State lawmakers get ready for next session

Jan. 2—The long session of the Indiana General Assembly will begin on Jan. 9 and already local lawmakers are gearing up for a session that apparently will be focusing on money.

"It's a budget year and that will be the focus. The most recent revenue forecast was a little positive and a little negative. There will be some challenges there," said State Representative Shane Lindauer of Jasper. "In a budget year, there are always some folks who look for some increases in funding."

"The big thing we are going to be dealing with is going to be the budget. That is the 800-pound gorilla in the room," said State Representative Bruce Borders of Jasonville. "The biggest thing of all will be the budget. Of all of the things we do, the one the constitution requires us to pass is the budget."

Whenever the budget opens, the biggest discussion turns to education. Both Lindauer and Borders agree there will be a lot of debate on education funding.

Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Eric Bassler of Washington says he will spend a lot of his time dealing with those education issues.

"The big thing is the budget," he said. "That will take up a lot of our time. I will be heavily involved in the K-12 funding and working with Senator Ford on the university funding."

One education change that is expected to come up for a lot of discussion is a move to bring the trades back into high schools.

"One of the things we are looking at is bringing some of the trade schools back into our high schools, looking at things that prepare children to go out into the workplace," said Borders. "So much of what we are doing is not necessarily preparing kids to come right out of high school into the workplace. Part of what is driving this is that the baby boomers who were in skilled trades are now retiring and there just are not people with the skillset to step into those jobs. Somebody is going to have to train and teach these kids."

Bassler says the budget will also include a two-year funding push to improve the health of Hoosiers.

"I think there is going to be a big push on public health and mental health. You can look at almost any metric in the state in regard to things like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption, diabetes and Indiana is negative," said Bassler. "We rank poorly compared to other states. I know the governor put together a commission to look at these issues. There is going to be a significant ask for public health. In the first year, it will probably be $120 million. This money will go to local entities. The second year it will go up to $240 million."

Bassler says the increased funding for health initiatives will not be the state passing down orders but local officials making their needs known to the state. He says it will also include funding for mental health.

"The mental health side, the state struggles with mental health issues and it is intermixed with addiction problems. I think there will be several bills to help deal with mental health in the state," said Bassler. "Part of that will be trying to get more social workers into schools. Those problems have been growing because of isolation and COVID and many young people's unhealthy obsession with social media."

He says that while the ideas have a lot of support, the big challenge will be creating a commitment beyond the two-year budget cycle so that the money really helps improve the health of Hoosiers.

"When you look at what we spend on public health compared to other states we are way below average," said Bassler. "I hope we build a consensus that this is something we have to be in on for the long run. If you put out a bunch of programs for just two years, you might just sort of move the needle. This could wind up being a waste of money if we do not commit to this for the long run. I hope we stay at this for a number of years because we have a lot of work to do in Indiana."

While the budget and some of the programs tied to it will be at the top of the agenda pile, local lawmakers say they have some other issues they want to see discussed including critical race theory.

"One of the things I am working on is to revisit the critical race theory. I think it is detrimental to our children to teach them that if you happen to be of one race that you have had an advantage and you are an oppressor and that minority children are oppressed. That's a horrible thing to teach children and I don't believe that is true," said Borders. "It passed the house and then died in the Senate. We want to take it up again."

There are also some specifically local issues.

"I have been working on some stuff in Pike County. They have reclaimed coal mine ground. There was a special tax credit for businesses that move onto reclaimed ground, but that got stripped out last year. I will be working to see that incentive put back into law. Hopefully, that will help them get more business looking at some of the potential industrial property sitting on reclaimed ground along I 69," said Lindauer. "Dubois County is seeking another superior court judge. I will be working on that."

During the summer, lawmakers met for a special session to pass a new law on abortion. There may be some attempts to make tweaks in that law.

"A lot of people are, what about the pro-life legislation? I tell people that it has passed but it is tied up in a lawsuit," said Borders.

"I have not had any discussions lately on changes to the abortion law, but there could be someone out there who will file something that will want to make a big change," said Lindauer. "We are looking at trying to get some more data on who is seeking an abortion and why. Some of those things could be discussed."