COLUMN: Protesters rally at statehouse

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By RICHARD YOUNG, District 47 State Senator

State senators worked long days and late nights to meet mid-session deadlines and advance Senate bills to the House for further consideration. Legislation that didn’t make it out of its house of origin is most likely dead for this session. Out of 1,206 proposals introduced in January by members of both chambers, 603 were Senate bills. This brief summary includes highlights of a few of the 198 bills approved by the Senate as well as other activities at the Statehouse.

Thousands of laborers, teachers and students came together at the Statehouse throughout the week to rally against bills that would bring undue hardships upon many working Hoosiers across the state. Undaunted by the opposition expressed in the Statehouse halls, a Republican-controlled House committee advanced a so-called “right to work” proposal.  This action, along with the advancement of other anti-labor bills, resulted in House Democrats walking out of the legislative session, a tool sometimes used by the minority party. In doing so, the House Democrats blocked a vote on several bills they feel would have a negative impact on working families, including measures that would restrict their ability to organize and limit collective bargaining with employers on a variety of topics.

One such bill, House Bill 1468, would make it illegal for a group of unionized workers to require each employee who enjoys the benefits of negotiated contract terms to pay organizational dues for negotiating and policing the contract. A new study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, which investigated wages and benefits in “right to work” states and states without such laws, indicated that wages are lower and workers are less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance and pensions in states with “right to work” laws. While the bill has been portrayed as a matter of employee choice, the National Labor Relations Act within federal law already affords protection for workers from forced union membership.

A controversial bill that would strip collective bargaining rights and limit due process for teachers was approved by the Republican-led Senate. Among other things, Senate Bill 575 restricts which subjects can be bargained collectively between teachers and school districts. The bill also provides that collective bargaining begin no later than May 1. Senate Democrats strongly opposed the proposal, which was approved in the Senate by a vote of 30-19. It now moves to the House for further review.

Senate Joint Resolution 10 calls for an amendment to the state’s constitution prohibiting an option for employees to use majority sign-up rules to form unions instead of the traditional secret ballot method. In January, the National Labor Relations Board advised the attorneys general of Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah that similar constitutional amendments approved in those states which govern the method by which employees choose union representation conflict with federal labor law, and therefore are pre-empted by the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Opponents pointed out that this anti-worker proposal is being pushed by large corporations to make it harder for workers to organize and bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. In addition, many believe that the state’s constitution is not a document to place language directing unions on how to conduct internal business. The resolution was approved in the Senate by a vote of 32-16. This proposed amendment must be agreed to by two consecutive General Assemblies and ratified by a majority of the state’s voters to be added to the state constitution. The resolution now advances to the House for its consideration.

Teachers Salaries

A new salary schedule for teachers based on results of evaluations tied to test scores would be created under SB 1. The bill also stipulates that teachers would no longer qualify for salary increases based on the completion of additional college degrees or graduate credit hours. In addition, SB 1 includes an exception for charter schools that would require only 50 percent of charter school teachers to be licensed. That number could be further reduced if waivers are sought. All public school teachers are required to be licensed under current state law. SB 1 is now eligible for House review.

Also approved in the Senate was legislation that would allow for 60-day probationary contracts for teachers hired new to a school corporation, regardless of the teacher’s experience in other school corporations. SB 294 was amended to require an evaluation of a probationary teacher by the principal after 30 days. Under the bill, after 60 days, the corporation may terminate the teacher or enter into a regular contract. Supporters said this bill would provide principals with another tool to better handle ineffective teachers. Opponents expressed concern that, if terminated, the probationary teacher would not be entitled to the normal due process of a permanent teacher. The House will now consider this bill.

