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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, December 30, 2018 1:00 am

General Assembly

Budget, hate, bets top list of priorities for session

Topics expected to be the most hotly debated in '19

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers return for the 2019 session Wednesday with a host of topics on tap. But three major issues will likely take up the most oxygen.

The state's two-year budget is always a challenge but this year is complicated by higher-than-usual needs for the Indiana Department of Child Services.

A discussion over a bias crime bill – one that would allow judges to give longer sentences to those who commit crimes against a person or place due to a protected characteristic such as race – will no doubt be brimming with emotion.

And Hoosiers will see if Indiana ventures into legalized sports wagering.

Here is what you need to know about the three major topics:

Indiana's budget

The basics: The General Assembly must craft a two-year spending plan that is effective July 1. The current budget spends $32.3 billion over the biennium. About 52 percent of the budget goes to K12 schools. That rises to more than 60 percent when adding higher education spending. A recent revenue forecast shows lawmakers will receive an additional $825 million in tax collections over the next biennium. But lawmakers are cautioning a tight budget due to growth in funding for abused and neglected children as well as low-income health care.

“The budget is going to be more difficult than a lot of people realize,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said. He said the key issues are protecting young people, recommitting to teachers and students in a substantial way and realigning workforce efforts.

The players: The Senate has a new chief budgeteer – Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, while House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, returns. Brown is recovering from a motorcycle crash, and a co-chair has been appointed to help him with budget duties – Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers. Micah Vincent, head of the Indiana Office of Management and Budget, will oversee administrative efforts along with State Budget Director Jason Dudich.

The key factor: Department of Child Services and Medicaid requests put in doubt much help for Indiana schools. A lack of progress on teacher pay – or even keeping up with basic inflation – will be hard for legislative members to accept or explain.

Hate crimes

The basics: Indiana is one of only five states that doesn't have an explicit hate crimes law. In most states, those who commit crimes based on hate against a person's race, religion or other characteristics can be charged with a higher crime. Indiana Republicans have soundly rejected that.

They are willing to consider adding a list of protected classes to aggravators a judge can consider to give the maximum punishment to a convicted criminal. Religious conservatives argue such a law treats citizens differently and is unnecessary.

“It's really time that Indiana sent a message that we aren't going to put up with this stuff,” House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta said.

The players: Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has come out in support of getting Indiana off the so-called naughty list. He was quiet previously, but made it part of his legislative agenda after a synagogue was vandalized over the summer. Several key family groups will fight the measure. A new coalition of hundreds of state business leaders and interest groups – Indiana Forward – hopes to play a key role in the discussion.

The key factor: Gender identity. There is little argument over including race, religion, sex or other protected classes in the law. But it gets trickier with faith leaders of the state when recognizing sexual orientation and gender identity.

Bosma said he thinks a majority of the GOP-led legislature would accept sexual orientation but there is more resistance to recognizing transgender Hoosiers because of religious beliefs. He warned supporters of a bias crime law that if they go for the “whole enchilada” they might get nothing.

Sports wagering

The basics: The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way earlier this year for legal sports betting when it struck down a federal law that banned commercial sports betting in all but a few states. Some states immediately jumped in the game while others like Indiana are debating the idea. A study commissioned by the Indiana Gaming Commission found Indiana could reap $87 million in new tax revenue from regulated sports betting in the first five years. Indiana casinos are pushing for legal sports betting to be run through established casinos as opposed to stand-alone commercial betting facilities found in other countries. One facet of the discussion will be whether Hoosiers can bet from their phones or personal computers.

“One of the things people should step back and realize is this is not going to be a big windfall for the state,” GiaQuinta said. “Casinos make little on this. They do it because it attracts people to the location.”

The players: Sen. Jon Ford and Rep. Alan Morrison, both Republicans of Terre Haute, have filed sports gaming bills before and are expected to lead the debate.

The key factor: Many lawmakers say they won't support an expansion of gambling but that term is always in the eye of the beholder. Some say illegal sports gambling is occurring on internet sites overseas and this is simply a regulation of what is already going on. Other say if it's just another game you can play at an existing casino it's not an expansion.

“I do think it's an expansion of gaming but I don't know how we can sit on the sideline on that issue because it goes on whether we approve it or not,” said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle. “We may need to make sure we don't bypass that revenue stream.”

nkelly@jg.net