Senate approves Rockport measure

After the Indiana Supreme Court has its say, the Rockport coal-to-gas project could head back to state utility regulators for another round of reviews under a measure the Senate approved Tuesday.

It’s a watered-down version of a bill that originally would have left the plant dead in its tracks by forcing major changes to the Indiana Finance Authority’s 30-year contract with the plant’s developers, Leucadia National Corp., to buy and then resell its product.

Senate Bill 510 passed on a 47-3 vote and now heads to the House, where Leucadia and its opponents – chiefly, Vectren Corp. – will continue to grapple.

“If you followed this through its beginning stages, it’s been through about five different iterations,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown. “I think what we’ve done is settle here on some language that works for everybody.”

The haggling is over the future of a contract that would tie 17 percent of all gas customers’ bills to pre-negotiated rates included in the deal, rather than open-market rates that make up the other 83 percent of Indiana ratepayers’ bills.

The bill would postpone any action until the legal process has wrapped up. The Indiana Court of Appeals last year struck down a narrow provision in the state’s contract, but upheld most of it – leaving the contract voided but the case’s shift to the Indiana Supreme Court likely.

If the five-member high court ultimately upholds the appellate court’s ruling or issues a decision anything short of a full approval of the contract, Eckerty’s bill would then send that deal back to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

The commission would be tasked with launching a comprehensive review of whether the deal is in the “public interest,” including determining whether the Rockport prices are likely to top open-market rates long term.

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, was one of the three “no” votes even though she’d initially co-authored the bill. She said her problem is a provision that would have the loser of legal battles related to the plant pay the winner’s attorney fees.

“Can’t live with that – have to vote no, sorry,” she said.

Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, said she preferred the bill Eckerty had initially introduced, which would have altered the ratepayer protection mechanisms in the contract to force Leucadia to reimburse ratepayers for any losses that come from their prices compared to open-market rates every three years – rather than at the end of the 30-year deal, when developers could have to hand the plant over if ratepayers have lost money because of it.

Still, Breaux said she’d support it – and hopes the bill can be beefed up over time.

“I would hope that throughout the process that we might allow a little stronger language to really give the IURC the direction so that it can make a decision that would really be in the best interest of the ratepayers over the long haul of the contract,” she said.

Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, compared lawmakers to ancient Romans who, he said, required engineers to live under bridges they designed for six months. Lawmakers must “live with the bridges that we build,” he said.

“Hoosier ratepayers were standing under, I think, a very shaky bridge,” he said.

In its current form, the bill would seem to send the contract back to utility regulators for another review if the Supreme Court upholds the Indiana Court of Appeals’ decision to void it based on a narrow provision that state and Leucadia officials say they’re happy to drop.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he’d look for the Supreme Court to more fully reject the contract if it’s to undergo another such review.

“It’s a very thorny issue,” he said Tuesday. “The state made a deal, and whether it’s a fair deal or not today, we made a deal and we passed the statutes. So, my inclination would be not to overturn a deal – but I also believe it might be productive for the utility regulatory commission to take one more, fast look at it to be certain that long-term, this deal is good for ratepayers.”

The issue will soon move to the House Utility Committee, where chairman Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, will play a key role in determining whether the bill should undergo changes.

Abortion bill wins Senate’s approval

Women seeking abortion-inducing drugs would have to get ultrasounds first and the clinics that prescribe them would have to follow a new set of regulations under a measure approved by the Senate on Tuesday.

The bill passed on a 33-16 vote despite a chorus of complaints from opponents who said it’s a step too far into doctors’ offices without improving their patients’ health.

“This bill is not about patient safety. It’s about patient harassment,” said Sen. Vaneta Becker of Evansville, who was one of only four of the Senate’s 37 Republicans to join the 12 Democrats who opposed the bill.

Now, Senate Bill 371 heads to the House, where Republican Speaker Brian Bosma of Indianapolis said he expects it to win passage as well – perhaps after some changes.

