Lawmakers close session marked by taxes, marriage
By TOM LoBIANCO and SUMMER BALLENTINE March 14, 2014 1:28PM
The Indiana House of Representatives listens to debate of the final day of the 2014 legislative session at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 13, 2014. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Updated: March 14, 2014 10:58PM
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers have ended their 2014 session, sending business tax cuts, a preschool program, new roads funding and a series of other measures to Gov. Mike Pence for consideration.
Lawmakers opened the session in January, pitching headlong into an emotional debate on gay marriage, but left on a much quieter note late Thursday night. Republican legislative leaders managed to push through an agenda that Pence had signed onto, but not without extensive negotiations and some concerns raised about their impact on the state budget.
The focus will turn shortly to Pence, as he considers what measures to sign. He has not said whether he will veto any measures, although the governor’s veto carries little direct power because it can be overridden by a simple majority of lawmakers.
“I’m very proud of the members here — Republican and Democrat, House and Senate,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, shortly after gaveling the session to a close. “They worked hard. They brought this home despite the predictions that we’d get sidetracked.”
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, had a sharply different view of the past two months at the Statehouse.
“When the true standard for creativity is set in trying to explain to the people of Indiana that many things have been done on their behalf these past two and a half months — as the governor and the leaders of his super-majorities have tried to do today — you know that the bar of accomplishment is very low,” Pelath said in a statement.
The session’s end was a marked departure from its beginning, when emotional debates over a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage divided lawmakers and brought hundreds of activists to the Statehouse on a regular basis.
Marriage ban opponents won a surprising victory last month when lawmakers removed language about civil unions from the amendment, forcing them to start the process anew. That means the soonest the issue could appear on a ballot is 2016.
The marriage battle also led to some political fallout. Senate Republican leaders stripped Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, of his leadership posts and moved his Senate seat next to the Democrats in the chamber after he criticized their handling of the issue.
And Bosma announced he had been offered “unlimited campaign funds” to make the marriage ban “go away” this session. But the Republican donor who offered the help, former Republican Party Chairman Jim Kittle, roundly disputed Bosma’s claims.
By the end of last month, however, the focus had turned back to issues most lawmakers were more interested in addressing, including education and taxes.
Statehouse Republican leaders announced an agreement late Wednesday under which the state would potentially release $400 million for transportation projects this year. The state would also rely on $10 million from budget cuts and $5 million in private donations to launch a preschool program for children from low-income families.
Bosma said he believes the state could use the $400 million to leverage up to $2.4 billion for highway projects — including additional lanes for Interstates 65, 69 and 70 — through federal funding. The first $200 million would be given to the Indiana Department of Transportation immediately, but the second half would only be released after legislators receive an update of the state’s finances in December.
The business tax package calls for cutting the corporate income tax and state banking tax to 4.9 percent. It also would let local governments decide whether to cut the business equipment tax.
Pence originally sought to eliminate the state’s tax on business equipment, but local leaders opposed the measure because the tax provides critical revenues.
Supporters said the cuts were crucial to helping Indiana compete with other states for new businesses. But Democrats opposing the cuts said lawmakers will have to come back next year and begin cutting critical services such as education and roads.
Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, pointed to a legislative analysis that determined the cuts would drain $145 million from state coffers once fully implemented.
“You will be faced with declining revenue and increase demands and you will have to decide what Indiana services are we going to give up? Roads? Education? Job training?” Tallian asked.
Lawmakers also agreed to pitch in $10 million in state budget cuts and federal funds to pay for a preschool pilot program that Pence has long sought.
Children from low-income families in five Indiana counties would be eligible for the program, which also banks on $5 million in private sector funds. Families earning up to 127 percent of the federal poverty level — a little less than $30,000 for a family of four — would qualify.
The final bill passed by the General Assembly is a diluted version of Pence’s original request to serve 40,000 low-income children across the state. Lawmakers shied from the more expansive plan in face of potential budget shortfalls.
“It took us months to come up with a very small program and until today it’s hung by a thread to have even that happen,” said Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis. “Nobody should be beating their chest on either side of this place about this very modest success.”
An overhaul of the state’s criminal sentencing law passed the Legislature Thursday after more than five years of negotiations. It is the first major revision of the state’s criminal code in more than three decades.
Supporters say the revamped system will dish out harsher penalties for the worst offenders and place nonviolent criminals in more appropriate correction facilities.
In the session’s waning minutes, lawmakers gave final approval to a bill allowing parents to keep guns in their cars in school parking lots. But measures to extend a nursing home construction moratorium and drug test some welfare recipients both failed to find enough support.