Education, gay rights debate to dominate session

GREENFIELD — Local lawmakers expect the 2016 legislative session to be dominated by debates about two topics that have made headlines in the past year.

Legislators will revisit religious freedom and rights for the LGBT community following the adoption of the religious freedom restoration act in 2015.

Addressing education-related issues — including a statewide teacher shortage and problems with the ISTEP test — also is expected to top lawmakers’ priority list.

The legislature convenes today, when legislators will introduce a number of bills on key issues that will need to be decided before the session wraps up in March.

Locally, Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, and Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, are proposing several bills they say are important to Hancock County. They include one that would allow the county to increase its food and beverage tax to pay for a new fairgrounds and another to establish funding to investigate child exploitation cases in Indiana.

Here’s a look at some proposals lawmakers expect to consider:

Education

Cherry and Crider expect the legislature to fast-track a bill to shield teachers from being negatively impacted by ISTEP scores, which are expected to be low.Crider said problems with last year’s ISTEP test have created headaches for teachers, schools, lawmakers and parents, and it’s important lawmakers address the issue before the next test is administered in March.Meanwhile, they also expect to try to find solutions to Indiana’s teacher shortage. Since 2009, the number of teacher licenses issued by the state has dropped by more than 30 percent, data from the Indiana Department of Education show.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, who represents a portion of Hancock County, suggested the state create full-tuition college scholarships for students who agree to teach in Indiana schools for at least five years to help alleviate the shortage.

Proposals from a commission of legislators, teachers and administrators call for allowing school districts to establish raise schedules to ensure teachers are rewarded for their hard work, especially those with advanced degrees. Currently, pay raises are tied to student performance.

Road funding

Gov. Mike Pence and House Republican leaders have introduced two proposals for generating more money for roads. Pence wants to use the state’s cash reserves and take out loans to avoid a tax hike for residents. Republican leaders have proposed an estimated 5-cent increase in the state’s gasoline tax, which is paid at the pump.Cherry and Crider agree more proposals likely will emerge as the topic dominates the session.

Religious rights

Cherry expects lawmakers will consider several bills related to religious freedom and rights for the LGBT community.A bill authored by a Democrat senator would add gender identity and sexual orientation to Indiana’s anti-discrimination law.Meanwhile, a Republican senator has proposed a bill that would make it a Class A misdemeanor for a transgender person to enter a public restroom that does not conform to the gender the person was assigned at birth.

Food, beverage tax

Cherry plans to author legislation to allow Hancock County to increase its tax on diners at local restaurants by 1 percentage point to help fund the proposed new fairgrounds project.Last year, all three county commissioners and seven county council members agreed they’d support an increase in the tax to help pay for the estimated $30 million project.Cherry said he’s unsure the bill will find support. Last year, a similar proposal to generate more money for road funding by increasing the tax failed. But Cherry said, because the fairgrounds project could be an economic development driver, it should garner the support it needs.

If approved by the legislature, Hancock County officials would still need to approve an increase before the tax could rise.

Now, diners pay 1 cent for every dollar they spend at local restaurants; if the increase is approved, diners would pay 2 cents on every dollar.

Alicia’s Law

Crider plans to propose legislation to establish more funding to investigate child exploitation. As part of a national effort called Alicia’s Law, Crider’s bill would add $10 to the court fees criminal defendants pay, which would be distributed to local law enforcement to investigate Internet crimes against children.According to the Alicia Project, the namesake for the law, fewer than 2 percent of known child exploitation cases are being investigated because a lack of funding.

Innocent co-insured

Crider also hopes to renew interest in legislation he’s proposed in the past. In the past few years, he authored a bill that would have protected domestic violence victims from being denied coverage by their insurance company after their partner caused damages to their property.The term innocent co-insured refers to an individual who was not involved in an intentional act that caused loss for an insurance claim, such as starting a fire in one’s home. Currently, those individuals are often denied payment because they hold the insurance policy with the person who is responsible for causing the damage, Crider said. That leaves victims with no way of recouping what they’ve lost, Crider said.This summer, the bill was discussed among lawmakers and insurance experts in summer study committees, and Crider said he’s tweaked it so the insurance company would be responsible only for replacing items that were lost in the incident. He’s hopeful the bill will make more progress this year.

Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, could not be reached for comment.

About this series

The Daily Reporter is giving readers a heads-up on 2016. From public safety, to government and education, our looking-ahead series tells you what’s coming up in Hancock County.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.