Legislators ready to tackle budget, redistrictingJanuary 7, 2021
By CANDY NEAL
The Indiana General Assembly started its session Monday, and legislators are filing bills in hopes of getting them heard and passed.
But there are big issues that are looming, issues that will be tackled by the Legislature. Legislators representing Dubois County talked about three such topics.
The state’s two-year budget will be created. This is done every other year during the legislator’s long session, which must end at the end of April.
“The budget is No. 1,” said State Rep. Steve Bartels, R-Eckerty. “We must get that done.”
Funding for all state agencies and state-funded expenses come from the budget. But those crafting the bill will have to look at and consider the impact the virus has had on the overall economy, which in turn impacts the state’s tax revenue. Indiana’s revenue projections presented to the State Budget Committee in December estimate the state collecting 2.2% and 3% more in tax revenue the next two years.
Protecting school funding will be a priority for the budget, Bartels said. Gov. Eric Holcomb and legislative leaders have expressed their support of continuing full state payments to school districts. That means they will need to deal with state law already in place that caps funding at 85% per pupil for students who get half or more of their classes virtually. With the pandemic that has swept across the state, many schools have utilized virtual learning, including schools in Dubois County.
With new Census numbers now being calculated, the Legislature will also deal with redistricting.
“Every 10 years, we have to do that,” State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper said.
Redistricting is the process of adjusting the lines of voting districts to reflect population shifts based on the latest Census numbers. All district lines must be reviewed after the Census to ensure equality in representation and voting rights.
“Every House and Senate district and congressional district, by federal law has to be within 1%,” Messmer said. “You can't be outside of 1% deviation of population.”
Census population data, which is updated every 10 years, is used to reapportion the nation’s 435 House of Representative seats among the 50 states as well as determine the boundaries of U.S. House districts and state legislative districts. The information is also used to divide billions of dollars of federal aid that is given to states and their communities each year.
Since Republicans control both chambers of the Indiana Legislature, they will oversee the process of redrawing district lines in the state. Typically, public hearings are held to keep the public up to date on the process.
The latest Census was completed in October, and population numbers are being compiled. But when the Legislature starts redistricting work depends on when the state gets its updated numbers.
“The federal government has told the state that they're behind in getting these Census results,” Bartels said, “so I suspect it may be later than we think. Could it be into June? Maybe.”
There has been some discussion about legislators working on the matter longer than the length of the session. Them coming back for a special session if needed, has been discussed.
“It’s possible that we may have to come back and vote on this. But that's fine,” Bartels said. “We just have to have everything passed by July 1
Legislators are also looking at COVID-19-related issues, including legislation that would give entities like employers, businesses, municipalities and school districts certain liability protections.
“That is one that seems to be garnering quite a bit of attention,” said State Rep. Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper.
He is co-authoring such a bill in the House, while Messmer is authoring a similar bill in the Senate.
“This would give them some protections from getting sued, provided that they are following the accepted [health and safety] guidelines that are put out there,” Lindauer said. “We've had some employers contact us and say they’re worried about asking their employees to come back in, because they don't want to potentially get sued.”
Senators have until 4 p.m. Friday to file their bills; state representatives must file theirs by 2 p.m. Monday.
The Indiana General Assembly must adjourn the legislative session no later than April 29.
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