The bill would make Indiana the ninth state to require ultrasounds before abortions. It would also require clinics that prescribe the abortion-inducing drug RU-486 to meet the same standards as surgical clinics, even though it would not impose that same requirement on private physicians.

That portion of the measure would directly affect Planned Parenthood’s clinic in Lafayette, Ind. That clinic prescribes patients the drug, but does not offer surgical abortions.

“This bill is directly targeted to Plannd Parenthood in Lafayette, Ind. That’s all it’s about, is getting at Planned Parenthood in Lafayette, Ind.,” Becker said.

“When you do this, you’re not doing anything that will improve the health and safety of low-income women in the state of Indiana. All you’re doing is forcing them to go other ways – in particular, to the internet – to get this same particular drug that you’re talking about regulating.”

Tuesday’s debate on the Senate floor was controlled almost entirely by opponents of the bill.

Democrats argued that for women seeking abortions, the bill aims to “make it as difficult as possible, make it as intrusive as possible, and then maybe somebody will change their mind,” said Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis.

“This is not going to help women be healthy. This is just going to make it harder for them to get an abortion,” he said.

Another Democrat – Sen. Jean Breaux of Indianapolis – said the bill would lead women to order the drug online rather than visiting a doctor at all.

“The backers of this bill,” she said, “are interested in making abortion, which is a safe and legal procedure, less accessible to Hoosier women.”

The bill has been controversial because it could – especially in early stages of pregnancies, when the abortion-inducing drug is more likely to be prescribed – require doctors to perform more invasive transvaginal ultrasounds, rather than “jelly-on-the-belly” abdominal ultrasounds.

Though doctors say they recommend ultrasounds before any abortion, opponents said it’s inappropriate to mandate the procedure.

The only senator to speak in the bill’s favor was its author, Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle.

“I am not active in a Right to Life organization. I introduced this bill because my own religious conviction and my respect for life and the health of women,” Holdman said.

“There has been no regulation of abortion-inducing drugs in the state of Indiana, and there are a number of us that believe that we need to have some regulation.”

Senate drops second ultrasound from abortion bill

Indiana would still become the ninth state to require women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound first under a measure that’s set for a vote Tuesday in the state Senate.

But lawmakers decided to drop language that would have required a second ultrasound – that one two weeks later, to confirm that the pregnancy was terminated.

The change came Monday as the Republican-dominated Senate debated a bill that also requires clinics that prescribe abortion-inducing drugs that are taken orally to meet the same regulatory standards as locations where surgeries are performed.

The bill has become a lightning rod, with abortion opponents arguing that it’s necessary to oversee clinics that operate in the state’s regulatory shadows and pro-choice advocates calling it an intrusive step into women’s relationships with their doctors.

“It makes a lot of sense to have basic health standards so that a woman going in for a chemical abortion knows that those standards are being met,” said Becky Rogness, the Indiana Right to Life communications director.

“It is intended to confuse and shame women who are already dealing with a difficult situation. It’s the last thing they need,” said Betty Cockrum, the president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana.

Senate Bill 371 is part of a trend as legislatures across the nation, especially in conservative states, advance similar measures to require ultrasounds before abortions and also to impose new restrictions on abortion-inducing drugs.

“We’re still in the midst of this wave,” said Elizabeth Nash, the state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that studies reproductive health worldwide.

Eight states already have laws on the books that require women who are seeking abortions to first receive ultrasounds.

Louisiana and Texas require abortion providers to perform an ultrasound and then display and describe the image. Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Mississippi and Virginia require ultrasounds and for women to be offered the opportunity to view the image.

Two more states – North Carolina and Oklahoma – have laws requiring ultrasounds, but courts have struck those laws down. A more influential legal decision came, though, when a federal court upheld the Texas law.

Opponents of those laws, Nash said, typically are supportive of the idea that ultrasounds are usually appropriate before abortions.

