Three weeks into Indiana's legislative session, Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma is touting the hard work already being done on major issues. Not surprisingly, Democratic House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer contends the session is off to a slow start.
Actually, they're both right.
Some big issues — including a fix for the state's insolvent unemployment fund and a contentious plan to use taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private school — have yet to be discussed in committee meetings.
But lawmakers are working quickly to advance other bills. Lawmakers have fast-tracked a bill that would expand the use of centralized vote centers, an effort to help counties that want to use vote centers instead of traditional neighborhood precincts in the May municipal primaries. Legislative committees have also approved bills to ban texting while driving and outlaw smoking in public places other than casinos and horse racing tracks. Both bills have been proposed in years past but seem to have more momentum this year.
Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said committee chairmen have "conducted some very positive discussions on critical issues that are before our state and our General Assembly."
"They are doing precisely what we've asked — to have full and fair committee hearings," Bosma said.
But Bauer, D-South Bend, questioned why lawmakers aren't focusing more time on efforts to create jobs.
"We have gotten off to a very slow start," he said.
Some complex bills — such as a new, two-year state budget — always move through the legislative process at a snail's pace. The House Ways and Means Committee that begins the legislative budgeting process has begun holding hearings, listening to funding requests from state agencies and universities. Those meetings will stretch into early February, but final budget negotiations won't take place until the legislative session nears its end in late April. Lawmakers won't approve a budget until after they receive updated predictions of state revenue, which usually occurs in mid-April.
Redistricting is also on the back burner for now as lawmakers await 2010 Census data — expected to arrive in February at the earliest — that will help them redraw maps for the state's nine congressional and 150 state legislative districts. Those maps will stand for the next decade. Republicans will control the process because they have the majority in both the Indiana House and Senate.
While the big-ticket items wait, lawmakers are keeping busy hashing out the details of plenty of controversial bills. A Senate committee plans a Feb. 2 hearing on an immigration proposal that would require police to ask for proof of citizenship or immigration status if they have a reasonable suspicion that a person is in the country illegally. A proposal to fix the state's unemployment fund — which pays out millions more in jobless benefits than it takes in from employers — will get a hearing in a House committee Tuesday.
The House Education Committee is expected to vote Monday to approve a plan that aims to create more charter schools, a move pushed by GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels but opposed by some education leaders who say the proposal will siphon money away from traditional public schools. And the Senate Education Committee is slated to vote Wednesday on Daniels' proposal to give a $3,500 scholarship to high school students who graduate a year early.