Indiana lawmakers advanced a wide range of measures Thursday as they headed into the final two weeks of their 2014 session, setting up last-minute negotiations on everything from road funding to education.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence's agenda continued to suffer in the Senate, where Republicans gave the governor a little of what he has been seeking, but not much. Pence traveled to Evansville on Thursday to continue a last-minute push to salvage a preschool voucher program he is supporting.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said it may look like it's too late for much to change in the General Assembly, but that's when lawmakers get much of their work done. He equated the coming weeks to the final minutes of a basketball game or the final laps of NASCAR.
"The last two weeks, just like the end of the game, it's all that matters," Long said.
The action is setting the stage for negotiations between the House and Senate, which will continue until the General Assembly is scheduled to wrap up work for the year, March 14.
In the Senate, lawmakers gave the Pence half of the $400 million he has been seeking for major roads projects. Only $200 million would be released pending approval from the State Budget Agency if the measure, which passed unanimously in the Senate, gets final support from both chambers.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, who created the fund last year to set aside $200 million a year until 2020 for major transportation improvements, hesitantly signed off on the legislation after the Indiana Department of Transportation pitched using the money to widen Interstates 65, 70 and 69 to six lanes in certain areas before inflation jacks up the price tag on the project.
Pence did score a win Thursday with the Senate's unanimous approval of adoption incentives. The bill would create additional tax credits for adoptive parents and form a committee to study how Indiana policy stacks up to other states.
But Pence's goal to fund preschool education was reduced from a pilot program to a study panel of lawmakers and others who would review the issue over the summer. The measure approved 44-4 in the Senate would require that the state study the cost and potential effects of preschool in Indiana.
Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, said it took him a little while to come around to supporting the idea, but ultimately decided it was something worth paying for.
"I was not an early backer of this concept," Miller said. But "this is not Head Start. … It's not daycare."
In the House on Thursday, lawmakers advanced legislation that would allow parents to keep guns in their cars on school parking lots, as long as they are kept in glove compartments or other enclosed spaces. Supporters have said many parents have been unknowingly breaking state law, but opponents of the measure say it would promote gun violence.
House lawmakers also approved a measure requiring the state's exit from national Common Core education standards. The House passed the legislation 67-26 after debating the tight deadlines set in the measure. The bill would require the State Board of Education to create new learning standards for each grade by July 1.
New tests under the changed guidelines would be used in the 2015-16 school year if the bill becomes law, drawing concern that teachers won't have enough time to adjust and the board won't have enough time to properly make the test.
Supporters of banning the national standards hope to strengthen requirements in the state, placing Indiana students ahead of others who follow the national guidelines. The debate showcased some Indiana lawmakers' desire to break away from the 44 other states that follow Common Core, but national standard supporters said it would come at the expense of students.
If Indiana strays too far, it could jeopardize students' ACT and SAT scores, Common Core supporters say. Those tests are aligned with the Common Core standards, said Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis.
"This is just an attempt to separate ourselves out from the rest of our country (because) we'll feel better about ourselves," Delaney said. "I don't care, frankly, if we feel better about ourselves or we send a message to the outsiders. I care whether my children and grandchildren have an opportunity."