“Quite honestly, as a part of abortion care – an ultrasound is relatively routine. It’s not always medically necessary, and so what we’re really talking about is how far the legislature can place itself into medical care,” she said.

“What abortion restrictions just fail to take into account are the individual woman’s needs. What the state is proposing here is a one-size-fits-all solution to medical care when we all know that each patient is different.”

That was the crux of the argument one Republican senator made Monday when he successfully pushed an amendment to drop from the bill what would have been a second ultrasound requirement – this one, about 14 days after the abortion.

“I think that physicians know a little bit more about that particular area than legislators,” said Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette.

After his amendment, the bill still requires a follow-up appointment but allows doctors to confirm that the pregnancy was terminated “any way that he or she was trained.”

The bill was introduced by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle. He said Alting’s change made sense, but that requiring ultrasounds is necessary to make sure abortion-inducing drugs aren’t given to women with ectopic pregnancies.

“I don’t move in the political Right to Life circles in the state of Indiana. I introduced the bill because of my faith and my religious belief that we need to do something to protect the mother,” he said.

“We’re dealing with an unborn child here, as well, and I felt that we just need to regulate abortion-inducing drugs.”

Holdman’s bill requires clinics – but not private physicians – that prescribe the RU-486 abortion pill to meet state standards for surgical clinics. It would directly affect just one clinic – Planned Parenthood’s Lafayette location, which offers the pill but not the surgical procedure.

Rogness said surgical centers “have the doctor that’s present. They have standards for the facility so that in the unfortunate case that there was a medical emergency, a stretcher could get into the room.”

But Cockrum said factors such as “doorway width and hall width” have nothing to do with whether doctors should prescribe a set of pills that patients take by mouth.

“It’s a smokescreen, and what they would do if they pass this bill is very likely cause the medication abortions provided in Lafayette to shut down, and what that means is it reduces access for women here in Indiana,” Cockrum said.

Another bill set for a vote on Tuesday – Senate Bill 489, authored by Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis – would require that women considering abortions be given informational pamphlets that include color photographs of fetuses at various stage of development. Current law requires that information be distributed, but not that it be in color.

Both bills were the subject of contentious arguments on the Senate floor Monday.

Democrats sought to amend the bill requiring ultrasounds to also require prostate exams for men seeking erectile dysfunction medication.

It was authored by Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, who said she is upset by the ultrasound requirement. “At first glance, my amendment might look like a tongue-in-cheek amendment,” she said. “But it really seeks to make a point about what it is we’re doing here.”

Vectren and Rockport developers continue battle

The battle between Vectren Corp. and developers of the coal-to-gas plant proposed to be built at Rockport, Ind., continued in the state Senate Monday as a senator took aim at Vectren’s coal purchases.

The chamber was debating a bill that could trigger another round of regulatory reviews of the state’s 30-year contract to buy and then resell the synthetic natural gas produced at the plant being financed by Leucadia National Corp.

Sen. Lindel Hume, D-Princeton, offered an amendment that was a shot at Vectren, which has opposed that Rockport plant.

His proposal would have required utilities such as Vectren that purchase coal from their own subsidiaries to pay the average market price for that coal, rather than higher prices they’ve negotiated for themselves.

“They cannot gouge the consumer. They can simply pass along the going rate for coal if they bought it on the open market,” Hume said.

“Even though it isn’t a problem at this point, it has been — we’ve seen that it did take place, and people were paying significantly higher than they should’ve been, and this would put a stop to that kind of thing.”

His proposal was ultimately voted down as senators decided it had little to do with the overall bill.

GOP blocks Democratic Medicaid expansion effort

Majority Republicans again blocked efforts by Democrats to have Indiana expand its Medicaid program for a three-year period during which the federal government would pick up the full tab for covering 400,000 Hoosiers.

