Local lawmakers suffer legislative battle fatigue

GREENFIELD — With battles over religious freedom and educational statutes, some local lawmakers say this was the most heated legislative session in years.

This week, they wrapped up work on dozens of bills, some of which will find their way to the governor’s desk to become law. Other ideas lost traction somewhere along the way through the Statehouse.

Wednesday marked the deadline for bills to be heard on final reading; differences in bills approved by both chambers will be ironed out in the coming weeks, with the session adjourning no later than April 29.

Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, said he is glad to see this session come to an end after spending the term getting “attacked from both directions” on several issues, particularly the contentious Religion Freedom Reformation Act.

“It’s been the most difficult, most contentious session that I’ve been in yet,” he said. “I can say pretty clearly I haven’t enjoyed it. I got some good legislation passed, but it’s just not been a good experience this year.”

Crider voted in favor with the RFRA and said he did so because he viewed it as protecting religious practices. A former officer for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Crider said he was thinking particularly about protecting the rights of Native Americans and their use of bald eagle feathers for religious ceremonies.

Crider went on to vote in favor of the clarification bill that prohibited discrimination, but he said he got backlash from people on both sides of the issue.

Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, was against RFRA from the start and was one of only five Republicans to vote against the measure.

He said it was hard for lawmakers to watch as the state was splashed across national headlines and discussed in negative ways.

“A lot of us took it very personally,” he said.

Hot topics in the Statehouse overshadowed significant victories in other legislation, Crider said, such as his bill changing the statute of limitations on rape. Once signed into law, a person can be charged with rape if DNA evidence is discovered; if recorded evidence is discovered; or if a person confesses to the crime.

The bill stems from Greenfield native Jenny Wendt Ewing, who was raped in 2005 but could not press charges when her assailant confessed in 2014 because the current statute of limitations is five years.

Crider said he was proud of that victory. Ewing, who now lives in Oregon, said that, with the addition of recorded evidence, the bill is even stronger than she expected.

Under the new law, Ewing won’t be able to press charges against her assailant because the law isn’t retroactive, but she said she hopes her story helped others understand the importance of reporting rape and collecting evidence for prosecution.

“I wanted to make sure it never happened to anyone else,” she said.

One bill that failed after a series of twists and turns was a measure that would have ended the 80-year ban on Sunday alcohol sales. Eberhart said the measure was one he has worked on for several years, and he introduced it at the start of the session with high hopes.

But as it passed from committee to committee and from chamber to chamber, the legislation morphed into something unrecognizable, he said. The modifications were so severe that, in the end, he decided to vote against it.

“That’s something that happens a lot, and it’s probably one of the most frustrating things that happens up here,” he said. “(Watching the bill fail) was probably one of my biggest disappointments this year.”

Education was a hot topic throughout the session. After a power struggle between Gov. Mike Pence and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, the Legislature approved a bill that could pull Ritz as head of the state’s Board of Education.

“I don’t want to see us at the stalemate we’re in,” Crider said of his support for the bill.

Still up for consideration is the state budget, which Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, spent most of his time ironing out as vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Cherry admitted he was frustrated as the most recent state revenue forecast, which was released Thursday, put the state’s projected revenue for the next two years $213 million short of the original projection. This meant a little more toil for those working on budget negotiations.

“The economy is growing but not as quickly as we’d like,” he said. “We’ll have to go back over the next few days to look at ways to cut spending. It’s either cut spending or raise taxes.”

The House Ways and Means Committee has slated extra meetings during the final days of the session in order to make changes. Cuts, although minor, most likely would come from education, Cherry said, as K-12 and higher education funding makes up 64 percent of the state’s overall budget.

Despite disappointments in economic growth, Cherry said, he was pleased with the budgets presented so far by both chambers of the General Assembly.

“They are both very similar, and I would be supportive of either one,” he said. “They are both great for Hancock County schools; even with trimming, they’ll be OK.”

Eberhart agreed and said that, even if funds were cut from education, a significant amount would be headed to local schools.

Local lawmakers said they plan to keep working hard until the Statehouse doors are closed next week.

Bill tracker refer

For more on the status of bills proposed by local legislators, see the Daily Reporter bill tracker on AX.