NDIANAPOLIS — Every legislative session has its own distinct feeling, and Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma says the session that will begin Monday is no different.
Comparing the protests and walkouts that marked the last two sessions with partisan conflict, Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the 2013 session should have a much different feel. With the so-called “right-to-work” law behind them and now a super-majority of Republicans in both chambers, Bosma said this will be a year of budget challenges and possible boosts to education, which could ultimately help the state’s economy.
Bosma is among four lawmakers who now represent parts of Hancock County. While the county is still in one Senate district – District 28, represented by new Republican Sen. Mike Crider – the county was divided into three House districts in 2012. Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield; and Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville; also represent portions of the county.
All four said they’re bracing for a busy, yet quieter session compared to recent years. But with 150 legislators from 92 counties with varying ideas, they’ve come to expect the unexpected.
Bosma said this is a year of transition with a new governor, new superintendent of public instruction and many new representatives.
Gov.-elect Mike Pence’s proposed 10 percent cut to individual income taxes will be met with concern, Bosma said. The Legislature will be ironing out the next two years’ worth of state budgets in this session, including figuring out what to do with the state’s cash reserve and whether Indiana can afford such a reduction in revenue.
“That will probably be one of the more debated topics,” said Bosma, who has reservations on whether the tax cut should be made this year.
Eberhart came out with a flat “No” when asked if the income tax reduction was a possibility.
“We’re one of the few states that are in the black, so we’ve done a good job with our fiscal matters, but we’re certainly not in the position to take on an income tax cut that would bring down our reserves and possibly force some cuts in other areas,” he said.
Eberhart, who represents the western half of Sugar Creek Township, said he’d rather see more money for schools, especially for early-childhood education.
“My focus is going to be on the budget, jobs and the economy,” Eberhart said. “That being said, there’s 150 different legislators, and everyone can introduce their own legislation and what they think is best for the state. With that could come many different issues, including some controversial ones.”
Bosma, however, wants to stay on course with priorities of being fiscally sound and boosting the economy. One lawmaker’s criticism of the Girl Scouts last year, for example, was a distraction.
As House speaker, Bosma can determine which bills come up for a final vote in the chamber.
“I hope to be that steady hand at the wheel in the coming years: avoid hard turns to the right or left and keep folks from majoring in the minors, getting on a rabbit trail of a single issue and hunting it ’til it’s obliterated,” Bosma said.
A surge of funding came last year for full-day kindergarten across the state. Funding to help children before they enter kindergarten is a priority this year, Bosma said.
Bosma also wants to make sure adults have the education they need to meet the jobs demand in the state. Bosma’s single bill he will file this year will be something he’s been working on with Pence.
“If I had to pick a single issue that would be defining this year, it will be matching Hoosier worker skills to Hoosier jobs,” Bosma said.
The bill will help make sure Indiana workers have the skills to meet the high-tech jobs that are coming to Indiana. It will encourage various state agencies to work together.
In addition to education, funding for roadwork will be a major point of discussion this year. Bosma said the phasing out of Major Moves money for state infrastructure is Indiana’s “own little fiscal cliff.” City and county officials have also long been asking for additional funding for street repairs.
Cherry is budget chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, so he will be spending a lot of time this year ironing out differences in the state’s budget. He is also concerned about Pence’s proposed tax cut and said education and infrastructure funding are vital. He’s not sure the state can afford a tax cut now.
“We have to see if we can sustain that,” Cherry said. “The worst thing we can do is cut the taxes and then in two years raise the taxes.”
With Republicans in control of both chambers and the governor’s office, Cherry said he hopes ideas from the other side of the aisle will still be heard.
“I don’t think we’ll be so unruly or so far to the right they’ll want to call us extremists,” Cherry said. “I think we’ll be very cooperative and want input.”
Bosma said the Republican control puts pressure on the GOP to perform – “and that’s OK.”
Other issues that could come to the forefront this year include reform with the Department of Child Services; an earlier implementation of an Internet sales tax on companies like Amazon; and criminal sentencing reform that Bosma said could lower sentences for nonviolent crimes and increase sentences for violent crimes.
The discussion on decriminalizing marijuana could also come into play this year. While Bosma said he doesn’t think the drug should be legalized, but he is OK with the conversation starting on reducing penalties.
“I know from experience with acquaintances years ago in college that it is an introductory drug and can lead to very serious consequences,” Bosma said. “I think fully legalizing it is a mistake. Discussing proper penalties for very small amounts, OK. I’m OK with that discussion.”
The ban on gay marriage could also be a hot-button issue this year, but Bosma said legislative leaders haven’t decided yet whether bills on the subject will be heard. A ban must pass a legislative session either this year or next year for the issue to come before all Hoosiers for a vote.
Meanwhile, Crider said he’s looking forward to his first session as a state senator and agreed that the primary issue will be the state’s budget.
“I’m going to be pretty conservative in how I look at things,” Crider said. “Having worked in state government for 30 years, I realize the impacts that come out because of cuts that take place. We have agencies in state government that have been cut pretty drastically at this point, and I’m not sure they can afford much more. In fact, some of them may need some funding back to meet their mission.”
While it’s still up in the air what issues will come to the forefront, Crider said this session will likely be fairly quiet.
“It seems like most folks are expecting a more normal business atmosphere and really a spirit of cooperation in trying to get things done in a bipartisan fashion,” Crider said.