- Associated Press - Sunday, November 22, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The debate over whether to extend civil rights protections to gays and lesbians in Indiana drew throngs of demonstrators to the Statehouse last week, where lawmakers gathered to set the agenda for the coming legislative session.

The issue of whether - and how - lawmakers will add protections banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity won’t go away, even if majority Republicans and Gov. Mike Pence want it to.

But there are a handful of other priorities that Pence, House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long have outlined for the session that starts in January, which are detailed below:

QUICK SESSION

Bosma says House Republicans want to focus on a handful of big issues - including roads funding, the state’s teacher shortage and a ban of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine sales- before quickly bringing the 10-week session to a close.

Minority Democrats snarkily assessed that attitude as shrewd - especially in an election year.

“There’s not a lot of good that can happen for the Republicans by being in session,” House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said. “The longer you’re here, the more problems that crop up for them.”

Difficult political questions like how to fund roads and how to address LGBT civil rights could be political liabilities for the GOP come November, especially with the large-yet-fractious House Republican caucus, Pelath said.

“You have your ideologues, your pragmatists and your sort of moderates. They don’t agree on many things - they certainly don’t agree on strategy. And they don’t necessarily like each other,” the Michigan City Democrat said. “When you have to cajole and corral a group like that, you’re gonna want to tend to wrap things up as quickly as you can.”

ROADS FUNDING

Ever since the monthlong emergency closure of an Interstate 65 bridge near Lafayette over the summer, Democrats have attacked Pence over the condition of Indiana’s poorly funded and low-ranked roads. In response, Pence proposed a $1 billion short-term solution that relies on borrowing and drawing down the state’s reserves to repair state highways.

But Democrats say that ignores county and municipal roadways, and made a counterproposal for a $2 billion short-term plan that would pay for all roads by tapping into reserves and redirecting money that lawmakers can currently spend any way they want.

Bosma says both plans fail to address the need for a more reliable stream of revenue, and has directed GOP caucus leaders to find a solution, stating “nothing is off the table.”

“It is my hope that we can have more of a long-term vision,” said Bosma, of Indianapolis. “I suspect the need isn’t just $1 billion or $2 billion.”

But Long, who supports Pence’s proposal, indicated that a long-term plan would be better dealt with during a year when lawmakers write the state’s two-year budget.

“It is not an easy answer,” the Fort Wayne Republican said.

ISTEP SCORES

Student scores on the 2015 ISTEP test are expected to plummet due to difficult new benchmarks put in place after GOP lawmakers and Pence withdrew Indiana from the national Common Core standards last year.

Republicans, including Pence, initially insisted that the dismal results should still be used to determine teacher bonus pay and school A-F letter grades, but changed their minds last month.

Bosma said Tuesday that he will fast-track a bill that will give teachers a one-year reprieve from pay cuts due to poor student performance.

What remains to be resolved is whether poor test scores will count against schools’ A-F letter grades. Some key Republicans have argued the accountability measure must stay, though Bosma and Pence have said they are open to lessening the blow, which Democrats have requested for months. Long said a dip in grades “needs to be addressed so we don’t unfairly penalize our schools, our students.”

TEACHER SHORTAGE

Like dozens of other states, Indiana is facing a teacher shortage, especially in math, science and special education. Bosma says he hopes to reverse that trend, which has seen the number of first-time teaching licenses issued by the state decline by 33 percent over the past five years.

House Republicans are proposing full-ride scholarships for teachers who commit to teaching in the state for five years, though they haven’t outlined a funding source.

Bosma also says too much school funding goes to paying for administration and overhead, and more should go to increasing salaries for entry-level teachers.

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Follow Brian Slodysko on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BrianSlodysko

The debate over whether Indiana should put civil rights for lesbian, gay and transgendered people into state law is destined to be a major issue when the Legislature meets in January.

But GOP leaders who control the Statehouse say they have other plans, too.

They want to find a long-term way to pay for building and maintaining roads and bridges. A shortage of teachers in the state should also be addressed.

And lawmakers also want to spare teachers from having their pay docked this year due to low ISTEP test scores in the wake of the new, difficult post-Common Core test standards.

Democrats say a bitter and high-profile debate over LGBT rights could derail those plans.


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