IN Focus: Gov. Holcomb, state senate leaders discuss hate crime legislation

INDIANAPOLIS – The 2019 Indiana legislative session is underway as of Thursday afternoon, with lawmakers facing major issues during this year’s session including the state budget, medical marijuana, school safety and a state hate crimes bill.

That last one could end up being a major sticking point for the state GOP, even though Indiana is one of only five states without a hate crimes law.

State lawmakers would like to avoid a rehash of 2015’s RFRA debacle, and that’s why they’re treading carefully when it comes to Senate Bill 12—this year’s proposal for a state-wide hate crimes bill.

“This will be one of those priorities this session that we need to get done,” said Gov. Eric Holcomb (R-IN).

There’s general cross-aisle agreement that the state needs something of the sort but the sticking point over getting it done has centered on two key words: gender identity.

“The issue really is, is it the right thing to do to separate a bunch of different classes out,” said Senate Pro Tempore Rod Bray, R-Martinsville.

The issue: whether a bill that covers race, sexual orientation and religion can also pass with specific protections for transgender citizens – something Indy Pride says is necessary.

“The bigger picture is inclusivity, that we are Hoosiers,” said Indy Pride Executive Director Chris Handberg, “but it’s not just about the LGBTQ community, it’s about those crimes that are based on race and religion and sex and gender identity.”

But proponents of the bill already fear it’s dead on arrival. That’s because it is in a committee with a reputation of being where bills go to die—the Senate Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedure, assigned there by Bray.

“The main purpose to do that is so we can as a caucus talk about that issue and find out what sort of form that bill has and if it has support,” said Bray.

Bray says that committee will allow for closer oversight and guidance. Supporters hope that’s truly the case.

“I’m taking the Pro Tem at his word when he says this does not mean that the bill will not get a hearing,” said Senate minority leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.

The measure is widely supported by state business leaders. However, many religious conservatives fear the bill would lead to unwanted social change; leading some to hear echoes of 2015’s RFRA headache.

“We still have a RFRA hangover,” said Sen. Lanane. “I think there’s still a perception in the state of Indiana for whatever reason that we are not tolerant, and we are.”

Lawmakers will debate several controversial issues during the four-month session in addition to crafting the next two-year state budget.

Here are several other key topics to watch for in the weeks ahead:

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.”

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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