After nearly four months of covering the Indiana General Assembly and with one working week to go before the end of its legislative session, I’m beginning to think lawmakers are like journalists: We both need deadlines to get our work done.
It has been an unusual session, marked by a five-week walkout by House Democrats that did slow down the “freight train of change” promised by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
And much work has already gotten done, especially in the area of education, where major changes — from controversial vouchers for private schools to big limits on collective bargaining rights of teachers — are rapidly arriving.
But even without the walkout and the wrestling over education reform, I suspect this session would have ended like many others: With a rush to finish at the end.
The big budget bill is one item that still needs to be resolved when legislators meet in the final week. The plan to spend $28 billion over the next two years has two versions, one approved by the House and another approved by the Senate when there were just eight days to go till the session’s end.
Legislative fiscal leaders from both chambers will meet in a conference committee this coming week to work out some of the differences between the Senate and the House bill.
Among the compromises they have to pound out: The House version contains a proposal backed by Daniels to create a rebate plan that would give money back to taxpayers if the state’s reserves ever exceed 10 percent of state spending. The Senate version raises the trigger to 12 percent so that some of those reserves would go to fund the state’s underfunded public employee pension program.
The House version slashed the amount of gambling revenues from the state’s two racinos — the race-track-based casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville — funneled into a program that promotes the state’s horse-racing industry. The Senate version restores much of that funding.
There’s disagreement among Daniels, the Senate and the House on the details of a cut to Medicaid services for low-income Hoosiers. Daniels’ budget plan eliminated dental, chiropractic and podiatry services for adults; the House plan restored the cuts; the Senate plan cut Medicaid funding for dental and chiropractic services for adults but kept them for children.
And just days ago, Senate Republicans stuck an “anti-bolting” provision onto their budget bill that would allow any citizen in the state to sue state legislators who engage in the kind of quorum-busting walkout that House Democrats staged earlier this session. Under the provision, legislators could face $1,000-a-day fines if their absence stops legislative action for three days or more. It also allows a citizen to sue legislators who walk out in the final week of the session for any length of time.
It’s not truly a budget issue, of course, but it is about political payback.
Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s an update from the Tribune-Star Statehouse Bureau on some select legislation in the Indiana Statehouse as of Friday.
• The Indiana Senate voted to cut off support to Planned Parenthood as part of an anti-abortion bill that would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy unless there was a substantial risk to the mother’s health. If the bill is signed into law, Indiana would become the first state to prohibit Medicaid recipients from seeking care at Planned Parenthood.
• The head of Indiana’s social services agency said the prohibition could cost the state its $4 million in federal family planning money, because federal law prohibits states from choosing which providers can offer family planning services to Medicaid patients.
• Both the House and Senate have passed versions of a budget bill that spends about $28 billion over the next two years.
• To iron out the differences, legislative fiscal leaders must meet and come up with a uniform bill to send to the governor before the session ends at midnight on Friday.
• The Senate version includes an additional $150 million for K-12 education, added after the state budget agency revised its revenue estimates upward two weeks ago. The Senate version also includes an “anti-bolting” provision aimed at punishing legislators who stage the kind of walkout that House Democrats did earlier in the session.
• Education-reform legislation pushed by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was backed by Republican allies in both the House and Senate this session.
• Among the bills that have passed both chambers: Legislation that limits collective bargaining with teachers to wage and benefit issues; a bill that expands charter schools in Indiana; a bill that provides vouchers to pay for low-income children to attend private and parochial schools; and legislation that unties teacher pay from seniority and links it to annual teacher evaluations.
• The House passed a watered-down version of an Arizona-style immigration bill that originated in the Senate.
• Under the House version, businesses that intentionally hire illegal immigrants would have some state tax credits revoked. Gone from the House bill is a provision that would have allowed police officers to ask people they stop for proof that they are in the country legally.
• The changes came after strong opposition from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Attorney General, the state’s hotel association, state university presidents and religious groups. Compromise language must be worked out in a conference committee before it goes to the governor for his signature.