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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, December 27, 2015 8:31 am

LGBT rights, roads, tests up next

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – The legislative session kicking off Jan. 5 can be summed up quickly as the Big Three: civil rights, roads and education.

Myriad topics will be addressed by the General Assembly, but none will eclipse those.

The issue of civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers will likely consume the most air during the short 10-week session.

"I have to admit that if we were having this conversation back in April, I said they would avoid taking the issue up," said Andrew Downs, political science professor at IPFW. "I have been proven wrong now."

Senate Republicans have already filed a bill adding sexual orientation and gender identity alongside race, gender and other characteristics as protected classes. But it also provides several exemptions for religious reasons.

Back in April, the state was reeling from a fight over a religious free­dom bill that many saw as a way to allow businesses to refuse service to gays. The national fallout was so great that Gov. Mike Pence and lawmakers had to create a "fix" within days of passing and signing the new law.

But that opened discussion on the lack of state civil rights protections for the LGBT community. Dozens of cities around the state, including Fort Wayne, have local ordinances that protect against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

Downs said Senate Republicans put something out so they can control the debate and the process. Everything will now be an amendment to their bill, and with a reliable conservative Republican as author, he can spike the bill at any time if he doesn’t like the direction of the debate.

"They want to make it disappear as quickly as possible," Downs said. "They don’t want it to overshadow everything else."

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said it could be the toughest issue of his career, but he has generally left Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, to deal with it.

It will not be an easy sell in the Senate, which has a large wing of Christian conservatives.

"I’m not in favor of the bill," Fort Wayne Sen. Liz Brown said, adding that nothing would make the bill more palatable.

"I just don’t support adding sexual orientation. I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think we need to continue to make protected classes," she said.

Democrats are pushing to add the classes without special exemptions for religious beliefs – such as allowing a baker or photographer to refuse to provide services for a same-sex wedding.

Pence, meanwhile, has refused to take a public stand either way.

To complicate matters, a lawsuit was filed this month against the bill that "fixed" the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"I’m against discrimination," said Rep. Casey Cox, R-Fort Wayne. "I want to stick up for someone who is the subject of oppression, but let’s not be so naive to think the pendulum of oppression doesn’t swing.

"There are legitimate arguments by those against it," he said. "It could be used as an instrument of conformity – to quiet unpopular religious beliefs."

Cox hasn’t made a decision but said he generally favors freedom of conscience.

The civil rights debate almost makes other ­issues seem easy, but don’t be fooled.

The condition of Indiana’s roads and bridges became a major topic following a bridge failure that closed Interstate 65 for several weeks last summer. Democrats took the opportunity to pound Pence on infrastructure.

The governor responded with a four-year, $1 billion plan that would have to be approved by the legislature.

It would use state reserves, borrow money through bonding and create spending in future budgets.

House Democrats have a $2 billion plan, which includes money for local units left out of the governor’s proposal.

The debate is twofold: short- ;term help and a long- ;term discussion of Indiana’s stagnant road funding.

Every state in the nation is struggling to fund roads. As cars become more fuel-efficient, revenue raised through the traditional gasoline tax drops, reducing money raised for roads.

Bosma said it will be the top priority for House Republicans, and all options will be fully vetted.

That includes indexing the gas tax to inflation, resulting in an immediate increase of 5 cents a gallon; study of tolling on Interstate 65 and Interstate 70; and increasing the cigarette tax as a means of shifting other dollars to roads. 

The state gas tax has been at 18 cents a gallon since 2003.

"The plan must be sustainable and long-term," Bosma said. "We can’t rely on short-term solutions."

Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D- ;Fort Wayne, said a short session might not be the right time for an all-out discussion of road funding.

"We can do it next year and do something small now," he said. "We can’t have bridges falling down."

Downs said everyone seems to agree that there is a shortfall in road and bridge funding on the state and local levels.

"But the really big challenge is to take more money from Hoosiers – in whatever way. We cannot cut our way out of this problem. It takes money to build roads," he said.

The last major topic is education. Every session seems to bring hot debates about Indiana’s schools, teachers and students, but this one has a sense of urgency. Legislators need to act within the first few weeks on whether to suspend or pause state accountability measures for teachers and schools due to falling scores on an increasingly suspect ISTEP+ test.

The test taken last spring covered new state standards for the first time and included technologically enhanced questions. Glitches in online testing led thousands to take the test on paper, prompting questions about whether the two versions were equal. And the length of the test was cut just days before it began. The latest report is that the grading of thousands of tests could be in error.

Initial results show that math scores dropped 24 percent and language arts scores dropped 16 percent. Those scores are the major factors in issuing A-F grades to schools. Preliminary data show that the number of A schools statewide would be 466, or 22.8 percent, for the 2014-15 school year, compared with 53.6 percent the year before.

The number of F schools would be 359, or 17.6 percent, compared with 4 percent the year before.

Teacher pay and performance bonuses are also tied to the test.

Pence and legislators seem inclined to deal quickly with the latter and not punish teachers for a "transition" year. But they have been less clear on what happens to the A-F grades that schools will receive in late January.

"I definitely think there will be an adjustment made," said Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "Exactly how, we don’t know yet."

One idea is to hold school grades static for one year or limit how far a school could drop to one grade level. But Kruse wants to be clear that the state is not getting rid of A-F grades on a large scale.

"That is not going to happen. Republicans won’t do that," Kruse said.

Bosma suggested a three-year rolling average of the grade for schools to smooth out the hills and valleys.

"It’s clear we have to do something," he said.

nkelly@jg.net