INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers wrapped with their 2016 session this week with votes to approve a short-term boost in spending on roads and bridges around the state and ultimately replace the much-maligned ISTEP standardized test taken by more than 400,000 students each spring.
The hottest debate heading into the session was whether to extend state anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity following last year’s national uproar over Indiana’s new religious objections law. But the issue sputtered out when Republican senators pulled the bill from consideration in early February.
Here’s a look at top issues from the 10-week session:
A deal reached in the final days of the session directs roughly $230 million in new money to state highways and bridges over the next two years. The package draws down the state’s $2 billion budget reserve and does not include an election-year increase in cigarette and gas taxes backed by House Republicans that was staunchly opposed by Gov. Mike Pence and the GOP-controlled Senate.
The plan also gives about $580 million to city and county governments for road projects, with much of that a one-time distribution from local income taxes held in reserve by the state.
Legislators backed creating a 23-member panel to make recommendations for a standardized exam to replace ISTEP in 2018. The test faced a barrage of criticism from educators and parents over a big jump in testing time needed for the spring 2015 exam and dismal student results blamed on hastily rolled-out state standards following Indiana’s withdrawal from the national Common Core standards.
Lawmakers pushed through bills in January blocking student scores on the 2015 ISTEP from being used to determine teacher merit pay or negatively affecting school A-F grades. Pence quickly signed those measures.
Lawmakers sent Pence a bill that aims to ban abortions sought because a fetus has a genetic abnormality such as Down syndrome. Indiana would be the second state in the nation to have such a restriction, and the measure would also allow doctors who perform abortions in such cases to be sued for wrongful death.
Pence won a 50 percent funding boost for his Regional Cities economic development grant program. Some legislators had balked at the request because the Pence administration pledged $126 million split between the Evansville, South Bend and Fort Wayne areas for quality-of-life projects even though only $84 million was authorized in the state budget approved last year.
INDIANA DUNES PARK
Lawmakers approved a measure designed to revive a stalled privatization deal that would bring restaurants, a rooftop bar and a banquet center to Indiana Dunes State Park. The bill circumvents county and state alcohol boards that have denied requests from a politically-connected developer to sell alcohol at the planned development along the Lake Michigan beachfront.
A bill sent to Pence gives pharmacists authority to limit sales of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient used in making methamphetamine. Customers who don’t have a relationship on record with the pharmacy could buy only a limited dosage of pseudoephedrine or could obtain a prescription to get a larger dosage. Those who regularly visit pharmacies could buy the full dosage without a prescription.
Republican senators pulled a proposal extending state civil rights protections to gay, lesbian and bisexual people, saying it didn’t have enough support to pass the Senate. The bill faced criticism from both gay-rights activists for not including transgender people and religious conservatives who believed it still required services for same-sex marriages even if they had religious objections.
The Senate approved a bill creating a hate-crime designation allowing for tougher sentences by taking into account a victim’s “perceived or actual race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry or sexual orientation.” But the House never acted on the proposal, leaving Indiana as one of only five states with no hate crime protections.
SUNDAY ALCOHOL SALES
A House committee voted down a measure to lift the state’s decades-long ban on Sunday carryout alcohol sales. Opponents said they believed the proposal would have given an unfair advantage to big-box grocery chains over smaller liquor stores. Those businesses have fought for several years over ending Indiana’s status as having the last such statewide “blue law” in the U.S.
A backlash from teachers unions and some school administrators led GOP legislative leaders to kill a bill that would’ve allowed school districts to negotiate salaries directly with individual teachers. Supporters say it was meant to help school officials recruit teachers in high-demand subjects such areas as science, math and special education. Critics maintained that individual deals would cause division among teaching staffs.
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