. The estimated cost to the state for the measure could be between $1.4 million and $5.4 million for criminal and employment dispute investigations and enforcement.Many opponents think that immigration policy should be addressed at the federal level in Congress, not by Indiana’s state legislature, a view represented by leaders from Indiana universities, faith leaders, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller and other state leaders at a Statehouse press conference earlier this month. The bill was approved by a vote of 31-18 in the Senate.

Clean energy
Comprehensive legislation designed to create incentives for producing clean energy and set the stage for possible nuclear energy development in Indiana has passed the Senate, but not without concerns over the impact on Hoosier ratepayers. SB 251expands the definition of clean energy to include nuclear energy to attract nuclear generating entities to Indiana with state incentives. Approximately 98 percent of Indiana’s electricity is currently provided by coal-fired plants. Opponents expressed strong concerns that the legislation would pass on to ratepayers the costs and risks of building power plants, including highly speculative nuclear and coal gasification facilities, even if those facilities are never completed. The bill passed by a vote of 32-17.On a related matter, the Senate approved SB 260, which will allow the legislative body of a unit of government (other than a township) to establish a clean energy improvement financing program to fund clean energy improvements for voluntary participants in the program. Although the bill prohibits the use of bonds to finance the improvements, it would require financing to come from private equity or federal grants or loans. The bill was approved by a vote of 42-7.

Local government reform
One of the government reform measures approved, SB 302, deals with nepotism. The bill would prohibit a relative of an executive, a member of the legislative body or a member of the fiscal body of a county, city, town or township from being employed by the local unit. The bill includes a grandfather clause that provides 3.5 years for current employees who are related to officeholders to give up their jobs. Several senators representing rural areas of the state expressed strong opposition to the bill stating that this type of reform should be taken on by individual counties. However, the bill passed by a vote of 30-19. It will now be reviewed by the House.Two other government reform bills died this week. SB 405 would have moved township fiscal powers to county councils in 2013 and eliminated township boards in 2015. SB 303 dealt with county government reorganization. This proposal would have provided that in counties other than Marion County, a single county chief executive officer could be elected to serve as the county executive, replacing the board of county commissioners.

Preemption of local firearm regulations
By a vote of 38-12, the Senate approved SB 292which would prohibit, with certain exceptions, local government regulations that ban guns on public property. Specifically, the bill would prohibit, with certain exceptions, local rules regulating any matter pertaining to firearms, ammunition and firearm accessories. Schools, courts and law enforcement offices would be the exceptions. Those opposing the bill emphasized public safety concerns, as guns could no longer be prohibited in public parks, hospitals or athletic facilities.Another gun bill raising concerns is SB 506. The Senate approved the bill which would allow a person to carry a handgun without being licensed on personal property, in a vehicle or on private property with consent of the property owner. Opponents expressed concerns that the bill includes exemptions for gun licensing that are too broad. The bill was approved in the Senate by a vote of 43-7.

Criminal sentencing laws
Legislation aimed at reforming Indiana’s criminal sentencing laws, SB 561, was approved by a vote of 46-3 in the Senate. The bill was amended with a provision pushed by prosecutors that would require those convicted of more severe crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence behind bars. The amendment drastically reduces the bill’s originally estimated savings of $1.2 billion over the next several years that would have resulted from shorter prison sentences for low-level drug and theft crimes. The original proposal was a result of a study conducted by the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments which indicated that, over the past eight years, the state’s prison population grew at a rate three times faster than neighboring states due to lengthy prison sentences given for various crimes. Changes to the bill are likely in the House to regain some of the proposal’s original cost savings.
State’s marijuana policies may be reviewed
A review of state policies pertaining to marijuana was approved in the Senate by a vote of 28-21. SB 192 requests that the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee conduct the review later this year to consider the fiscal impact of state policies and make recommendations on possible alternatives. The study would complement the ongoing work to reform Indiana’s criminal sentencing laws. Testimony indicated that 15 states currently have a medical marijuana program, 13 states have revised sentencing laws for marijuana and another 12 states are considering legislation this year to decriminalize marijuana.
Texting while driving
Texting while driving could soon be against the law for all Indiana drivers under SB 18, which was approved by the Senate. Current Indiana law prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from texting while driving. The legislation extends this regulation to all drivers, and stipulates a Class C infraction for those caught texting or reading email while driving. Hands free or voice operated technology would be permitted under the bill. Statistics indicate that texting while driving increases a driver’s chance of being involved in a collision by 20 times. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have taken similar action.

Additionally, two bills have been signed into law:

Unemployment insurance fund
Indiana has borrowed more than $2 billion from the federal government to shore up its bankrupt unemployment insurance fund and pay benefits to the state’s unemployed. Legislation that has been fast-tracked through the General Assembly, House Enrolled Act 1450, would repay the loan through a surcharge on businesses and a reduction in overall benefits to the unemployed by about 25 percent annually. Under HB 1450, average weekly benefits for unemployed workers would drop from $283 to $212. The U.S. average is $295 weekly. Opponents emphasized that cutting benefits will hurt families and pull cash from local economies throughout Indiana, as most unemployment benefits are used in local stores for daily necessities such as groceries, fuel and utilities. An alternative plan was proposed to allow for the issuances of long-term bonds to repay the debt instead of the surcharge and benefit reductions, but that plan was rejected in the Senate. The House passed the bill by a vote of 61-38. The final Senate vote was 33-16. The governor signed the bill into law on February 24.
Vote Centers
Senate Enrolled Act 32 provides this as an option for county election boards to consider adopting a plan to administer vote centers. The pilot program took place over the past three election cycles in Tippecanoe, Cass and Wayne counties. Election officials representing all three counties reported that the system was cost effective, efficient and convenient for voters. The bill was approved 49-0 in the Senate and 68-28 in the House. It was signed into law by the governor on February 22.

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