January 7, 2011

Catholic Conference gears up for 2011 legislative work

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

A new year brings hope and challenges. That message rang crystal clear for those who headed to the state Capitol for the opening of a new legislative session of the Indiana General Assembly on Jan. 5.

This group includes a re-energized Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican-controlled House and Senate made up of 150 state lawmakers—24 of them who are newly elected—and the Church’s public policy voice, the Indiana Catholic Conference.

What kind of initiatives will Gov. Daniels and a legislature dominated by Republicans pass this year? And how will those issues compare with priorities that the Catholic Church is advocating?

“Only time will tell,” said Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference. “A mixed blessing is most likely.

“We expect some potentially positive changes in education for school choice, and some potentially negative consequences affecting those in our immigrant community,” Tebbe said. “We are hopeful there will be other positive gains in the area of [opposing] abortion, protecting the institution of traditional marriage and other laws that benefit families.

“Our goal this year, as is [the case] every year, is to promote a consistent life ethic,” Tebbe added. “The Indiana Catholic Conference will be working to protect families and children—and all underlying necessities to support families and children.”

This pro-life, pro-family agenda has taken many forms in the 40-plus years that the ICC has been actively advocating on behalf of the Indiana bishops. Some of the public policy initiatives include: banning embryonic stem-cell research; encouraging adult stem-cell research in Indiana; reducing abortions; providing basic needs of the poor, disabled and elderly; limiting and ultimately abolishing the death penalty; improving immigration laws; and protecting the institution of marriage.

“Among our priority issues to assist families and children this year, we will be working with state lawmakers to create legislation to further reduce abortion, improve school choice opportunities for all Hoosier children and pass a same-sex marriage ban,” Tebbe said. “There will be many issues on the table, and we will be taking part in the process to ensure that the voice of the Church and the least among us are heard.”

Tebbe said that, as in years past, the success of the ICC’s legislative agenda this year will also be determined in part by: 1) the willingness of the leadership in the House and Senate to have these bills heard in committee; 2) a willingness of lawmakers to work in unison with the Church’s efforts; and 3) a willingness of Catholics in the pew to be engaged in the political process.

To better equip Catholics to participate in the process, the ICC offers an online initiative that provides efficient and effective communication with members of the Indiana General Assembly and the U.S. Congress.

A Legislative Action Center is available on the ICC Web page at www.indianacc.org. It allows visitors to participate in the political process in a number of ways.

Visitors to the action center can sign up for the weekly I-CAN Update e-mail newsletter, identify his or her representatives, contact lawmakers and do much more. To use this avenue of political engagement, log on to www.indianacc.org and click on “Legislative Action Center.”

Because Republicans now have the majority in the Indiana House, Rep. Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) was elected by the Republican caucus to take over as Speaker of the House. He replaces Rep. Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend). Sen. David Long (R-Fort Wayne) was re-elected President Pro Tempore in the Senate.

“These two men wield enormous influence, given their leadership roles, by serving as gatekeepers on legislation,” Tebbe said. “We will be working with leadership to forward the Church’s initiatives.”

Committee chairs also may decide the fate of any given bill even if it meets with the approval of the House and Senate leaders. Republicans maintain a 60-40 majority in the Indiana House of Representatives. Republicans also hold a 37-13 majority in the Senate.

Following the November election, the Republicans have hinted at reforms in government, abortion law, education, immigration and same-sex marriage. However, the primary mandate for the 150 members of the Indiana General Assembly is to pass a new biennium state budget by the April 29 adjournment deadline.

The budget then must be approved by the governor before July 1 when it goes into effect. Based on census data, the legislature must also draw new maps for U.S. Congressional districts and for the seats that make up the Indiana House and Senate.

A special session was necessary during the last budget writing year in 2009 and, this year, the job might be even more challenging, state leaders said. Bosma told House members in November that tax collections for this year will be at 2005 levels, which will make the budget-making process that much more difficult.

“Much of the legislative work done by the Indiana Catholic Conference this year will be overshadowed by the budget-making process,” Tebbe said. “The Church will be keeping a close eye on different aspects of the budget since its contents can significantly affect the well-being of so many.”

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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