State Senate Democrats offered a measure Monday that would have ended the expansion as soon as the federal health care law stopped covering its full cost.

It was an amendment to Senate Bill 551, which would trigger such an expansion only if the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allows Indiana to have a block grant and use its health savings account-based program as the vehicle for the expanded coverage.

The proposal was modeled after Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to expand Medicaid for at least three years because, he said, failing to do so would force his state’s taxpayers to subsidize care elsewhere.

“We cannot be known as Indiana, the island of the uninsured,” said Sen. Karen Tallian, the Portage Democrat who pushed the amendment. She noted that the state’s neighbors – Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky – are each moving forward with expansions.

Tallian also pointed to an Indiana Hospital Association study that found an expansion could draw $10.5 billion in federal Medicaid payments into the state between now and 2020, drawing about 30,000 jobs along the way.

“My proposal is simple and it’s a minimal offering. Accept the expansion now, through the end of 2016, when the federal government is paying 100 percent,” she said.

Senate Republicans, though, quickly rejected Tallian’s effort. The chamber’s  two top fiscal leaders said they are unconvinced that federal officials would keep their bargain – and even after three years, they said, the state couldn’t easily drop coverage for those new enrollees.

Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Chairman Brandt Hershman, R-Lafayette, criticized the “irrational exuberance about this pot of federal money that makes it seem like a birthday and Christmas rolled into one.”

He said that the “concept that this is free money is just flat-out wrong,” and that “this is being financed on a federal credit card.”

The Senate will vote Tuesday on the full bill, authored by Senate Health and Provider Services Chairwoman Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis.

The Medicaid expansion was a key part of President Barack Obama’s landmark 2010 health care law, but was thrown into jeopardy when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that states could opt out of it.

For states that do grow their Medicaid rolls to include residents earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line – or around $32,000 a year for a family of four – the federal government will pick up the full tab the first three years, and then its share will taper off to 90 percent by 2020, with states paying the difference.

Gov. Mike Pence has compared the expansion’s impact on the state’s budget to the federal government gifting Indiana with a “baby elephant” that it would feed in its early years, and then hand over as a full-grown animal with an insatiable appetite.

By 2022, the Urban Institute estimates that 943,000 Hoosiers will be eligible for Medicaid – including 72,000 who meet current eligibility requirements but aren’t signed up – if Indiana declines to expand the program.

Another 495,000 Hoosiers could qualify for coverage if the state does move forward with an expansion. That would reduce the state’s 867,000 uninsured residents, and it would cost the state $537 million by 2022 according to the Urban Institute, but Indiana’s actuaries have estimated the cost would be much higher.

Pence has asked the federal government to approve the Healthy Indiana Plan, which used health savings accounts, as a vehicle for a Medicaid expansion. Only if they say “yes,” he’s said, will he make a decision on whether to do so.

House sends $30 billion budget to Senate

A new state budget that omits Gov. Mike Pence’s proposed income tax cut in order to boost education and transportation funding won the Indiana House’s approval late Monday.

The two-year, $30 billion spending plan advanced on a 68-28 vote, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing, after a marathon day of debating bills ahead of the House’s midnight deadline to send bills across the hallway to the Senate.

It boosts overall K-12 education spending by 2 percent in its first year and another 1 percent in its second year, puts more aside for a tuition reserve fund, and pumps an extra $250 million per year in gas and sales tax revenue for state and local transportation funding.

“It’s balanced. It spends less than we bring in, so there’s a structural surplus,” said the House’s chief budget writer, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville.

“It has a long-term commitment to education,” he said. “We’re starting to build back some of those tuition reserves so that for the next economic cycle, we’ll be prepared.”

Rep. Greg Porter of Indianapolis, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, complained that the budget did not include enough for education, teacher training and public health.

“We hurt our people here in Indiana,” Porter said. “This is not a jobs bill. This does not help the middle class.”

