Republican legislative leaders are casting the Indiana General Assembly’s upcoming session as one they want to focus on taking action toward fighting opioid abuse and improving job training opportunities.
Members of the Indiana House and Senate held their annual Organization Day meetings Tuesday, ahead of the 2018 legislative session set to begin in early January and end by mid-March.
Dozens of people also gathered at the Statehouse calling on legislators to act on issues such as adopting a state hate crimes law and establishing an independent commission for drawing legislative election districts.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long said state and local government and the public needed to be “all in” on finding ways to stem the abuse of opioids and other drugs.
Indiana has seen its number of drug overdose deaths jump by about 700 percent since 1999, reaching 1,518 deaths during 2016, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. Figures show that increase has largely been caused by growth in the number of opioid- and heroin-related deaths in recent years.
Long said the state needs to further crack down on drug dealers and gangs and will need to find more money to provide treatment options.
“This is an issue that will be a burden on all of us and all members of Hoosier society and the entire country for years to come,” Long said in a speech to senators. “But we have a special responsibility to do what we can do.”
Long and Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma both said they expected proposals on boosting workforce training. Bosma said a “weak spot” for the state is that “we simply don’t have enough people equipped with skills for the 21st century.”
Legislators also could face contentious debates over issues such revising Indiana’s antiquated alcohol laws and repealing the state law requiring licenses to carry handguns in public.
The trade groups for liquor store owners and large grocery stores earlier this month announced a deal to support allowing Sunday carryout alcohol sales, but oppose changing current law so that retailers other than liquor stores could carry cold beer. That deal faces opposition from convenience store owners.
Bosma and Long each say they’re waiting on recommendations expected in December from a special committee on alcohol law changes.
Legislative Democrats will meet next week to select their new leader in the Indiana House of Representatives.
They will be picking a replacement for Minority Leader Scott Pelath (PEE’-lath) of Michigan City. He announced Sunday he was giving up the position for the upcoming legislative session and not seeking re-election to the House next year in order to spend more time with his family.
Pelath has been the top House Democrat for the past five years. Democrats are badly outnumbered in the House, where Republicans hold a commanding 70-30 majority.
A spokesman says House Democrats plan to meet Monday for their leadership vote.
Potential replacements include Reps. Cherrish Pryor and Dan Forestal of Indianapolis and Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne.
The return of legislators to the Statehouse also brought out several groups pushing for a hate crime law in Indiana, as the Anti-Defamation League lists Indiana as one of just five states without laws against crimes motivated by biases, such as race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.
Representatives of Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, African-American, Hispanic, gay-rights and disability advocacy groups said approval of such a law would make it clear the state doesn’t accept hate and intolerance.
About 100 people also gathered on the Statehouse steps to call for an independent redistricting commission in response to what supporters say are legislative and congressional districts that are unfairly drawn to favor Republicans. Such proposals have failed in recent years in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
“Because of the way it’s rigged, my vote has no meaning,” said 64-year-old retired truck driver Harold Davia, a Democrat from Plainfield. “I don’t count and I’m not the only one.”