While nothing will knock the state budget battle off the docket or the headlines during this year's session of the Indiana General Assembly, lawmakers will consider a host of other topics and wrangle over hundreds of pieces of legislation.
Here's a roundup of the other hot topics this year.
Several bills introduced this year would expand benefits offered to military veterans and their families.
Sen. Mike Delph (R-Carmel) authored two bills to improve benefits for those who served in the military.
One bill eventually exempts veterans from paying state income taxes.
Under Senate Bill 70, in 2009, the current $5,000 exemption would increase to $10,000, followed by $15,000 in 2011, and $25,000 in 2013. If passed, this would provide total exemption for veterans by 2015.
The second bill, S.B. 39, would offer free tuition for all Purple Heart recipients to attend state-sponsored schools.
"This [bill] is a nice gesture to those not treated as well in the past ... those who took a bullet for our country," Delph said.
Purple Heart recipients who entered the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks already receive free tuition. S.B. 39 would expand the free tuition offer by making it available to all veterans, not just those who signed up for military service after that date.
Sen. Vi Simpson (D-Bloomington) has introduced a bill that would create a scratch-off lottery game. Under S.B. 119, proceeds of that game would go to support veterans and their families.
The game would run once a year around a patriotic holiday or during the election season. The tickets would be in addition to other lottery games, and all proceeds would go directly to veterans and their families.
"These [lottery tickets] would be reserved for those feeling patriotic and who want to support their country," Simpson said.
Electrical companies are targets for improvement as two Indiana legislators promote the use of renewable energy sources.
Sen. Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) authored a bill that would push electricity providers to use more renewable energy sources.
"This is an attempt to move the state in a positive direction ... [the bill] will have a modest impact on the budget, but will be a good influence on the environment," Lanane said.
The bill includes a goal to have 25 percent of total energy usage switched over to renewable energy by Jan. 1, 2027. In addition, electricity suppliers who fail to meet required percentages would pay a fine, which would then be deposited into the renewable energy resources fund.
Lanane said penalties are aimed at energy producers in an effort to help Indiana transition with other states to become more energy efficient and make greater use of wind turbines, solar panels and other sources of renewable energy.
Rep. Ryan Dvorak (D-South Bend) said he also plans to push for a renewable energy standard in Indiana.
In addition, he wants to improve metering rules, including those that would allow homeowners, businesses and schools to have their own power sources and compensate for the difference by rolling back their meters when they use less energy. Dvorak also plans to push for an updated series of commercial building codes that would encourage more energy-efficient structures.
Sen. Jim Arnold (D-LaPorte) has introduced two bills to toughen penalties against animal abusers.
Arnold has introduced bills that will take two different incidents of animal abuse, one national and one local, from a Class D felony to a Class C felony. This would increase the penalty to a jail sentence of up to eight years and up to a $10,000 fine.
The first, S.B. 222, also referred to as "Ben's Law," was introduced after "Ben," a horse in LaPorte, was shot by two men who were under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Arnold's bill would make killing an animal without the owner's consent a Class C felony.
"We have to protect those who can't protect themselves," Arnold said. "These animals have no way to protect themselves."
Another bill, S.B. 23, Arnold said, was inspired by the national attention drawn by former NFL quarterback Michael Vick, who was convicted on dog fighting charges. This bill would make staging a fight, breeding animals for fighting or attending a fight a Class C felony.
Arnold said he believes the state needs to go after the people who observe fighting, not just those who stage the fight.
"There are only two reasons for somebody to watch a sport: if they enjoy it or if they're betting on it. If the betting on the fights is stopped, the sport will stop," Arnold said.
Sen. Johnny Nugent (R-Lawrenceburg) has introduced S.B. 12, which would allow students who have permits and could otherwise legally carry handguns to do so on campuses.
This comes as a result of the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, where gunmen killed students. Nugent said they could've defended themselves had they been carrying guns.
"We're very fortunate a catastrophe hasn't happened in Indiana, but we're not exempt from it," Nugent said.
Nugent said campuses with gun-free zones are targets for criminals because no one there can defend himself or herself.
"Criminals love gun-free zones ... no one will shoot back," Nugent said.
There are bills in the House and Senate of the Indiana Legislature dealing with redistricting and gerrymandering.
Sen. Mike Delph (R-Carmel) said S.B. 198 would put the power of redistricting into independent hands.
"Anytime legislators are sitting in judgment of their own paying benefits or political benefit, I think it's a conflict. I think that it ought to go out to an independent commission," Delph said.
Delph said it isn't practical to spread the districts all throughout the state simply to benefit a candidate.
"What they do is they basically say, 'We want this amount of Republican districts and this amount of Democrat districts,' and then they concept accordingly. So they don't make any geographical sense," Delph said.
Delph said gerrymandering confuses the public about who is representing them at the state and local levels and affects political participation when the districting is not logical.
Instead, Delph said the state should establish a nine-member commission consisting of two appointees each from House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans - plus a retired judge to lead the commission.
"In order to do it, you have to do two things. One, you've got to change the [Indiana] Constitution because the Constitution says, 'Legislator, you're responsible,'" Delph said.
"So, I've got a constitutional amendment, and then on top of it is a statutory provision, which sets up a nine-member commission."
Rep. Jerry Torr (R-Carmel) has a similar measure, H.B. 1070, in the other chamber.
Torr said that the current redistricting system does not uphold a "community of interest."
