4 issues to brush up on as Indiana lawmakers head back to work for 2017 session

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana lawmakers returned to work Tuesday to a long list of ambitious goals as the 2017 legislative session officially kicks off.

Republicans hold a super majority in the General Assembly and are promising to pass a sweeping transportation plan that would fund Indiana roads for years.

Here’s a look at four issues set to dominate the session.

Transportation

House Republicans are expected to release specific details Wednesday morning, but the plan will include an increase to the state’s gas tax, new fees through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the idea of new tolling options. The money would not only fund repairs to current roads, but also new projects like an expansion of I-65 and I-70.

“It will be a challenge,” House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said in an interview Tuesday afternoon with CBS4. “We have a $20 billion need over the next 20 years.”

Republicans close to the proposal have said an increase in the state’s gas tax could generate $350 million to $400 million annually. Overall lawmakers anticipate an average tab of $1.05 billion annually for transportation needs.

“It absolutely will have to rely on increased gas taxes and diesel fuel taxes,” Bosma said.

House Republicans passed a long-term measure last session that included a gas tax hike, but the proposal failed in the State Senate.

“I’m hoping we can move forward and that people see the need as being big enough,” State Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) said last month.

Leading Democrats Tuesday were critical of the approach.

“How are they going to explain that?” State Sen. Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) said, the Senate Minority Leader. “That when you and I go to the pump, we pay more at the pump, we’re gonna still be giving more tax breaks to corporations.”

State Budget & State Trooper Pay

Lawmakers will also spend considerable time crafting the next state budget amidst new revenue projects that are lower than anticipated.

Bosma said Tuesday one priority will include a raise for Indiana State Police troopers, who are leaving the force because they’re paid dramatically less than their counterparts in neighboring departments.

“We’re losing a lot of veterans and young officers that have the potential to excel in the future to take those local jobs,” Bosma said. “They need to take those local jobs as well. We need both elements – the state and local public safety agencies to be well-funded, and we’re just clearly disproportionately low right now for our state police.”

Funding Pre-K

Lawmakers will also question whether to expand the state’s Pre-K program.

The state currently spends about $10 million a year to offer scholarships to about 2,400 students in five counties including Marion County.

“It’s my hope we can add $20 million to our Pre-K program and expand it to more counties, more students,” Bosma said Tuesday.

But other advocates will push for a much larger investment and upwards of $50 million.

“There is statewide support for this,” Lanane said. “There are communities all over this state that are working on their own to try and implement early childhood education because they know the benefits for their community.”

Social Issues

Democratic leaders made it clear they’ll continue to push to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s civil rights code, continued fallout from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ushered in by Vice President elect Gov. Mike Pence.

“We’ve needed to do them for several sessions now, one of course is amending our Indiana Civil Rights Act to provide full protection in our society including members of the LGBT community,” Lanane said.

But Republican leaders are working to downplay any controversial legislation, including a proposal to ban all abortions in Indiana.

Rep. Curt Nisly (R-Goshen) has proposed the idea, which could bring criminal charges against anyone who participated in an abortion procedure.

“I can tell you personally I don’t think we should race to buy a lawsuit that is funded by Hoosiers taxpayers with the hope one person change on the Supreme Court is going to change 40 plus years of Supreme Court deep precedent,” Bosma said. “So I understand fully those who want to advocate this, and I couldn’t be more pro-life, but to make a point with legislation that is surely going to be litigated, I think we’ve learned our lesson on that.”

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