General Assembly in Hyperdrive 

Moving too fast? the 2016 General Assembly session

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State legislators strapped on their space flight gear and took off for the Great Unknown Tuesday, Jan. 5 with the opening of the 2016 General Assembly session.

Wanna stretch the metaphors? Why not?

Last year's session was similar to 500 laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — with a RFRA crash in turn three that brought out the yellow flag until the end of the race. This year's session might be more in line with society's favorite space adventure that happened long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away — the thing's going to move at hyperdrive. Legislators only have until March 14 to reach an agreement on bills in both chambers and get them to the governor's desk.

Where Indiana will be at the end of the journey remains to be seen. Will the thing move so fast, with so many distractions, that no one sees the real weapons pointed at human rights?

Hundreds of bills have been filed and only a select number will be heard in committee. Republican leadership and Governor Mike Pence announced their respective agendas — a short list to be addressed in 10 short weeks. Road conditions and infrastructure are top priorities for both chambers and the governor. Education issues, such as school accountability as it relates to school evaluations and teacher salaries and the teacher shortage, also have everyone's attention. The third issue for House and Senate Republicans and the governor is addressing the drug epidemics that are having catastrophic repercussions on Hoosier public health.

Civil rights for the LGBT community didn't make the GOP cut when it came to outlining primary goals for the session. However, in the court of public opinion the issue will not go away. There is an underlying current of misunderstanding and veiled bigotry when it comes to transgender Hoosiers along with the usual conservative push against a woman's right to choose. There are some attempts to bring more clean energy to Indiana, provide Hoosiers with a livable minimum wage and bring transportation resources to undocumented immigrants. Unfortunately, with a Republican supermajority in both chambers, the odds of those more environmental and socially-conscious bills being heard in committee are slim at best.

Still, like it or not, the session is underway and all we can do is settle in to our junky-yet-reliable cargo ship and charge forward to March 14.

RELATED: 2016 General Assembly Timeline

SB 100 "The Second-Class Citizen LGBT Civil Rights" bill

When Senate Bill 100 first hit back in November, it took no time at all for people to analyze and understand what it is. Several senate bills were introduced on Organization Day — among them was SB 2, which is the Democrats' version of a civil rights bill. It simply adds "four words and a comma" — gender identity and sexual orientation — to the existing code, allowing all of the protections currently enjoyed by those who fall under the race, color, gender, disability, national origin, and ancestry categories.

The Republican version of SB 100 adds those same four words and a comma, but in addition with thousands of other words that add lots of conditions, caveats and exceptions. The legislation, authored by Senator Travis Holdman, (R- Markle), loosely offers civil rights protections while keeping the LGBT community back in the "second-class citizen" category. It also attempts to override any progress made in local communities.

Holdman says the intent of the bill is to try and strike a balance between civil rights protections and ensuring religious liberties are held intact, specifically those with strong religious convictions that object to the LGBT community on those religious grounds.

"[The bill is] walking a fine line to try and find a balance between allowing folks that have a moral objection — a religious or conscientious objection — that they be given the opportunity to be given an exemption from participating in such things as same-sex marriage, if that's repulsive to them from a faith issue," sais Holdman. "My goal is really to find a balance between extending protected class status for the LGBT community but at the same time providing a safe harbor for those folks who have a real moral conviction on the issue to say we can all get along on these issues and we're going to provide a way for that to happen."

A few weeks after the text of SB 100 was released, the ACLU of Indiana came out with a statement identifying its concerns with the proposed legislation. Executive Director Jane Henegar says the overly broad religious exemptions; the elimination of local authority to create laws and the codification of second-class status for gay and transgender Hoosiers is a concern. Henegar adds that they way in which several of the religious "exemptions" are written could affect persons in existing protected classes and weaken civil rights for all protected classes.

Holdman believes the ACLU's concerns are unfounded and it's looking for fault that isn't there. Ultimately, Holdman acknowledges his legislation doesn't quite strike the right balance, as conservative groups don't believe the exemptions on their behalf go far enough. Despite the issue of LGBT civil rights being excluded from the Republican agenda this session, Holdman is confident his bill will be discussed in committee and will come to a vote this session. Whether or not it passes in its current form or with amendments remains to be seen.

