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General assembly

Marriage ban to dominate session

– Lawmakers are set to sprint through a 10-week session starting Jan. 6 with three major topics dominating the discourse.

The main attraction will be the fight over a constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions, which could surpass education issues and a proposed major business tax cut.

“I just really don’t know what to expect,” said Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington. “I really wish we didn’t have to deal with it.”

If lawmakers pass the ban, Hoosiers will get the final say at the ballot box in November.

Though he supported the constitutional measure in 2011, Leonard said constituents have deluged him on the topic both for and against. So this year he has refused to commit either way until hearing the testimony and casting his vote.

The survey he sent to voters in his district years ago showed support as high as 78 percent for putting the ban on gay marriage in the constitution. Last year it had dropped to 52 percent support and 48 percent oppose.

Leonard said he would commit to voting yes if the second sentence weren’t included.

The proposed amendment says, “Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Indiana. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.”

The second sentence has further implications than same-sex marriage, which is already prohibited under Indiana law and would not change regardless of the debate on the constitutional ban.

It prohibits future legislators from ever allowing civil unions. And some fear it might also stop private businesses from offering health insurance or other benefits to same-sex couples.

Leonard said he asked a key conservative group supporting the ban why it opposes removing the second sentence. The group said changing it would delay the public vote on the ban until 2016 and by then it wouldn’t pass.

Not surprisingly the northeast delegation is split on the topic. There are some members like Leonard who are waiting and listening.

Others, like Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, will vote against the measure as he did in 2011.

“It will overshadow everything else,” he said. “It has become too divisive of an issue.”

There are conflicting public surveys on the topic, depending on who is polled and how the question is asked. And both sides are preparing for what could be a $20 million fight if lawmakers send it to the public.

“I voted for it two years ago and I will do so again if it comes to a vote,” said Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City.

“Clearly it’s a big deal to my constituents when my inbox is filled every day from one side or the other,” he said. “It’s an important debate. Hoosiers deserve a vote.”

When the session starts, numerous education issues are also sure to arise. Gov. Mike Pence and House Republicans are pushing for state-paid vouchers for pre-kindergarten for low-income families. And the continued tension between Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and the State Board of Education could lead to legislation.

“Some think we have done too much too soon in education,” Banks said. “I believe we did too little too late.”

He supports continuing to expand educational opportunities through more charter schools and vouchers.

It is unclear how much the preschool program would cost the state and it’s a non-budget year, so financial decisions are usually avoided. Pence is pushing lawmakers to craft the program and then add the funding in 2015.

Leonard is concerned about starting a new preschool program when the state is still not paying schools to provide full-day kindergarten at the same rate as other school grades.

Overall he is worried the state is trying to run multiple education systems at once – public, charters, private schools through vouchers and now a preschool program.

“We’re giving more money than we ever had but spreading it too thin and schools are getting less,” Leonard said.

GiaQuinta is worried that Republicans will try to dilute the powers of the superintendent of public instruction now that a Democrat is in the seat.

This could occur by shifting responsibilities from the Indiana Department of Education to the Pence-created Center for Education and Career Innovation. Or the superintendent could be removed as chair of the board of education.

“This will not be received well,” GiaQuinta said. “She was elected to do her job under the guidelines of the legislature. She ought to be allowed to do that for the four years she is in there.”

Another major topic is the business personal property tax phase-out sought by Pence.

This tax on business machinery and equipment brings in almost $1 billion to local schools and governments.

Pence has claimed his plan is not a “tax cut” but he hasn’t identified any replacement revenue. Instead, he has focused on time and economic growth covering the loss for locals.

Leonard isn’t buying it. He owns a furniture store and pays the tax.

“If a local unit wants to do away with the personal property tax they have the ability to abate that for 10 years now,” he said. “We can’t make them eat a billion dollars in funding. Some of them just can’t afford it. Why are we screwing them?”

Banks is a strong supporter of the measure.

“The details are the more complicated part of the debate,” he said. “I’m sure eliminating the tax will create economic growth in our state … but I don’t like the idea of raising income taxes to eliminate business taxes. That doesn’t seem to accomplish much to me.”

nkelly@jg.net

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