"To the extent possible, districts should be drawn for the benefit of the people being represented, but the maps end up being drawn to the benefit of the people who are representing," he said.
Torr's idea is to make a five-member commission chaired by the chief justice.
His bill passed the House in 2006, but it did not make it out of the Senate.
Sen. Patricia Miller (R-Indianapolis) introduced a two-sentence bill that would prevent legislators from becoming lobbyists until after they have been out of the Legislature at least one year.
S.B. 15 would prohibit former members of the Indiana General Assembly from working as legislative branch lobbyists until one year after their termination on June 30. Miller said this would improve "public confidence in the process."
"It is more transparent for Hoosiers," she said.
Last year, the one-year waiting period provoked debate. Some advocates for stricter lobbying guidelines argued that a one-year requirement would not have much effect.
Miller disagreed. She said that one year is "adequate time."
An identical bill died last year.
S.B. 15 has been sent to the Senate Rules Committee.
Sen. Mike Delph (R-Carmel) will continue to push for a bill that would punish employers for knowingly hiring illegal aliens.
The three-strikes bill would include escalating penalties, culminating in the business losing its license after the third violation. A similar bill failed to become law last year.
"I believe that in order to effectively address the issue, you've got to take the economic incentive off the table," Delph said. "By holding employers accountable for knowingly and willingly hiring illegal immigrants, you send the right message to the workplace that this is the policy of the state of Indiana."
Licenses are dealt with at the state level. Delph said that is why he took the business license approach.
"There is very little that we can do about it without being preempted by federal law and the United States Constitution because immigration law, by definition, should be a federal issue," Delph said.
Local government reform
Republicans and Democrats disagree about whether local government reform is necessary for this legislative session, but agree that not all of the changes Gov. Mitch Daniels has recommended are necessary.
Daniels' plan recommends most of the suggestions in the 2007 report from the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform co-chaired by Indiana Supreme Court Justice Randall Shepard and former Gov. Joe Kernan. Daniels altered some of the 27 recommendations from the commission, and said that local government reform was necessary.
Among the more drastic changes: replacing the current three-person county commission with a single county executive, consolidating school districts with fewer than 1,000 students and eliminating several elected county government offices. Some of the offices, including treasurer, recorder, surveyor, assessor and coroner, would become positions appointed by the county executive.
Daniels altered the recommendation for appointed positions by keeping auditor, sheriff and clerk elected positions. County councils also would face changes if Daniels' recommendation to give them full legislative power is passed.
"This is a set of changes that are long overdue in Indiana," Daniels said in a statement Dec. 19. "We are an outlier among the states. We have more of almost everything - taxing units, subdivisions and politicians - than elsewhere. More than we need, more than taxpayers can get good service for, and certainly more than we should be paying for."
Republicans like Sen. Luke Kenley of Noblesville agree with Daniels that changes are necessary but disagree on the details. Kenley said that some of the changes, like the elimination of township government, may not work for all areas of the state.
"The only place that I have some question about involves the smaller more rural townships, where they may not have another form of government or a place to go for some services," Kenley said. "Maybe those folks need to have a referendum within their townships so they can decide whether to keep township government or not."
John Schorg, media relations director for the Indiana House Democrats, said that local government reform may not be necessary this year.
"The necessity for change is probably the first thing that needs to be debated when these issues come before the General Assembly," Schorg said. "There are, I believe, sizable numbers on both sides of the aisle ... [that] are not sure whether they're plausible, whether they're needed."
Two years ago, the Family and Social Services Agency began a reform that included upgrading its computer systems and replacing some agency workers with a call center in Marion, Ind.
But after hearing complaints of long periods of time spent on hold with the call center and understaffed county agencies, lawmakers are considering pausing those reforms.
Evansville Republican Sen. Vaneta Becker said she supports a bill authored by fellow Evansville Republican Rep. Suzanne Crouch that would halt further FSSA changes, in opposition to Daniels' plans.
In 2006, Daniels outsourced welfare eligibility in a $1.16 million 10-year contract to a group of vendors led by IBM Corp. The group now processes the applications for Medicaid, food stamps and welfare benefits.
Daniels' move also downsized the numbers of caseworkers in each county and transferred much of their responsibilities to call centers in Marion. The call centers have been flooded with calls from people seeking help, and the workers left in the counties have had troubles responding to all the residents who go to the county offices for help.
Becker said Crouch's bill would put the changes on hold in the 33 counties in Northwestern and North Central Indiana that have not yet received the changes.
"Basically, the bill just says that they will not continue to roll out the modernization until they fix the problems, and that's all we're asking," Becker said. "We certainly support the governor's efforts to modernize the process where it works, but unfortunately there are some very severe glitches in the process right now."
Becker met with FSSA representatives Thursday and said that the administration is willing to work toward fixing the problems. Becker said that Anne Murphy, who replaced Mitch Roob as FSSA secretary after working with him during his administration, would bring in a new group that "wants to make it work."
"I'm cautiously optimistic that we can solve the problems so that our constituents are helped and so that people that are in other counties where this rollout has happened are also helped," Becker said.
Franklin College journalism students will be contributing to Statehouse coverage for NUVO throughout this session of the Indiana General Assembly. Our thanks to their faculty advisor John Krull for allowing us to share the talent of his students with NUVO readers. To read more by Katie Coffin, Julie Crothers, Renee Estridge, Kelly Lynch and other Franklin students, go to www.nuvo.net/news or thefranklinonline.com. - -Laura McPhee, NUVO news editor