What to watch for as Indiana lawmakers return to work

Indiana Statehouse (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– State lawmakers return to the Indiana Statehouse Thursday for the start of the 2019 legislative session.

Lawmakers will debate several controversial issues during the four-month session and be responsible for crafting the next two-year state budget.

Here are several key topics to watch for:

State budget

Lawmakers will have less money to spend than they had initially hoped for, a recent revenue forecast showed alongside a long list of agencies requesting funding.

Overall education funding will take up a significant chunk of the budget. Whether Indiana teachers receive a pay raise as part of that will be thoroughly debated.

The Department of Child Services has also requested $286 million in additional funds to help the troubled agency after a year filled with criticism and high turnover.

“This isn’t a ship you can turn around overnight, but it is turning,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said in a recent interview. “I think we are starting to slowly move in the right direction.”

Hate crimes

As they have in years past, advocates will again push Indiana lawmakers to pass a hate crime bill, and like other years past it likely won’t be easy.

An already-talked-about sticking point will be whether gender identity be specifically included in the legislation.

Some social conservatives oppose hate crime legislation, arguing Indiana judges already can impose harsher sentences.

But this year proposed legislation has the backing of the governor.

“I don’t think it’s just the right thing to do, I think it’s overdue,” Holcomb said. “And I think we’ll wake up after it’s completed – the sun will come up and we’ll have proof in our hands we are that welcoming state that we know we are.”

School safety

Lawmakers will return to the Statehouse for the first time since school shootings in Noblesville and Richmond and they’re expected to again discuss school safety.

State Sen. Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis) filed legislation Wednesday partially in response to the shooting at Noblesville West Middle School.

The legislation, Merritt said, is meant to be a strong reminder to parents to keep their guns away from children, especially those who show signs of depression or mental health challenges.

The bill as drafted would exempt parents who make a reasonable effort to prevent a child from accessing or possessing a gun from the state statute concerning the dangerous control of a child.

“This has nothing to do with gun safes,” Merritt said. “This has nothing to do with law enforcement visiting homes. This is just an idea that if there’s a risk, you need to be very mindful of keeping guns away from your children.”

Medical marijuana

Supporters will once again push Indiana lawmakers to legalize medical marijuana and follow the lead of 33 other states that have already done so.

The push-back, though, will be strong including from the governor who has said while he supports research, he would first need the federal government to legalize the drug before he would fully back any proposal.

Advocates say their push will be just as strong.

“I love it,” State Rep. Jim Lucas (R-Seymour) said. “Truth, facts, reason, logic. I mean when you’ve got all of that on your side – I’ve got the proof, the facts, public opinion. And when you see all of this going for you, why the Republican party is not embracing this is beyond me. I’m tired of waiting.”

Sports betting

The odds are looking good that lawmakers will legalize sports betting after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruing struck down a federal sports-wagering ban. Several other states have already made the move.

The details still need to be debated on issues like taxation and who and where bets would be allowed.

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