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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.

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A blueprint for the way forward

By Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane (D-Anderson)

Word Count: 628

Hoosiers expect their elected representatives to tackle the most pressing policy issues facing our state. An exhaustive study from Gallup Healthways revealed how acute those issues are. More Hoosiers than ever feel unsafe in their communities, feel like the economic deck is stacked against them and their kids are destined to earn less than previous generations. The result of this pessimism? Indiana ranked 48th in self-assessed overall state well-being.

With that knowledge, how has the General Assembly, dominated by Republican supermajorities, faired in advancing policy to raise incomes, provide a quality education to every Hoosier student and improve health indicators? In a word, poorly.

The fallout from a decade of Republicans’ top-down economic approach is devastating. Hoosier incomes are among the slowest-growing in the country. There are areas of the state stuck at the same incomes on average their parents earned in the 1970s. At the same time, Indiana CEOs made nearly 100 times more than their average employee in 2013. Plain to see; Republicans’ economic approach is fueling income inequality and threatening the middle class.

There’s no silver bullet but standing idly by isn’t the answer. In the second half of the 2015 legislative session our caucus will give Senate Republicans a number of opportunities to do the right thing starting with a hike in the minimum wage. I’m hopeful senators traditionally allergic to the idea will recognize Hoosiers of every political stripe consider raising the minimum wage a no-brainer. Even Wal-Mart deemed it good for business. It’s time doubtful Republicans drop the anti-business attack and side with everyday Hoosiers.

It can be done. Consider the progress the legislature made last year on key education issues. Led by the governor, both parties rallied around the importance of quality early childhood education as it relates to future educational and economic success. The governor made a preschool pilot program the cornerstone of his legislative agenda and signed a bipartisan bill into law. Common sense in action.

Fast forward to today and whatever hope of continuing that headway has long since vanished. Senate Republicans instead bought into Governor Pence’s desire to engage in partisan politics, sidelining any shred of bipartisanship. With the governor’s backing, they fired the first salvo by fast-tracking legislation to remove Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz as chair of the State Board of Education. Intentional or not, the optics alone should have given Republicans pause. Instead, they moved forward with wrestling control from the only statewide-elected Democrat and silencing the 1.3 million Hoosiers who rejected snake-oil corporate education reforms.

We’ll offer a way forward on education in the coming weeks by expanding quality early childhood educational opportunities to the 13 counties the governor’s pilot affirmed were ready to offer services to students. The perception that budget writers have no choice but to pit urban, rural and suburban schools against one another for additional funding is markedly false and downright deceptive. We’ll advocate for pumping more dollars into every classroom. Senate Republicans would be wise to grab onto these lifelines and pull themselves out of the muck over battling Superintendent Ritz.

Hoosiers send us to Indianapolis with a mandate to build stronger communities. They are right to doubt our progress because too often the only results they see are a congratulatory press release and glossy campaign literature. We can do better. Instead of advancing divisive, hot-button social causes tailored for narrow far-right wing interests, impactful middle-ground issues exist and must be addressed. We can make raising wages and setting more students up for success our priorities.

There is no time to lose. Now, the beginning of the second half session, would be a prime time to send a strong signal to skeptical Hoosiers that we can and will work to turn around the well-being of our state.

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Indiana Statehouse Goes Red for Women

On February 19, Statehouse legislators and advocates joined together to support the American Heart Association’s Wear Red Day. Spearheaded by State Senator Jean Breaux, those in support wore red to help raise awareness for heart disease, the leading cause of death among Hoosiers.

February is American Heart Month and with more than 18,000 Hoosiers dying annually from heart disease or stroke, Indiana legislators wanted to take part in the awareness process. The American Heart Association contends that 80 percent of heart disease is preventable with lifestyle changes such as exercising and eating healthier.

Resolutions were offered at the Statehouse in support of the American Heart Association which attributes a 30 percent decline nationwide in deaths between 2000-2012 to scientific research, medical advances, improved diagnosis and emergency care, increased awareness and lower smoking rates, cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

Click here for more information on the American Heart Association and the Indy Go Red Campaign>>

ControBills

Controversial Senate bills moving through legislative process

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.

Senator Lanane recaps this year's legislative session during a press conference in his office on Friday morning.

