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Legislative leaders select mix of topics for summer study

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Every year during the summer, members of the Indiana General Assembly get together in small groups to explore topics of interest and concern affecting the state. More often than not those summer study committees result in legislation that is proposed in the following legislative session.

Last week House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) and Senate Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne) announced the topics legislators will explore this year. Some of the topics are relatively boring but still necessary for review while others are controversial and have stemmed from public outcry. However all will be important to the future path of the state. There are 40 issues that will be studied this summer. But we decided to take a look at just a few that are of interest to NUVO.

LGBT civil rights

The Interim Study Committee on the Courts and The Judiciary will explore five topics. Jurisdiction changes, a motion clerk pilot program, guardianship issues and communications with protected persons are topics you will probably never hear about again after this article. But LGBT civil rights will probably get more attention than the committee will like.

Sen. Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) had asked for a summer study committee on the topic last year, but was ignored by leadership. Long said the issue would be debated quietly over the summer but not in a public committee. Democrats championed the "four words and a comma" campaign all summer in 2015, which supported the addition of "sexual identity, gender identity" to the existing civil rights law in Indiana. Republicans were silent until the fall when Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Markle) introduced Senate Bill 100.

Holdman's bill proposed civil rights for the LGBT community with numerous exemptions written in for religious objections. Holdman claimed it was the best compromise he could come up with that offered the LGBT community the civil rights they desired while honoring the opposition based on "strong religiously-held beliefs."

SB 100 was bad enough with its provisional LGBT civil rights. But matters got worse when a revised version of the bill was reintroduced as SB 344. The new bill took the T out of LGBT by removing all references to gender identity. The revised version may have quelled the concerns of those who don't like (or really don't understand) the concept of transgender, but the progressive community was furious. Homosexuals and straight advocates vowed they would not leave their transgender brothers and sisters behind. SB 100 never made it out of committee and SB 344 was pulled from the floor in the eleventh hour of second readings.

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One year later Lanane made the request for study again. This time his wish is granted and the public debate Long tried to avoid will happen. Legislative leaders have indicated that they will also study the issue of transgender people and public bathrooms — specifically students in public schools. The Obama administration — with the guidance of the departments of education and labor — issued a directive stating the transgender students are allowed to use restrooms in accordance with their gender identity and not their biological anatomy. The issue came up in the 2016 legislative session with the proposed bill eventually withdrawn. Sixth District Rep. Luke Messer (R-Indiana) has filed legislation aimed to block the administration's directive.

Sexual misconduct in schools

Americans were shocked in 1997 when news broke of a Washington state schoolteacher who was having a sexual affair with her 13-year-old student. May Kay Letourneau's case was very high profile and known across the country. Nineteen years later headlines in Indianapolis are causing state legislators to stop and look at how to prevent such actions from happening.

In the two incidents that occurred in Indianapolis, the question of when and how law enforcement is notified came into question. In the first case, Park Tudor teacher and coach Kyle Cox pled guilty to trying to initiate a sexual relationship with a student. The student's father discovered explicit emails — which included images — exchanged between Cox and his daughter and took the evidence to school officials. The evidence was reviewed and saved by the school's attorney and given back to the parent. However the images and emails were not immediately shared with law enforcement investigating the case.

A few months later another very similar case was revealed at a public school. Indianapolis Public Schools guidance counselor Shana Taylor was arrested and charged for having a sexual relationship with a student. Like the Park Tudor case a parent disclosed the relationship to school officials. But it took six days for authorities to be notified. The criminal act was reported to administrators in the building (the principal was on medical leave at the time, but others were there) who immediately contacted the district's administration, including the human resources office. However somewhere along the chain of command within the school system, no one thought to contact authorities outside of the school district.

Both cases are still pending in the court system and the private and public schools are looking at how faculty and staff are trained to report such cases, including when and who should be contacted. Legislators are doing the same through a study committee on education. In fact, ways to reduce sexual misconduct in schools and ways to improve reporting requirements are the only issues the summer education committee will address.

(An entirely different committee is looking at how to replace the ISTEP exam.)

Heroin epidemic

Adding another topic to the "better late than never" column is the issue of heroin use, treatment and recovery in Indiana. News broke in 2015 that southern Indiana was seeing a sharp rise in HIV cases, specifically in Scott County. Public health officials determined the epidemic was the result of heroin use and the sharing of needles. The legislature passed emergency legislation authorizing a needle exchange program among its efforts to curb the spread of disease. When the interim study committee topics were announced, legislators decided to look at the results from the needle exchange in stopping the transmission of disease. But they also called for a review of criminal penalties for drug offenses — including paraphernalia-related offenses — and the use of drug courts.

Mental health experts have been saying for years that addiction is an illness and should be treated as such instead of being viewed as a criminal act within one's control. Who knows? Maybe the Legislature is finally starting to listen to someone other than each other.

The Study Committee on Public Health, Behavioral Health and Human Services will look at this topic along with seven other issues. With such a full plate we can only hope that heroin addiction and treatment will be given the attention it deserves.

Code revision commission

Every year the code revision commission is tasked with preparing technical corrections to the Indiana Code. The goal is to fix any conflicts or errors that exist in the code. The errors may be the result of new legislation that overrides existing language in the code or may be conflicts between two or more laws. One of the most glaring errors in Indiana Code right now is the definition of marriage.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015, same sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. In Indiana, marriage equality was a done deal in October 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a cert from the state challenging lower courts' rulings that Indiana's marriage ban was unconstitutional.

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County clerks have been issuing marriage licenses in Indiana since that October decision (that really wasn't a decision). However, according to Indiana Code, marriage in Indiana is still between one man and one woman.

This is the type of technical error the Code Revision Commission is tasked with correcting. It didn't come up on the 2015 General Assembly — but that is somewhat understandable since there was hope among certain people that the U.S. Supreme Court would rule differently than the lower courts in the Obergefell v. Hodges case. However the technical correction wasn't proposed to the legislature in 2016 either.

Summer study committees typically conclude their work prior to reorganization day in mid-November. With this year's election cycle promising to be a race to the finish, it is uncertain what kind of impact, if any, the election will have on the results of the summer study committees.

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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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