INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers will be dealing with two broad categories of issues when they reconvene next year: Battles they would gladly take on and those they would rather avoid.
Amending Indiana's gay marriage ban into the state constitution and stepping into the continuing education struggles between Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz clearly fall in the latter category, while just about anything they could do to improve the economy would fall into the former.
When House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, outlined House Republicans' top four legislative priorities — early education, road funding, elimination of the personal property tax and closing the jobs "skills gap" — last week the unifying theme was a focus on the state economy.
"These four issues: the skills gap, early childhood education, road funding and fair business taxation must be our priorities this session. It's my hope that we can work together as we did last session to find solutions that Republicans and Democrats can stand together on and say we're moving Indiana in the right direction," Bosma said during lawmakers' "Organization Day", which typically sets the tone for the session.
Indiana received some welcome news Friday, with word that the state unemployment rate had dropped to 7.5 percent — the best it's been since 2008. Pence credited the state's "pro-growth policies of fiscal responsibility" for the drop in the state's jobless rate. And Indiana has maintained a strong balance sheet, from a cash reserve of roughly $2 billion to a "AAA" bond rating shared by just a few other states.
But that fiscal success has not filtered out across the populace, as legislative Democrats often point out.
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, and Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, spent the past week arguing that the state needs to address pressing problems like stagnant earnings for most Indiana workers. The state's per capita income, a key measure of how well most residents are doing, is far below the national average.
Pelath and Lanane argue it is not enough to make new jobs. Instead, they say the state must create jobs where residents can resume pre-recession spending to effectively kick-start the state's economy.
But it will be hard to tackle that disparity while a constitutional ban on gay marriage sucks the air out of the room, they said. At the core, Pelath argued, is the political reality that Bosma faces of having to protect the right flank of himself and his members.
"Let's do a little bit of political analysis here: I think the biggest reason this is still on the table is you have Republican members who are quaking in their boots over people like Eric Miller and Micah Clark and they're worried they're going to get primaries and they're going to be running to Speaker Bosma worrying about their primaries. I understand that makes it difficult on the speaker," Pelath said.
Miller and Clark are both leaders in the religious coalition pushing the gay marriage amendment.
Pelath added that Bosma will "have an easier time governing if he eliminates this from consideration."
Bosma dismissed any concerns, saying that lawmakers effectively know how to walk and chew gum at the same time. He has also indirectly blamed the media for overplaying the gay marriage debate.
"It will receive 95 percent of the coverage and it will take 5 percent of the attention," Bosma said of the proposed amendment.
If that's how the ratio works out, it will only be because Bosma and other Republican leaders are adept by now at hoisting shields while hacking away at their priorities.