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General Assembly

Senate narrowly OKs expanding vouchers

– More Hoosier children will be eligible for state-paid vouchers under a bill narrowly approved by the Senate on Wednesday.

“This is not the aggressive substantial expansion we saw come out of the House,” said Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury. “But it provides some breathing room for families that need it.”

House legislators can accept the changes or send the bill to a conference committee for further negotiations.

Indiana started its voucher program two years ago and now 9,300 students receive a state-paid voucher, which sends $37 million to private schools. There are income restrictions, and children must currently spend at least one year in public school before being eligible.

The Indiana Supreme Court found the program constitutional on March 26.

House Bill 1003 originally called for a massive expansion, but the Senate scaled back the bill.

Now it would allow children living in the attendance area of a failing school – and who meet financial eligibility guidelines – to receive a voucher without first attending public school for a year.

The legislation also gives more freedom for siblings of a child already receiving a voucher to participate as well.

The bill allows a family’s household income to rise above the initial eligibility level and not lose the voucher. The new maximum would be about $84,000 for a family of four.

Several Democrats spoke against the bill, arguing the cost of the program is expected to rise to $63 million in the next two years – money that is being funneled out of public schools.

The only area senator to vote against the legislation was Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange.

Superintendent bill

Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann stepped in to break a tie Wednesday on a bill allowing schools to hire superintendents without an educator’s license.

The vote was 25-25 until she gave House Bill 1357 the final push with a 26th yes vote.

It is the first time Ellspermann has had to break a tie. The last time a lieutenant governor broke a tie was in 2005 on an amendment that was defeated.

Originally the bill didn’t require superintendents to have a teaching or superintendents’ license or any postsecondary education. An amendment inserted Tuesday requires a master’s degree in any field.

“Just because you don’t have experience in education doesn’t mean you can’t lead a district,” said Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon.

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, said the bill wouldn’t have passed out of committee except that she was out of the room. She would have voted no, killing the bill.

“What we are doing here is disconcerting,” she said, pointing out classes that superintendents have to take such as school law, testing, special education and more.

The only area senator to vote no was Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange.

The bill now goes back to the House to see if legislators there accept the changes.

Midwives approved

The Senate voted 28-22 Wednesday to legalize direct-entry midwives in Indiana – the first time the chamber has considered the longtime proposal.

It is currently a felony to practice midwifery – helping mothers give birth, often at home – without a license in Indiana. Until now, Indiana has only licensed certified nurse midwives, which means a registered nurse licensed by the state.

According to data from the Indiana State Department of Health, there were 1,058 intended live births at home in 2010. Of those, 357 were by nurse midwives.

Supporters of a wider midwifery law contend current nurse midwives are not meeting the needs, especially in more rural areas – including serving the Amish.

House Bill 1135 passed the House using a national certification recognized in other states. But the Senate version is stricter, including having minimum educational requirements and having midwives work directly with a supervising physician.

A change in the bill Tuesday no longer makes those doctors immune from liability. Direct-entry midwives also must obtain liability insurance.

Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, said the rising cost of health care is one reason women are looking to home birth. And he noted some hospitals no longer deliver babies in rural areas.

“It’s a step in the right direction – not a full-scale legalization of midwives,” he said.

Sen. Tom Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, said he could not support the bill because of an experience about a decade ago when his niece had a homebirth that went awry. The mother ended up in the hospital and the baby died.

“I’ll never support that day and I cannot support this bill,” he said.

Area senators split on the bill. Those voting no were Wyss, Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, and Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne. Those supporting the bill were Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, and Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn.

The bill now moves to the House to decide if they will accept the changes or seek a compromise.

Higher education

The Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday aimed at pushing more students using state-paid scholarships to graduate college within four years.

The Senate made significant changes to House Bill 1348, which will likely head to a conference committee for final negotiations.

The amended version of the bill allows the Commission for Higher Education to set base awards for financial aid annually, but no longer contains incentive payments.

It requires students to complete 24 credit hours per year to renew their financial aid awards and lowers the GPA requirement enacted in 2011 to “satisfactory academic progress,” which is 2.0 on a 4.0 scale at most public schools.

Drug testing

The Senate voted 38-12 Wednesday to drug test some Hoosiers receiving cash welfare payments.

All area senators supported the measure, which now heads back to the House for concurrence or dissent.

House Bill 1483 requires everyone who receives cash assistance to take a written test used nationally to gauge the likelihood of substance abuse problems. Anyone scoring high on that evaluation will be placed in a testing pool from which the state is required to drug-test at least 50 percent of the individuals.

If a person tests positive, they must show they are enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program to retain benefits. Participants can lose their benefits after continued positive drug tests.

The maximum monthly payment is $184.