Indiana Senate Republicans plan to pursue local road funding, tax relief for farmers, medical malpractice reform and stricter penalties for drug dealers during the 2016 session of the General Assembly, which started its 10-week tenure on Tuesday.
The Senate GOP caucus unveiled its legislative agenda on Tuesday morning, in some ways echoing a more extensive agenda proffered by Gov. Mike Pence on Monday—including the absence of any stated stance on adding protections for the LGBT community into the state’s civil rights law.
“This will be a short session, but I expect it to be a productive one,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, at a Tuesday press conference.
The caucus’ priorities aligned with Pence’s agenda in several ways, including making $418 million available to improve local roads, protecting schools and teachers from any negative impact related to 2015 ISTEP scores, and authorizing an additional $42 million for funding Pence’s Regional Cities program.
“We hope to pursue the rest of the legislature to go along with us on that,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, R- Noblesville. “It’s a creative idea. It ties regions together rather than having everyone fight against each other.”
Despite no mention of LGBT rights on their legislative agenda, Senate Republicans have addressed the issue on at least a preliminary basis. In November, they released a draft of legislation that would prohibit discrimination in housing, education, public accommodations and employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It had exceptions for religious organizations and some vendors in the wedding industry.
Long said he believed the bill and the discussion were important, but it was left off the agenda because the Republican caucus hasn’t entirely endorsed it. He said he expected it to be taken up later in the month.
“This is a group agenda and we don’t have consensus on the LGBT bill,” Long said. “We have people all over the place on those issues.”
A bill from Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, would increase award caps for medical malpractice cases, indexing them to inflation. Under Indiana law, doctors are responsible for only the first $250,000 in damages to any patient for each act of malpractice, but no more than $750,000 total per year. The state's Patient Compensation Fund pays any excess, up to $1 million.
The Senate plan would increase doctors’ liability to $450,000 and would raise the amount payable from the Patient Compensation Fund to $1.65 million.
“The goal is not to punish anyone,” Long said. “It’s to preserve an outstanding law [and] makes sure it’s modernized to avoid a constitutional attack, which I think it is vulnerable to. As we know, medical care is expensive, especially when it’s a catastrophic situation.”
An Indiana couple currently is challenging the constitutionality of capping malpractice damages.
The Senate’s announced agenda from Tuesday is listed below, including the names of bill authors and brief summaries:
— Funding Our Local Roads (Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek)
Provide $418 million to local governments for improvements to local roads and bridges.
— Supporting Economic Development (Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville)
Fully fund a third Regional Cities project using revenues from the 2015 tax amnesty program. With the bill, Northeast Indiana, North Central Indiana and Southwest Indiana would each receive $42 million for long-term, high-impact economic development projects.
— Fairness in School Accountability, Teacher Pay (Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn)
Prevent 2015 school A-F grades from dropping in response to ISTEP problems. Support companion legislation in the House to remove ISTEP scores and A-F grades from teacher evaluations for one year.
— Medical Malpractice Reform (Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford):
Make the medical malpractice award system more patient-friendly by raising the award caps for medical malpractice cases, indexing the caps to inflation and raising the dollar-limit cap for small malpractice claims to bypass the Medical Review Board and go straight to court.
— Stopping Drug Dealers (Sen. R. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis)
Allow courts to convict people caught with large amounts of drugs as dealers, not just users. Companion legislation in the House would establish mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers.
— Supporting Hoosier Veterans (Sens. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City and Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek):
Allow a veteran who served on active-duty during any armed conflict to be eligible for financial assistance from the Military Family Relief Fund (MFRF) and add a box to Indiana tax returns allowing Hoosiers to donate a portion of their tax refund to the MFRF.
— Property Tax Relief for Farmers (Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek)
Change the formula for farmland property-tax assessment to limit increases in the per-acre base rate and permanently halt an increase in soil productivity factors.