INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers preparing for a lengthy 2013 session will have to balance fiscal priorities like writing the state's next biennial budget and restoring spending cuts made in the last few years with a series of divisive social issues that could easily push aside all other debate.
The General Assembly returns Monday with dozens of new lawmakers, a new Republican administration led by Gov.-elect Mike Pence and plans to work on the state budget. But a proposal to write Indiana's gay marriage ban into the state constitution, an effort to challenge the teaching of evolution in Indiana classrooms and other hotly contested social issues could suck the air out of the room if Republican leaders let them.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said it might look like hot-button issues and broader economic priorities are competing for space in the General Assembly, but he thinks lawmakers have plenty of time and experience to handle both.
"Those are issues are not a distraction, they're a part of the process," he said, noting that hundreds of bills dealing with a wide range of issues are filed every session. "Some of them are controversial and sometimes don't see the light of day," he said.
This year, he said, is no exception.
"We have lots of different senators making statements with bills this year," he said.
The Legislature will consider a budget proposal from Pence that is likely to be capped by his push for a 10 percent cut in the personal income tax. But legislative leaders, including Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, have already expressed reservations about the plan as they deal with other cuts already being phased in and look to restore funding to areas like education.
Lawmakers will also have to find a way to pay for new roads now that the money from the $3.8 billion lease of the Indiana Toll Road has been spent or committed to projects. And increased Medicaid costs, based on the assumption that residents who already qualify for the program but are not enrolled will come out of the "woodwork" as the federal health care law takes effect, are certain to add to the demands placed on the budget.
Long said workforce development -- training students and workers to fill new advanced manufacturing jobs and other skilled positions that don't require four-year college degrees -- will also be one of the big issues this session.
How far social issues intrude on those discussions remains to be seen.
Some supporters of the effort to write the gay marriage ban into the constitution say the debate might have to wait until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the issue. The fate of religious-tinged measures, including challenges to the teaching of evolution and a proposal that schools recite the Lord's Prayer at the start of the school day, also is uncertain, but the measures will likely stir debate.
Conservative lawmakers are also pushing for expanded access to guns in a handful of measures that would limit the state's ability to regulate firearms and invalidate any federal gun regulations on guns manufactured exclusively in Indiana.
Democratic leaders, now representing a distinct minority in both the Senate and the House, say they expect cooler heads on the other side of the aisle, if only because there are so many issues to deal with and because the budget will take up so much time.
"The people expect us to work on the problems they care about: making sure people are able to earn their wages and that their hard work is going to be rewarde. They expect their kids are going to be able to go to a safe and secure school," said House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City. "The divisive issues are going to be left for another day."
But if sessions have proved anything, it's to count on unexpected and unannounced issues. As Republican lawmakers spent the 2012 session moving an agenda dominated by right-to-work legislation and modest spending on full-day kindergarten and victims of the 2011 state fair stage collapse, explosive social issues pushed their way to the fore.
After social conservatives failed to revoke specialty license plates for an Indianapolis gay youth group via legislation, they found a workaround by relying on the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to deny the specialty plates. And an otherwise mundane resolution honoring the Girl Scouts' 100th anniversary turned the Legislature into a circus after one House member accused the group of teaching girls to become lesbians and have abortions.
John Ketzenberger, president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute and a former Statehouse reporter, said he sees hot-button issues popping up like they do every year but getting little traction as lawmakers focus on clearing what is already a full plate.
"The one thing the Legislature has to do this year is pass the budget. These social issues have been around for a long time coming and going," Ketzenberger said. "I think they're going to spend a lot of time on transportation issues, I think they're going to spend a lot of time on Medicaid, and other than these other issues which sort of float around like satellites, that's going to be what they're about this year."