INDIANAPOLIS— The 119th Indiana General Assembly is underway and committee hearings are now dominating legislative schedules. Considered the first step of the legislative process, bills must gain committee approval before advancing to the House or Senate floor for consideration by the full body. The top priority this session will be to craft a new state budget that will fund government services and schools for the next two years. Several other major issues to be considered include raising wages, health care, education, and roads and infrastructure funding. By law, the legislature must conclude business by April 29. This brief summary highlights recent activities in the Senate.

State of the State Address

In his third State of the State Address before a joint session of the Indiana General Assembly, Governor Pence announced his key priorities for the upcoming legislative session. Pence touted his job creation efforts announcing that over 100,000 private-sector jobs have been created over the past several years. Surprising to some lawmakers, Pence’s primary focus was on the passage of a balanced budget amendment to the state constitution. The governor called for increased funding for charter schools and vouchers while proposing minimal increases for public schools. His agenda includes added funding for teacher performance bonuses, and more career and technical education courses in high schools were highlighted as well. In addition, he asked the legislature to approve $300 million for new highway construction.

In response, both House and Senate leadership were a bit perplexed as to why the governor would push for a balanced budget amendment to the constitution pointing out that the state already has clear constitutional budget limits. Regarding new jobs, some lawmakers raised the fact that Indiana’s low per capita income and the wages for many of the new jobs are too low to lift families into the middle class. Others voiced concerns about the governor’s push for additional charter schools and vouchers for private schools.

Senate Democrats announce legislative priorities

After more than a decade of the General Assembly positioning Indiana as a business-friendly state in efforts to create jobs, Senate Democrats aim to raise Hoosier incomes to ensure those new jobs pay a living wage. Senate Democrats recently announced they will seek increases in the minimum wage as well as the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program, which is designed to reduce the tax burden of low and middle-income individuals and families by offsetting payroll and income taxes.

 

As education continues to be a hot topic, the caucus will focus on advancing initiatives to provide all schools with the resources needed for Hoosier children to embrace a philosophy of lifelong learning, beginning with an expansion of the pilot pre-kindergarten program enacted in 2014. Another proposal would increase state education funding to cover the costs of textbook rentals and school bus transportation needs. In addition, as Indiana continues to rank in the bottom 20 percent of the nation for health and well-being, Senate Democrats will work to gain passage of bills to improve health outcomes for Hoosiers by addressing health care provider shortages and expanding mental health services.

 

More caseworkers needed to meet caseload standards

Senate Democrat Leader Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) called on the governor to hire more Department of Child Services (DCS) caseworkers in efforts to better protect Hoosier children. Earlier this week, Lanane held a press conference urging the governor to meet caseload standards mandated by state law. During a November State Budget Committee hearing, the DCS admitted the agency was out of compliance with the state statute limiting family case manager caseloads. Even after correspondence with the governor highlighting the issue and a meeting with DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura in December, the governor still omitted additional case manager funding in his recently-announced state budget proposal. “It’s time to do the right thing and provide DCS the resources it needs to hire the 77 caseworkers needed to comply with the law,” Lanane stated. The requirement has been in place since 2007. Adequate funding for 77 caseworkers is a top priority for the Senate Democrats. The senator said the funding would be around $5-6 million to bring DCS into compliance. For additional background information regarding DCS under-staffing and caseload management, follow this link>>

Upcoming Senate deadlines and events

January 21        Deadline to assign Senate bills to committee

February 19       Deadline to file committee reports on Senate bills

February 25       Deadline for final action on Senate bills

March 2            Senate begins deliberation of House-passed bills

 

To learn more about bills moving through the Indiana General Assembly, log on to www.in.gov/legislative. Also from here, you can watch the House and Senate in session as well as committee hearings. Stay informed about legislation scheduled for action with BillWatch. This free online program, at www.BillWatch.in.gov, allows you to track up to 10 bills and receive e-mail notifications only when action is taken.

 

Senate Democrats offer up-to-date information at www.SenateDemocrats.IN.gov. Multimedia updates on the Senate’s daily activities are provided at The Briefing Room (www.INSenDems.wordpress.com) and Twitter at @INSenDems (www.twitter.com/INSenDems).