By JACOB CURRY

INDIANAPOLIS  — The Indiana General Assembly has now moved fully into the latter half of its legislative session this year, with the crossover bills now having received their committee assignments and the first batch beginning to hit second reading. That means legislators will soon be feeling the squeeze of final deadlines in April.

While the Republican super majorities make the whole process a little more straightforward, there are still some hot button issues that the GOP will need to work out. In particular, Gov. Eric Holcomb, Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, and Senate President Pro Tempore Rod Bray have displayed disagreement over the passage of a bias crime law and a comprehensive gaming bill, but will also need to see to it that their party’s efforts to raise teacher pay don’t raise the ire of Hoosier educators.

Bias crimes bill

Two weeks ago, Holcomb offered his fellow Republicans a new option to tackle the hate crimes issue as he spoke to the press. Installing the federal code’s language into state sentencing guidelines, he said, would adequately fulfill the goal of getting Indiana off the list of five states without hate crime laws. “And we will do nothing new – nothing that’s not already illegal,” the governor added.

Don’t put your money on legislators buying into that. All eyes are on the House as Senate Bill 12 now sits awaiting a Courts and Criminal Code Committee hearing, and House Republicans have been pretty reluctant to use that type of specific, list-based language all session.

Before Holcomb’s press conference, Speaker Bosma had already indicated that Rep. Gregory Steuerwald’s approach – which is fairly similar, at least in spirit, to what the amended bill looks like – was in his view a passable compromise. Last week, he said he didn’t find the federal language option to be any better.

What does that mean? 

Well, Steuerwald’s original bias crimes bill, HB1093, adds to possible sentencing aggravation a consideration of whether a person committed the crime “with bias and with the intent to harm: (A) an individual; (B) a group of individuals; (C) the property of an individual; or (D) the property of a group of individuals; because of the individual’s or the group’s real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association, or other attribute the court chooses to consider.” By the way, if you’re thinking that sounds like a list, Bosma has referred to it in the past as “a description of categories.”

If SB12 ends up getting amended in the fashion of HB1093, then it would certainly be more than the “two lines and a comma” approach that SB12’s current opponents have lamented. Still, the governor’s earlier remarks, and of course the remarks of Democratic lawmakers, suggest that there’s still the question of vagueness of terms and whether or not this change would get Indiana off “the list.”

The governor says he’s ready to handle the disagreement with his fellow party members, saying, “We’re not drones, we don’t agree on 100% of everything. That’s the beauty of this building and the conversations that mature over time.” Once he returns from his nine-day trade mission in Europe, Holcomb will have to keep the conversation open with his own political capital and appeals to the public, which will surely be something to watch for in coming weeks.

Schools and teacher pay

As always, education has been a top priority in this year’s session, but the issue of teacher pay has been especially important. Of course, that’s not just because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Indiana is lagging behind its neighbors in this area, but also because we’ve seen the issue flare up nationally in recent years. A teacher walkout like the one that took place in Arizona in 2018 probably won’t be on lawmakers’ list of desired outcomes, though Speaker Bosma told reporters that such an occurrence wouldn’t necessarily sway him.

“Hopefully, we don’t have any of that,” Bosma said. “I think it just complicates it, probably makes it harder to make progress on the issue,” he said, then added a reference to protests against Indiana’s Right-to-Work law. “By the way, 15,000 screaming union guys outside my window here and a couple hundred at my house didn’t stop us from doing the right thing. So, we’re going to find the right place to land on this issue regardless.”

For now, the hopeful quick-fix solutions look like they’re in a strong position going into the second half. Holcomb’s proposal to spend $150 million to fully fund teacher pension obligations worked its way into the House budget bill and hasn’t met much opposition in the Senate either. HB1003, which sets expenditure targets of no more than 15% of schools’ education funds going toward operation costs, has also enjoyed strong support from Republicans. HB1003 is up for a hearing in the Education and Career Development Committee on Wednesday of this week.

Also in the budget are increases to total school funding of 2.1% in FY 2019 and 2.2% in FY 2020. That’s slightly above the typical 2% mark for annual inflation, but the Senate apparently hasn’t ruled out increasing those figures. “I think we want to at least be there,” Sen. Bray told reporters, “whether or not we can get higher or not we’re going to have to take a look at.” Like with HB1003, the hope is that school corporations could take the extra money and put it toward teacher pay increases, but there would be no guarantee of that.

Still, with advocates from ISTA (and some teachers, like the ‘Red for Ed’ protestors at the Statehouse last Saturday) telling legislators that the current proposals don’t constitute a lasting, satisfying fix, there’s a lot of pressure building. Republicans are looking to study committees and task forces to find long-term solutions after this session, and will be hoping the promise of future fixes will help them smoothly navigate these final two months.

Gaming bill

Speaker Bosma’s comments two weeks ago on the comprehensive gaming bill, SB552, suggested that it might be facing an uphill battle in the House. At least the casino portion of the bill, which the speaker said he considers a “major expansion of gaming.” That alone is an alarm that there’s some reluctance in the Republican caucus on that front, but when added with the recent talk of possibly splitting the bill, it’s easy to think there’s a lot of work left ahead.

The bill addresses two issues, one dealing with casinos and relocation and the other with legalizing sports wagering, which have largely been discussed apart from one another throughout the session. Whether the bill will be split to allow only certain parts of it to survive, or to simply facilitate in-depth discussions on all aspects of the bill, or whether it will be split at all will ultimately be up to the House Committee on Public Policy, chaired by Rep. Ben Smaltz.

Whatever the committee’s decision may be, it’s not is if SB552 is dead in the water. Bray and 28 members of his caucus didn’t have the same hang-ups when they voted in late February, and the bill also received unanimous support from Democrats. It’s been lauded as an economic boost for the city of Gary and Vigo County with the casino relocations, and for the state as a whole with sports wagering. So, proponents of the bill are bound to push back against the apprehension from some in the House.

Redistricting

A single bill aims to rewrite a few standards for district-drawing before it begins again in 2021: Senate Bill 105. That bill barely passed the Senate by a two-vote margin, however, so there’s good reason to doubt its chances of survival. The bill’s House sponsor and Committee on Elections and Apportionment Chair Rep. Tim Wesco told HPI he has concerns himself. In an email, Wesco said that the bill would need “major revisions” if it moves in the House and seems concerned that it “only had minority Republican support” in the Senate vote.

That gives the impression the bill is in a tough spot and may not even receive a committee hearing, let alone a floor vote. If it does get that far, it’s clear that it would look quite different at its final stage though those potential changes haven’t come into focus just yet. Still, whatever the fate of SB105 will be this session, it’s to be expected that the 2021 redistricting process won’t be radically different from 2011’s.