GOP takes aim at handful of bills during special session

("Indiana Statehouse" by Shawna Pierson, CC BY 2.0)

Indiana lawmakers gaveled a brief special session to a close Monday amid protests from Democrats who said the five bills taken up, including a contentious school takeover measure, didn’t warrant the day’s estimated $30,000 price tag.

GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb announced in March that he would call lawmakers back to the Statehouse for the one-day gathering shortly after bickering majority Republicans blew passed a legal deadline to adjourn without passing a number of bills. At the time, Holcomb said it was important for lawmakers to “finish the people’s business.”

Once they were back Monday, the GOP got to work voting on legislation that will allow Ball State University to take over Muncie schools, while reducing the authority of the Gary school board. They also approved two bills to adjust the tax code in the wake of a Republican tax overhaul signed into law by President Donald Trump. Another measure sets aside an additional $5 million in funding for school safety — an estimated $7,000 in additional money per school.

Democrats said that when added together, it’s an underwhelming package of legislation that could wait for next year’s legislative session.

“We don’t need to be here at all,” said Sen. Karen Tallian, a Portage Democrat.

Republicans, meanwhile, were uncharacteristically reserved. Holcomb signed all five bills without fanfare Monday afternoon.

Republican Senate leader David Long said Republicans finished “business we were unable to complete in March” in an “efficient and smooth” manner. He added that it was now “time to turn the page.”

Ever since March’s GOP meltdown, Democrats have sought to exploit the mishap. That continued Monday, when they went on the offensive over Republicans’ reluctance to consider legislation addressing a growing crisis in the state’s child welfare agency.

But the measure that drew the most protest was the Gary and Muncie schools takeover bill by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, a Crawfordsville Republican.

Both districts were previously overseen by local officials who mismanaged money. Gary is more than $100 million in debt, while Muncie misspent a $10 million bond.

Last year, Republicans passed legislation that led to the appointment of emergency managers for both districts. Brown’s bill this year takes it a step further.

“The status quo has to change,” Brown said of the legislation. “The community … is not 100 percent for it, but it’s not 100 percent against it.”

Opponents — including Democrats — said it sets a precedent that could lead to the state takeover of other schools and would disenfranchise voters who have elected school boards that would be stripped of power.

In Muncie, Ball State would not be obligated to collectively bargain with teachers. The university would also have broad control over who is appointed to the school board, which is currently elected.

In Gary, the elected school board would be reduced to an advisory committee that could only meet a few times a year.

The measure also sets up a system to flag other districts that could be headed for fiscal trouble.

Rep. Charlie Brown, a Gary Democrat, warned others could be next.

“We are setting a very dangerous precedent,” Brown said. “Yes, it is Gary now. Yes, it is Muncie now. But it could be you tomorrow.”