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Indiana lawmakers reach deals on roads and preschool

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TOM LoBIANCO, Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Lawmakers headed into the final hours of their 2014 session Thursday with plans to approve tax cuts for businesses and new spending on roads and preschool, among other measures.

The Senate opened the day by sending a comprehensive overhaul of the state's criminal code, which supporters hope will reduce the overall prison population and improve criminal sentencing, to Gov. Mike Pence for consideration.

A broad range of issues from new rules to control the stray cats in trailer parks to a ban on the use of tanning beds by children younger than 16 won approval earlier in the session. Lawmakers also have approved withdrawing the state from national Common Core education standards and placed a one-year hold on an energy efficiency program started by former Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Three of the biggest items dealing with roads, preschool and business taxes still were awaiting final approval Thursday afternoon, although deals on all three had been reached by Wednesday.

"I don't think many people that at the start of this thought we would be in a position to say that, but it's going to be one of the most substantial programs that we've seen," said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. "And it looks like the other items are falling into place."

The latter half of the General Assembly's annual session was decidedly calmer than the first, which was dominated by emotional debate over a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Opponents of the marriage ban won a surprising victory last month when lawmakers pushed back the soonest the state constitution could be amended on the issue to at least 2016. Supporters of the ban fought unsuccessfully to have the issue placed on the ballot this November.

The marriage battle also led to some political fallout among lawmakers. Senate Republican leaders stripped Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, of his leadership posts and moved his Senate seat next to the Democrats in the chamber after he criticized their handling of the issue.

And Bosma announced he had been offered "unlimited campaign funds" to make the marriage ban "go away" this session. But the Republican donor who offered the help, former Republican Party Chairman Jim Kittle, roundly disputed Bosma's claims.

By the end of last month, however, the focus had turned back to issues most lawmakers were more interested in addressing, including education and taxes.

The agreements between Statehouse Republican leaders announced late Wednesday would have the state potentially release $400 million for transportation projects this year. The state would also rely on $10 million from budget cuts and $5 million in private donations to launch a preschool program for children from low-income families.

Bosma said he believes the state could use the $400 million to leverage up to $2.4 billion for highway projects including additional lanes for Interstates 65, 69 and 70 through federal funding. The first $200 million would be given to the Indiana Department of Transportation immediately, but the second half would only be released after legislators receive an update of the state's finances in December.

The preschool pilot would be used to send low-income children in five counties to early childhood programs.

The state would kick in $10 million through a mix of money saved through budget cuts and federal grants, and matched with $5 million in private donations for the program. Families with incomes up to 127 percent of the federal poverty level a little less than $30,000 for a family of four would qualify for the pilot program.

The announcement follows weeks of brinksmanship between House leaders, who first proposed the spending, and Senate Republicans, who raised concerns about the state's budgeting and tax collections.

"The Senate was very creative and cooperative in helping us address some of their issues that they had about the program, and we just were persistent on it and stuck with it and kept providing solutions to the questions," Bosma told The Associated Press.

Bosma said a bill that would allow properly stored guns in school parking lots also has support from House and Senate negotiators.

Supporters say the measure would protect parents from being charged with a felony if they bring a gun with them to pick up their children. Opponents say the proposal would create easier access to guns and could lead to greater risk of school shootings.

Bosma said the revised bill would redefine what constitutes school property. A vote was expected on the bill Thursday.

 

 

Posted 3/13/2014