Indiana Republican leaders started this year’s legislative session with calls to boost the state’s lagging teacher pay and adopt a hate crimes law.
The GOP-dominated Legislature took action on both topics, although Democrats and advocacy groups say the steps fell short of what was needed. Republicans declared the four-month session that wrapped up Wednesday a success, while Democrats lamented it as a “missed opportunity” to help most Hoosiers.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is expected to soon sign the new state budget boosting base school spending by 2.5% each of the next two years, along with bills legalizing sports betting and authorizing $390 million in public subsidies toward Indianapolis sports stadiums.
A look at from issues from the 2019 session:
The state hate crimes law will allow judges to impose longer sentences for crimes motivated by bias and refers to Indiana’s bias crimes reporting statute that mentions color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion and sexual orientation. It also says bias can also be considered due to the “victim’s or the group’s real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association, or other attribute.” Critics fault it for not explicitly including age, sex or gender identity.
Holcomb had called for a law also including gender identity but Republican legislators struggled with how to adopt any list in the face of opposition from conservative religious groups. The Senate at first stripped the bill of any list before the House later inserted the shorter list in an unrelated bill without holding a public hearing.
Holcomb declared victory in signing the bill, saying Indiana had “taken a strong stand against targeted violence.” But the Anti-Defamation League says the law is inadequate and isn’t removing Indiana from its list of one of five states, along with Georgia, South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas, without hate crimes protections.
The budget plan approved in votes along party lines gives what Republicans say more flexibility to school districts for increasing teacher pay and directed much of the state revenue growth to schools. Republicans rejected proposals from Democrats for additional education money by cutting private school voucher growth, tapping the state’s $2 billion in cash reserves or suspending corporate tax cuts.
Hundreds of teachers took part in Statehouse and local rallies calling for greater funding increases, while Republican state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said GOP Statehouse leaders had given a “false promise” of significant teacher pay raises. Republican funding proposals never came close to the 9% increase that education advocacy groups estimated was needed to boost Indiana’s average teacher pay to the midpoint of neighboring states.
“Hoosier teachers will not get the pay raise they deserve and traditional public schools will continue to receive funding increases that barely keep up with the rate of inflation,” said House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne.
A wide-ranging bill sent to Holcomb’s desk would legalize sports betting, allow the owner of the two Gary casino boats on Lake Michigan to build a new casino along heavily traveled Interstate 80-94 in the city and sets up the process for opening a casino in Terre Haute.
Sports wagering could begin as early as this fall. Bets could be placed by anyone 21 or older at a casino or by mobile devices after they registered at a casino. No wagering would be allowed on high school or youth sporting events.
The bill also allows the horse track casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville to have table games with live dealers starting Jan. 1, 2020 — 18 months earlier than allowed under current law.
Among the bills failing in the session’s final days was one aimed at allowing Indiana school districts to seek state money toward providing gun training for teachers and setting rules for a 40-hour training course. Senate Republicans wanted to require the training for any teacher armed at school, but bill sponsor Republican Rep. Jim Lucas of Seymour rejected including that mandate.
Another provision of that failed bill would’ve required police agencies to obtain permission from a school staffer before using projectiles during active-shooter training. That became an issue after police instructors shot some teachers with plastic pellets at a northern Indiana elementary school this year to make it more realistic.
A proposal to start taxing the liquids used in electronic cigarettes had support in the House but failed as the Senate resisted amid questions about the tax level and whether to charge it to buyers at retail stores or on manufacturers. Supporters said the tax could discourage vaping, especially among younger users.
Republicans rejected the push by Democrats and anti-smoking groups for a $2 boost to the state’s 99.5 cents per-pack cigarette tax. They had argued the hike would reduce Indiana’s high smoking rate
The state’s attempt to ban a second-trimester abortion procedure has already drawn a lawsuit trying to block it from taking effect in July.
The new law would prohibit dilation and evacuation abortions, which the legislation calls “dismemberment abortion.” Federal courts have blocked similar laws in others states, but Indiana anti-abortion groups hope Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s addition has pushed the U.S. Supreme Court further to the right on abortion questions.
The Indiana Pacers agreed to stay in Indianapolis for 25 more years as part of a deal that includes $295 million in public subsidies for a renovation and expansion of Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis. Legislators approved a plan directing $270 million to the project from the state and local income and sales tax revenue generated by several nearby hotels — diverting that money from the state, city and local schools.
The bill also sets up a similar tax-subsidy district toward 80% of the estimated $150 million stadium proposed by the Indy Eleven soccer team in Indianapolis.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ALLEGATIONS
GOP lawmakers took no action against Republican state Attorney General Curtis Hill even though Holcomb and other party officials called on him to resign over allegations that he drunkenly groped four women — a Democratic legislator and three legislative staffers — during a party last year. Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said it would be an “unneeded distraction” to consider calls from Democrats for Hill’s impeachment.
Hill has denied the allegations and a special prosecutor declined in October to pursue criminal charges against him. The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission, however, alleges Hill violated the professional conduct rules for attorneys and wants him to face disciplinary action from the state Supreme Court.
Bills to put the drawing of new congressional and legislative districts in the hands of a redistricting commission failed again to advance. That leaves the General Assembly in charge of drawing election districts after the 2020 census. The current Republican-drawn districts have helped the GOP build its commanding 40-10 Senate and 67-33 House majorities.
Republicans dismissed objections from Democrats in approving bills that shorten the number of days voters have to request mail-in absentee ballots and change state law so that only county election boards by unanimous votes may ask judges to extend voting hours at polling sites that opened late or closed during voting hours.
Supporters of allowing medical or recreational marijuana use in Indiana had no luck persuading legislators to going along with legalization happening in a growing number of other states .
Holcomb says he’ll remain opposed as long as the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which means it’s not accepted for medical use and has a high potential for abuse.