Senate approves school vouchers, sentencing changes

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INDIANAPOLIS – With deadlines looming in the Senate, state legislators spent much of the day casting votes on a series of important measures, including an expansion of the state’s school voucher program.

The state Senate approved its own budget proposal late Tuesday night, leaving other key decisions for Wednesday, the last day the Senate can vote on bills that originated in the House.

Senators approved the formation of a mass transit study committee, and a bill that would create new definitions and guidelines for schools dealing with the issue of bullying.

But it was the expansion of the school voucher program that became one of the most hotly debated items on the Senate floor, with opponents upset that more public money would end up paying for students to attend private school.

The bill expands voucher eligibility to low-income students who have special needs, to students whose siblings have been granted vouchers, and to students who live in a district with a school that has been classified as “failing.”

“We have got schools in a situation where it’s almost a no-win situation for them,” said Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute.

“We want parents to get involved–what better way than for them to get involved then to be allowed to decide where to send their kids to school?” responded the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury. “Is that so heinous and wrong?”

The bill passed the Senate by just four votes, but will still have to be reconciled with similar legislation that already passed the House, meaning that negotiations could continue through the end of the session.

Senators also approved a bill that makes sweeping changes to the state’s criminal code, bringing new sentencing guidelines on a wide range of criminal cases. Originally, legislators had planned on reducing some of the sentencing mandates for non-violent drug offenses, but Gov. Mike Pence said he didn’t agree.

“There were some people that had heartburn with it, including the governor, and I had a little heartburn with it myself,” said Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, the bill’s sponsor.

But now the bill would make it a felony to possess one-third of an ounce of marijuana.

“It just seems to be contrary to what I thought we were trying to do in this bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “It’s a huge bill. There’s a lot of good in it, I’m going to vote for it, but I hope we can continue to take a look at that.”

The bill will be studied again next session. I wouldn’t take effect until 2014.

Senators also approved a bill removing the requirements for Indiana superintendents to hold an educator’s license. The measure passed 26-25, with Lt. Gov. Sue Ellsperman casting the deciding vote. It was the first time since 2005 a Senate vote had resulted in a tie.

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