Indiana House faces pressure to finish work on time

The Indiana House spent its first full day back since boycotting Democrats returned to their jobs doing something it couldn't do the last five weeks: working on bills.

Representatives debated points on prickly subjects such as abortion, private school vouchers and elections, took votes and maintained a cordial atmosphere. For the most part, it felt as if the walkout had never occurred, but the boycott puts lawmakers on a tighter calendar as they work to tackle big issues before the scheduled end of the legislative session April 29.

The House dove into two big proposals — the state budget and a plan to direct taxpayer money to private schools — Tuesday as they worked from the morning into the night. The brisk pace was expected to continue as the House deals with its own agenda, which was stalled by the walkout, and the Senate bills they would normally be handling at this point in the session.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the five week "vacation" by House Democrats means lawmakers may have to work on Fridays and Saturdays. He said representatives would go with little sleep and eat sandwiches and pizza while working at their desks if necessary to get work done.

"We are under tremendous time pressure here," Bosma said. "We have five weeks to complete 2-1/2 months' worth of work, but we will complete it."

Lawmakers — who had plenty of time to think up proposed amendments during the Democrats' boycott — filed nearly 350 on the budget alone that could have been called for votes Tuesday.

Among those actually discussed was one that would remove a provision that allows the governor to withhold allocations made in the budget. Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said the budget becomes a mere suggestion if the governor can override lawmakers' intent.

"The budget just doesn't have any meaning any longer," Pelath said.

Republicans say that provision is needed to keep the state in the black during tough times. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels has cut millions from state spending in the current budget cycle, for example.

Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, said governors should have the power to make cuts when the Legislature isn't in session.

"They're elected to lead," Espich said. "There are times they must lead."

Republicans, who hold a strong majority in the House, defeated the proposal.

Lawmakers also took up a sweeping voucher program that would use taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private schools. The bill was one of the core reasons House Democrats fled to Illinois on Feb. 22, denying the House the quorum needed to conduct business. Democrats returned Monday after winning concession on that bill and others, and the changes to the voucher bill were formally adopted Tuesday.

Lawmakers limited the program to those meeting certain income levels based on family size. The bill as originally proposed would have allowed those from a family of four making more than $100,000 to use vouchers, but the amendment approved Tuesday reduced that level to about $60,000. The House also included limits on the number of students who could participate in the program during its first two years.

Republicans turned back several Democratic proposals, including one that would only allow vouchers for students in underperforming schools.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, called the voucher bill a "massive entitlement program" and said he wouldn't vote for it. But he said the changes made Tuesday do improve the legislation.

"We've made enormous progress," he said.

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