The House Republican budget does not include the top priority on Pence’s first-year legislative agenda – a reduction in Indiana’s individual income tax rate from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent, which would reduce state tax collections by about $520 million annually.

That, Pence has said, left him “very disappointed.” He said he’d continue lobbying lawmakers – and when those lawmakers get an updated forecast of the state’s revenues over the coming two years in April, that’s expected to be the make-or-break point for Pence’s tax cut.

The spending plan was the first drafted by Brown, who took the helm of the budget-writing committee this year. It’ll now move into the hands of his counterpart, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville.

The bill pumps 20 percent of the sales tax revenue collected on gasoline purchases into transportation and also uses more of Indiana’s 18-cents-a-gallon gas tax for that purpose, addressing a need a group of mayors raised this year.

“It will offer sustainable funding within the structural surplus for roads and bridges – jobs now,” Brown said.

That’s a departure from Pence’s budget, which included extra funding for transportation only by including a trigger that would send part of the state’s surplus into an infrastructure fund – a move he estimated would amount to $347 million once the current budget is closed out and his two-year budget proposal is also closed out.

Under the House budget, the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp., which received $142 million this year, would get an extra $2.1 million in the budget’s first year, and then $1.5 million on top of that in the second year.

The Warrick County School Corp., meanwhile, would get a 2.6 percent bump in the first year, from $57.5 million to $59 million, and then another 1.3 percent increase in the budget’s second year, to $59.8 million.

Gibson County schools would all see slightly smaller annual funding increases, while Posey County schools’ funding would flat-line in the spending plan’s first year and then drop slightly in its second year.

Those amounts are impossible to compare to Pence’s budget, since governors typically leave it to lawmakers to write school funding formulas. Still, Pence would have them divide up $63 million less in overall annual funding.

Lawmakers give courts first say on Rockport deal

Utility regulators could once again vet Indiana’s 30-year deal to with developers of the proposed $2.6 billion Rockport coal-to-gas plant – this time with a new set of instructions – under a measure approved Thursday by a legislative panel.

The Senate Utility Committee voted 7-2 to scrap the original version of a bill that would have stopped the project in its tracks, and instead to advance a new version authored by its chairman, Republican Sen. Jim Merritt of Indianapolis.

His measure, now headed to the full Senate, would postpone any further action until an ongoing court battle between the plant’s financier, Leucadia National Corp., and its opponents, a coalition led by Vectren Corp., reaches its conclusion.

That would likely give the Indiana Supreme Court the first crack at the issue. And if the high court agrees with an appellate court’s objection to a specific provision in the contract, Merritt’s legislation would then send the deal back to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for a full new review.

For Leucadia, that’s a win because it keeps the project alive – but it also means the regulatory process could last much longer than they’d hoped.

“There’s a lot riding on this piece of legislation,” Merritt said, acknowledging that his measure could be overhauled by the full Senate or in the House. “Some people may not like this – and people may love it.”

The deal negotiated in 2010 by former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration would have the Indiana Finance Authority buy the Rockport plant’s product for 30 years at a fixed rate, and then resell it to Hoosier customers on the open market.

It amounted to betting 17 percent of all Indiana ratepayers’ bills on the idea that converting coal into synthetic natural gas would be cheaper than utilities’ regular open-market prices.

Opponents have since argued that a nationwide shale gas boom has driven long-term natural gas price projections downward, and they’ve tried – both by lobbying lawmakers and in court – to force Indiana to abort the deal.

Those opponents complained Thursday that Merritt is “punting.”

“Everybody wants to shoot the turkey, but nobody wants to pull the trigger,” said Kerwin Olson, the executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, an Indianapolis-based consumer advocacy group.

“We’re disappointed with the amended bill and we’d prefer that the bill be returned to its original form, because that provided a real, clear guarantee to ratepayers that the amended bill does not provide.”

As it was introduced, Senate Bill 510 would have required the plant’s developers to reimburse ratepayers if they’ve paid higher prices every three years, rather than only at the end of the 30-year deal.

