Indiana lawmakers facing tight budget, hate crimes debate
By TOM DAVIES , Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers could struggle to give more than minimal funding increases to public schools in the new state budget that will emerge from this year's legislative session.
Members of the General Assembly will return Thursday to the Statehouse in Indianapolis for a session expected to last until late April.
Republicans are entering their seventh year of supermajorities in both the House and the Senate that give them complete control of legislative action. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders have said boosting teacher pay is a top priority, but that will compete for money with growing Medicaid and child protection expenses.
The legislative session could get sidetracked by a possible heated debate over adopting a state hate crimes law and proposals to allow sports betting in the state.
A look at some of the top issues:
Lawmakers will have to juggle priorities in assembling a new two-year state budget that will take effect in July. State fiscal analysts project tax revenues will grow by about 2.5 percent each year.
The math will be difficult as the state's troubled Department of Child Services is seeking about two-thirds of that money to keep paying for hundreds of new child-welfare caseworkers added over the last few years. An expected jump in state costs for the Medicaid health care program for low-income families could consume the rest.
That would leave little money for even inflationary increases to K-12 schools, which account for about 52 percent of the state budget, and cast doubt over Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma's stated aim of boosting teacher pay .
Holcomb says maintaining the state's Indiana's $1.8 billion state budget surplus tops his agenda. He says he's worried about Indiana losing teachers because of lagging pay, but hasn't suggested how to provide additional salary funding.
HATE CRIME HEAT
A renewed push for a state hate crimes law could spark a bitter cultural debate among legislators.
Indiana is one of just five states without laws that specifically take into account crimes fueled by biases regarding race, religion and sexual orientation. Repeated efforts to change that have failed amid fierce opposition from conservatives who maintain it would unfairly create a specially protected class of victims wrongly restrict free speech.
Holcomb says that passing a hate crimes law is "not only the right thing to do, it's long overdue." Many business leaders agree, saying it's important for the state's reputation.
Bosma has warned a drawn-out debate could lead to Indiana facing national derision as it did over the 2015 religious objections law that critics widely panned as a sanctioning of discrimination against the LGBT community and that drew a stiff rebuke from big business.
A key point of contention is whether to specify transgender people as protected under the law. Senate Majority Leader Mark Messmer of Jasper has said the law needs to include whatever groups "get us off the list of five bad boys."
A sign of how strongly Holcomb will publicly push for the law could come when he gives his State of the State speech to lawmakers on Jan. 15.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ALLEGATIONS
Republican legislative leaders don't expect lawmakers will take any action toward removing state Attorney General Curtis Hill from office even though Holcomb and other state officials have called on him to resign over allegations that he drunkenly groped four women during a party.
Some Democrats plan to seek Hill's impeachment and removal from office after a Democratic lawmaker and three legislative staffers say he touched them inappropriately during a March party at an Indianapolis bar celebrating the end of the 2018 legislative session.
A special prosecutor declined in October to pursue any criminal charges against Hill, who has denied the allegations. A state inspector general's report cited eyewitnesses who called Hill's behavior inappropriate and "creepy."
MARIJUANA HURDLES REMAIN
Supporters of allowing medical or recreational marijuana use in Indiana continue facing major obstacles even as such uses are becoming legal in a growing number of other states .
Holcomb, Republican legislative leaders and major business groups remain firm against legalization steps. Holcomb says he'll remain opposed as long as the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which means it's not accepted for medical use and has a high potential for abuse.
Several GOP and Democratic lawmakers argue Indiana should follow growing public opinion in favor of legalization. Michigan voters approved a November ballot initiative legalizing the drug's recreational use. Medical marijuana use is allowed in Michigan and Illinois and has been approved in Ohio.
Legislative leaders expect action toward legalizing sports betting in the state following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May giving that option to all 50 states by overturning a federal ban.
No big financial boon is anticipated from sports gambling, but lawmakers must decide wither whether to allow online sports bets or to permit operators other than Indiana's current casinos to accept wagers on games.
The new owners of the two Gary casinos are expected to seek permission for moving one from the Lake Michigan shore to another Gary location and the other elsewhere in the state. Such a push will likely have Indiana's other casinos seeking their own special accommodations.