Unemployment Insurance

Indiana has borrowed more than $2 billion from the federal government to shore up its bankrupt unemployment insurance fund and pay benefits to the state’s unemployed. Legislation that has been fast-tracked through the General Assembly, HB 1450, would repay the loan through a surcharge on businesses and a reduction in overall benefits to the unemployed by about 25 percent annually. Under HB 1450, average weekly benefits for unemployed workers would drop from $283 to $212. The U.S. average is $295 weekly. Opponents emphasized that cutting benefits will hurt families and pull cash from local economies throughout Indiana, as most unemployment benefits are used in local stores for daily necessities such as groceries, fuel and utilities. An alternative plan was proposed to allow for the issuances of long-term bonds to repay the debt instead of the surcharge and benefit reductions, but that plan was rejected in the Senate. The House approved the bill by a vote of 61-38. The final Senate vote was 33-16. The legislation advanced to the governor, who has signed it into law.

Clean Energy

Comprehensive legislation designed to create incentives for producing clean energy and set the stage for possible nuclear energy development in Indiana has passed the Senate, but not without concerns over the impact on Hoosier ratepayers.  SB 251 expands the definition of clean energy to include nuclear energy to attract nuclear generation entities to Indiana with state incentives. Approximately 98 percent of Indiana’s electricity is currently provided by coal-fired plants. Opponents expressed strong concerns that the legislation would pass on to ratepayers the costs and risks of building power plants, including highly speculative nuclear and coal gasification facilities, even if those facilities are never completed. The bill was approved by a vote of 32-17 and advances to the House.

On a related matter, the Senate approved SB 260, which will allow the legislative body of a unit of government (other than a township) to establish a clean energy improvement financing program to fund clean energy improvements for voluntary participants in the program. Although the bill prohibits the use of bonds to finance the improvements, it would require financing to come from private equity or federal grants or loans. The bill was approved 42-7 and now goes to the House.

Government Reform

One of the government reform measures approved, SB 302, deals with nepotism. The bill would prohibit a relative of an executive, a member of the legislative body or a member of the fiscal body of a county, city, town or township from being employed by the local unit. The bill includes a grandfather clause that provides 3.5 years for current employees who are related to officeholders to give up their jobs. Several senators representing rural areas of the state expressed strong opposition to the bill stating that this type of reform should be taken on by individual counties. However, the bill was approved by a vote of 30-19 and will now be reviewed by the House.

Several government reform bills died, however. SB 405 would have moved township fiscal powers to county councils in 2013 and eliminated township boards in 2015. SB 303 dealt with county-government reorganization. This proposal would have provided that in counties other than Marion County, a single county chief executive officer could be elected to serve as the county executive, replacing the board of county commissioners.

Illegal Immigration

Legislation which would require law enforcement officers to verify the citizenship or immigration status of individuals when making a stop, detention or arrest if the officer has reasonable suspicion of the individual’s status was also approved. Among the numerous provisions of SB 590, there is an “English only” provision, which would require only the use of English be used in public meetings, public documents, by state or local government employees, and information provided on government Web sites. In addition, the estimated cost to the state could be between $1.4 million to $5.4 million for criminal and employment dispute investigations and enforcement.

Even though there is strong opposition to this bill from organizations including the State Chamber of Commerce, Eli Lilly, Cummins and state universities, to name a few, along with all Senate Democrats and five Senate Republicans who voted against the bill, it was approved by a vote of 31-18. This bill now advances to the House.

To stay informed about bills moving through the General Assembly or to track legislation, log on to www.in. gov/legislative. From this site, you can also watch House and Senate committee hearings and session floor debate.

Visit my Web site at www.in.gov/s47 and subscribe to receive periodic e-mails about action taken on major issues this year. Senate Democrats also provide multimedia updates on daily activities in the Senate at The Briefing Room and Twitter updates at @INSenDems.
Personal contact with constituents has a direct impact on legislation considered and what ultimately becomes law. Use the contact information below to express your comments and concerns regarding pending legislation:

Mailing address: Statehouse, 200 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, IN 46204

Telephone: (317) 232-9491 or toll-free (800) 382-9467, Ext. 2-9491

E-mail address: s47@iga.in.gov