Republican leaders applaud 2014 session results

INDIANAPOLIS - Republican leaders took a victory lap Friday, a day after their 2014 session ended with approval on tax cuts, preschool vouchers and roads funding, but Democrats urged caution against too much celebration.

State lawmakers approved $400 million for road construction, up to $15 million for a preschool pilot program, and cuts in the corporate and banking taxes that were coupled with the option for counties to cut taxes on business equipment. They approved a measure allowing guns in cars in school parking lots, but narrowly defeated a bill that would have tested certain welfare recipients for drug use.

"We were able to demonstrate that a short session doesn't need to be short on accomplishments," Gov. Mike Pence said at a Friday news conference reviewing the session.

But House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, cautioned against excessive celebration for measures he said were small fractions of what needs to happen in the state.

"We need to keep it in perspective," he said. "That is planting a sapling when the state of Indiana needs an entirely new landscape."

Democrats are vastly outnumbered in both the House and Senate and struggled to find traction this year for items ranging from raising the minimum wage to establishing tax credits to hire unemployed workers.

The session opened with an emotional battle over the question of placing the state's existing ban on gay marriage in the state constitution. Marriage ban opponents won a surprising victory last month when lawmakers removed language about civil unions from the amendment, forcing them to start the process anew. That means the soonest the issue could appear on a ballot is 2016.

The marriage battle also led to some political fallout. Senate Republican leaders stripped Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, of his leadership posts and moved his Senate seat next to the Democrats in the chamber after he criticized their handling of the issue.

And House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, announced he had been offered "unlimited campaign funds" to make the marriage ban "go away" this session. But the Republican donor who offered the help, former Republican Party Chairman Jim Kittle, roundly disputed Bosma's claims.

But by the middle of February, the focus shifted back to much of what House Republicans and Pence included in their formal legislative agendas.

Diluted versions of Pence-backed legislation on preschool for children of low-income families and a business tax package passed after lawmakers slashed more expansive proposals.

The governor originally requested a preschool program for all low-income children in the state. The measure on his desk would allot only $10 million from budget cuts and $5 million in matching private donations for a pilot program to serve five counties.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long said the more cautious approach is necessary to gauge how early education impacts student preparedness, although the timid first step also drew criticism from Democrats who say the bill does not go far enough.

Bosma said House leaders worked "diligently" with Senate leaders and the governor through extensive negotiations on preschool.

"As questions were raised, we attempted to answer them with data, with language, with protective devices in statute and with creative devices from the Senate as well," he said.

The business tax package calls for cutting the corporate income tax and state banking tax to 4.9 percent. It also would let local governments decide whether to cut the business equipment tax for small businesses and new businesses that relocate from out of state.

Pence originally sought to eliminate the state's tax on business equipment, but local leaders opposed the measure because the tax provides critical revenues.

Using at least $200 million from a special savings fund to improve Indiana roads won approval from the General Assembly, although Democrats bristled at the fact that no money for local roads was included in the deal.

The Senate in part agreed to the House and governor's request for an additional $200 million. The second chunk of the money would be released after legislators receive an update of the state's finances in December.

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