Lawmakers push spending, education in final hours
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers ended their 2012 legislative session early Saturday after racing through a sprawling education and spending plan.
The last measure they approved this year is a plan that pays $6 million to state fair victims and $80 million for full-day kindergarten, and puts more money for state reserves before an automatic tax refund is triggered. It also changes the rules governing Indiana's charter schools and officials tasked with turning faltering schools around.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma reflected on the end of the state's biennial session, which technically began in November 2010, by touting an education overhaul approved last year and the right-to-work measure passed this year.
"We have across the board made Indiana a better state," he said.
While none of the issues lawmakers worked on late into the night on the final day of their session carried the drama of the right-to-work battle that dominated the Statehouse just a month ago, they arguably will affect more Indiana residents.
House Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer, of South Bend, accused Republicans of slipping unpopular education changes into a popular bill designed to help victims of last summer's state fair stage collapse.
"You just saw a bill to allow the further deterioration of public schools hitch a ride with good things like helping people that were injured at the fairgrounds," Bauer said shortly after the session ended.
Lawmakers opened the session by working on their most controversial issue this year: a ban on unions collecting mandatory fees from workers for representation. And early Saturday — 10 weeks later — they closed by approving a broad spending plan that included a series of changes to the state's education system added to the measure in the 11th hour.
Lawmakers also agreed to decrease the state's inheritance tax in stages beginning next year until it is eliminated after 2021. The plan also more than doubles the current inheritance tax exemption for children and grandchildren to $250,000 starting this year. The tax now brings in about $160 million a year to the state.
"If you have a constituent whose family has passed, or passed recently, they actually will start benefiting right away," said Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, who wrote the original proposal.
The Senate voted 38-12 to approve the bill on resisting police. The House later voted 67-26 in favor of the bill that is in response to a public uproar over a state Supreme Court ruling last year that residents couldn't resist officers even during an illegal entry.
The measure specifies that people are protected by the state's self-defense law if they reasonably believe force is necessary to protect themselves from unlawful actions by an officer.
Supporters say the proposal strengthens the legal rights of people against government agents improperly entering their homes, but Sen. Thomas Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, said he agreed with police groups that have said they worry about the bill giving people justification for attacking officers. Wyss argued that he didn't want the state to have a law that could lead to more violence against police.
"I just don't want to go and put a rose on a casket because somebody didn't understand this and they killed a cop," Wyss said.
Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, said the bill raises the legal bar for someone to claim that they were acting in self-defense against a police officer
"If his life is not threatened by the unlawful entry, then he may not use deadly force," Young said.
From Jan. 4 through Feb. 1, work at the Indiana Statehouse was dominated by chanting union protesters, boycotts by House Democrats and fines from House Republicans, all fighting over whether Indiana would become the first state in the Rust Belt to ban unions from collecting mandatory fees for representation.
Right-to-work supporters claimed victory with a signature from Gov. Mitch Daniels one day before breaking for the Super Bowl, which was played just a few blocks from the Statehouse at the Lucas Oil Stadium.
Lawmakers later passed Indiana's first statewide smoking ban, with exemptions for the state's gambling industry, tobacco stores, bars and taverns, and private clubs such as the VFW. Senators also tentatively approved the first statewide regulations for temporary structures in response to the stage collapse at the state fair last summer. They placed new limits on how many credits colleges can require of students before they graduate and made it easier to transfer credits between the state's colleges.
Most hot-button issues got pushed off this year by leaders who were weary after the grueling right-to-work battle. Bosma killed a proposal to teach creationism in public schools. Senate President Pro Tem David Long spiked a measure that would have allowed deer hunting in fenced-in private reserves. Senators also voted down a proposal that would have had welfare recipients and lawmakers taking the same drug tests in order to receive money from the state.
A few hot-button issues still quietly crept back to the fore. Conservatives pushed to ban specialty license plates for a gay youth support group, but Long said he expected to place a moratorium on approving new license plates for groups around the state while lawmakers studied the issue over the summer.