FEIGENBAUM: Range of non-fiscal issues may take center stage

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Last week, while you probably were more preoccupied with how a certain former Indianapolis Colts quarterback performed in the playoffs than with the Legislature’s preliminary machinations, we outlined key fiscal issues that will occupy lawmakers through April.

While taxes and spending (and related work-force and economic development matters) will consume the bulk of legislative attention in coming months, several other major issues will dot—or blot—the agenda, and should bear your attention. Beyond the particular policy matters at stake, they could distract from—or disrupt—the legislative calendar.

Headed into November, few would have expected education issues to be a factor in the 2013 session. Most observers adopted a “been there, done that” attitude, assuming that since far-reaching reforms had been implemented, nothing more than minor tweaking would be needed.

The election, however, saw Republicans lose the office of superintendent of public instruction, calling into question (at least in the eyes of Democrats) the push for charter schools, voucher scholarships, and even privatization in the form of school takeover operators.

But as soon as Democrats tried to revive the debate, they learned that Republicans, who see this issue as their Obamacare, wouldn’t budge. And even though Hoosiers don’t like the way overall reforms were framed (or at least how they were portrayed by Democrats), they still warmly embrace individual elements. Thus, what may have seemed fertile territory for Democrats evaporated because of unease from presumed allies.

Meanwhile, Democrats watched Republicans begin to fight among themselves on education issues. Sen. Scott Schneider, R–Indianapolis, gained a hearing Jan. 16 on his Common Core Standards repeal measure.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne—who in 2012 allowed an evolution-related bill to move to the House where it was immediately killed by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis—quickly derailed several controversial GOP education measures.

But there was internecine Republican scrapping in the first week of committee hearings on what some thought was a back-door route to voucher expansion, suggesting that even some Republicans want to move slowly after a big biennium.

You may have heard about Democratic calls for a two-year “moratorium” on so-called “social issues.” One legislator’s “wedge” issue is another’s jobs or economic-development measure. So that won’t happen.

But Republicans also recognize that Republican Gov. Mike Pence ran his campaign on a platform largely devoid of the issues occupying his congressional dance card over the last decade. And most legislators recognize that some of the bills that everyone is tap-dancing around (further abortion restrictions and a same-sex marriage ban) are not among the first orders of business.

The same-sex marriage constitutional amendment seems to have waned as a hot-button issue, with recent Ball State University polling finding that while Hoosiers are evenly split on legalizing same-sex marriage, only 38 percent support the constitutional ban and 55 percent support same-sex civil unions. The generational divide is pronounced.

This issue doesn’t seem to have the same aura it used to. That’s partly because the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a pair of challenges to recognition of gay marriage this term. In addition, several GOP lawmakers are publicly opposing a constitutional amendment (including some who voted for it before). And at least two top Hoosier employers—Eli Lilly and Co. and Cummins Inc.—argue an amendment would hurt employee recruitment.

Both parties seek broad structural changes and improvements in state child and family services. Mental health reforms likely will be a top priority of Democrats, and they’ll likely find support among many Republicans who view the overhaul as an alternative to gun control. Gun control (along with school safety) is sure to be on the table, however, and could lead to internal discord.

Expect a further crackdown on access to meth components, and for lawmakers to address prescription drug abuse and so-called “pain clinics” popping up along our borders near out-of-state metropolitan areas. Tension could arise between state and local government on sentencing-reform proposals, which the locals perceive in part as a burdensome cost-shift.

There also seems to be a buzz for marijuana law changes. Some conservative Republican lawmakers join with Democrats in favoring legalization of medical marijuana. Others advocate decriminalization (supported by a majority of Hoosiers) or legalization and taxation.

Additional issues to be hotly debated include utility plant matters (especially the controversial state sales contract for the proposed synthetic gas plant in Rockport), economic development transparency and “loser pays” tort reform.•


Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached at edf@ingrouponline.com.

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