Legislators accomplish goals during unique session

By CANDY NEAL
cneal@dcherald.com

Legislators representing Dubois County admitted that this year’s session was a little different.

The House moved into another state building to be able to spread out. The Senate used space on its chamber floor and balcony to meet. There were less visitors allowed inside the Indiana Statehouse.

“It wasn't that bad,” said State Rep. Steve Bartels, R-Eckerty. “It was less interaction than I'd like to see. I always had visitors and kids and just people from my district come up to visit on issues. And they just didn't this year because of the COVID. It was a lot of emails and text correspondence, not a lot of face to face.”

State Rep. Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper was pleased about getting legislation in place for the Small Business Restart Grant Program. That program has $60 million in federal aid funding available.

“That would allow small businesses to apply,” he said. “The [idea] was to create that bridge to, hopefully, get them back up on their feet.”

The bill stemmed from one of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s executive orders that had been done through the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. “This bill really was just saying that we're going to keep this program going for the next year or so,” Lindauer said.

A bill to keep telehealth services available in their current form was also proposed by Lindauer. The Senate version of that bill, which Lindauer carried in the House, also passed.

The bill dovetailed from an executive order as well. And it allows for telehealth services in 28 different health fields.

“I’ve been excited about telehealth because it provided people in rural parts of the state more access to a wider range of health care professionals,” Lindauer said. “The restrictions due to COVID really brought that home, as far as being a tool for for residents to not have to get out as much.”

State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, mentioned two bills.

Messmer authored Senate Bill 1, which gives people, companies and organizations some civil immunity from COVID lawsuits. It passed early in the session, on Feb. 18, and was signed into law. Messmer said the bill protects individuals and organizations from frivolous lawsuits.

“It gives protection from being sued by somebody saying they got COVID-19 from you,” he said, “as long as it is not a situation of gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct. It applies to every organization, every individual, whether it's a nonprofit or business.”

House Bill 1002, which he sponsored and carried through the Senate, was focused on medical worker-related immunity issues. “This dealt with more specific health-care-related work issues that they had to deal with during this COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

The bill prevents a medical worker from being sued for delays and services because of pandemic issues, such as when the governor told hospitals they couldn’t do elective procedures, for example.

“There was a lot of things done quickly early in the process that may not have had the FDA approval,” Messmer said. “It gives them protection from using equipment and medicines, dealing with staffing shortages. Maybe they had to use an emergency room doctor to cover a clinic. Maybe they had to shift medical staff around to help with something out of their specialty, or had to work in a department because of staffing shortages.”

Bartels talked about a bill that allows business corporations to represent themselves in more small claims cases, instead of having to retain a lawyer.

“So before a small business, a corporation, LLC could only represent themselves, if the claim was under $1,500, even though the limit for small claims is $8,000,” he said. “What that meant is if somebody sued me in small claims court as a business for $1,501, I would have to have an attorney.

“So this basically evens the playing field for small businesses to represent themselves.”

With this, the Supreme Court has agreed to change its rules so that corporations can represent themselves in small claims up to the limit, which will be $10,000, under Bartels’ bill.

The other bill Bartels was glad to get passed is one that saves medical personnel that dispense schedule drugs some paperwork and time. Those medical officials must submit every day a report detailing the drugs that were dispensed.

Under the newly passed bill, they don’t have to submit a report on the days that no drugs were dispensed.

“They had to report, even if they didn't dispense anything,” he said. “So like at a doctor's office that would be on vacation for two weeks, somebody had to submit a report every day of zero.”

This affected all kinds of medical professions, including veterinarians; it was a veterinarian that told Bartels about this situation.

“We were able to get that change passed, so that they didn't have to do that,” he said. “You would have thought that would not come under any pushback, but there was. But we got that passed.”

State Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, got legislation passed that fine-tuned a state program in which providers can apply for grant funding to help building broadband infrastructure in areas that are underserved or not served at all.

She found that when an application can be challenged by another provider that covers some of the area the grant applicant is looking to serve, the challenge caused the entire application to be thrown out of contention. So the areas included in the application that were not served would remain unserved.

“What we discovered is that that was a prohibitor for another provider to develop in the area,” Houchin said.

The new legislation creates a process by which challenges between providers about which covers an area can be negotiated up front. “This way, we don't eliminate an area just because of a challenge,” she said. “We pinpoint and fine-tune that down to the address level, to make sure that the areas that don't have access can get it, and we're not over building in a in a much better way than then we initially intended.”

The other bill Houchin was able to get passed was one concerning transparency for the Department of Child Services in child fatality cases. The bill creates an interim committee that will evaluate the way child fatality data is collected and what information can be accessible to the General Assembly.

“We want to know if the kids were wards of the state at the time of their passing, if they had been in foster care, or if they had been returned to the home,” Houchin said. “I want to know if there are policy, training, or legislative changes that need to be made in order to make sure kids, particularly our foster kids and our kids that are involved in the child welfare system, are safe and well cared for.”

Legislators passed the state’s two-year budget, and more funding was allotted in it for education, Messmer said. That came as a result of the latest revenue forecast received on April 15, showing that the state would get an addition $2 billion more that previously forecasted in December.

“We ended up putting $900 million extra into into K through 12 spending this session, which is biggest increase we've ever put in K through 12 public education,” Messmer said. “We put $600 million additional into the teachers pension fund. And then the rest of the money was primarily focused on paying down debt.”

Overall, the legislators said the session went well, despite the unusual circumstances that came with the pandemic.

“I would tell you this,” Bartels said. “We expected the worst, and it was not."




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