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December 8, 2013

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Hoosiers’ priorities vs. legislators’ agenda

INDIANAPOLIS — Every year at about this time, Statehouse reporters like me ask lawmakers what their priorities will be for the coming year. The more interesting inquiry is made by the people at Ball State’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs because they ask Hoosiers what those lawmakers’ priorities should be.

The results of the poll, called the Hoosier Survey, are delivered to every member of the General Assembly in early January, just as they’re getting down to business. Whether those lawmakers pay attention to the results is up to them.

Some don’t. A past criticism of the survey is that the Bowen Center asks for the opinions of Indiana residents whether they’re registered to vote or not.

The Hoosier Survey results are both predictable and surprising. When asked what the General Assembly’s top priorities in 2014 should be, almost 83 percent of people said bringing more jobs to the state. Improving local schools came next, followed by providing more affordable health care. Not on the list — the amendment to ban same-sex marriage, which is already proving to be bitterly divisive.

The survey reflects what other recent independent polls have found: Hoosiers may not be ready to celebrate same-sex marriage, but they’re also wary of locking a ban on it into the constitution. About 45 percent oppose marriage equality, but only 38 percent want to put that opposition into the constitution.

The Hoosier Survey also found that Indiana residents aren’t as opposed to gun control measures as their legislators are.

Two years ago, lawmakers outlawed local ordinances that restricted firearms. Last year, a considerable number of legislators was ready to support a failed bill that would have required schools to arm some of their teachers.

Thirty-eight percent of those polled think arming teachers is a good idea, while 83 percent support background checks at gun shows and private sales. Fifty-four percent are in favor of complete ban on assault-style weapons.

Those numbers are all within a couple of points of the national average, said Joe Losco, a political scientist at the Bowen Center.

“On guns, Hoosiers aren’t as conservative as they’re made out to be,” he said.

Losco said it was the answers to the gun questions that surprised him and his colleagues the most. What didn’t surprise him were the answers to questions about marijuana.

Indiana has some of the toughest marijuana penalties in the nation. Under current Indiana law, possessing marijuana is a felony unless it’s a first-time offense or the amount is less than one ounce.

Last year, when some rock-ribbed, law-and-order conservatives in the Legislature proposed decriminalizing pot possession — making it into an infraction, like a speeding ticket — the idea seemed radical to their colleagues.

But maybe not to the public. This year’s Hoosier Survey found 53 percent of Indiana residents are ready to legalize pot. A whopping 78 percent support the idea of turning it into a revenue stream for the state, taxing pot like cigarettes and alcohol.

“There was support for it across every demographic group and across both parties,” Losco said.

There may be a committee hearing or two on a marijuana decriminalization bill in the next session. Democratic State Sen. Karen Tallian, a 63-year-old grandmother for Portage, has pledged to file the bill and says she’s been promised a hearing.

She’s not expecting to see it become anyone’s legislative priority, though, given that the governor shut down talk of lowering pot possession penalties last year.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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