By DEANNA MARTIN
INDIANAPOLIS — A House committee made several changes to a bill aimed at cracking down on companies hiring illegal immigrants, but lawmakers disagree on whether the revisions water down the legislation or strengthen it.
The amended proposal, which cleared the House Public Policy Committee on a 7-4 vote Monday, would set up a three-tier penalty system for companies that hire illegal immigrants after July 1, 2009. After three incidents within five years, companies could have their business licenses suspended or revoked.
The committee added $1.5 million in state money to help enforce the bill, and removed an exemption for those who hire part-time or seasonal workers.
Rep. Trent Van Haaften, a Democrat from Mount Vernon, said the changes closed loopholes and made the bill stronger.
"The lack of money in the bill was a problem," said Van Haaften, the committee chairman. "We were setting up a system without any ability to carry it out."
But some Republicans on the committee complained about other changes to the bill. Under the original legislation, for example, the attorney general would investigate complaints of illegal workers and would be required to turn over the findings to local prosecutors.
The amendment shifted enforcement from local prosecutors to administrative law judges and the state Department of Labor. The amendment states that the attorney general's office "may" notify the department of its findings, but does not require it.
Van Haaften said it makes sense to handle license revocation administratively rather than in clogged courts, and that he trusts the attorney general and state government to take action if companies break the law.
But Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Lakeville, said she didn't want to leave things up to the executive branch.
"We trusted our congressmen, too," she said. "We trusted our federal senators. We trusted the president. We trusted all these people and now we're going to trust the executive branch again."
The amendment made some improvements, but weakened the bill on the whole, said Rep. Eric Turner, R-Marion.
"Overall, it's watered down the message," he said.
Van Haaften urged House Republicans to consider the public policy created by the bill, not the politics surrounding the issue.
Democrats have a narrow 51-49 majority in the House, and this is an election year.
"I think we're still going to see some politics played on this bill," Van Haaften said.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Mike Delph of Carmel, said he thought the amended bill still had teeth, and hoped to see it pass the full House. If it does, the bill would likely to go a conference committee, where Senate and House members could try to work out a compromise on the details.
"The legislative process is a very long one," Delph said. "I'm just very happy and thankful that they're moving the bill forward. It's a very important bill for the state of Indiana."
The bill could next move to the House Ways and Means Committee for consideration since the legislation includes funding. The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Vern Tincher, D-Riley, said he was confident he would get a hearing in that committee before a key deadline.