Indiana Statehouse 2011: We're Screwed 

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With strong majorities in the State Senate and House of Representatives, leadership in most Statehouse committees and a Republican in the Governor's Mansion, the Indiana GOP is sitting pretty this legislative session, which runs now through April.

For Democrats, it could be a long couple of months.

That's because there's a prevailing sense among Indiana Republicans that now is their moment. After years of deadlock between a Republican-led Senate and a Democrat-led House, and decades of Democrat-favored voting district lines (see "Redistricting," below), Republicans are making their move.

Rep. Jeff Espich (R-Uniondale), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a member of the State Budget Committee, said he didn't think aggressive social legislation – like anti-abortion and gay marriage bills – were a priority. And both Gov. Mitch Daniels and House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) have emphasized the budget, job creation and education reform above all else.

Still, there's little to nothing standing in the way of conservative social reform with such strong Republican majorities.

"Our priorities are the budget, and trying to create an economic atmosphere that's good for jobs, and educational opportunity for kids." Espich said. "But, having said that, I think (social) legislation has, frankly, been stifled – there have been no votes on those kinds of issues for many years in the House."

Liberals may be able to breathe a qualified sigh of relief for now – somewhat ironically – because of an economy that continues to drag. The economy may have gotten Democrats into this mess, but the economy may also save progressive Democrats if Republicans decide they don't have the time or the political cohesion to push what some party leaders claim are second-tier priorities.

At least that's what state Democrats are hoping.

"I think we all agree that those kinds of issues will be very distracting, and will get us off the main things that we have to accomplish," said Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson (D-Bloomington). "Which, of course, are a balanced budget, fixing unemployment and some of the other important issues."

It's a nice thought for Democrats. But Republican legislators are already busy, having introduced hundreds of bills this season, each containing its own measure of importance.

As such, we've had to leave a lot out of this roundup – some because, frankly, they don't have a prayer.

For example, we all got a warm, fuzzy feeling when it seemed bi-partisan progress was finally underway toward building real public transportation in Central Indiana. But the current plan would require taxpayers to foot a sizable chunk of the bill — to the tune of a $10 to $15 tax increase per person, per month, in the greater Indianapolis area, for the next 25 years.

For Espich, that was pretty much a no-brainer. "I'm not interested in anything that would increase people's taxes," he said. "If mass transit expansion is a priority for (its supporters), then they have the resources available currently without a tax increase to do it." Even Simpson and Bauer, despite voicing support for transit expansion, deemed success unlikely.

Other honorable mentions: a schools bill (Senate Bill 171) that would guarantee summer break lasted from at least June to until the Tuesday after Labor Day; an animal protection bill (House Bill 1135) that would outlaw a practice known as "penning," whereby foxes and coyotes are hunted by dogs within a fence-enclosed property (see NUVO's past coverage of the issue, "Coyote ugly," news, Nov. 24-30); another (SB 17) would criminalize the release of any exotic or wild animal into the wild without legal permission.

What else? How 'bout beer bills that would let you drink at the State Fair (HB 1093); a bill that grants civil liability immunity to neighborhood do-gooders who clean up abandoned properties (SB 517); a bill that regulates ginseng production (SB 498); and a bill outlawing "synthetic cannabinoids," e.g., mild hallucinogenic drugs like "spice" (SB 5).

There's even a bill that "prohibits the enforcement of foreign law" in Indiana (SB 298) – a bill that has legitimate international trade implications but also reads suspiciously like a softer version of incendiary anti-Sharia laws passed in other states.

"Our leader, Brian Bosma, is making an extraordinary effort in the House to be bipartisan," Espich said. "On the other hand, I gotta tell you, there's a pent up desire to do some of the things that Republicans believe in."

So fasten your seatbelts. Hold on tight. Take a shot of the strong stuff or insert your own hackneyed metaphor. Whatever you do, check out our top ten things to watch in the coming session.

— Austin Considine

10 KEY ISSUES

Browse the ten key issues we're watching this session below.

Click on the hyperlink title to be directed to the full article for each issue.

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1. THE BUDGET
Number one because everything you count on from the state – from schools to roads to Medicaid – has to get paid for. And that depends on a balanced budget.

2. RIGHT TO WORK
The class of 2011 had hardly taken its seats when Republicans introduced HB 1028, the so-called "Right to Work" bill (RTW) — a controversial piece of legislation that, if passed, would eviscerate union negotiating power statewide, by securing an employee's right not to join a union at a unionized company (think the auto industry).

3. EDUCATION
Republicans have always prided themselves on being the party most friendly to business. Now, with their substantial majorities, GOP leaders are looking towards maximizing a less tangible product during the 2011 legislative session: public education. To this end the newly-minted masters of the General Assembly hope to use tools including merit-based pay for teachers and promotion of charter schools for parents.

4. REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS
If fiscal issues top this year's priority list in the Indiana General Assembly, you wouldn't know if by the surfeit of abortion related bills introduced this session. At least seven substantively different bills have been introduced.

5. GAY MARRIAGE
Statehouse action has, thus far, proceeded as many predicted in a Republican dominated Statehouse. Senators introduced a joint resolution (JR 13) on the second day of the session that would define marriage between one man and one woman as the only recognized form of marriage in the state – effectively banning gay marriage.

6. REDISTRICTING
For the first time in three decades, the process of the Hoosier state's elected officials choosing their own constituents will fall to
the reinvigorated Republican Party. Those close to the situation speculate that this will likely spell long-term disaster for Democrats who had the luxury of drawing the lines in 1991 and 2001.

7. ENVIRONMENT
While both parties agree that passing legislation improving Indiana's environment and protecting natural resources are unlikely to be much of a priority in a Republican-led statehouse, the real concern is the rolling-back and repeal of what little eco-friendly laws do exist.Look for all sorts of new terminology and tactics that all mean putting economic profit above environmental protection.

8. GUN CONTROL
Proposed legislation would expand right-to-carry permissions in Indiana statewide, at a time when meaningful (if incremental) gun reform is being seriously debated elsewhere.

9. THE SMOKING BAN
If Indiana is out of synch with regard to gun legislation, it appears the state may finally be catching up with broader sentiment with regard to smoking in public spaces (SB 355). With the exceptions of casinos and cigar bars, smoking could soon be illegal in all other public spaces and work places throughout the state.

10. IMMIGRATION
In the wake of Capitol Hill's failure to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – known as the DREAM Act – some of Indiana's young, undocumented immigrants expressed worry that, without federal protection, a Republican-led statehouse was likely to pass draconian immigration reform, a la Arizona's SB 1070.Looks like their worst fears have come true.



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