Lawmakers – or most of them – return to start 2014 session

Snow-covered roads and frigid temperatures nearly kept the state's House and Senate from getting the quorum each chamber needed to launch the 2014 Indiana General Assembly on Tuesday.

The House gaveled in with just 67 members present – the minimum two-thirds needed to conduct business.

In the Senate, meanwhile, leaders postponed their start by 30 minutes to allow a couple more lawmakers to arrive. At one point, President Pro Tem David Long asked members to sit in their seats while caucus leaders counted who was present. Eventually, 35 senators registered present.

None of the business on the House and Senate agendas seemed urgent and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, acknowledged that he’d heard questions about why lawmakers were meeting just two days after a winter storm dumped 14 inches of snow on central Indiana and dropped temperatures to below freezing.

But he and Long said meeting sooner rather than later was necessary to get the session underway.

“It was a miserable day to drive but it really helps us to get our business going,” Long said. “We would have lost another day and a lot of committees would have been way behind the eight ball had we not met today.”

Long and Bosma excused those lawmakers who’d decided not to make the trip, including many who live in counties where travel is banned except for emergencies. At the time the House and Senate adjourned, roughly 20 counties still had travel bans, most of them in central Indiana.

Despite the high number of absences, several Senate committees met Tuesday night and considered bills meant to make it illegal for people to surreptitiously photograph or video livestock operations, make it harder for local governments to take private land to build trails, and strengthen laws against providing locations for minors to drink.

In the House, lawmakers introduced about 50 bills – some of which were almost immediately set for committee hearings.

The most controversial measure of the session – a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage – was not on the list.

The proposal would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman and is already part of state law. But if lawmakers pass a resolution this year, it will go on the ballot in November, where voters will decide whether to put the definition into the Indiana Constitution.

Bosma has supported the measure in the past and has said it will be considered this year like any other proposal. But he said Tuesday that it is not part of the GOP agenda and said he declined to answer questions about it until Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Freedom Indiana, a group that opposes the amendment, delivered boxes containing 6,000 messages for lawmakers. The group’s campaign manager, Megan Robertson, said boxes didn’t contain form letters but individually written notes from people who think the amendment is a bad idea.

“They’re all personal letters,” Robertson said. “I couldn’t say what all of them say because there are so many reasons people are against this constitutional amendment.”

Rev. Johnna Taylor of the Powerhouse Church of Indianapolis was among those who helped deliver the letters. She came with her partner, who lugged one of the boxes to the Statehouse post office.

“We’re a same-sex couple and we would like to get married where we live and where we pay taxes and where we work,” Taylor said.

Family and some Christian-based groups support the amendment and have been running ads critical of those lawmakers who oppose it.

Although the marriage amendment has garnered much of the attention leading into the 2014 session, there are a number of other issues on the agenda – and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, threw out a new idea Tuesday.

He proposed a new incentive meant to keep 1,000 of the state’s top college graduates in science, technology, engineering and math from leaving the state. “If they remain Hoosiers, they will not pay one dime of state income tax for their first five years as Hoosier profit creators,” Pelath said.

Also, Gov. Mike Pence has asked the General Assembly to phase out the property tax on business equipment, which generates $1 billion annually for local governments and schools. He also wants to create a state-funded voucher program to help low-income kids go to preschool.

John Ketzenberger, president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, said the General Assembly will struggle with proposals that either spend money or reduce taxes, especially given a recent forecast that projected lower tax receipts than lawmakers thought when they crafted the current budget.

Pence has suggested that lawmakers approved the programs now and figure out how to pay for them next year. Ketzenberger said that makes sense politically but contradicts Indiana’s tradition of considering its spending every two years, when all programs can be weighed against one another.

“You don’t know what next year’s going to bring from a fiscal perspective,” Ketzenberger said. “To pass something this year with the intention of paying for it next year would seem to be premature.”

Long said his goal will not to put “ourselves in financial jeopardy.”

“But there’s no harm in talking about” the governor’s ideas, he said. “We just have to recognize what we can and can’t do fiscally in this state and recognize some things may have to be staged in front of others.”

Bosma plans to unveil the House Republican agenda on Wednesday. It’s also expected to include a proposal to reduce the tax on business property

“We are looking for an option for counties to opt into this on new equipment only. It’s a phased approach,” Bosma said.

If every county took advantage of that idea, it could mean a 12-percent overall cut in the tax, he said.

“That’s the smart way to do it,” he said. “It would cause a little less panic among local governments and schools that rely on that income.”

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