We are now in the final weeks of the long, budget-writing session. By law, the General Assembly must conclude all of our work and produce a balanced budget by midnight on April 29. We have a lot of work to do before then, and it will not be easy.
At this stage in the legislative process, introduced bills have been heard and voted on in their house of origin and heard and voted on in the opposite house. Now the bills will return to their house of origin where the author of the legislation will have the opportunity to concur with any changes that were made in the opposite house or dissent. If no changes have been made to the bill in the second house, it heads directly to the Governor for his signature. If the author chooses to dissent on the bill, it will be assigned to a conference committee. A conference committee is a bipartisan group made up of one legislator from each of the four legislative caucuses. The conference committees will iron out the details of the legislation and, hopefully, reach an agreement before the bill is passed back to each house for a final vote. Many of the controversial or high-profile bills have been assigned to conference committees.
One of the bills that will have its outcome determined in a conference committee is the state budget. I am a member of the House Ways and Means Committee where the biennial budget originates after undergoing months of hearings with state agencies, schools, universities, and legislative debate. The House's version of the budget is then assigned to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which works to further develop and create a comprehensive budget for the state. This year, the House proposal underwent major changes in the Senate. The House budget bill, created by the Democrat-controlled House, was unbalanced, unrealistic, and relied too much on property taxes. The $26.3 billion budget proposal passed by the Senate is truly balanced, without gimmicks or general tax increases and accounts for responsible spending growth. The budget supports higher education and full-day kindergarten, while working to repay the state's debt to universities and local governments. The last state budget, created in 2005, provided funding to repay Indiana schools debt accumulated from delayed payments. I am confident that we will be able to reach an agreement and pass a truly balanced budget for the state of Indiana.
Another bill that has been assigned to a conference committee is Senate Bill 503. The bill, also known as the Healthy Indiana Plan, creates a consumer powered and consumer driven health care plan for uninsured Hoosiers. The bill was amended in the House to include coverage for mental health services, drug addiction services, and would expand coverage for pregnant women and children. It is estimated that more than 350,000 Hoosiers could be eligible for the plan. However, as it currently stands, the program lacks a funding mechanism, and the amount of funding will determine how many people will benefit from the program. During the conference committee process, a cigarette tax increase could be added to a House bill that would provide a funding source for the Healthy Indiana Plan.
One of the most controversial issues to be heard in the General Assembly this year was Senate Joint Resolution 7 (SJR 7), a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. In order to amend the state constitution, a resolution must pass two separately elected General Assemblies, without being amended, and then be approved by the public as a voter referendum on the next general election ballot. SJR 7 passed in 2005 and if it would have been approved this year, without any changes, it would have been eligible for a public vote in November 2008. The House Rules and Legislative Procedures Committee defeated SJR 7 by a vote of 5-5, setting back the constitutional amendment process. The Senate approved the resolution earlier this year, but because of the defeat in the Rules and Legislative Procedure Committee, the process must begin again unless the bill passes next year. There was a great deal of confusion about a portion of the amendment, which contributed to its failure. Hopefully, the misunderstandings will be sorted out before the resolution has the opportunity to be voted on next year.
Because of the media coverage surrounding these high-profile bills, some of the basic, good public policy bills have gone unnoticed. Last week, two consumer advocacy measures passed out of the House with a great deal of legislative support. Senate Bill 403 allows Hoosiers to prevent access to their consumer credit report by requesting that a freeze be placed on their credit file. The bill prohibits a consumer reporting agency from releasing any information that is subject to a security freeze, unless the consumer requests the release of the information. Senate Bill 412 limits educational institutions to only releasing client social security numbers to certain people/organizations. Educational institutions will still be allowed to provide social security numbers to federal, state, and local government agencies.
As always, please contact me with any questions, comments, or concerns as we wrap up the 2007 legislative session. Send letters to: State Rep. Bob Cherry, 200 W. Washington St., Room 401, Indianapolis, IN 46204. E-mail: H53@in.gov or call toll-free: 1-800-382-9841.