State budget on local legislators’ minds

By CANDY NEAL
cneal@dcherald.com

The main focus of the upcoming Indiana General Assembly session will be the state’s budget.

Legislators, including the four who represent Dubois County, will have some bills to be considered during the session. But crafting the next two-year state budget will be session’s focal point, State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, said Tuesday afternoon.

“A big focus of that is what we can do to increase school funding and do what we can to increase teachers’ pay,” he told the people gathered at Vincennes University Jasper Campus for a legislative preview event hosted by the Jasper Chamber of Commerce. Other issues that will be tackled at the session include promoting and supporting workforce development, installing rural broadband into areas that are underserved or don’t have service, and working on the ongoing problems with the Department of Child Services, legislators said.

Messmer, State Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, State Rep. Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper, and State Rep. Stephen Bartels, R-Eckerty, discussed what they think will be tackled during the 2019 session and heard concerns and requests from constituents at the meeting.

Teresa Kendall, a retired teacher who recently moved to Jasper, said that increasing teachers’ pay needs to be a priority. She mentioned that while she was teaching, she always had a second job.

“Teachers have not had significant raises in years,” she said. “Teachers have to buy their own supplies. I don’t know of any teacher who is going to come out of any college around here that isn’t gong to have thousands of dollars out of pocket to start their classroom.

“Teachers desperately need a raise,” Kendall added. “You cannot live on a teacher’s salary.”

Legislators said that while they work at sending more funding to districts, they do not dictate how districts spend that funding.

“The state does not want to take over mandated contracts. Everybody wants local control,” Messmer said. “The lion’s share of the budget goes to schools. We are looking at ways to get money to schools in the most effective way.”

Houchin said that she’s seen districts give their administration generous raises in the thousands, while giving their teachers a couple hundred dollars in raises.

“We fund schools. They decide how to pay (teachers),” Houchin said. “That is not the General Assembly deciding not to give teachers raises.”

She said that she would like to see new teachers have the ability to receive higher salaries at a quicker rate to help with their expenses, like student loans.

Bartels mentioned that in his district, school corporations give teachers stipends instead of raises because they are unsure of the amount of funding the school district will receive each year.

Lindauer said that this issue is going to be discussed in the Indiana House of Representatives. But there are other funding issues that need to be addressed as well. “There’s only so much money to go around,” he said. “But this is something that we will be taking a hard look at.”

Dale resident Mary Hess, who is president of the Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life, asked for the legislators’ position on the coal-to-diesel refinery that is being proposed in Dale near the Spencer-Dubois county line, including the use of taxpayer funding to directly or indirectly support the construction or operation of the refinery.

“I support it because the local units of government support it,” said Bartels. The refinery would be located in his district.

“I don’t make that decision for the local units,” he said. “I support what they choose to do.”

Lindauer and Messmer also voiced their support. Houchin said she doesn’t have an opinion either way; since the project is not in her district, she has not studied the matter, she said.

Ferdinand resident and Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life member Rock Emmert said that Dubois County, especially Ferdinand, will be downwind of the proposed refinery, which will bring “a distinct sulfur odor in your constituency and beyond your constituency,” he said. “That would be a price we pay for progress.”

Emmert asked legislators to lobby the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the governor to look more into the health issues that would come because of the refinery.

“You are our representatives,” Emmert said. “You are all we have. You do have some power.”

“The General Assembly does not have authority over any regulatory agencies in the state,” Messmer said. “The Governor doesn’t have to listen to us on anything. IDEM doesn’t have to listen to us.”

Mike Kendall of Jasper said that the legislators’ oversight abilities come by way of the state budget that the General Assembly creates.

“You do have oversight, by funding,” he said. “You pay the bills for IDEM’s oversight.” He also encouraged legislators to look more closely at this project, including the effect on this area’s environment and infrastructure.

The 2019 legislative session starts Jan. 3.




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