House Republicans endorse hate crimes language that pleases governor, but not biz groups

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Indiana House Republicans approved hate crimes language Monday that references a list of victims against whom crimes could qualify for harsher penalties — a move lauded by Gov. Eric Holcomb but criticized by two coalitions of businesses and not-for-profits seeking a broader list.

Majority Republicans added the language to Senate Bill 198 — an unrelated bill dealing with prison drug offenses — on the House floor, bypassing a public hearing on the controversial issue. The House could vote on the amended bill as soon as Tuesday.

The amended bill would make defendants eligible for stronger penalties if their crimes were motivated by a victim's color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation. Advocacy groups Indiana Forward and Indiana Competes issued a joint statement saying that's not good enough because it doesn't include victims targeted for their age, sex, ancestry or gender identity.

"While the action taken today by the Indiana House of Representatives continues the conversation on bias crimes legislation, it still falls far short of where it needs to be to keep our state relevant in today’s society and talent-driven economy," said the statement, attributed to Mindi Goodpaster, vice president of public policy for the United Way of Central Indiana, and Mark Fisher, chief policy officer at Indy Chamber.

But Holcomb, who has been a chief advocate for a hate crimes bill, issued a statement saying, “I support and appreciate the action taken by the House today. This measure covers all forms of bias crimes and treats all people equally. Now, we need to make sure we get to the finish line and move Indiana off the list of states without a bias crimes law.”

Earlier this year, the Senate approved Senate Bill 12, which would make crimes motivated by bias eligible for stronger penalties. But the legislation doesn’t define bias and doesn’t include a specific list of victim categories — a sticking point for Democrats and Holcomb who have argued it’s necessary to get Indiana off the list of one of five states without such a law. The bill initially included a list, but it was stripped from the language before final passage.

SB 12 was assigned to the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee and has not received a hearing.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he did not believe that legislation would have passed the committee, and even if it had, “it would have been a blood bath on the floor.”

The amendment to SB 198 that was introduced Monday by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, doesn't actually list any victim categories. Instead, it applies when a crime has been committed due to the victim’s “real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association or other attribute” and references a different part of state law that includes a list of characteristics. That list includes color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

“The language that Rep. Steuerwald authored is inclusive of every characteristic and trait that you can come up with,” Bosma said. “There’s not a Hoosier of any category that is omitted from this.”

Bosma described the language as the middle ground option and said he believes the bill will pass the chamber.

But House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said it "is not a comprehensive list."

Steuerwald said he met with a variety of experts to come up with the language, including defense attorneys, current and former prosecutors, current and former judges and a constitutional law expert.

“The intent of this bill is to cover every form of hate the same,” Steuerwald said. “I have said that for months.”

Steuerwald said repeatedly that nobody is left out of the language.

“This is the most comprehensive bias crimes bill we can do,” Steuerwald said.

Groups that evaluate and list whether states have hate crimes laws have said that the Indiana language needs specific victim categories to qualify and that the amendment approved Monday would likely make it eligible.

But Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said simply getting off the list isn’t good enough if the legislation is missing important categories of people.

Prior to the floor discussion, House Democrats criticized Republicans for bypassing the committee process.

“Maybe they don’t think they can get something out of committee,” GiaQuinta said. “Obviously by not taking testimony, hearing pros and cons of any bill in committee, yeah, looks to me like they’re trying to exclude the public.”

Bosma said advocates on both sides of the issue have already been vocal, and this process was the best way to make sure a bill would be voted on by the House.

“It’s not my favorite process,” Bosma said. “It’s not my favorite way to adopt legislation.”

The House took a voice vote on the amendment rather than a roll call vote, so members did not individually cast votes. Bosma said any of the members could have requested a roll call vote, but no one did.

State Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, the state’s only openly gay lawmaker, said he was unhappy with bill.

“I am appalled that the governor would support the language added to SB 198," he said in written comments. "This does not constitute as a hate crimes bill; gender identity is explicitly left out of this proposal. Republicans’ blatant omission is telling Hoosiers who are attacked because of their gender identity that they don’t matter in this state."

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