Deadline looms for LGBT bill

State senators must reach an agreement on a bill that would extend civil rights protections to lesbian, gay and bisexual Hoosiers this week in order for the legislation to stay alive.

At the second Bartholomew County Third House meeting of the 2016 legislative session, Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, and Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, told a group of about 40 county residents that all pending bills in each of the legislative houses must be passed and sent to the opposite house for consideration by Wednesday.

If lawmakers do not make that deadline on any pending legislation, those bills will die.

Among the legislation waiting for approval is Senate Bill 344, a civil rights bill that would give discrimination protections to lesbian, gay and bisexual Hoosiers while also allowing for certain exemptions based on religious beliefs.

The bill would not extend protections to transgender residents but instead refers that issue to further consideration in a legislative study committee.

Walker, who attended part of the five-hour testimony about Senate Bill 344 last week, said he and other senators still are unsure of the best way to define rights and protections for transgender people, so they need more time to consider that issue.

The bill passed out of the Senate Rules and Legislative Procedure committee with a 7-5 vote. However, if it is passed out of the full Senate this week, it could look very different than the version that passed out of committee.

Lawmakers have proposed various amendments to the bill in an effort to find a better balance between civil liberties and religious freedom, Walker said.

Hoosiers on both sides of the issue have accused lawmakers of playing politics rather than trying to find a solution to the LGBT debate, but Walker said the lengthy discussions about the Senate bill and the numerous amendments prove that the General Assembly is searching for a compromise.

Challenge affects Columbus

Developments are being watched closely in Columbus, where the city council passed an amendment to the local human rights ordinance last fall that added sexual orientation, gender identity, age and status as a veteran to protected classes.Based on the wording of the Columbus human rights ordinance amendment, Terre Haute-based Bopp Law Firm added the city, its Human Rights Commission and commissioners to a lawsuit which challenges the constitutionality of the state’s legislative fix to last year’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).Attorney Jim Bopp said the fix could force the suit’s plaintiffs — The Indiana Family Institute, Indiana Family Action and The American Family Association of Indiana — to provide some services to LGBT Hoosiers that would go against their religious beliefs.

The nondiscrimination ordinance in Columbus, as well as in Bloomington, Carmel and Indianapolis-Marion County, also could force the groups to act against their religious beliefs, Bopp said.

Walker said the Bopp lawsuit and other debates surrounding LGBT rights, both at the state and local level, show that all branches of government must be involved in the decision-making process in order to reach a compromise that satisfies the majority of Hoosiers.

“Because of the complexities of the issue, I don’t know if lawmakers will ever get it right,” Walker said. “That’s why the courts exist.”

Smith said he is concerned that the state’s focus on the LGBT debate is shrouding the importance of other social issues, particularly poverty.

About 48 percent of students statewide — and about 44 percent in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. — qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, something Smith said should be of greater concern to lawmakers.

While the ongoing debate over LGBT rights is important, Smith said he would like to see the General Assembly take a broader look at ways to improve the quality of life for all Hoosiers, rather than a few specific groups.

“We need to stop responding to the emails we get and do what’s right,” he said.

Addressing roads

Outside of civil rights issues, the General Assembly has also spent the 2016 session debating the best way to generate revenues for state infrastructure projects.House Republicans, including Smith, are backing House Bill 1001, which would raise the state gas tax from 18 cents to 22 cents and use the additional revenue, which is projected to be about $280 million, to fund road improvements.Additionally, lawmakers have proposed raising the state cigarette tax by $1 to generate road funding.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence, however, has said he will not support any bill that raises taxes for road funding. Instead, the governor is asking lawmakers to consider using money in the state’s reserves to fund the projects.

As a compromise, Smith said an amendment has been introduced to House Bill 1001 that would lower the state personal income tax from 3.25 percent to 3.06 percent. That reduction would essentially neutralize the revenues the state would gain from raising the gas tax.

Smith said he supports the idea because 19 percent of Bartholomew County bridges are either deficient or obsolete and need to be repaired.

Local resident Edward Davis questioned the rationale behind lowering the income tax, saying it seems like lawmakers are only kicking the can down the road. He said Hoosiers should accept the fact that taxes may have to go up for the sake of the safety of state and local roads.

Reducing the income tax was an effort to compromise with House Bill 1001’s opponents, Smith said.

“I don’t know if the governor will sign that bill, but that’s the only way we could get him to sign it,” he said.

Like the Senate’s civil rights bill, House Bill 1001 must pass out of the full House by Wednesday in order to advance.

Other efforts are also being considered to generate funds for road improvements.

Under House Bill 1110, which Smith co-authored, the state could only keep 15 percent of county local option income tax revenues for reserves, compared to the 50 percent it currently keeps.

The bill would return about $550 million to local governments across the state. About $440 million would be immediately infused into local government budgets, with the remaining $110 million coming over the next four years.

About Third House

The weekly Third House sessions sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce are a 45-year tradition in Bartholomew County. Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, and Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, attend the sessions to inform Bartholomew County residents of the bills they are working on in their respective houses and to allow residents to voice any questions or concerns they may have about pending legislation.

Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, also has attended Third House sessions because his district includes Hope and Hartsville in northeastern Bartholomew County.

Third House meets at 7:30 a.m. every Monday until March 7 in the Cal Brand Meeting Room of Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St. Because of another legislative commitment, Walker may not be able to attend some Third House sessions or may only be available for a limited amount of time.

Pull Quote

“Because of the complexities of the (LGBT) issue, I don’t know if lawmakers will ever get it right.” 

— Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus

Pull Quote

“We need to stop responding to the emails we get and do what’s right.”

— Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus

Where local legislators stand on key state issues

LGBT rights

— Sen. Greg Walker: As an advocate of making sure religious liberties are protected, he is unsure of best way to define rights and protection for transgender people.

— Rep. Milo Smith: Prefers that General Assembly take a broader look at ways to improve the quality of life for all Hoosiers, rather than a few specific groups.

Funding roads

— Walker: Co-authored Senate Bill 67, which would use $430 million in local option income tax revenues for infrastructure improvements.

— Smith: Backs House Bill 1001, which would raise the state gas tax from 18 cents to 22 cents and use about $280 million in new revenue to fund road improvements. Would support raising the cigarette tax by $1 per pack.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.