In an effort to find additional common ground, Holdman also filed a different version of SB 100 in the form of SB 344, which takes the T out of LGBT by removing gender identity from protections entirely.

click to enlarge Freedom Indiana and its partnering organizations hosted a prayer vigil prior to the start of the session to encourage legislators to pass a civil rights law providing full protections for the LGBT community. - PHOTO BY AMBER STEARNS
  • Freedom Indiana and its partnering organizations hosted a prayer vigil prior to the start of the session to encourage legislators to pass a civil rights law providing full protections for the LGBT community.
  • Photo By Amber Stearns

SB 35/HB 1079 the " Pay-to-pee" bill

Sen. Jim Tomes (R- Wadesville) introduced a bill on Organization Day that would require multiple student accessible restrooms, locker rooms and shower rooms in public and charter schools to be designated as single-sex facilities accessible only by the students whose biological gender fits the designation. That biology can be determined by their physical anatomy or their DNA chromosomal composition — at least one X and one Y chromosome for boys and at least one X and no Y chromosome for girls.

Since DNA mapping takes a lot of lab time and money and the odds of public school chemistry classrooms being equipped to conduct the DNA analysis is pretty slim, the physical anatomy check would be the easiest verification.

Still, the intent of this bill is under question. Sen. Tomes did not respond to NUVO's request for an interview to better understand his intent behind the bill.

If safety is a motivating factor, studies show this kind of legislation would actually do more harm than good, specifically for transgender people. The latest National Transgender Discrimination Survey, conducted by the Williams Institute, indicates 78 percent of transgender people who were victims of physical or sexual violence at school and 65 percent of workplace victims had attempted suicide at some point. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 72 percent of anti-LGBT violence victims are transgender women; transgender people are more likely to be victims of sexual violence in general; and transgender people are more susceptible to job discrimination. Indiana also has some of the highest teen suicide rates for both attempts and deaths in the nation according to the most recent KIDS Count data collected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

There is no evidence that transgender people or gender identity issues are linked to sexually deviant

And bathroom/locker room/shower room facilities are not related in any way to sexual behavior and activity, but rather are necessities for hygiene, public health and bio-waste disposal.

The issue is currently under review in the federal court system. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments Jan. 27 for Gavin Grimm vs. Gloucester County School Board. The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued statements that such restrictions against transgender people in schools is a violation of Title IX, however a U.S. District Court judge sided with the school corporation.

Tomes' bill only applies to public schools, however House Bill 1079, authored by Rep. Tim Harman, (R-Bremen), would expand the restriction to include all public restrooms/locker rooms/shower rooms.

SB 133 "Permission to Drive" bill

Senate Bill 133 is as simple a bill as you can get, but its implications are sweeping. The legislation, authored by Sen. John Broden, (D-South Bend), seeks to establish driving permits and learner's permits to Indiana residents who cannot provide proof of identity or lawful status in the United States, but desire the ability to operate a motor vehicle.

Currently, all new applications for driver's licenses in Indiana require substantial documentation to prove they exist in the eyes of the government and are legally eligible to be in the United States. The required documentation certifies that each license is a SecureID or Real ID, a federal requirement that was mandated by the Real ID Act of 2005. The federal act requiring additional security on the issuances of government-issued documents like driver's licenses and state ID cards was a direct result of recommendations by the 9/11 Commission in an effort to curb terrorist acts in America. The idea was to secure documents used in travel — specifically air travel — and documents used to enter federal buildings and offices.

How did proof of ability to drive a car become the gold standard for personal identity and legal status verification? After all, a driver's license in the U.S. started out as just that — proof that a person knows what he or she is doing when behind the wheel. That verification began at the turn of the 20th century with the evolution of motorized vehicles. Licenses were common practice across the country by 1935. The use of licenses as identification emerged in the 1970s and '80s as a push by Mothers Against Drunk Driving as a way to identify persons of legal drinking age. Photos, Social Security numbers, birth dates and other information then grew in popularity on licenses. Other identifying marks such as holograms and bar codes were added to curb identity theft and fake ID production.

