INDIANAPOLIS (Jan. 3, 2015) - State lawmakers return to work this week to deal with several key issues looming ahead of this year's legislative session.
At the top of the list: roads, education and the latest debate over rights for the LGBT community.
Back in November, lawmakers gathered for Organization Day as Senate Republicans unveiled legislation meant to be seen as a compromise on the issue that dominated the headlines during last year's debate over RFRA.
The legislation, filed as Senate Bill 100, would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, while exempting religious institutions and small businesses with fewer than four employees.
“This bill is an attempt to balance civil rights and religious liberty,” said Senate President pro tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, at a news conference on Organization Day.
Still, the proposal has already been drawing mixed reaction.
While there would be sexual orientation and gender identity protections for housing, employment and public accommodations- there would be numerous exemptions, including an exception for churches and religious universities, and for wedding services with less than four employees.
The measure would also replace any local ordinances dealing with civil rights- a number of which have just been passed in recent months.
“The state is basically taking charge and this would be the law of the land in state of Indiana,” said State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, the bill’s author.
There would be a $1,000 penalty for any frivolous complaints, and transgender people would have to live as their preferred gender for one year or get a medical opinion before filing a complaint.
And schools and businesses would be allowed to set their own rules on dress codes and bathroom policies.
An official with Lambda Legal told the IndyStar the bill a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ and said it would serve as ‘a road map for discrimination against LGBT people’ instead of protecting them.
Senate Democrats are instead calling for full across the board protections without exception. Senate minority leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, announced his plans to file Senate Bill 2, which he called a simple, cleaner solution.
“The citizens of this state and other states and business inside and outside Indiana are watching to see what we do and they want to know will there be across the board protection and no license to discriminate,” said Lanane.
"This is an important issue," said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, in an interview with FOX59 IN Focus. "It deserves discussion and thorough democratic discussion... It's not going to be easy."
Bosma said he was surprised by the controversy over last year's religious freedom bill, but said he was glad to support a bill known as the 'fix' which clarified the bill would not supersede local non-discrimination ordinances, or be used as a defense for discrimination.
Still, Bosma said he's standing his ground, and promises he won't pressured by national lobbying organizations pushing for full protections.
"I’m going to be clear on this," said Bosma. "We’re not going to be blackmailed by national public interests to take action on protected class status. It’s going to be a policy discussion, it’s going to be a civil one and if Hoosier elected officials want to do it, we will and if they don’t we won’t."
In November, House minority leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said he felt there were enough votes to pass full protections on the House floor, but Bosma said he wasn't so sure.
Pelath also made news last week when he unveiled the Democrats' plan to fund road improvements in Indiana.
The $2 billion proposal would mandate every dollar collected from Indiana’s sales tax on gasoline be set aside to fix roads. Currently a vast majority goes into the state’s general fund.
“What the people of Indiana don’t know, and one of the reasons the roads are in bad shape, is because when they pay at the pump those dollars are not going to where they belong,” said Pelath. “This is the fundamental and number one economic issue our state needs to address in the upcoming session.”
Pelath said in 2015 the plan would have reallocated about $525 million dollars for road maintenance, claiming over four years it would free up an estimated $2 billion. About 53 percent of the funds would go toward state projects, Pelath said, and 47% to local.
Republicans were quick to respond.
Matt Lloyd, spokesman for Gov. Mike Pence said in a statement, “Sadly, the plan presented today by House Democrats forces Hoosiers to choose between cutting $500 million from the general fund for vital services like K-12 tuition support, teacher pensions, Medicaid and state hospitals or going broke in four years. That is irresponsible and not serious.”
Pence unveiled his own $1 billion plan late last year that would use a combination of reserves, budget allocations and other funds over four years to fund maintenance on state roads.
Pelath said Democrats are resistant to increasing the gas tax to pay for the proposal and would rather reallocate the money.
“Ultimately, the House Democrats’ plan is shortsighted,” said State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee. “Merely redirecting all the sales tax on gas toward roads would leave a corresponding hole in our already balanced budget.”
But Democrats argued the money Hoosiers pay at the gas pump should only be reinvested into Hoosier roadways.
Democrats plan to formally introduce the proposal during the 2016 legislative session, which starts on Tuesday.