Gov. Mike Pence called for lawmakers to pass legislation decreasing Indiana's reliance on 2015 ISTEP standardized test scores but made no mention of adding LGBT civil rights protections into state law when he released his agenda for the coming legislative session.
Instead, the Republican prioritized a boost in local roads funding, called for tens of millions in extra money for his Regional Cities initiative and said he wants to increase sentences for convicted drug dealers, in addition to calling changes to the ISTEP, which otherwise would penalize teachers and schools for low student test scores.
The "agenda prioritizes funding for state and local roads, ensures that schools and teacher salaries are not negatively impacted by the transition to a new test, and combats drug abuse and addiction through tougher enforcement," Pence said in a statement released on the eve of the session's Tuesday start.
That prompted the Indiana Democratic Party to accuse Pence of choosing to "ignore" the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights, which has been a priority for the state's business establishment since Indiana's religious objections law drew national criticism after it was passed last year. The law was later changed to address widespread worries that it could sanction discrimination, but business leaders have pushed lawmakers to go further ever since.
Pence, an avowed social conservative, has refused to indicate where he stands, saying he is still studying the issue.
"Mike Pence's 'study' session last year should receive an 'F' grade after he chose to ignore LGBT rights and play the card of an ideologue – not the one of a governor," Democratic Party spokesman Drew Anderson said in a statement.
Pence has already indicated his support for many of the ideas he outlined Monday. On dealing with the ISTEP results, he called in October for teachers' pay to not be penalized, but said Monday for the first time that school A-F grades also should not be affected. The policy shift aligns him with Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz.
For months, the governor and Republicans in the Legislature were adamant that schools and teachers, whose pay is partially determined by student test performance, need to be accountable for ISTEP scores, over Ritz's objection.
But problems emerged over the way the test was conducted and troubles with the test vendor delayed for months the release of scores. Additionally, preliminary data indicated student performance dropped dramatically as a result of more difficult state standards, which were created after Republican legislators and Pence withdrew Indiana from national Common Core standards last year.
Pence's agenda also calls for a solution to local roads funding. When Pence unveiled his plan to increase funding for state highway improvements by $481 million in 2017, he was criticized for leaving money for local roads out of the picture. Now his agenda embraces a Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Lafayette, that would return to local governments a share of income taxes revenues that are currently held in state reserve accounts.
The agenda called for an extra $42 million for the Regional Cities program, which pitted seven Indiana regions against each other in a competition for funding that will pay for quality-of-life improvements.