INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana legislators headed into final negotiations for the 2014 session on Monday by advancing measures to cut taxes, allow guns in school parking lots and increase charter school accountability.
House and Senate lawmakers spent the day vetting a wide array of proposals before their scheduled March 14 close to the session. House members faced a deadline for approving Senate bills Monday, while the Senate had through Tuesday to approve House legislation.
Measures designed to curb high school athlete concussions and establishing a women's veteran coordinator won easy approval in the House. In the Senate, an effort to control the number of feral cats roaming the state was advanced for final consideration, while an effort to expand criminal background checks for school workers was defeated.
As lawmakers spent the day working in the Statehouse, Gov. Mike Pence and first lady Karen Pence met with young children at an Indianapolis day care center as part of a last-minute lobbying push for a preschool voucher program.
Pence's call for the pilot program has run up against broad spending concerns in the Senate. But he has had the support of House Republicans, whose plan he is backing, throughout the debate.
"I believe a pilot program, like that passed by the House of Representatives, is an idea whose time has come and I am renewing my call at the start of the week for the Indiana General Assembly to combine the study with a pilot program," Pence said. "Let's get started opening the doors to quality pre-K to our most disadvantaged children here in Indiana."
Many items of the governor's 2014 agenda have either been stripped by lawmakers or considerably dialed-back. A scaled-back version of the cut to the state's business equipment tax won approval on a party-line vote in the House Monday evening.
But as long as the bills survive through the coming days, Pence and his allies will have a vehicle for resuscitating measures.
Following a sometimes heated debate, a sweeping guns measure was approved that includes banning the use of public funds to run gun-buyback programs and allowing parents to keep guns locked in their cars while on school grounds.
Democratic opponents said the plan increased access to guns and would inherently result in more gun violence.
"When people are emotional, that's when they do their worst job of critical thinking. They don't think, they just act," said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary.
But Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, argued that opponents were blowing the debate out of proportion, and noted that many parents are likely committing felonies without even knowing it right now. Current law makes it a Class D felony to leave a gun unattended in a school parking lot.
A move for more stringent background checks every five years for certain school employees failed to gain traction in the Senate. The measure would have required schools to vet employees likely to regularly interact with children through U.S. district court records, every state's sex offender registry and a multi-state criminal database.
An earlier bill to do the same thing did not garner enough support among lawmakers who criticized it as an unnecessary move that only would benefit businesses that conduct the background checks. The failed amendment effectively killed the measure this session.
And a measure placing a one-year moratorium on the construction of new nursing homes was approved. Two lawmakers with interests in the health care industry -- Rep. David Frizzell, R-Indianapolis, and Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero -- were excused from voting.
The plan was sought by nursing home owners who said a flood of the market by new construction could put them out of business, and threaten care for the state's poorest residents. But opponents who are building those new homes, including Turner's family members, have said the moratorium interferes with the free market.