Indiana Legislature ends on high note after struggles

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Republican lawmakers set up a constitutional challenge to Indiana GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb over his office’s emergency powers a week before wrapping up this year’s regular legislative session.

Days later, the governor and legislative leaders stood together announcing a budget deal that won nearly unanimous support in the session’s final votes Thursday.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly’s 2021 session opened in early January amid wariness about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on state finances and with many conservative lawmakers itching to attack what they regarded as Holcomb’s overreach with COVID-19 executive orders that restricted businesses and mandated face masks.

But a big jump in state tax collections and a $3 billion infusion of federal COVID-19 relief money allowed Republican budget writers to give the sizeable increase to school funding long sought by Democrats – and legislative leaders largely avoided the divisive “culture war” debates that have been pushed by Republicans in other states this year.

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said the Legislature stayed focused on key issues such as protecting businesses from lawsuits over possible coronavirus exposures and helping the state’s economy rebound from the pandemic that state health officials say has killed more than 13,000 people.

“You just have to prioritize what’s best and that means spending time on the budget, spending time on the way to provide economic opportunity for Hoosiers across the state and provide some competitive advantages for the state of Indiana,” Bray said.

Legislative leaders praised the bipartisan cooperation involving members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus on a bill aimed at increasing police accountability that was signed by Holcomb on April 1.

That measure grew from a national reckoning over racism and policing following last year’s death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The bill includes provisions for mandatory de-escalation training, bans chokeholds in certain circumstances and a procedure for a state police board to decertify officers who commit misconduct.

But tempers later flared when some Republican House members shouted down and booed Black lawmakers speaking against a bill allowing a rural, mostly white township in St. Joseph County to leave the South Bend Community Schools in a move they called discriminatory and racist. The bill narrowly cleared the House but was never taken up by the Senate.

Republican legislators pushed through a bill giving lawmakers more authority to intervene during emergencies declared by the governor – then voted to override Holcomb’s veto after he deemed it not allowed under the state constitution. It could be up to the courts to decide whether the General Assembly can call itself into an emergency session when it isn’t meeting during its annual legislative session.

More aggressive steps – including resolutions to cancel the COVID-19 public health emergency first declared in March 2020 by Holcomb – were largely kept bottled up by Bray and House Speaker Todd Huston, who have repeatedly praised Holcomb for his actions during the pandemic.

The state’s good financial expectations cleared away reservations among some Republicans about a big expansion of the state’s private school voucher program opposed by Democrats and many education and teacher groups.

Indiana lawmakers weren’t as aggressive as other Republican-led legislatures on issues such as access to abortion, gun rights and voting restrictions fueled by former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud in 2020.

One bill approved by Indiana legislators would require doctors to tell women undergoing drug-induced abortions about a disputed “abortion reversal” treatment, but attempts for a complete abortion ban were blocked. House members passed a bill to repeal Indiana’s requirement for a permit to carry a handgun in public only to see it stall in the Senate, which consented to dropping the $75 state fee for lifetime permits.

A proposal aimed at requiring voters to submit identification numbers with mail-in ballot applications failed after facing corporate criticism.

Despite the commanding majorities Republicans have in the Legislature, Huston said they had disagreements.

“There’s a time and place for all issues,” Huston said. “Some people believe we should be acting sooner, some people believe we should be acting not at all.”

Senate Democratic Leader Greg Taylor said he believed Republican leaders didn’t want Indiana to experience anything like the corporate pushback over Georgia’s sweeping new voting law.

“I think there was just a lot of consternation, fear,” Taylor said. “They see what happened in Georgia. Indiana was set up to produce the same kind of results if they had gone that far. I think that they took the hint from the rest of the country and decided, ‘Do we really want to take this kind of leap right now?’”

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