It was a thinly-veiled attempt to stop the plant’s construction in its tracks because the change would have made financing the project impossible, said Mark Lubbers, the Indiana project manager for Leucadia.

Still, underMerritt’s proposal, unless the Indiana Supreme Court somehow grants Leucadia a major win – a move that would involve reversing an Indiana Court of Appeals objection to one clause in the contract – the deal would head back to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

If that happens and Merritt’s measure becomes law, the contract would arrive back at the commission with a new set of specific instructions from lawmakers.

The commission would have to consider whether the deal is in the “public interest.” That would mean determining whether the initial price assumptions behind the contract were valid and whether ratepayers are adequately protected.

Merritt’s legislation would also have regulators conduct an in-depth study of the natural gas market – one that would include a look at how both synthetic natural gas made at plants such as the one proposed for Rockport and shale gas, which is increasingly available nationwide, are affecting prices.

Lawmakers consider kicking Rockport decision to courts

Lawmakers could leave key decisions about the future of the $2.6 billion Rockport coal-to-gas plant in the hands of the Indiana Supreme Court under legislation set to receive a vote Thursday in the Senate Utility Committee.

The proposal is the latest wrinkle in this year’s wrangling over whether the state should try to get out of its 30-year contract with the plant’s developers. It would have the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission re-examine the deal if – and only if – courts ultimately declare it invalid.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, authored the measure as an amendment to a bill that would have left the plant dead in its tracks.

Compared to the original bill, it’s a victory for Leucadia National Corp., which is financing the plant, and a set-back for a coalition of opponents led by Vectren Corp. and including several natural gas companies and consumer advocates.

“All the air is out of the balloon, but I really believe the IURC should be making these decisions, rather than the legislature. They are experts – they do this 24/7,” Merritt told the Courier & Press.

The Indiana Court of Appeals last year voided the contract, citing a specific provision that developers and the state quickly sought to remedy. Last week, the court turned down Vectren’s push to vet other portions of the deal.

That leaves the contract’s status in doubt, as Leucadia officials insist that after the quick fix it’s now valid and Vectren argues it’s not. That could make the Indiana Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter.

“As I understand it, there’s no contract right now,” Merritt said.

His proposed amendment would also direct the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to launch an in-depth study of the natural gas market – with instructions to compare open-market prices to those included in the state’s deal, and to determine how both synthetic and shale gas will affect prices in the coming years.

The results of that study would have to be published online by the end of 2013, potentially teeing up more action when the General Assembly meets next year.

“It’s such a factor right now in our society that being really a coal state – it’s a volatile issue, but I think the legislature and I think everyone needs to know more about it,” Merritt said.

Lawmakers have internally debated how to handle the Rockport plant during the first two months of this year’s legislative session as opponents have maintained their push to kill the deal that the Indiana Finance Authority struck and Gov. Mitch Daniels signed in December 2010.

Jennifer Alvey, the finance authority’s former public finance director and Daniels’ lead negotiator on that deal, briefed Senate Republican on its details Tuesday during a behind-closed-doors caucus meeting.

And Mark Lubbers, the former Daniels aide who is the Indiana project manager Leucadia, has pushed lawmakers to keep it alive – insisting that the contract’s ratepayer protection mechanisms are sturdy.

Still, it was that issue – how the deal will affect Hoosier ratepayers – that initiated this year’s debate.

The 30-year contract would have Indiana buy the Rockport plant’s product at a fixed price and then resell it on the open market. It ties 17 percent of all gas customers’ bills to the Rockport plant’s rates, rather than utilities’ regular prices.

The deal requires Leucadia to set $150 million aside in an escrow account to reimburse ratepayers in case they’re paying more than they otherwise would have, and if customers haven’t saved money by the end of the third decade, the state could seize the plant.

