News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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February 3, 2014

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Overshadowed bills address veterans, guns, ‘Do Not Call’, TANF drug tests

INDIANAPOLIS — If you’ve ever blown past a school bus with its bright red “Stop” arm extended, convinced you wouldn’t get caught breaking the law because no police were around, you might think twice about trying it again.

Last week the Indiana House voted overwhelming to let schools put cameras on those “Stop” arms. Police could use the video to slap hard-to-catch violators with fines up to $1,000. If Senate members like the bill as much as its authors think they will, the evidence-gathering cameras could be in place by July 1.

That is one of scores of bills that have been flying under the radar during the first half of a hectic legislative session dominated by the emotionally charged gay marriage ban amendment. Despite how it may it seem to outsiders, legislators have been diligently debating, approving and discarding a range of measures that could impact Hoosiers.

Here are a few, in no order of priority:

• A Senate-approved bill would open up more jobs for military veterans in state government. Veterans would get preference for state jobs, as they already do for many federal jobs.

It’s a small gesture but a needed one: In Indiana, where the unemployment rate has dropped to 7 percent, the jobless rate of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is more than 20 percent.

• The Senate has also passed a measure expanding the state’s Do Not Call law that forbids telemarketers and scammers from pestering Hoosiers who don’t want to be contacted. The bill widens the law’s footprint to include auto-dialing “robo-callers” and companies that sell or give out mass lists of cellphone and landline numbers.

The bill comes in response to 33,000 complaints of unwanted calls filed with the Attorney General’s office over the last two years.

• To the irritation of some lawmakers from the state’s worst crime-ridden cities, the Senate also passed a bill that forbids local police from holding gun buy-back events aimed at getting firearms off their streets. The bill also requires police to auction or sell nearly all guns they seize or obtain, including those used in crimes, instead of destroying them.

Senate sponsors argued that the guns could be put to better use. Opponents argued that no firearm deserves an immortal life.

• Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House passed a controversial bill to subject the state’s 27,000 recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits — mostly single mothers with children — to mandatory drug testing.

The rule wouldn’t apply to food stamp recipients or other welfare beneficiaries. Nor, despite attempts by some lawmakers, would it apply to state legislators.

Courts have struck down similar measures in other states.

• Both the House and Senate have been working on bills that seek to protect high school athletes from the ravages of brain injury.

The measure, pushed by the National Football League, would require all high school football coaches to complete an NFL-endorsed course on concussions. It comes as the NFL is trying to settle a concussion-related lawsuit brought by 18,000 retired players.

• Finally, despite the hopes of some lawmakers who wanted to revive an old bill to decriminalize marijuana, pot has gone nowhere this session.

But cannabis hasn’t been forgotten. The conservative-led Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously approved a bill to legalize the cultivation and production of industrial hemp. The plant, used to make fiber for paper and cloth, is derived from the same herb that produces marijuana. It’s similar in appearance to the illegal drug but lacks the psychoactive punch of pot.

If the legislation passes, Indiana would have to get waiver from the federal drug laws that ban hemp production. Backers of the bill predict hemp could be Indiana’s next big cash crop.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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