Republicans make early push in Statehouse 

It's been a busy couple of weeks in the Indiana legislature, as expected. Where, in the past, a Statehouse divided meant intense negotiations and a lot of dead bills, a government-wide Republican majority is officially gettin' er done.

As Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Jeff Espich (R-Uniondale) so presciently put it to NUVO as the current legislative session got underway, "There's a pent up desire to do some of the things that Republicans believe in."

With the benefit of only a few weeks' hindsight, his assessment seems to have been true. On Monday, conservatives who support so-called "Right-to-Work" (RTW) legislation (House Bill 1028) got a boost because of a study produced by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce (ICC), a business advocacy group.

RTW laws strip unions of much of their negotiating power by securing an employee's right not to join a union at a unionized company. Gov. Mitch Daniels has said he would rather avoid the issue for now, but a group of Statehouse Republicans has continued to push it.

Led by Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, the study concludes that Indiana, had it adopted RTW in 1977, would have seen an increase in per-capita income of $2,925 by 2008. An average family of four, it further concludes, would have seen increases of $11,700 a year or more.

"If the state of Indiana were to avail itself of the opportunity to adopt (an RTW) law, it could benefit greatly in terms of future economic growth," the study's authors assert. "RTW laws attract productive resources (both capital and labor) to a state, while the absence of such laws repels them."

But other analysis suggests that assessment may miss the broader picture. Allison Luthe, a community organizer for Central Indiana Jobs with Justice, a social justice advocacy organization, refuted those findings, calling RTW legislation an example of "corporate greed" at work.

"The Chamber of Commerce report focuses on the Indiana economy over the past 30 years," Luthe told NUVO in an email. "If you look at today's data, per the Bureau of Labor Statics, workers in RTW states make $5,400 less than workers in Indiana.

"Many of the jobs lost in Indiana, like manufacturing jobs (Ford, Whirlpool), were outsourced outside the United States," she added, "not to other states with RTW laws."

Meanwhile, Indiana lawmakers have, once again, cowed to powerful special interests by completely gutting a bill that would have banned smoking in public places, despite fairly widespread support that included Gov. Daniels.

HB 1018 -- which, when introduced, would have banned smoking in pretty much all public places -- is now laden with exceptions, thanks to several recent amendments, including casinos and bars. Another amendment would allow for the continuation of designated smoking areas in veterans homes and other health facilities.

What follows is a quick look at some of the action that's taken place in the Statehouse over the last few weeks, as reported by students at the Statehouse bureau of the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism. The stories have been edited and, in some cases, updated to reflect recent actions at the capitol.

— Austin Considine

School reform

A Senate committee adopted a bill on Monday that would allow charter schools to seize unused public school buildings.

If the bill becomes law, the Department of Education would be required to keep an updated list of unused school buildings. Charter schools looking to acquire the space would have to submit a request to the DOE and enter into a lease.

The committee also debated SB 294 last week, which deals with probationary teacher contracts, but placed it temporarily on hold in anticipation of a new amendment.

Under current state law, new teachers receive a one-year contract. SB 294 would give superintendents and administrators the authority to offer "probationary contracts" instead. The contracts would last 60 days.

A separate bill that would institute a merit-based pay system - which would subject public school teachers to various forms of evaluation throughout the year and withhold pay raises for poor performance - has not left committee (SB 1).

Other charter school legislation, such as a House bill that would give parents the power, by way of petition, to close a public school; reorganize it as a charter; or compel the school system to foot the bill for student transfer to another school -- including private school (HB 1250) -- has not yet passed the House.

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) devoted much of a press conference last week to pushing the expansion of charter schools and a school choice measure.

Bosma argued that parents should have the right to make more choices about their children's education even if they don't make wise choices.

"One of the great things about America is that we have the freedom to make bad decisions," he said. "Parents are the ones that should be able to make the decisions as to what their children's education consists of, and not the government."

Unemployment benefits

A bill that would seek a new fix for Indiana's broken unemployment insurance system, which has borrowed $2 billion from the federal government, was passed by a House vote on Monday.

The bill would decrease weekly unemployment benefits to the jobless by $70 on average. It would also lessen the impact of a business tax increase that is set to take effect this year.

According to analysis done by the Department of Workforce Development, the legislation would allow the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to start taking in more money than it pays out in 2013 and to become solvent in 2020, after paying off the debt to the federal government.

Rep. Daniel Leonard (R-Huntington), who authored HB 1450, testified that the bill would accomplish this by changing how benefits are calculated, and by tying up several eligibility loopholes.

The bill was an attempt to keep too much debt burden from falling on businesses, Leonard said. It would increase business taxes by more than $700 million, but that's less than the $868 million tax hike that would hit businesses under current law.

