Indiana lawmakers fuel up for critical negotiations as session nears an end

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INDIANAPOLIS – Typically it comes down to a week like this – a sense of 11th hour moves and behind-the-scenes negotiations – to pass major pieces of legislation that Gov. Eric Holcomb will sign off on.

“Getting there this last week is the tough one and everybody will leave here, the leadership on all sides, pretty tired,” Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne) said last week.

Disagreement remains on several key policy issues like the state budget and long-term roads plan.

“Going very, very well,” State Rep. Ed Soliday (R-Valparaiso) said Monday when asked about negotiations. “We have one little philosophical difference that I think we’re going to be able to work out.”

Soliday, who’s helped lead the effort on a long-term plan, said that key difference between the House and Senate is how much of the state’s gas tax should actually pay for roads and when the money should be allocated, as opposed to sending some of that revenue to the state's general fund.

Broadly, Republican lawmakers have agreed on a 10 cent increase to the gas tax along with new fees at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the option for the state to seek federal approval to add tolling to some of Indiana’s roadways.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re the entire building apart and other times it feels like we’re getting close,” State Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) said Monday afternoon, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

Kenley said at this point it’s difficult to not lump budget discussions with that of road funding since revenue streams are so closely tied, like whether to raise the state’s cigarette tax as a funding source. The House and Senate plans differ on that approach.

Movement was seen Monday on other bills like strengthening background checks in Indiana schools.

“We’ve worked a year on this now,” State Sen. Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis ) said Monday. “And I’m very confident we’re going to have a good report come out of here. We all want the same thing. It’s just how we get there.”

Friday’s deadline is self-imposed. Lawmakers have until April 29 to finish business, but a national firefighters conference next week will overtake downtown hotel rooms typically reserved for out-of-town lawmakers.