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Mass-transit advocates make headway in new Legislature

November 7, 2012

Mass transit advocates think they have a good shot at reviving their cause with the new Republican-dominated Legislature.

The $1.3 billion transit plan for Hamilton and Marion counties is one of a few lingering issues — along with Sunday alcohol sales and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage — likely to appear before lawmakers in 2013.

Advocates for and against those causes began work long before Tuesday’s election, which ushered in a super-majority for Republicans in the House. Senate Republicans retained their quorum-proof majority.

State Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, said he’s offered to carry the transit bill, which died early in the last session because it contained right-to-work language. Torr easily won re-election against Socialist candidate John Strinka in District 39.

With Tuesday’s election, the Central Indiana Transit Task Force also gained the support of freshman lawmaker Todd Huston, who ran unopposed in a newly drawn Fishers district.

“I want to give the locals the opportunity to make the case,” said Huston, a Republican.

Legislative approval is just the first step in the transit plan, which would expand bus service and add rail from Noblesville to downtown Indianapolis. Voters would have to approve a ballot issue to raise local income taxes.

"I think we'll see strong support from the Marion County and Hamilton County delegation," said Ron Gifford, executive director of the task force. Gifford also watched the presidential election because he said a Romney administration might have been inclined to cut federal funding for mass transit. "I think the funding is pretty safe," he said. 

The Sunday sales issue has pitted liquor-store owners against grocery and convenience stores for years.

“I feel very comfortable saying I think the tide is turning in our favor,” said Matt Norris, a lobbyist at the Corydon Group who works for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the Indiana Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association on Sunday alcohol sales.

The large wave of freshman lawmakers are more inclined to keep government out of the industry turf battle, Norris said. Many of the freshmen were guaranteed victory through redistricting, and Norris began talking to them about the issue last summer.

Advocates of a same-sex marriage ban expect Republicans’ continued dominance to help them put the issue before voters in 2014. Indiana already prohibits gay marriage by law, but not in the state constitution.

The issue cleared its first hurdle with legislative approval in 2011. The new legislature must adopt ballot language a second time, either in 2013 or the following year, for the referendum to go on ballots in the 2014 general election.

Almost every Republican and many Democrats have voted for the amendment in the past, noted Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, and he expects no substantial change.

Indiana Republicans did not list the same-sex marriage issue on their official platform leading up to the election because they chose to focus on economic issues.

Opponents of the ban have used the past year to recruit more corporate support, said Aaron Schaler, president of the Indiana Stonewall Democrats.

Cummins Inc., Eli Lilly and Co. and WellPoint are among the Indiana corporations that have spoken against a ban, which they fear would send a message of discrimination and make recruiting talent difficult.

“We need the best and the brightest working for our company,” said Rob Smith, senior director of corporate responsibility at Lilly. “These kinds of social policies are just not helpful.”

The drug maker will make its opposition known once again, Smith said, but it’s too early to say exactly what shape the lobbying effort will take.

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