The work of the 2019 legislative session began in earnest this week as the governor unveiled his budget, lawmakers debated a revenge porn bill, and hate crimes bill advocates launched a new coalition.
Holcomb’s Budget Proposal
Policymakers will have more new money in the upcoming two-year state budget than many previously thought. The new budget will have more than $1 billion in new money available. That’s up from the roughly $800 million that was reported last month at a state revenue forecast presentation.
Gov. Eric Holcomb’s proposed budget fully funds Medicaid and Department of Child Services spending requests. But it cuts funding for the Hoosier State Amtrak train, which runs daily from Indianapolis to Chicago.
The governor’s proposed budget also increases education funding by 2 percent each year – but it also cuts the state’s Teacher Appreciation Grants, which provide bonus money to highly rated teachers. Democrat and Republican lawmakers took issue with the idea of eliminating the only line item in the state budget dedicated to increasing teachers’ pay.
Holcomb’s team says they hope schools will direct dollars to that effort.
Earlier in the week, teachers and advocates voiced their concerns over one part of Indiana Republicans’ approach to increase teacher pay.
The bill would allow school districts to move just 15 percent of funding in their budgets away from “education” expenses – things like teacher pay – toward operation costs, and require the state to create a list of any schools that go over the limit. Starting this calendar year, school districts can keep money in two pools: education and operations.
Critics say the bill limits local control and doesn’t allow flexibility to cover funding gaps for things like transportation or maintenance. The bill’s authors say they are open to change specifics in the legislation. The committee approved the bill along party lines.
Legislators want to allow victims of so-called “revenge porn” to sue for at least $10,000. There’s nothing currently in state law that deals with the distribution of pornographic images or videos without someone’s consent.
Concerns about the measure’s constitutionality delayed a committee vote. Lawmakers say they’re working on language that will pass judicial muster.
Hate Crimes Legislation
And a coalition of more than 700 advocates who want the legislature to pass a hate crimes bill launched a new push for such a law this week.
That’s amid new debate over a bias crimes proposal that would not include a list of victim characteristics, as most of the hate crimes bills authored this session do. Many say such a measure would be unconstitutional.
Sexual Harassment Policy
Legislative ethics committees began the process of approving sexual harassment policies for lawmakers. The House and Senate make their own rules, but both versions bar any sexual contact between lawmakers and interns, even if it were consensual.
The Senate Ethics Committee has approved the proposed rules – the full chamber must now vote on the policy. The House continued its debate over best practices during its meeting Thursday, but did not vote.
School Bus Safety
Family members of three students who were struck and killed on their way to a bus stop in October joined legislators Tuesday to call for better school bus safety across the state.
Under the proposal, penalties for drivers who violate school bus passing laws would increase. For example, a driver who “recklessly passes” a bus with its stop arm out and injures someone, could be charged with a Level 6 felony.
Cigarette Tax Increase
Advocates for a $2 cigarette tax increase released a poll this week. They say 70 percent of Hoosier support a tax increase and more than three-fourths of respondents says it’s important revenue be spent on tobacco prevention.
Smoking rates in Indiana ticked up slightly in 2018, to 21.8 percent. But out of 600 Hoosiers polled last month, 7 in 10 say they support a $2 cigarette tax increase.