By Maureen Hayden CNHI Statehouse Bureau
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Lawmakers are crafting an aggressive agenda for the new year that includes a tax break for businesses, preschool funding for the poor, road spending and a divisive constitutional amendment — all packaged into a so-called “short session” of the Legislature.
A significant part of the workload has been cast by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who’s entering his second year in office with ambitious plans for legislators facing an early deadline when the convene Jan. 6. The Legislature’s sessions in even-numbered years are limited to 30 days, by law, and must end by March 14.
In a speech this week, Pence unveiled what he called a “very bold agenda” for the General Assembly.
“I’m here to say we’re on the right track,” Pence said. “But, with 250,000 Hoosiers out of work, with 200,000 kids that find themselves in under-performing schools, we must remain determined to keep the momentum going. In fact, I think we should accelerate our pace.”
Like Pence, House Speaker Brian Bosma said he wants the Republican-controlled Legislature to fund pre-kindergarten education for low-income children. Pence’s plan would expand the state’s school voucher program — already the biggest in the nation — to cover children in families with incomes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $43,567 for a family of four.
Families could use those vouchers to send children to a private or public preschool that meets state standards. A similar proposal was killed in the Senate last year.
Funding the plan will be an issue. Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley put a damper on the governor’s tax and spending plans at the Bingham Greenebaum Doll Legislative Conference in Indianapolis this week, where Pence gave his speech.
“It’s fair enough to begin the discussion on them in 2014,” Kenley said. “In all reality, we’re not going to redo the budget in 2014, and we’re not going to pass a mini-budget.”
Pence didn’t say how much the voucher plan would cost or how it would be funded.
But he did make clear that his vision for more jobs in Indiana includes eliminating a $1 billion tax on businesses. Pence said getting rid of the business personal property tax, levied on equipment, would attract investment.
The proposal tops Pence’s wish list, and it’s a top priority of House Republicans, as well.
But the plan has already met resistance from local leaders, many of whom rely on the tax. Local government officials note that property tax caps passed in 2008 have already drained about $950 million from their budgets.
Their complaints are finding sympathetic ears: House Minority Leader Scott Pelath called the tax plan a “corporate giveaway” that “is going to end up hurting families.”
Legislative leaders have vowed to look for ways to replace the revenue that local governments will lose, but Senate President David Long has already said the state can’t afford to fill the hole.
Local governments were grateful last year that the General Assembly approved more than $140 million in new funding for roads and bridges. In the coming session, Pence will ask legislators to release $400 million more to expand the state’s major highways.
The request isn’t expected to generate much controversy, unlike House Joint Resolution 6, better known as the amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
That issue has dominated pre-session discussions. Despite pressure from some in their own party, Republican leaders have vowed to move ahead on the measure, which would put the Constitutional amendment to a statewide vote.
Long has said that his own children oppose HJR-6, but that he won’t stop a vote on the measure. Bosma has promised to do the same and has turned down request from Democratic legislative leaders to kill the measure.
On the Legislature’s Organization Day in November, Bosma acknowledged how heated the issue is during a House floor speech: “My charge to you as we debate this very emotional, personal issue, is that we do so with the recognition of the dignity of every Hoosier in here and elsewhere, and also respecting each other’s strongly held positions.”
Many other matters loom before the Legislature, including these two critical issues:
In the 2013 session, lawmakers instructed the state Board of Education to devise new guidelines for the controversial A-to-F ratings on schools, which are based on student test scores. But little progress has been made, as the elected state schools chief, Democrat Glenda Ritz, has quarreled with the Republican-appointed board.
Also in 2013, the Legislature voted to overhaul the state’s decades-old criminal code, reduce penalties for drug crimes and increase penalties for violent crimes. The legislation, which takes effect July 1, 2014, was intended to divert low-level felons from state prisons and back into their communities.
But it came with no funding. Indiana sheriffs, who are likely to see an increase in jail populations, want to delay the start of the law until 2015, which will be a budget-making year for the Legislature.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden