News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 2, 2014

Mixed statehouse, mixed responses

Repubs, Dems weigh impact of votes this session

TERRE HAUTE — Indiana’s 150 state lawmakers are racing down the home stretch of the 2014 legislative session after months of sometimes acrimonious debate.

Just two weeks remain in the 2014 legislative session. Conference committees, which combine members of the House and Senate to hammer out final versions of bills, now take center stage.

“That’s where the wheeling and dealing starts and stops,” said Sen. Tim Skinner, whose 38th District includes much of Vigo County. No one can say for sure what will emerge from those meetings, he said.

But a few things are clear about this session. House Joint Resolution 3, which would have made the state’s ban on same-sex marriage part of the Constitution, was (at least temporarily) blocked when lawmakers made a change in its language. It would take at least two more years for the measure to get back to where it was this session.

To Wabash Valley Democrats, that’s a positive thing.

“I think we’re all happy HJR-3 failed and has been put on the back burner for at least two years,” said Rep. Clyde Kersey, D-43. Sen. Skinner, who admits he voted for the measure when it was proposed back in 2011, is equally pleased.

“Maybe the best things was we put this issue to rest,” Skinner said. When it last came to the legislature, only its supporters were visible in Indianapolis, he said. This session, opposition to the measure was strong and included individuals, businesses, universities and church leaders, he said.

They all said, “It’s not right to put discrimination in the Constitution,” Skinner said, adding that he personally remains conflicted on the matter. “You have to respect opinions of people on both sides.”

The same-sex marriage amendment passed easily in the Indiana House and Senate in 2011; however, to become part of the Constitution, the measure had to pass in the same form in two consecutive legislative sessions.

For Wabash Valley Republicans, the derailing of HJR-3 was a disappointment. Sen. John Waterman, who represents a vast area of rural southwest Indiana, said 77 percent of his constituents wanted a chance to vote on the measure in November. His call center was “jammed” with HJR 3 calls, he said.

Rep. Bob Heaton, R-46, said a large majority of his constituents also wanted an opportunity to vote on HJR-3. And Rep. Alan Morrison, R-42, cited the derailing of HJR-3 as a disappointment this session. Both Republicans voted to advance the measure.

Valley Republicans and Democrats also take a different view of the other big headline-grabbing topic of the session: The state’s business personal property tax. Gov. Mike Pence, early in the year, said he would like to see that tax eliminated, setting off a chorus of opposition from – among others – the state’s mayors. Democratic lawmakers now point to far less ambitious bills in the House and Senate as evidence the idea has been “scaled back.” Republicans, meanwhile, note that House Bill 1001 and Senate Bill 1 have always been far more modest than total elimination of the tax. It’s still unclear how the tax will be changed this session, if at all.

Individually, Wabash Valley lawmakers have enjoyed some successes this session. Rep. Morrison authored two bills just waiting for Gov. Pence’s signature. One would require quick release of the veterinarian records of any animal that attacks a person or another pet. Another bill would make it easier for public universities to use local contractors for relatively small projects.

Rep. Heaton, meanwhile, is pleased a measure he authored will make it easier for entrepreneurs and small business owners to raise capital. He’s also pleased with a resolution he authored honoring Sammy Lee Davis, the state’s sole surviving Medal of Honor winner.

Sen. Waterman, meanwhile, has also had several successes in 2014. He worked to make it easier to report and catch undocumented laborers in the state. He also authored a bill to eliminate sales taxes for propane sales above $2.50 per gallon. That will help consumers deal with this year’s unexpectedly low supplies (and high prices) of propane, he said.

Being in the minority, Skinner and Kersey may have had more trouble getting bills passed. Nevertheless, Kersey said he is pleased with a bill that will provide high schools with grants for vocational education and remains hopeful a plan will emerge to help schools struggling to meet transportation costs.

Skinner, for several years, has fought to make certain types of cold medicine available by prescription only as a way to battle methamphetamine production. That’s not gone well, he said, due to opposition from many pharmacies and cold medicine producers. “I can’t get a hearing on that bill,” he said. Few Democrat-authored bills currently get a hearing, he said.

Looking down the road, Waterman said he hopes the state will act to legalize hemp production, something that could be a huge boon to farmers and others in that state. That’s something – like improved vocational education – he has championed for years, he said.

“Even the [hemp] fiber makes the best paper in the world,” Waterman said, adding that industrial hemp isn’t anything like marijuana. “You can smoke a grocery bag full of it and not get a buzz,” he said.

Waterman is also hopeful Indiana can continue to improve its exports. He has helped the state sell more to Taiwan and is hoping to make similar progress with Kuwait, he said.

The current session of the Indiana General Assembly wraps up March 14.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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