LANANE OP-ED: Republicans suppress democratic process to get even with Supt. Ritz

By Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane (D-Anderson)

Word Count: 504

The performance Statehouse Republicans put on surrounding the removal of Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz was one for the ages. One by one, they approached the microphone and avowed their actions weren’t in any way about wrestling control from the only statewide-elected Democrat. Dissect the precarious argument they constructed to justify her removal and it’s glaringly obvious what her ouster is truly about: politics.

First, Republicans are confusing debate with dysfunction. State Board of Education meetings chaired by Superintendent Ritz are often impassioned, complete with discussion between board members and public testimony from concerned Hoosiers. Why? Because education policy matters. Because half the state budget is earmarked for education and it impacts more than one million Hoosier students across the state. Frankly, we ought to expect a thorough vetting of these issues. Debate makes our democracy stronger, by removing Ritz, Republicans are moving to silence it.

Second, Republicans claim Ritz’s inability to lead puts the educational progress of Indiana students in jeopardy. Well, the facts don’t lie. More schools are rated A, fewer are failing and more students are graduating. Her leadership guided us successfully through the No Child Left Behind waiver process and defused the situation concerning the length of ISTEP testing. You want the culprit for tumult over education policy in our state? It’s the endless meddling of self-styled education policy wonks in the legislature and in the governor’s office. It’s burdening our teachers and burying our students.

Third, they contend removing Ritz as chair aligns the State Board of Education with board governance best practices. The chief executive officer rarely serves as chair of the board in the corporate world they say. Yet no effort has been made to align the Indiana Economic Development Corporation Board with supposed best practices even as the state’s CEO, Governor Mike Pence, also serves as that board’s chairman.

So why then are Republicans relentlessly pursuing Ritz’s removal even when their reasoning fails to hold water? It boils down to unbridled arrogance. Two years on, Republicans still can’t stomach an electoral defeat at the hands of a Democrat.

Republicans hold supermajorities in both the Indiana Senate and House. The governor is a Republican. Every statewide-elected office is occupied by a Republican but one: the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Six amendments that would have removed political appointments and directed the issue a thorough study were offered. All six were voted down on strict party line votes.

But no matter how “super” the Republicans majorities are, Hoosiers voted in 2012 for Glenda Ritz and her policies, rejecting former Superintendent Tony Bennett and his divisive reforms. Most egregious is that Republicans have opted to strip Superintendent Ritz of her authority in the middle of her term. The results of that election must be respected.

This is about a political power grab. To achieve it, Republicans are willing to erode democratic principles and invalidate the voices of 1.3 million Hoosiers who voted for Ritz to assume the full duties ascribed to her as the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction.

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Education committee blocks sex education standards

A proposal offered by Assistant Democratic Leader Jean D. Breaux (D-Indianapolis) to require the State Departments of Health and Education to jointly identify appropriate academic standards concerning health and sex education failed to advance past the Senate Education and Career Development Committee on Wednesday. Senate Bill (SB) 497 would have required both departments to report their findings to the General Assembly which could then choose to enact them.

“This is an unfortunate setback in attempting to curtail the number of teenage pregnancies occurring in communities across our state,” said Sen. Breaux. “Frankly, this was a common-sense initiative and I am disappointed it failed to advance. Mounting evidence suggests the ‘abstinence-only’ approach is not working.”

In Fiscal Year 2014, nearly 4,000 teenage pregnancies covered by Indiana Medicaid cost taxpayers $7.7 million.

The Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) passed in 1981 and provided federal funding for abstinence-only sexual education programs. Between 1996 and 2009, it is estimated Congress spent over $1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars to support these programs.

“This proposal wouldn’t have written standards for schools,” said Sen. Breaux. “It simply would have allowed two knowledgeable state agencies to study the issue and present their findings to the legislature.”

Research from the U.S. Department of Health found that sexual abstinence rates have not increased since abstinence-only educational programs were required in schools. In the study, the average age of an individual’s first sexual experience remained the same, as well as their number of sexual partners.

The measure was voted down with four members voting in favor and seven against after nearly an hour of testimony.

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Senate Dems’ proposals to restore Supt. Ritz’s power rejected

Senate Democrats offered a number of legislative tweaks to a Republican-backed bill that would rewrite how the Indiana State Board of Education (SBOE) is staffed and remove Superintendent of Public instruction Glenda Ritz as chairperson of that board. Democrats’ amendments aimed to restore the duties and responsibilities of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and remove the politics associated with the current board appointment process.

As proposed by Senate Republicans, Senate Bill 1 would remove Superintendent Ritz as the chair of the Indiana State Board of Education, a role held by the superintendent for the past 113 years.

