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Gary Varvel l Indianapolis Star

Making the grades

Lawmakers’ efforts in just-ended session span pass-fail spectrum

Committed to labeling Indiana schools with letter grades of A-F, the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation last week to place the grading system in state law. In the interest of fair play, what follows is a report card for the lawmakers’ own performance, graded on the curve.

Roads and highways: A

Credit where credit is due: Veteran lawmakers recognized a looming problem and did the right thing. The budget earmarks more than $215 million in new road funding each year for the next two fiscal years. Cities, counties and towns will receive about $100 million of that amount – the first increase in road funding for local units of government in more than a decade. Legislators wisely shifted $135 million in fuel taxes now going to the Indiana State Police and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and put it into road repair.

They also set aside $200 million a year for a new Major Moves 2020 Fund. It will be used for major road projects. Their work on infrastructure funding might be the most important economic development work they accomplished.

Sentencing reform: B

This one is graded on the curve, allowing for the difficulty of the task. Lawmakers can’t win on this issue. Any effort to address the state’s burgeoning prison population was certain to draw complaints that lawmakers are being soft on crime. In the end, they added two levels of felonies and sentencing options that include serving time in county jails, community corrections, home monitoring and other alternatives to prison. They also gave the criminal justice system time to accommodate the changes, which go into effect July 1, 2014.

After years of incomplete work, it’s a decent performance.

Social issues: B-

Yes, the General Assembly continued its assault on women’s reproductive health rights, but legislative leaders earn extra credit for corralling conservative new members who likely would have hammered away at many more individual rights.

The new anti-abortion law, requiring clinics that administer the abortion-inducing drug RU-486 to meet surgical standards, even if they don’t offer surgical abortions, is likely to be challenged in court. Another new law requires that doctors give women seeking an abortion color pamphlets with photos of a fetus at various stages of development.

On the plus side, leadership squelched efforts to allow prayer in school and creationism instruction. They postponed an inevitably bruising fight over efforts to write Indiana’s gay marriage ban into the state constitution, even as support for gay marriage grows.

Leadership also resisted the knee-jerk reaction to the Newtown, Conn., tragedy. They turned a plan to arm teachers in schools into a grant program for schools to hire more trained law enforcement. A bill that would have mandated drug tests for welfare recipients also died, apparently out of concern for children who might lose aid because of a parent’s actions. Also killed was a guns-on-campus bill.

Well done.

Education: D-

After employing a “reset button” and cutting $300 million in school funding in 2009, this was supposed to be the year Republican legislators hit the “pause button” on education reform. They failed. They expanded the already-expansive school voucher program, without any evidence that the program is showing positive results and knowing that some families are using taxpayer dollars to enroll their children in F-rated private schools. They dropped the argument about giving students a chance to escape failing schools and instead argued it was all about choice – even poor choices, apparently. Vouchers will now be available to students whose siblings are receiving a voucher, those who are attending a public school that earns an F and special education students currently enrolled in private schools.

They also slipped in a budget provision that allows anyone with a bachelor’s degree and a passing score on a subject matter test to qualify for the transition to teaching program. Superintendents will no longer need a teacher’s license to lead an Indiana school district. So much for higher standards.

Medicaid expansion: I (for incomplete)

Along with an income-tax cut, new Gov. Mike Pence wasn’t giving in on his insistence that the Healthy Indiana Plan serve as the platform for expanding health care coverage. A more pragmatic contingent of lawmakers, however, realized that rejecting the incentives offered in the Affordable Care Act could prove costly to Hoosiers. Indiana hospital officials say that $10.5 billion is available in federal aid through the new health care law, along with thousands of jobs.

For now, the Medicaid-expansion decision remains in the governor’s hands, with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reviewing Indiana’s application to expand HIP coverage to another 400,000 Hoosiers. Even if approved, an equal number of residents would remain without health care coverage – making Indiana the “island of the uninsured,” as some lawmakers argued.

If necessary, lawmakers could revisit the issue on their Organization Day this November, in advance of the Jan. 1 deadline for extending coverage. That might raise their overall grade-point average.

Budget: C+

This task should have been the equivalent of taking an automatic “A” class. With a supermajority in each chamber, Republican leadership’s only hurdles were within its own ranks, where squabbling over various issues almost derailed Speaker Brian Bosma’s plan to adjourn early. The $30 billion budget delivered the tax cuts promised, even if a Ball State survey late last year showed Hoosiers preferred investing a state surplus in job creation and education over a tax cut.

The personal income tax rate falls from 3.4 percent to 3.3 percent in 2015. For a household earning $50,000 a year, it’s a paltry $1 a week.

Job creation: I

Another incomplete. Job creation should have been the session’s top priority, according to that Ball State survey. But for all the talk about jobs, little was actually accomplished. New legislation creates a committee to develop a strategic plan to improve the state’s education, jobs skills and career-training systems. It’s the sort of effort likely to produce nothing of value. A plan to create regional works councils to craft alternatives for career, technical and vocational educational opportunities will work only if those currently providing career and technical education guide the effort. If the process is controlled by business interests seeking job-training funds, any long-term economic value is lost.

The lost opportunity in job creation might turn out to be the session’s greatest failure. Indiana’s 8.7 percent unemployment rate is higher than that of all its neighboring states, including recession-worn Michigan. Per-capita wages continue to lag other states. Eventually, Hoosiers are going to realize Indiana isn’t the economic development wonderland its leaders claim to have created.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 2000 and for Indiana newspapers since 1982. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email, kfrancisco@jg.net.

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