Indiana lawmakers gaveled this year's session to a close early Saturday with the passage of a $32.3 billion, two-year budget and accomplishments that include a significant boost in road funding spurred by a tax increase and more money for a preschool program benefiting poor children.
But for Republicans, who dominate the Statehouse, the party that trumpets free markets and limited regulation also found itself stepping into business squabbles and considering legislation that picked winners and losers.
When Jay Ricker found a loophole that would allow him to sell carryout cold beer at two of his convenience stores, some of the state's most powerful lawmakers scrambled in the session's final weeks to preserve that right for package liquor stores and restaurants. The bill, which Ricker says will make it virtually impossible to renew his license after April 2018, is now before Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.
"We are supposed to be a free-market state," said Republican Sen. Phil Boots, of Crawfordsville. "Why are we beating up on these people when we don't need to?"
Republican leaders say they were moved to action because the loophole could lead to more underage people having access to alcohol. House Speaker Brian Bosma said controlled substances need to be regulated, but vowed to come back next year to consider revamping the state's antiquated booze laws. He also rejected the idea that Republicans are not staying true to their principles.
"We control a lot of substances here for public health," the Indianapolis Republican said.
Still, lawmakers found themselves at the beginning of the session putting together and eventually passing a bill to overhaul legislation from last year that created a monopoly in the state's vaping industry and sparked an FBI probe.
Other measures of a similar nature include a bill sought by power utilities to curtail the current economic benefit available to those with solar panels, as well as legislation that would have effectively blocked electric carmaker Tesla from selling in Indiana. The solar power bill awaits Holcomb, while the Tesla bill died.
Republicans did score some major victories before the session ended at 12:53 a.m. Saturday. Convincing conservatives to vote for a roads funding bill that increases taxes was a major accomplishment for Bosma and House Republicans, who took the lead on the issue. It was a culmination of several years of work by Valparaiso Rep. Ed Soliday, who leads the House transportation committee, and will yield tangible results in the near future by pumping an average of $1.2 billion more into infrastructure a year.
"We want them to start smelling asphalt in July," Bosma said of the bill, which would increase fuel taxes by 10 cents a gallon, while imposing new vehicle registration fees.
The budget includes some wins for Holcomb, too, boosting spending on the state's pilot preschool program for poor children by $9 million. That was a victory for the new governor, considering Senate budget writer, Sen. Luke Kenley, initially offered just a $3 million increase, with an additional $1 million for an online preschool program.
"This important legislation gives more children in more counties the chance to start their educational journey on the right foot," Holcomb said. He added: "It will be a joy to sign this bill."
The budget, which is now before Holcomb, also creates a new fund with $15 million that he can spend as he sees fit on economic development programs, including his efforts to lure new direct flight routes to Indianapolis airport. Holcomb also got $5 million to fund the efforts of his newly anointed drug czar Jim McClelland, who is tasked with finding federal funding and grants, as well as developing a strategy to combat the state's opioid crisis.
The spending plan sets aside $345 million in new money for K-12 education, while increasing higher education spending 1.2 percent in 2018, followed by a 2.5 percent increase in 2019, according to budget summary documents. It also boosts pay for Indiana State Police, who are underpaid compared to other departments in the state.
Other session accomplishments include a bill that sets parameters for an as-of-yet selected test that will replace the state's much-maligned ISTEP exam for students by 2019. And after years of opposition, lawmakers passed legislation that would allow epilepsy patients to use marijuana-derived oil as medicine.
Still, minority Democrats were morose because their priorities continue to be ignored. They would like to see Indiana's minimum wage increase, as well as a statewide expansion of gay rights. Conservative social issues weren't as prominent as in previously years, but Democrats still disapproved of abortion and gun rights bills that were extensively debated.
"This session degraded into a lot of special interest and base interest-group legislation," said Democratic House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, of Michigan City. "We heard an awful lot about women's bodies, we heard an awful lot about firearms. We heard an awful lot about alcohol and millionaires fighting each other."