Legislature: progress, unexpected attention

South Bend Tribune

At the start of the 2015 Indiana General Assembly session, Gov. Mike Pence decreed that it would be dedicated to education.

By the session’s conclusion, it had become known — nationally known — for something else entirely. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act put Indiana on the map for all the wrong reasons.

Although House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the firestorm “may have been a distraction” that lasted “for a little bit more than a week,” the state’s hiring of a public relations firm to clean up Indiana’s post-RFRA image acknowledges something a bit more extensive about the damage done.

But Hoosier lawmakers managed to take care of other legislative matters, before and after the RFRA implosion. A brief review:

• Lawmakers approved a new two-year $31 billion budget that includes a $464 million increase in K-12 education spending. Pence praised the “historic investment,” but not everyone shares in the increase, which shifts money to suburban districts and away from rural and urban districts. It also includes charter school grants of $500 per student if they perform at a certain level. Speaking of education …

• The effort by Republican legislators to dilute the authority of Glenda Ritz, the state superintendent of schools and the only statewide Democratic officeholder, continues. The bill that would allow for the removal of Ritz as chair of the state Board of Education was delayed until 2017, when Ritz’s current term ends. But legislators passed a bill that gives control over standardized testing and a new $10 million charter schools grant fund to the board made up of Pence appointees, instead of the Ritz-led Department of Education. Legislators also passed a measure that, among other things, gives a board vice chairman joint responsibility for the panel’s agenda.

• In a contentious vote, legislators repealed the state’s decades-old common construction wage for public projects. The bill eliminates a system that lets local boards set wages for contractors who work on public projects worth more than $350,000.

• Lawmakers finally passed a long-needed overhaul of the state’s ethics law. The measure bars elected officials from using state resources for political purposes. It also requires greater financial disclosure from lawmakers. The effort to limit conflicts of interest and increase transparency lacks the enforcement of an independent body, but it’s a big step in the right direction.

• In response to the frightening HIV outbreak in southern Indiana, lawmakers approved a measure that would allow communities facing such epidemics tied to intravenous drug use to seek state approval for needle-exchange programs.

Shortly after the session’s end, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle offered their own summation of the proceedings. Democratic leader Scott Pelath noted that “The people of Indiana are ready to move in a new direction, yet we are led by a governor and Republican supermajorities intent upon dragging us backward.”

In a news release, Bosma said that “Through our commitment to fiscal integrity, education, ethics and public safety, we have made great achievements for Hoosiers.”

The starkly different views are to be expected, but as vividly illustrated by the RFRA flap, the most important opinion of what lawmakers did or didn’t do will come from the public they serve.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association.