“What we tried to do today was uphold the will of the 1.3 million Hoosiers who went to the ballot box and voted for Superintendent Ritz to set the educational policies of our state,” said Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane. “Those that continue to manufacture a political fight over her job are doing nothing more than engaging in revenge politics.”

Proposed changes by Democrats included upholding the Superintendent’s position as the chairperson of the SBOE, giving appointees independence from the politicians that appoint them, and putting an end to the repeated attempts to create additional bureaucracy and duplicate the Department of Education’s responsibilities. Ultimately, Democrats advocated to study the controversial measure during the interim before any action is taken by the Indiana General Assembly.

State Senator John Broden, authored a number of the amendments and remarked that any time people debate passionately, tension occurs.

“Democracy is messy, there will be debate,” said Sen. Broden. “That discourse makes government stronger. Republicans are trying to silence that debate.”

All but one amendment was rejected by Senate Republicans 10-40, toeing a strict party-line. An amendment clarifying political party affiliation of board appointees passed on a voice vote.

SB 1 is expected to be heard in its amended form by the Senate before being sent to the House of Representatives for further consideration.

Missed all the action on the Senate floor? Here’s a quick Twitter recap of the amendments Senate Dems offered

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We need your help: The Teacher Project

TeachersGraphicBIGThe success of Hoosiers students starts with our schools’ greatest assets: our educators. No factor has a bigger impact on lifelong learning than a dedicated, devoted teacher. Most Hoosiers can point to a special teacher whose enthusiasm forever influenced their lives for the better.

Senate Democrats want to share these stories. In 40 words or less finish the following statement:

A teacher made a difference in my life because_____.

FOR TEACHERS:

In 40 words or less, finish the following statement:

I teach because ____.

Submit your answer to insendems@gmail.com by February 23.

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Indiana Sheriffs’ Association Honored by Arnold Resolution

On Tuesday, State Senator Jim Arnold presented a resolution in the Indiana Senate to honor the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association. Senate Resolution 12 recognizes the association for its outstanding contribution to both those in law enforcement and the citizens of Indiana.

This year marks the 85th anniversary of the Sheriffs’ Association which has served as a platform to promote better communication between sheriffs and other law enforcement personnel. The association shifted its focus toward providing education and training to department personnel and was incorporated as a non-profit.

“It was my honor to offer this resolution for the fifty newly elected sheriffs in Indiana,” said Sen. Arnold. “The work that our sheriffs do in our state is invaluable and often goes unrecognized. The protection and safety they provide for our communities is vital and they deserve to be recognized for it.”

Sen. Arnold served 36 years in law enforcement as a Deputy, Sergeant, Captain and Chief Deputy and retired as LaPorte County Sheriff in 2007.

Senator Broden before session began.

[MAP] Child care affordability committee hearing scheduled

Senator John Broden is taking aim at making child care more affordable. He’s introduced a proposal to give more Hoosier families a chance at offsetting child care expenses while they work, attend training or return to school. Senate Bill (SB) 129 widens the range of incomes Hoosiers can earn to be eligible for the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) voucher program.

Under SB 129, a family of four could earn about $47,000 or less annually to apply for a CCDF voucher, up from about $30,000. The bill lifts the income ceiling for participation from about $40,000 annually for a family of four to $60,000 annually. Expanded CCDF eligibility gives more families a hand up on paying for child care and works to reduce the backlog of more than 3,500 children and families waiting for their chance.

The average annual cost of child care in Indiana reached more than $8,230 in 2013, slowing the Hoosier economy and forcing families to make tough choices. In some situations, a raise at work could actually be harmful to some families as the steep decline in child care assistance cancels out any increase in salary.

Committee hearing scheduled

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Family and Child Services and is scheduled to be heard Monday, February 9 at 10:30AM in the Senate Chamber.

The committee hearing can be streamed here>>

[MAP] Child care by the numbers

[INTERACTIVE] A map of households led by single mothers living under the poverty level.

[INTERACTIVE] A map of households led by single mothers living under the poverty level.

The cost of child care hits low to middle-income Hoosiers hardest. According to an Indiana Institute for Working Families report, more than 1/3 of working families earn less than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level or about $48,000 for a family of four. The same report noted that just 60 percent of single mother households with children under 18 participate in the labor force. For households with children led by single mothers, the cost of child care can be prohibitive. For a mother with two children under 18, the poverty line is $20,090 or about $1,600 a month.