State legislators spent seven hours Monday tying up loose ends from the short session. The House and Senate passed five bills, mostly along party lines to finish out the session that had ended in chaos in March. Local lawmakers say the session went smoothly.
“It went a lot better than I expected,” said District 63 State Representative Shane Lindauer. “We had about an hour-and-half debate on the school bills. Both sides seemed to be working toward taking care of things.”
That seemed to be in pretty stark contrast to the session when it came to a close in March with plenty of work left on the table. “Unfortunately we let our time management slip away,” said new Senate Majority Leader Mark Messmer who represents Senate District 48. “We had a lot of important work to get done. We had some new committee chairmen trying to usher those bills through the system and they made rookie mistakes. Both the house and senate leadership agree they let that last day just slip away.”
One of the bills brought back before the legislature for passage the final day was a school security bill that was sponsored by District 39 Senator Eric Bassler of Washington. All Indiana schools will be allowed to obtain a loan of up to $500,000 for safety measures. Overall, the state will offer $35 million for loans to districts over the next two years, repayable at interest rates ranging from 1 to 4 percent. “That was an important bill,” said Bassler. “The Florida shooting was the reason for that bill. I think we may see some even more significant legislation next year on security. We will have a summer study committee take a broad approach to school safety and come up with some potential long term impacts.”
Perhaps the most controversial measure passed in the special session was one where the state turned the finances from the troubled Muncie School System to Ball State University and in Gary, state-appointed emergency manager Peggy Hinckley will lead an effort to reduce the district’s $100 million debt. The bill changes the school board’s role to advisory, authorizing the emergency manager to terminate employee contracts as a reduction in force.
In Muncie, Ball State President Jeffrey Mearns and at least three school board members support the plan.
“Over the next 10 to 15 years, both Lake County and Delaware County are expected to lose 10 percent more of their population, so there has to be a different system,” said Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, author of the legislation.
“To say we’re going to do it the same way is just banging our head against the wall,” Brown added, alluding to the state’s past attempts to help the troubled school districts.
But Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, criticized Republicans for replacing an elected school board with an appointed board.
“There can be three non-residents on the appointed board,” he said of the legislation’s impact on Muncie schools. “Those three and one other could increase taxes. That seems like taxation without representation.”
“There have been attempts for years for those two school systems to fix their financial problems,” said Messmer. “We just reached the point where something had to be done. We had to stop the bleeding.”
Another bill that was passed will bring Indiana into compliance with the huge federal tax bill that was passed earlier this year. “We needed to make some adjustments to save Hoosiers money,” said Messmer.
The measures were all signed by Governor Eric Holcomb as soon as they landed on his desk. “Indiana lawmakers aligned state and federal tax law to streamline the process for Hoosier families and businesses, provided more funding to support schools in need, and improved school safety statewide—all in one day as planned,” said Holcomb.
The session though, received plenty of criticism from Democrats who point out that the Republicans could not finish their work on time even though they had supermajorities in both the Senate and the House. “Let’s call it what it was: a special session for special interests,” said Democrat State Chairman John Zody. “If working Hoosiers didn’t finish their job on time and on budget, they’d be handed a pink slip. Republicans smugly handed Hoosier taxpayers a bill for $30,000 for failing to get the job done right in the first place. If at first your own bickering sinks the legislative session, arrogantly conduct a sham session and stick taxpayers with the bill while ignoring real emergencies. No action on wages. No action on early childhood education or healthcare. And no action to address the crisis at the Department of Child Services. Hoosiers deserve better.”
While the minority was highly critical even those in the majority say they learned some valuable lessons about managing the calendar during a session. “The House and Senate leadership agree they let that final day slip away,” said Messmer.
“We just simply dropped the ball on handling the calendar,” added Bassler. “Because of that, we all end up with egg on our face because we didn’t get the work done. We just didn’t do it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.