INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers have only a few more days this week before they wrap up the 2014 legislative session. But that doesn't mean they're totally done for the year.
A handful of top issues being debated this session are on their way to "summer study," as the Statehouse lingo goes. Lawmakers are set to study business taxes and preschool vouchers, even if they do approve the tax cuts and new education spending sought by Gov. Mike Pence this session.
Critics of these studies say they equate to "punting" on the issue, while supporters say it allows the time to delve deeper into a subject after the harried days of the session. Either way, months of routine meetings on one specific topic often help drive action on many of Indiana's toughest issues.
The best example from this year could be the regulations for religious daycare centers that lawmakers are on the verge of approving. Proposed regulations were often stymied in previous sessions, despite grim reports of child deaths and multiple newspaper investigations that exposed widespread problems. But it wasn't until after lawmakers spent a summer reviewing the issue that new rules seemed possible.
This summer, lawmakers — and the citizens and experts they call on to serve with them on the respective study committees — won't be tackling only the business taxes and preschool vouchers.
Rep. Christina Hale, D-Indianapolis, was able to declare victory last month after Republicans gave initial approval to her request that the issue of teen sexual assault, a problem she says is underreported, was tabbed for a summer review. And lawmakers will spend the next two years looking comprehensively at the state's transportation funding, a problem that state leaders have tinkered with for years now.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, who is considering Pence's request for the release of $400 million in roads funding that lawmakers marked for savings in their most recent budget, noted that the problem of declining gas tax collections due to improving vehicle gas mileage is a long-term issue that needs to be tackled head on.
"It's a national dilemma," he said. "In one sense, it's great. It's good for the environment, and it's great for consumers and everyone else. But on the other hand, how do we pay for our roads?"
The question of the study committee may weigh heaviest for Pence, who started the session with broad requests for lawmakers but has had to dial back his expectations considerably. Positioning himself to claim victory at the end of the session, Pence has taken to calling the study of preschool vouchers a good thing (even though he's remained firm that he would like to see at least some type of program approved by lawmakers this year).
The governor spoke about the preschool program last week at the Day Nursery daycare adjacent to the Statehouse, continuing his last-minute lobbying for one of his key agenda items.
"I think what the legislature has proposed in the manner of a comprehensive study before we go very far down this path is sound and appropriate," Pence said. "But I also believe a pilot program, like that which was passed by the House of Representatives, is an idea whose time has come. And I'm renewing my call at the start of the week for the Indiana General Assembly to combine the study with a pilot program."
The 2014 session is set to end as soon as Wednesday and no later than Friday. Then come months of pondering ahead of the 2015 session.