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