By Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers wrapped up the first of three parts that make up a legislative session this week with the House and Senate passing the bills that originated in their own chambers.
Now, those bills move to the opposite side of the Statehouse where the House will take up Senate bills and the Senate will take up House bills.
With both chambers controlled by Republicans, it might seem like this second look at legislation will be essentially perfunctory. But that’s not the case. Lawmakers of both parties like to put their own stamps on key legislation – and there appear to be some significant differences in philosophy between the two chambers.
Here are a few bills that are likely to undergo makeovers in the second part of the session.
The Senate passed legislation that’s meant to bolster the casino industry with tax breaks, live table games at horse-track casinos and authority for riverboat operations to rebuild on land. The bill also strips gambling tax revenues away from local governments to help pay for the tax cuts.
Supporters say the legislation is necessary to ensure the health of an industry that gives the state its fourth-highest source of tax revenue.
But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said this week that the bill might go too far. Bosma said he doesn’t support legislation that includes a significant expansion of gambling – something he said could occur if the boats were permitted to move inland.
“We understand we have to keep the industry competitive with so much competition in our surrounding states,” Bosma said. “But I don’t foresee a massive expansion of gambling this session.”
Don’t expect the gambling industry to go down quietly on this one though. Watch for the horse track casinos to fight hard for those table games and expect more discussion on whether local communities should lose any of their gambling revenues.
The House passed a two-year, $30 billion budget that spends more on schools, roads and universities but doesn’t include Gov. Mike Pence’s proposed income tax cut. It also funds a pilot program for preschool and restores funding to a number of programs that lost money during the economic downturn.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said this week that the Senate will be taking a hard look at all that spending. He said senators are concerned about future budget impacts – including the federal health care law, federal spending cuts and a possible recession – and want to ensure any new spending is sustainable.
“There’s a lot of proposals in there that spend money,” Long said.
Republicans seem to be particularly unconvinced about the preschool program included in the budget. Earlier this year, Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he just didn’t see “how we get to that discussion this year.” And Long said he’s “not sure it has the support it did in the House.”
Don’t be surprised if the Senate slips in some kind of income tax cut into the budget as well, if for no other reason than to show respect for Pence and to keep it alive for final negotiations.
The House also passed legislation that’s meant to help Central Indiana overhaul its mass transportation system and add new buses, routes and even a light rail line connecting downtown Indianapolis with communities in Hamilton County.
The bill authorizes officials in Marion County and its neighbors to put a referendum on the ballot that asks voters to OK a tax increase of up to 0.3 percent to fund the $1.3 billion transportation upgrade.
Now the measure moves to the Senate, where Long said there’s more skepticism. He said senators will be looking to the Marion County delegation for more information about the proposal. But it seems the light-rail part of the bill may be in trouble.
“I remain skeptical of the light rail,” Long said, while adding that he’s “pretty convinced the bus system in Marion County is pretty bad and that has an impact on Marion County and growth and opportunity.”
Look for the Senate to strip out any reference to light rail. “It does seem like the advocates concede they don’t’ have to have light rail to move this thing,” Long said. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
Finally, the House and Senate have each sent the other lots of education bills – so many that even the chambers’ leaders seem a bit overwhelmed by the numbers and all the provisions they include.
Perhaps the biggest among the proposals is a House-passed bill that would expand the voucher program so that significantly more students would eligible to receive public money to go to private schools. Advocates of the legislation say it gives more lower-income parents and disadvantaged families the opportunity choose the best education for their kids.
But Senate Education Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, has been more skeptical of making what he’s called “major changes” to the state’s two-year old voucher program.
And Kenley has been especially reticent about any legislation that will make a “fundamental change” that doesn’t match the program’s original intent. That could include a provision in the House bill that would let students who start attending a private school as a kindergartener get out of the current requirement that students attend public school for one year before receiving a voucher.
Watch for Kenley’s opinion to prevail here. After all, any voucher legislation will likely go through his Appropriations Committee before it gets to the Senate floor.
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.