INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Republicans control the governor’s office and hold supermajorities in both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly. But their lack of consensus on several issues looms large as lawmakers ready for the 2016 legislative session, which kicks off Tuesday.
Likely to dominate the 10-week session, lawmakers say, is finding a way to fund Indiana’s poorly rated roads, determining whether LGBT civil rights protections should be added into law and addressing the long-delayed release of student’s ISTEP test scores while also easing the state’s teacher shortage.
Gov. Mike Pence has proposed a $481 million increase in state highway spending, requested a $42 million boost for his Regional Cities initiative and wants a one-year pause in using the latest ISTEP scores to determine teacher merit pay. Many of those big ideas have received a withering welcome from GOP leaders in the House, though Senate Republicans generally support his proposals and everyone seems to agree something should be done about ISTEP.
Then there’s the much-anticipated debate over the possibility of extending civil rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – an issue many, including Pence, would rather avoid.
It’s driven a wedge in the GOP base between the pro-gay rights Indiana Chamber of Commerce and social conservatives, who oppose the idea on religious grounds.
Senate Republicans have proposed a bill that would extend LGBT discrimination protections in public accommodation, housing and employment while also including a long list of religious exemptions. Pence has refused to say where he stands on the matter, while House Speaker Brian Bosma has said doing nothing would be the easiest choice for House Republicans in an election year.
“Just because you’re in the supermajority doesn’t mean you’re going to move smoothly,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
GOP tensions were highlighted recently after Pence held a series of widely publicized news conferences around the state, promising a $42 million increase in state spending for Regional Cities, which pitted seven Indiana regions against each other in a competition for funding that will pay for quality-of-life improvements.
The problem? Bosma says the Pence administration forgot to tell lawmakers, who must vote on the increase Pence promised to the winning South Bend, Fort Wayne and Evansville metro areas.
“The governor and the administration have set it up so there will be disappointment if we don’t do it,” Bosma said recently. “A phone call probably would have been in order from the administration on that.”
Another thing that Pence has to run by the Senate and House but has already touted as “accomplished” in a recent fundraising email is his plan to boost short-term state highway spending starting in 2017. Pence wants to borrow $240 million while siphoning $241 million from the state’s budget reserves.
Rep. Ed Soliday, Republican chairman of the House Roads and Transportation committee, says his own, competing proposal would help solve long-term road funding woes by increasing the cost of cigarettes by $1 a pack while allowing the state’s gas tax to keep pace with inflation. Pence, however, does not support a tax increase.
Both Bosma and Pence downplayed their differences.
In a statement, Bosma said he has “great respect” for Pence, though the two “occasionally disagree.” Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd struck a similar tone, saying “any differences that exist on policy are normal differences that exist between the Legislature and the executive branch.”
But Indianapolis Rep. Dan Forestal, the ranking Democrat on the House roads committee, offered a different word to describe the GOP divide: “messy.”