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•What are northeast Indiana lawmakers up to this session? Find out what bills local legislators will sponsor, including which legislator wants to eliminate the inheritance tax and who wants to require a prescription for certain cold medicine.
General Assembly

Social issues return to agenda

GOP majorities reviving bills on abortion, migrants

– Lawmakers will have more than money issues on their minds this legislative session.

Some hot-button topics already are making waves – on issues as varied as abortion, immigration, sentencing reform and labor unions.

“I honestly think the amount of focus on social issues depends entirely on how quickly the governor’s agenda passes,” said Rep. Win Moses, D-Fort Wayne. “If we have a month to kill at the end, we’ll hear them all then.”

The House and Senate have overwhelming Republican majorities this year, and many GOP legislators see 2011 as an opportunity to advance bills that Democrats blocked in years past.

Some of the usual suspects include altering the Indiana Constitution to prohibit gay marriage, which is already state law. There will be another attempt to require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, similar to an Allen County ordinance.

But there are also some new bills and new versions of old proposals.

Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, is leading the pack with a “birther” bill. Birthers are people who don’t believe President Obama was born in the United States and therefore is ineligible to serve.

Although a Hawaii birth certificate and certification by Hawaiian officials show the president was born in the United States, birthers have filed a flurry of lawsuits over the matter. None has been successful.

Delph’s legislation – Senate Bill 114 – would require presidential candidates to file a certified copy of a U.S. birth certificate along with additional documentation to be on the Indiana ballot.

“It’s healthy to not have this uncertainty and this debate,” he said.

Delph also will carry an immigration bill, although it won’t be filed until next week. He has tried unsuccessfully in the past to move similar legislation.

He declined to offer details about this year’s version of the bill but said it will likely include a provision to punish businesses that repeatedly hire illegal immigrants; a section prohibiting governmental units in Indiana from providing documents or phone services in Spanish except for a few small exceptions; and a provision allowing police to seek immigration status from a person if they have reasonable suspicion the person is in the country illegally.

“We have different leadership in the House, and I think there’s a desire to pass something that is effective and workable,” Delph said. “The idea is not to hurt or punish people trying to do the right thing. The intent is to go after those that are thumbing their nose at the law.”

Abortion battle

A number of abortion bills have been filed in both the House and Senate, including one to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Rep. Wes Culver, R-Goshen, is offering that measure. He said it is needed because some medical evidence shows a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks.

“For me, I believe life begins at conception, so this is a baby step,” he said.

Another bill would require a woman seeking an abortion to have a fetal ultrasound at least 18 hours before the procedure. The woman would also be responsible for the cost of the ultrasound.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, wants to go further – much further. He has co-authored Senate Bill 290, which would prohibit abortions in Indiana unless a physician determines it is necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled abortions were constitutional in 1973 in the case of Roe v. Wade. But Kruse wants to challenge that precedent.

“The Supreme Court is different now, and they might overturn Roe. It could become a test case, but really I just want Indiana law to be pro-life and anti-abortion.”

Gov. Mitch Daniels said late last year that Republicans needed to call a truce on social issues to focus on fiscal problems. But Culver and others believe now is the time to make progress on the abortion issue.

“We can multitask, obviously,” Culver said. “There are 150 of us here, and life is just as important as the budget and unemployment.”

Prison problems

Another issue – this one being pushed by Daniels as a way to save money in the state prison system – is sentencing. So far, legislators looking to reclassify, and sometimes reduce, drug and theft crimes have avoided being labeled as soft on crime.

“We’ve got to do something because we are overwhelming the system with non-violent offenders,” said Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, a former prosecutor and public defender. “As well as the (Indiana Department of Correction) does, they are a college for crime.”

Daniels’ sentencing plan would keep some low-level offenders out of state prisons and refocus some resources at the local level for more drug addiction treatment and probation services.

All these topics are sure to create debate and even a few hard feelings. But the one that could prove most contentious is right-to-work legislation being pushed by Republicans.

Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, introduced House Bill 1043, which would add Indiana to the list of 22 right-to-work states. In broad terms this means that employees could not be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

But labor supporters point out what they see as the subtleties behind the bill.

Federal law requires unions to represent all employees covered by a contract. Because of this, most unions negotiate a security clause into their contracts with employers. That clause requires all workers who receive the benefits of a collectively bargained contract to pay their share of the costs of representing them.

If Indiana were a right-to-work state, employees could not be forced to pay those dues, but they would still get the benefits of a contract negotiated by the union.

Torr said the bill would attract new jobs to Indiana, noting that right-to-work states around the country have slightly lower unemployment rates than those without the language.

Moses countered that states with right-to-work provisions have lower average salaries and more safety problems. “And we will vigorously resist it.”

The issue created tension on the first day of the session with House Democrats trying to kill the bill procedurally before it even has a hearing.

The divisiveness of the issue may be one reason Daniels asked Republican leaders to stay away from it, even though he agrees advocates have a good case to make.

“It’s a big one and a change of that kind ought to be presented to the people first,” Daniels said. “It’s not quite fair to spring that size of change on voters. Nobody I know ran on that issue, and it’s not the best idea right now.”