Budget biggest priority for local legislatorsApril 29, 2019
By CANDY NEAL
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana General Assembly completed its main task of creating the state’s next two-year budget, the last bill to pass before the session ended late Wednesday night.
“If there is another bill that hasn’t passed by the time the budget is passed,” State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, said, “it is not going to pass.”
During the Legislature’s long session, which happens every other year, the budget is always the biggest priority. And, as usual, education funding tops the budget’s priority.
“I thought the budget was well crafted,” Messmer said. “It got 763 million additional dollars to K-12 education. There were pretty consistent increases in per-student funding to almost every school in the state.” The schools in which enrollment is decreasing did not see as much of an increase as other schools, he said.
Teachers’ salaries were also a big matter this year.
“We went in it from a lot of different directions on that. Getting the baseline funding up for everyone, we don’t dictate how that is applied,” Messmer said. “The local school boards ultimately decide how that gets allocated.”
Surplus funding from last year was used to help pay down some of the debt in the teachers pension fund, which will lower every school corporation’s amount of their contribution rate by 2 percent. “That will save every school corporation money every year,” Messmer said. “That 2 percent differential will be there forever.”
With that contribution, legislators have indicated they want it to be announced publicly what school districts do with the savings from that 2 percent.
“We’re asking them to specify where that savings is getting applied,” Messmer said, “with the expectation that it should be going to teachers’ salaries.”
Messmer also mentioned funding that is being provided for school safety. And retired employees will again receive an extra check for the year, called the 13th check. “We haven’t been able to give them a cost-of-living increase,” Messmer said, “so each retired employee gets an additional payment each year.”
In two years, a fund that has been put in place to fund cost-of-living increases should be ready to be used. “That is expected to happen by the next budget cycle,” Messmer said. “They will start to get cost of living increases going forward. So this should be the last budget cycle we have to do the 13th check.”
Along with education funding, Rep. Steve Bartels, R-Eckerty, talked about the efforts being made to keep veterans residing in Indiana
“We’re losing retire veterans to other states,” he said. “Phasing out the income tax on their pensions is a great opportunity to keep veterans in Indiana.”
The phase out was approved by the Legislature.
Bartels will also propose again next year legislation to have the state make payments on “qualified parcels,” which is land that is owned or leased by the state and the federal government and, thus, exempt from property taxes.
“The counties that have large portions of state-owned forests are now getting nothing,” he said. “We were getting some of the logging revenue. In this budget, from I understand, that will go to the general fund.”
He wants the state to give counties some kind of payment for those lands, “especially since the counties provide some service to those areas, in fire, ambulance and police protection,” Bartels said.
Improvements to the Indiana Department of Child Services are also being implemented. In particular, rights were improved for long-term foster parents to advocate in court on behalf of the children in their care. They are the parents that have had a child longer than 12 months, or an infant longer than six months.
“They are our best asset in taking care of these vulnerable children. We want to make sure they are treated well and supported,” State Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, said. “We want to make sure they have a voice in these very important case when it gets past 12 months and we’re trying to make permanency decisions.”
She sees other reforms being looked at in the state’s child welfare system.
“We had a report that came out late in the session about the number of foster kids that are not graduating high school,” she said. “I’ll be looking at some of the things we can do to improve that.”
Houchin mentioned the passage of more regulations on suboxone clinics that are similar to methadone clinic regulations. Both types of clinics help treat people with opioid addictions.
Also the bill that limits the amount on school districts’ contract buyouts for assistant superintendents and principals also passed, which will save districts money, she said.
She plans to work on bills that did not make it through the session this time. One of those is the bill that would move into adult court 12- and 13-year-old juveniles who are charged with attempted murder. The bill stemmed from a school shooting in Noblesville last year; the 13-year-old is being tried as a juvenile.
“There was a lot of miseducation going around with that bill, thinking that we were going to be putting 12-year-olds in adult prison,” Houchin said. “And that is just not accurate.”
There will likely to be more of a comprehensive look of the juvenile law next year, she said. “That is a loophole that we need to close,” she said. “To me, it doesn’t make any sense that the only reason why (such a juvenile) isn’t able to be waived is that the victims didn’t die.”
She also plans to pursue again a bill to enact a tax credit for 529A accounts, which are tax-exempt accounts individuals with disabilities and their families can establish to pay for the person’s disability-related expenses.
State Rep. Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper, said that various bills that made it through the General Assembly involved a lot of compromises.
“While not everyone got every ask,” he said, “most people seem pretty happy.”
Along with the budget, which was the session’s main focus, Lindauer was pleased that some of the legislation he sponsored also made it through the session. The legislation included allowing individuals contracting ambulance services to negotiate contracts longer than one year, and allowing trained qualified medical aides to administer insulin.
An issue that came to his attention during the session was concern from local people who work with clearing and maintaining ditches in Dubois County. State agencies that have jurisdiction over those waterways, including the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, seemed to get more involved locally, which caused confusion for local people who have been maintaining the waterways for decades. Some local meetings have been held on the matter.
“A great deal of my focus has been on that issue,” Lindauer said, “and if there are things we can do. For some of the things we were looking at, it was too late in the session to introduce any kind of bills. It may be something we look at doing for next session.”
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