After all of that and the dawn of the SecureID, the driver's license suffers the same issue as the smart phone — its fundamental function is practically obsolete and definitely overshadowed by everything else it does. Sen. Broden simply wants to get back to the original purpose – proof of the ability to drive a car.

"I've authored or co-sponsored this bill through the last five or six sessions," says Broden. "But it is an important issue and the right thing to do."

Getting the ability to drive a car is a top priority for groups that support undocumented immigrants. The ability to get to work and/or school is such a simple request, but can be a monumental obstacle, especially in areas where public transportation isn't an available option. Changes in crime, poverty rates and the economy could all see positive trends as a result.

Broden isn't sure if the bill will be heard this year, but he believes the idea has a better chance of getting some attention this year than in years past. Unfortunately with a Republican supermajority, the odds are not in this bill's favor.

RELATED: Gov. Pence's Legislative Agenda

click to enlarge On the opening day of session, Gov. Pence, legislators, and administrative leaders attended the 12th annual Statehouse Prayer Service, which is sponsored annually by Capitol Commission. - PHOTO BY ERNIE MILLS
  • On the opening day of session, Gov. Pence, legislators, and administrative leaders attended the 12th annual Statehouse Prayer Service, which is sponsored annually by Capitol Commission.
  • Photo by Ernie Mills

Other Legislative bills to watch in the 2016 session:

SB 5/SB 77 "No fetal tissue for research" bill

Sen. Jim Tomes is one of many conservative legislators who support the "Right-to-Life" agenda that found a summer scandal regarding Planned Parenthood more than disturbing. Although investigation determined a filmed conversation about a Planned Parenthood clinic profiting from the sale of aborted fetal tissue was doctored and fabricated, the concern of it possibly happening in Indiana has prompted legislators to write bills prohibiting the act. An investigation of Indiana Planned Parenthood locations found no wrongdoing. But the fear of what could be is enough for Tomes and others to draft legislation to slay the bogeyman in the closet.

SB 36 "Drunks with Guns" bill/HB 1056 "We don't need no stinkin' gun permits" bill

It wouldn't be a legislative session in Indiana without a gun bill or two. In an effort to address the plague of gun violence in our country, President Obama is tightening the loopholes in how guns are sold across the country. But in Indiana, there are legislators who want to relax some of the laws that are already on the books. SB 36 would eliminate the state's ability to ask gun permit applicants about previous alcohol-related offenses. National rhetoric has concentrated on finding ways to keep guns out of the hands of those with mental health issues and yet alcoholism is a mental health disease. Of course, Rep. Jim Lucas, (R-Seymour), doesn't see the need for a gun carry license at all and once again has called for the elimination of carry licenses in Indiana.

SB 208 "Let's get a clean power plan" bill

2015 ended with the world committing to do something about climate change. Although what that means for the United States and how the plan will be implemented hasn't been determined, there isn't any reason why Indiana can't get started on any action. Sen. Karen Tallian's bill, (D-Portage), would establish a clean power committee that would be charged with the task of creating a clean power plan for Indiana. Environmental groups like the Hoosier Environmental Council, Sierra Club's Indiana chapter and EarthCharter Indiana have asked for a clean power plan for years. Tallian's proposal is a great first step in achieving that goal.

SB 322 "Cleaning up the marriage language" bill

Sen. Jean Breaux, (D-Indianapolis), is proposing a simple cleanup of the language in the Indiana Code as it relates to marriage. Although same-sex marriage became legal by judicial rule in the fall of 2014, the language on the record books still states marriage is solely between one man and one woman. One can assume that a "cleanup" bill wasn't proposed last year because there was still that faint possibility that another case in a different state addressing the same issue could result in a different outcome. However, with the U.S. Supreme Court issuing a deciding opinion in the Obergefell vs. Hodges case, there is no reason for the language to remain as it is.

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About The Author

Amber Stearns

Amber Stearns

Amber Stearns was born, raised, and educated right here in Indianapolis. She holds a B.S. in Communications from the University of Indianapolis (1995). Following a 20-year career in radio news in Indiana, Amber joined NUVO as News Editor in 2014.

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