Hate crime bill debate: Local legislators explain their position on protected classes

Local legislators were questioned about their stance on a watered-down hate crime bill that is still pending before an Indiana House committee.

More than 60 people crowded into the Columbus City Hall council chambers Monday for the third in a series of monthly Third House sessions.

Three state lawmakers took questions about bills, including the hate crime legislation — Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, and Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford.

Audience member Cate Hyatt of Columbus asked the three lawmakers if each were considering a bias crime bill that includes a list of priorities (protected classes), would they vote yes or no.

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Koch said he would have to say no — at least in regard to the language in the Senate bill now being considered by the House.

Walker did not give a yes or no answer, saying there are some priorities (protected classes) he would support in such a bill, and some that he would not support. Classes that he would be in favor of protecting are those with unchangeable characteristics, he said.

Walker said his overriding belief is that Indiana’s current legislation regarding felony sentencing works fine without a list of protected classes in a hate crimes bill.

Lauer also said it was not a yes or no question. Judges already have the ability to add or subtract years based on aggravating or mitigating circumstances, he said. Codifying the list would not change the ability that judges already have, Lauer said.

“There are states out there with up to 25-plus protected classes on the list, and the more it gets debated, the more it gets contentious as to what list would be most palatable to (state lawmakers),” Lauer said.

Lydi Davidson of Columbus told lawmakers that several companies and businessmen have been supporting a specific list of protected classes for the hate crimes legislation. Some businesses don’t want to come to Indiana because of the legislature has removed the protected classes from the bill, she said.

“I sometimes wonder who is being represented here,” Davidson said to the lawmakers. “I wonder what it is you are afraid of that you think is going to get on that list,” she said.

Walker said there’s no specific item that lawmakers fear, adding that the creation of a hate crimes list (of protected classes) will neither stop or create a crime.

“It becomes too problematic when legislators get too deep into the work of judges,” Walker said. “No matter what you want or don’t want on a list, the judge will still have 100 percent of the discretion of how to sentence a defendant when there is a criminal conviction.”

Bartholomew County farmer Don Strietelmeier said he was opposed to creating hate crimes legislation with protected classes.

“We need to treat everybody the same,” Strietelmeier said. “We shouldn’t be dividing people into different classes because that’s not the American way to do it.”

Indiana is one of only five states that does not currently have a hate crimes law. Advocates say that by passing such legislation, judges can enact stricter sentences for those who have been convicted of targeting victims based on certain characteristics, which can include race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, sex and disability.

In late February, the Indiana Senate passed a bias crimes bill, Senate Bill 12, which stripped language of specific protections for race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation and age. The bill then moved to the House, where it has not been scheduled for a committee hearing.

Concern about teacher pay

Indiana’s commitment to raising teacher pay was also brought up at the Third House session.

Public educators in Indiana are making 15 percent less on average than they did in 1999, said Columbus educator Sandy Watts. She also told the lawmakers that local teachers start with an average annual salary of $39,000, compared to restaurant managers who often start at $58,000 a year, as well as a bonus.

Bob Hyatt told the legislators that governors and lawmakers in 25 other states are now considering raising salaries following labor strikes that crippled school operations around the country.

With salaries down, teacher-student ratios edging up, and a shortage in educators, Hyatt — who heads the Bartholomew County Democratic Party — asked the three Republican lawmakers if they felt the state is doing all it can to protect education.

There is a disparity of pay among Indiana teachers affected by limitations on property taxes, Walker said.

A progressive decrease in corporate income tax rates has left the state with substantially less revenue, the lawmakers said. A 2010 constitutional amendment capped property taxes, and a state school voucher program allows public funds to be diverted toward private school tuition support.

Walker said the overriding issue is that lawmakers don’t take over the role of school boards or collective bargaining units. If the economy sours in a few years, money earmarked for teacher raises will likely be needed to help students from low-income families, he said.

Lauer said he is the co-sponsor of House Bill 1008, which he says allows more teachers to grow in experience and pay without having to go into administrative jobs to earn more money. The bill has passed the House and is scheduled to be heard at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Senate chambers before the Education and Career Development committee.

Overall, Lauer said he believes the Indiana House has proposed a responsible balanced budget providing adequate funding for teacher compensation, as well as additional funds to classrooms and school security.

Predatory lending

There was also an extensive conversation on Senate Bill 613, which deals with predatory lending.

While the bill language is long and complex, bill author Sen. Andy Zay, R-Huntington, says it authorizes new lending products for Hoosiers who can’t obtain traditional loans. The new products would have lower rates than payday loans, but would be for longer terms and allow more money to be borrowed.

Mark Lindenlaub, executive director of Thrive Alliance in Columbus, said the new financial products created in the bill known as “unsecured installment loans” and “small dollar loans,” are exempt from the 72-percent felony loan sharking cap, he said.

“This creates lending products designed to trap and keep people in unsustainable loans,” Lindenlaub said. “The companies do not consider the ability to repay, and the average loan is rolled over seven or eight times before it’s fully paid off.”

Lauer agreed, saying that the business model is that the borrower pays forever, and the fees keep going.”

“I am working diligently to see that this bill dies a quick death,” Lauer said.

That measure has been in the House committee on financial institutions since March 7.

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The Third House Sessions have been conducted locally on the fourth Monday of every month during the 2019 session of the Indiana General Assembly.

The last of this year’s one-hour forums, which allows local residents to address their concerns to state lawmakers, will be at 7:30 a.m. April 22 in the Cal Brand meeting room on the first floor of Columbus City Hall.

The sessions are sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.

For more information, visit columbusareachamber.com.