Nancy Guyott, president of the Indiana State American Federation of Labor Congress of Industrial Organizations, argued that the reforms would create a negative impact on all people, not just the unemployed.

"Inevitably, I believe it will transfer cost related to sustaining these families from the unemployment trust fund to the general taxpayers as additional persons are moved onto social services or programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and other family income support programs," she said.

Numerous Democratic amendments to the unemployment bill were denied in committee.

Some amendments would have kept weeks that workers spent on family medical leave or immediately after child birth from counting against them when benefits were calculated.

Another would have allowed Hoosiers given severance to collect unemployment under HB 1450.

In all, House Democrats proposed 11 amendments to HB 1450. All of them failed.

Redefining 'renewable' energy

A House committee moved a measure last week that would add hydrogen and coal bed methane to the state's list of renewable resources, making related energy projects eligible for government financial incentives.

HB 1128 emerged from the House Committee on Utilities and Energy, 9-1, despite concerns expressed by environmental groups. The bill originally dealt only with hydrogen, but its author, Rep. Eric Koch (R-Bedford), amended it to include coal bed methane on the list. The committee adopted the amendment, 6-2.

Supporters like Koch said it would help the state develop an energy strategy.

"There's a great opportunity to use coal that's in the ground - 6000 acres," he said. "Indiana has that."

But environmental advocates weren't entirely convinced. Kerwin Olson, program director of Citizens Action Coalition, opposed the bill after the addition of coal bed methane. The group also considers hydrogen to be an alternate resource, but not renewable.

As reported previously in NUVO, the practice of coal bed methane extraction, otherwise known as fracturing, has also been shown to pollute groundwater supplies.

Limiting teacher unions

Contract negotiations between teachers unions and their school corporations would be limited to salaries and benefits like health care under a bill approved by a state Senate committee last week.

The bill (SB 575) would strip away teachers' ability to negotiate other issues such as how evaluations are conducted and layoffs are determined, which textbooks are used and what items teachers receive for their classrooms.

"Teachers should be highly respected, valued and rewarded financially for the important contribution they make to our society," said Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville), who authored the bill. "But it is not the goal of the system to satisfy the employee at the cost of failure of the system."

Opponents on both sides of the aisle, like Sen. R. Michael Young (R-Indianapolis) said they were concerned that teachers would have no say in how their subject matters are taught, and could face repercussions if they complain about working conditions.

Pondering Pot

An Indiana state senator has filed a bill that would create a summer study committee to examine criminal law and sentencing policies related to marijuana.

Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Ogden Dunes) authored SB 192, which would create the study committee.

"We're extremely happy that (Tallian) has taken a bold step forward" said Joh Padgett, executive director of ReLegalize Indiana, a tax exempt political organization that supports the legalization of marijuana and industrial hemp.

"In the Controlled Substances Act, hemp needs to be removed completely" said Padgett. "We prefer that (marijuana) be rescheduled into Schedule 3 of the act as such painkillers like vicodin," he added.

The bill is currently sitting in a Senate committee.

No comprendo

The Indiana House of Representatives passed a bill last Monday that would require state official documents to be printed in English only.

HB 1255 would allow state official documents to be printed in other languages only when required by the Constitution, law enforcement or public health and safety needs; to protect the rights of parties or witnesses; to promote tourism and economical development; for language instruction; or by libraries to collect and promote foreign language materials.

The bill's author, Rep. Suzanne Crouch (R-Evansville), said she introduced the measure because English was made the official language of Indiana in 1984.

Some members of the House expressed concern that the bill is unfriendly to Americans who do not speak English.

"We need to have documents printed in other languages so folks can succeed," said Rep. Sheila Klinker (D-Lafayette).

Rep. Rebecca Kubacki (R-Syracuse), who grew up in a Hispanic home, said she supported the bill because it would force Hispanics and other non-English speaking Hoosiers to learn English.

"To get to the top, you must speak English," said Kubacki.


Police could ticket motorists for texting while driving under a bill that won approval of the House last week.

Reading or sending a text message or e-mail while behind the wheel would be a Class C infraction under HB 1129. Penalties would include a fine of up to $500 and court costs.

Over the past five years, 30 states have adopted similar laws, with others in the works, according to Sherry Dean, the public affairs specialist for the AAA Hoosier Motor Club.

Dean said according to a survey the group conducted in 2009, 94 percent of Hoosier drivers support a texting-while-driving ban.

"We now recognize this as being more dangerous than drunk driving," Dean said.

The following Franklin College students contributed to this story: Megan Banta, Lauren Casey, Suzannah Couch, Adam Powell, Samm Quinn, Mike Robertson, Shelby D. Salazar, Sarah Seward

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