Leslie Bonilla MuñizWhitney Downard and Casey Smith, Indiana Capital Chronicle

The Indiana Legislature’s third attempt to end a long-running lawsuit – filed by the city of Gary against firearm industry entities in 1999 – is steps away from becoming law after Senate approval on Tuesday.

Lawmakers also trashed language concerning discipline against an Indiana Attorney General, but advanced legislation on fake election materials, chaplains as school counselors, lead pipe replacements, health industry mergers, porn viewer age verification and more.

Gun lawsuit under fire

Senate Democrats pleaded with their chamber’s Republican supermajority to pull back on legislation seeking to end a city of Gary lawsuit, to little effect.

The city has waged the fight against members of the firearm industry for over 24 years. The General Assembly has tried to extinguish it before; House Bill 1235 allows only the state to sue and removes the rights of local governments.

“We don’t allow the locals to regulate firearms. The state sets the policy with that,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, who is sponsoring the House bill.

He said the legislation, although it affects pending litigation, is “not unprecedented” — “We’ve done it twice before.” Freeman said he believed Gary intended to “bankrupt the industry through litigation.”

Democrats, meanwhile, called on Republican colleagues to allow the lawsuit to continue unimpeded.

“Why are we injecting our personal thoughts and opinions … into a court of law? If that’s the case, why don’t we go ahead and elevate ourselves to be the judges and juries and everything else?” Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, seethed.

Sen. Rodney Pol, D-Chesterton, asked for lawmakers to “stay in our lane as a Legislature,” calling the dispute a “judicial branch” issue. He is a Gary city attorney involved in the legal fight.

Pol said he was concerned the legislation would set a precedent for the state to block local units from suing other industries — several are pursuing suits against makers of theft-prone vehicles. He questioned if other industries would also lobby for insulation from locally brought disputes.

Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, said she was concerned the bill was too broad, despite bringing an amendment specifying that communities can sue over breaches of contracts and rules like zoning.

The legislation passed 33-15, with six Republicans joining Democrats in opposition. It goes back to the House for consent to the changes.

Other Senate actions

Less controversial was House Bill 1133, a bill requiring disclaimers on political campaign communications that feature fabricated media depicting a candidate that a reasonable person wouldn’t know was fake.

Sen. Spencer Deery, R-West Lafayette, said political candidates first experienced elections with campaign websites in the 1990s and with social media in the 200s. He pronounced 2024 “our first artificial intelligence election.”

Democrat and Republican candidates elsewhere have already used fake images, audio and even robo-calls to affect voting behavior, he said.

“We need to draw the lines of what’s acceptable and not acceptable,” Deery added. His legislation passed unanimously, 48-0.

It still requires a final vote by the House.

There was less consensus on House Bill 1137, dealing with religious instruction and school chaplains. The bill originally required schools to release students for up to two hours of weekly religious instruction at their parents’ request. 

The Senate Education Committee added a provision to also allow chaplains to serve as school counselors. It was taken from Senate Bill 50, which passed the Senate but did not come up for a hearing in the House.

According to the latest bill draft, chaplains can only provide secular guidance, except for emancipated minors or with a parent’s permission. 

Sen. Andrea Hunley, D-Indianapolis, argued that the line between secular and non-secular conversations — like counseling on relationships, or the difference between right and wrong — is ill-defined.

Chaplains would also be required to disclose to parents any communication with their students, at parents’ request. The bill advanced 34-14 from the Senate and now heads back to the House.

The Senate also approved legislation allowing Hoosiers sexually abused by Boy Scouts of America scout leaders to receive the full payout from a national settlement, adding synthetic nudes to the state’s revenge pornography statute and banning the creation of lists of firearm owners

Senators additionally ditched language disqualifying attorney general candidates who have been disbarred or suspended without automatic reinstatement within one year of the election. It wouldn’t have applied to Rokita, who was recently handed a reprimand instead of a suspension. But he’s facing new complaints.

Sen. Mike Gaskill, R-Pendleton, inserted the language during a meeting last week for a committee he chairs, but removed it with little explanation Tuesday.

The bill also returns to the House.

House takes up lead pipes, mergers and pornography

Across the hall, House lawmakers voted unanimously in favor of a Senate priority bill that seeks to more quickly replace lead drinking water pipes across Indiana.

Senate Bill 5 would expedite the replacement of thousands of lead service lines, and at a lower cost. It requires landlords to enroll in a program to replace the lead pipes they own through their water utility or be forced to pay for it themselves.

The bill now heads back to the Senate chamber.

Separately, GOP Rep. Donna Schaibley (Carmel) revived a bill that would require health care entities making a purchase valued at more than $10 million to file a notice with the Attorney General’s office after abruptly pulling it off of the calendar on Monday.

Senate Bill 9 advanced on a 60-35 vote, with eight Republicans joining Democrats to vote against the bill.

Rep. Ryan Hatfield, D-Evansville, again criticized the Republican supermajority for “cherry-picking” committee recommendations from an interim committee rather than adopting a more comprehensive plan to reduce health care costs.

“The truth about this bill remains the same. Hoosier businesses or businesses operating in the state of Indiana … will be required to send their private information to the government before they’re even required to make a business decision,” Hatfield said about the notification process.

Schaibley noted that 29 other states have such a notification process and 13 of those require approval from the attorney general.

In additional health care matters, House lawmakers also approved a Senate proposal that would establish a new accreditation route for foreign-education nurses and mandating certain insurance payments to dentistsSenate Bill 132 was amended in the insurance committee to clarify what qualifies as a dental insurance plan, meaning senators will need to agree with the changes. 

And just one lawmaker voted against a bill that would require websites hosting pornographic content to verify the ages of users: Rep. Ed Clere, a Republican from New Albany.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said legal challenges could be anticipated but said he supported the bill because research demonstrated the harmful impact of pornography on children.

“They’re more likely to hold erroneous sexual beliefs. In other words, they think what they’re seeing is reality,” Pierce said about children accessing pornography.

Pierce emphasized that the research came from the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University, which Republicans cut out of the budget last year. The organization is a prominent sex, gender and reproduction research institution.

The House additionally approved legislation requiring the attorney general to enforce the state’s ban on sanctuary cities.

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