INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Indiana lawmakers returned to the Statehouse on Tuesday, promising to better fund the state’s poorly rated roads, ease parent and educator anxieties over the state’s much-maligned ISTEP test and find ways to curtail drug abuse.
But while leaders for the GOP majorities in both chambers discussed an array of policy priorities, they had much less to say about one of their most vexing challenges: how to handle what could be a bitter debate over adding discrimination protections for lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people in public accommodation, housing and employment into state law.
Gov. Mike Pence hinted he may finally reveal his thoughts on the matter during next week’s State of the State speech. That would come after months of him saying he was “studying” the issue.
“I think it’s one of the best opportunities I have as governor to speak directly to the people of Indiana on a broad range of issues, and we’ll likely take advantage of that,” Pence told reporters following an annual faith rally in the Statehouse where he publicly prayed for his administration.
Pence taking a position could sway some rank-and-file lawmakers because it “sets the tone one direction or the other,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said. But he said Pence “is not the boss of them, and everyone has their own opinions.”
The subject of LGBT civil rights has proven challenging for GOP lawmakers ever since controversy erupted last spring over Indiana’s religious objections law, which critics said sanctioned discrimination. The law was changed, but the activists and the state’s business establishment have since pushed for them to go further. Senate Republicans have proposed an LGBT civil rights bill with a long list of religious exemptions. But the future of the measure is far from certain and has not been scheduled for a committee hearing, though GOP Senate leader David Long said he expects to do so later this month.
“Where it goes, as we said before, is anybody’s guess,” said Long. “We’re just simply saying, ‘Vote your conscience.'”
Lawmakers on Tuesday said the issue was unavoidable but not a priority. And they sought to steer the conversation back to issues such as addressing student ISTEP scores, which were dismal in 2015 after stringent new standards were put in place when GOP lawmakers scrapped the state’s participation in national Common Core standards.
Already lawmakers have fast-tracked two bills that would spare schools and teachers from accountability measures tied to student 2015 test performance that could withhold merit pay or downgrade a school’s A-F letter grade. Bosma said he wants to get rid of the test altogether, calling it “broken.”
Senate Republicans offered their agenda, including tougher sentences for convicted drug dealers, expanded financial aid for veterans and a $42 million funding boost for Pence’s Regional Cities initiative, which pitted seven Indiana regions against each other in a competition for funding that will pay for quality-of-life improvements.
But major differences have emerged about how road and infrastructure improvements should be paid for. House Republicans want a long-term solution because the state’s primary source of roads money is the gas tax, a revenue stream that has dwindled as motorist have switched to more fuel-efficient cars.
That would mean a tax increase, which Pence opposes and Long refused to say if he would support.
Democratic House Minority Leader Scott Pelath suggested that underscored a lack of leadership from Republicans who have dominated the state in recent years.
“Those situations require clear executive leadership,” Pelath said. “I’m not sure we enjoy executive enthusiasm.”