The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 06, 2019 1:00 am


Short list for a long session

House Speaker Brian Bosma set low expectations for the Indiana General Assembly when he suggested the state's financial needs already exceed its available revenue.

“It's going to be an extraordinarily difficult budget year,” Bosma said last month. “I told my team that everyone will try to sell whatever it is they want as the budget solution. ... People want to do this, they want to do that – it's the worst way to make policy.”

Granted, there's no silver budget bullet to be found in a tax increase, legalized sports gambling or any other legislation sold as remedy for the revenue shortfall. But there's much lawmakers can do to improve Hoosiers' economic prospects and well-being. Some involve investments in areas too long neglected or shortchanged; some require no money at all.

Let's start with the latter, because they represent issues most likely to be pushed aside as too time-consuming in a budget session.

Redistricting reform

Time is running out for Indiana to establish an independent redistricting commission before new legislative and congressional districts are drawn in 2021. The current process, which allows lawmakers to choose their own voters, is broken.

Both Republican and Democratic leaders have abused their majority status by drawing districts to benefit their respective parties.

 Legislative leaders have repeatedly said they support reform, but somehow allow it to be derailed time and again. Senate Bill 91 is a worthy vehicle to make it happen this year.

Bias-motivated crimes law

Now more than ever, Indiana needs to revoke its membership in a “club” that also includes Wyoming, South Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas – the five states that don't have a law explicitly addressing hate crime. Past proposals have gotten nowhere. But this year, with bias crimes rising in Indiana and across the nation, Gov. Eric Holcomb has called for passage of a law that would punish crimes driven by prejudice against certain groups.

Senate Bill 12, which is being introduced by Republican Sens. Mike Bohacek of Michiana Shores and Ron Alting of Lafayette, will have wide support. The bill would add bias against race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation and sexual identity to the list of aggravating factors a judge can consider before imposing sentence for a crime against a person or property. But will even the governor's blessing be enough?

Bosma has told The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly he fears something akin to the national humiliation that followed passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015 if the bill's supporters insist on including sexual identity as an aggravating factor.

But in truth Indiana deserved to be embarrassed about RFRA, and the state's reputation will be tarnished anew if a zealous clique of religious and “family” organizations prevails in getting protections for transgender people – a tiny but often-persecuted minority – left off the list.

Better to pass no bill at all.

Then there are the issues that come with a price tag.

Child protection

No one disputes the need to spend what it takes to address problems in the Department of Child Services. A six-month review of the agency said its staff is overworked and underpaid, but lawmakers may be tempted to focus on the report's recommendations for more efficient management practices and policies. Such changes are clearly needed; many of them address problems also identified in earlier studies.

But that does not mean the legislature should nickel and dime the department's request for an additional $286 million annually. Lawmakers tempted to do that should consider money spent to prevent child abuse and neglect now will save children, and the state they live in, from deeper problems with greater costs later. 

A succession of well-meaning Republican governors and legislatures has failed to commit adequate resources to protect Indiana's at-risk kids. If this year's lawmakers fail to come through, there are simply no excuses left.

Teacher pay

No legislator has dared to suggest Indiana teachers don't deserve more. But many are selling a narrative that more than enough money is being spent on schools, it's just being spent on administrators instead of teachers. The reality is far more complex and the fact remains that state policies have reduced available funds for teacher salaries. Adjusted for inflation, Indiana teachers earn almost 16 percent less than they did in the 1999-2000 school year.

The General Assembly hasn't hesitated to approve costly charter and voucher expansions in recent years. It can't afford not to invest in traditional public schools by ensuring teachers are rewarded and future teachers choose to work here.

Cigarette tax

One proposal that doesn't come with a price tag to the state would raise the tax on cigarettes. Along with raising the smoking age to 21, a $2-per-pack increase would, first of all, help discourage smoking – a form of self-destruction that prematurely kills 11,000 Hoosiers and adds $3.3 billion in direct health care expenses annually.

Such a targeted tax hike also could bring in nearly $2 billion over the next five years, according to the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. Indiana, 49th among the 50 states in public health spending, could use that revenue to address a range of other health needs – including dissuading young people from becoming addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes.

Consider the $1,125 in combined state and federal taxes the Fairbanks Foundation says each Hoosier family now pays because of the burdens tobacco-induced diseases and deaths place on the system. Does “no new taxes” have to apply to a product that costs us all so much?

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