INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana General Assembly has slogged its way through hundreds of bills since convening in January but in some critical ways, the real work has just begun.
Last Friday marked the beginning of the “conference committee” negotiations sprint to the April 29 finish line to the 2013 legislative session. It’s the period when the key members of the House and Senate have to work out their chambers’ differences on bills that have been significantly altered as they’ve moved through the legislative process. It’s the agreed-upon final version that gets sent to the governor’s desk.
“Now the real session starts,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, a veteran Republican lawmaker from Noblesville.
As the Senate point man on the $30 billion budget bill, he’s likely to face one of the tougher conference-committee negotiation sessions ahead. No matter that the Senate, the House, and the governor’s office are all Republican-controlled; Kenley’s Senate spending plan differs from the House spending plan, which differs from the spending plan put forth by Gov. Mike Pence.
“We’ve all laid out our plans: the House has said what they think, and we’ve said what we think and the Governor’s staff has said what they think,” Kenley said. “And now we go into session to figure out what the answer is.”
Plenty of legislative work has already been done. Combined, legislators in the House and Senate filed more than 1,200 bills and resolutions this session. As of Friday, they had passed more than 300 bills out of their respective chambers. Almost a third of those passed bills went through the other chamber without being changed, which means they’re headed to the governor, who’s already signed 41 bills into law.
The numbers will go up some since Monday was the last day for the House to pass Senate-approved bills, but about 200 bills that were passed by one chamber have been amended by the other. Some of the differences are small enough that legislators can simply concur with the changes and get on with it. But others will need to be pounded out through the more intense conference committee process, during which lawmakers from both parties try to hammer out a deal that both chambers will accept.
Some long days lie ahead: On a range of issues, from arming school staff to rewriting the criminal code to expanding the school voucher program, the House and Senate have come up with significantly different provisions for the same bill.
“It can get a little tense at times, but it’s a fundamentally healthy part of process,” said Republican Senate Tax and Policy Chairman Brandt Hershman of Buck Creek. “There will be differences of opinion between the parties and within parties, just like there are differences of opinion between friends and within families. I think that, in itself, is a good thing, as well. It’s not a sign of discord; it’s a sign of principled positions on the issues.”
Indiana’s constitution requires the Senate and House each approve identical legislation. To get there on bills that have been significantly amended through the process, two members from each chamber, representing both political parties, meet in a conference committee to decide on the final version of the bill. The conference committee reports, containing the agreed-upon final language, then have to be approved by both chambers before the bill goes to the governor.
Almost anything can happen, including the revival of measures thought dead, since conference committee members can insert language from a related bill that didn’t make it into another one that did.
“People are often surprised when they see these issues come back up again that they thought were dead,” Hershman said. “That’s the nature of the process.”
It can be partisan: Legislative leaders can remove obstinante conference committee members from one party and replace them with one of their own. And it can go down to the deadline. Last year, the final version of the much-debated, much-amended bill that put Indiana’s first-ever statewide smoking ban into place didn’t go up for a vote in the House and Senate until late in the afternoon of the last day of the session.
Hot button issues
The Indiana House and Senate have agreed on the same language for many bills this year, but still have work to do in the final two weeks of the 2013 session to hammer out their differences on more than 200 bills. Some of the measures headed for the House-Senate “conference committee” negotiations are:
The budget bill — Both chambers agree on some key points in a two-year spending plan including more dollars for K-12 schools and more money for road repair. But the House version rejects Gov. Mike Pence’s call for a 10 percent cut in the personal income tax rate and the Senate version only offers a 3 percent cut.
Pence has repeatedly said he wants the 10 percent cut in the final budget bill that comes to him for his signature.
Americans for Prosperity, a proponent of fiscal responsibility and lower taxes, on Monday announced poll results that show that 54 percent of Hoosier voters approve of Pence’s budget, saying returning Indiana’s budget surplus to taxpayers was the best use of the money. According to the poll, more voters — Democrat, Republican, and Independent — support the Pence budget proposal than the House and Senate budget proposals combined; 53 percent of Independents, 41 percent of Democrats, and 49 percent of Republicans favor the Pence budget over the alternatives.
School vouchers — The Senate passed the House version of the bill that expands the state’s private school voucher program, but also added changes the House may not support: it increases the number of students eligible to receive vouchers without attending public schools first and increases the size of the vouchers by $100 a year each of the next two years.
Criminal code — Legislation that rewrites Indiana’s criminal code for the first time since 1977 contains many measures that both chambers agree on, including tougher penalties for violent crimes and lower penalties for many drug crimes.
But the Senate version boosts penalties for marijuana offenses and eliminates some of the judicial discretion in sentencing.
Guns in schools — The House removed a Senate-passed amendment that required schools to have armed personnel on duty during school hours or opt out of the requirement each year.
The House change returns the bill closer to its original language, which creates a matching grant fund for schools to tap to hire police officers trained in school safety.
Gaming — Legislation intended to give Indiana casinos more flexibility and money to compete against out-of-state gaming venues has undergone a myriad of changes.
The House removed a Senate-approved provision that added live table games at horse-track casinos, and added language that diverts $10 million in racino profits to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Common Core — After the House quashed a Senate bill that could have killed the Common Core State Standards for K-12 schools, the Senate amended a House education bill to include language that delays implementation of the uniform education standards used by 45 other states until committees led by the legislature and governor assess the cost of compliance.