At the urging of Vectren and other groups, Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown, filed Senate Bill 510. It would require Hoosiers to be reimbursed every three years, rather than at the end of the 30 years, if the rates related to the Rockport plant are higher than open-market natural gas prices.

That would kill the project, Lubbers said.

So Merritt and other GOP leaders have worked for weeks on an amendment that would rework the bill. Their product is the amendment Merritt finalized Wednesday and will offer in Thursday’s meeting.

He said the committee will vote on the amendment and the bill during that meeting – a necessary step, since Thursday is the Senate’s deadline to advance bills from the committee stage on to the full chamber for consideration.

New abortion regulations clear Senate panel

An effort to require clinics that dispense an abortion-inducing drug to provide ultrasounds and meet the same regulatory requirements as surgical clinics was approved Wednesday by a state Senate panel.

The bill does not apply to private physicians, and would specifically affect the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lafayette, Ind. – the only one of the organization’s four abortion-providing clinics in the state that only offers the procedure through medication.

That led opponents to complain that the measure would sacrifice women’s health – and require women in early stages of pregnancy to undergo an invasive vaginal ultrasound – in order to advance a social agenda.

“This bill definitely limits access to safe and affordable health care for low-income women,” said Sen. Vaneta Becker of Evansville, the only Republican to join the committee’s Democrats in voting against the bill.

It passed the Senate Health and Provider Services Committee on a 7-5 vote and now moves to the full Senate, which approved a similar measure last year.

It advanced with the backing of a cadre of anti-abortion organizations that argued the drug RU-486 poses more dangers to women than the surgical procedure.

“We’re just trying to control and regulate abortion-inducing drugs, which heretofore have not been regulated by the state of Indiana,” said the bill’s author, Republican Sen. Travis Holdman of Markle.

“I don’t believe we’re asking for anything that’s unreasonable. We’re talking about the life of the mother and the child.”

During Wednesday’s committee hearing, the bill became a proxy for the larger fight over abortion rights – with advocates of the bill saying they want to limit the drug’s use.

The drug is the “abortion industry’s method of choice” for the procedure, said Sue Swayze, the lobbyist for Indiana Right to Life.

“I’m not here to pitch surgical abortions by any stretch of the imagination, but if a woman’s choosing that abortion, I’d much rather choose to see her choose a safer surgical abortion,” she said.

Marc Tuttle, the Right to Life of Indianapolis president, decried the drug as among the “social tools to simply increase the number of abortions in our community.”

Opponents of the bill said it wouldn’t improve the quality of health care available to women seeking abortions.

The bill is an effort to “exert social control” and “open the purse strings of religious right political donors,” said Dr. Sue Ellen Braunlin, an anesthesiologist and co-president of the Indiana Religious Coalition in Support of Reproductive Justice.

She complained that requiring clinics that provide the drug to meet the same standards as surgical clinics is unnecessary.

“Does anyone think this bill solves a problem that actually exists? Let’s be honest: Nobody thinks the remarkable safety of medication abortion is going to be improved with wider hallways,” Braunlin said.

The committee approved another abortion-related measure Wednesday that requires clinics that offer abortions to provide women informed consent forms that include color photos of fetuses at various stages of development.

Both now move to the full Senate for consideration ahead of a key Tuesday deadline.

Ways and Means budget vote on Tuesday

The Indiana House Ways and Means Committee will vote on Republicans’ two-year, $30 billion budget on Tuesday, the committee’s chairman, GOP Rep. Tim Brown of Crawfordsville, said Monday morning.

He presented the budget to the committee Monday. It includes K-12 education spending increases of 2 percent in its first year and 1 percent in its second year — plus an extra $250 million annually for transportation.

The budget proposal speeds up the phase-out of Indiana’s inheritance tax, eliminating it by 2018 rather than 2022. But it does not include Gov. Mike Pence’s proposal to lower Indiana’s income tax rate from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent.