April 1, 2011

Pro-life, school choice legislation affected by House Democrats’ walkout

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

After a five-week hiatus, House Democrats returned to the Indiana Statehouse on March 28.

Their absence took a toll not only on the patience of Republicans in the House and Senate, but also on the passage of pro-life and school choice legislation that the Indiana Catholic Conference has marked as top priorities for the year, which still may be in jeopardy.

The two potential casualties of the political war over collective bargaining and education reform that caused the walkout are an informed consent bill, House Bill 1210 authored by Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, and the school scholarship bill, House Bill 1003, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Both bills passed out of committee, and were headed for second reading on the House floor when the walkout occurred.

“The walkout has definitely made life more difficult, Behning said. “But the positive side of this is we have a solid commitment from the House Republicans, the Senate Republicans and the governor [Mitch Daniels] that education reform is going to move forward despite the fact that the House Democrats” left the state for more than a month.

“The governor has made it very clear that education reform is a priority for him. He spoke to us during one of our caucus meetings, which doesn’t happen very often,” Behning said. “He told us that if the Democrats don’t come back to pass a budget, he will keep calling them back for a special session until the end of the year if he has to so they can ‘do the people’s business, pass a budget and pass education reform.’

“Our first preference would be to move the bills off our calendar,” Behning said.

As a Plan B, House members are talking to their Senate colleagues and looking for homes for their agenda items in Senate bills.

“Our last option would be to put these bills into the budget because everything is germane in the budget,” Behning said. He noted that legislators “hate to load the budget up like this,” but added that would still be a way to pass education reform.

Under House Bill 1003, the school scholarship legislation, moderate- to low-income families would be eligible to receive up to $4,500 or 90 percent of tuition cost, whichever is lowest, to attend a state-accredited private school of the parents’ choice.

Families with 150 percent of the maximum level for the free and reduced lunch program would also be eligible for a 50 percent scholarship. Only students who were previously enrolled in a public school would be eligible for a scholarship. There is no scholarship cap for high school students.

“I’m still optimistic that the bill will pass because of the synergies that are together,” Behning said. “I know that I have the votes in the House. I know that president pro tem, Sen. David Long, has a commitment to move the bill in the Senate.”

Turner shared a similar scenario for his informed consent bill, House Bill 1210, to pass.

“I have every anticipation that House Bill 1210 will pass the House since there are 53 co-authors on the bill. That’s a pretty good indication [that] you are going to get at least 51 votes,” he said. When the bill gets to the floor, Turner said that he expects it to get 70 or 80 votes.

“The pro-life bills are largely bipartisan,” he added.

Turner, who calls himself “the eternal optimist,” said that, with the return of the Democrats, “we will pass the bill out of the House, and everything will be back to normal.

“We may have to work a little harder, work longer days and work on Fridays, which we normally don’t do.”

There are 109 bills pending in the Senate. “The work also is being done to find homes for priority House bills,” Turner said. “I can tell you the pro-life bills will be among the priority bills.”

House Bill 1210 would improve Indiana’s informed consent law by including additional information that a pregnant woman would receive prior to having an abortion.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 328, an informed consent bill similar to Turner’s bill. However, Turner’s bill also prohibits abortions after 20 weeks, and prohibits insurance plans in Indiana under federally mandated health care to provide abortion coverage.

“I’m still very confident we are going to pass a significant pro-life bill out of the General Assembly this session,” Turner said.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information on the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to its website at www.indianacc.org. )

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