Much to do for Indiana General Assembly despite short session, say lawmakers

(From left) Dan Leonard, Andy Zay and Travis Holdman.
(From left) Dan Leonard, Andy Zay and Travis Holdman. Photos provided.

While the Indiana General Assembly may meet in a shortened session that started Wednesday, Jan. 3, there is still a lot to be done in the few weeks it convenes, according to Rep. Dan Leonard (R-Huntington), Sen. Andy Zay (R-Huntington) and Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Markle).

Leonard says he expects the biggest issue of the session will be Sunday alcohol sales. Leonard cited a move last year by Ricker Oil Company, which remodeled two of its convenience stores to include a restaurant, thus qualifying to sell cold, carryout beer.

“They did everything by the law,” Leonard says. “It’s kind of a Catch-22, because they did what they were required to do, and yet the General Assembly kind of said, ‘That wasn’t what we intended.’”

Lawmakers stopped the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission from granting any more of the restaurant alcohol licenses, requiring the stores to reapply to renew them. Leonard said the stores will probably not be allowed to renew them.

Leonard said he hasn’t seen a report from a study committee that worked last summer to rewrite the alcohol laws, but he thinks it is an issue whose time has come in the Hoosier state.

“Most of the surveys that have been run by legislators show that constituent voters in Indiana are ready for Sunday alcohol sales,” he adds.

Another issue that may see some argument is over legalizing medical marijuana. Leonard says one legislator, Rep. Jim Lucas (R-Seymour) is pushing hard to legalize it.

Leonard said a cannabinoid oil, which is derived from marijuana, has already been legalized for use in Indiana.

“It has all the properties of marijuana except very limited – almost nothing – of THC, which is the part of marijuana which is hallucinogenic,” he says. “It’s been pretty widely accepted, but you can’t get high on it.”

However, Leonard says the state attorney general has ruled that the way the law is written does not legalize the cannabinoid oil, necessitating some work to clean up the language and make it legal and available to the public.

As subcommittee chair of Local Government on the House Ways and Means Committee, Leo-nard says his main function this session is to work on cleaning up language in department bills such as the Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF).

“Things in the code that don’t jive with the way things are being done, or need to be changed a little bit – tweaked – to fix problems,” he adds. “That will be one of my major bills.”

Leonard will also offer a bill to allow local units of government to raise the food and beverage tax locally. Currently, a city or town must get a special approval from the General Assembly. Leonard’s bill would allow municipalities to pass their own local tax increases.

“Why not just allow local units of government to govern themselves?” he asked. “If they want to risk being voted out of office by putting on a food and beverage tax, that’s their prerogative.”

Leonard also plans to introduce a bill for the Department of Workforce Development that will include amended language required because of changes in federal regulations.

The controversial Graduation Pathways bill that was OK’d by the Indiana State Board of Education (SBOE) last month will also be up before the General Assembly for passage. That legislation will be one of Zay’s top priorities during the short session as he says the current plan contains some “gaps.”

“I’ve personally been meeting with a lot of superintendents and educators, and I think we can fill those gaps and refine that plan and make a good workforce career-readiness plan for our next generation of kids coming out of high school and even out of college,” he says. “We’re looking at a severe shortage of employees right now. I think there’s over 100,000 jobs available in the state of Indiana, and prospects of up to a million in 10 years, so we’ve got to create a workforce and promote our state for people to come in here and work and be a part of our economy.”

The new guidelines, developed by an SBOE subcommittee, would require every student to take and pass tests to graduate from high school. The pathways also let students choose from a wide range of options tailored to their interests, abilities and aspirations. State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Jennifer McCormick and other educators, including Huntington County Community School Corporation officials, have expressed displeasure with the passage of the plan, and say it’s not clear how it will be funded.

The opioid crisis is another issue Zay wants to see addressed this session, specifically the volume of prescription opioids hitting the streets.

“The other side and a symptom of that is the DCS (Department of Child Services) and how it’s affecting the children of our state, which has been much ballyhooed in the media as well, with the resignation of (DCS Director) Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura,” Zay says. “I think there will need to be some oversight and need to collaborate on that with the governor’s office and the agency, to make sure we have a strong DCS going forward to serve our most vulnerable citizens, and that the kids that are being taken out of so many homes because of the drug crisis.”

Holdman will begin this session in a new position as chairman of the Senate Committee on Tax and Fiscal Policy, replacing Sen. Brandt Hershman (R-Buck Creek), who retired from the Senate. He will also replace Hershman on the Senate Committee of Appropriations.

“Getting my arms around that job will be my main thrust,” he says, adding that only a handful of bills will likely be assigned to that committee.

“We just need to make sure if we do anything with regard to tax that it’s the right thing to do in a short session year. There’s just no need to do anything really with regard to opening the budget, so I don’t think we’ll be doing that.”

One bill that Holdman plans to introduce will be SB123, which calls for voluntary deployment of baby boxes to all Indiana fire departments which are staffed around the clock. He will hold a press conference the same day the session opens to highlight the use of the boxes. He explains they will allow mothers to give up their newborn babies anonymously without repercussions and ensure the infants will be cared for right away.

“We did that last year for hospitals on a voluntary basis, and we grandfathered in two volunteer fire departments that had already put baby boxes in place,” he says. “We had a successful placement about six weeks ago, and we feel like it’s time to go ahead and do a full deployment.”

Holdman refers to a baby that was surrendered recently in Michigan City, placed in a box located at one of the volunteer fire departments.

“The doctors thought that maybe it was just an hour old,” he adds. “DCS took custody of the child and the child has been placed in a foster home, with plans to have it adopted. We were pretty excited about it. We feel it’s the right move, if there’s anything we can do to save a life rather than a child end up in a dumpster or a garbage can.”

Indiana’s Safe Haven law allows anyone to give up a newborn to a doctor, hospital or fire department without any questions or identification required.

“We still think there’s hesitancy on mothers’ parts to do that, because they didn’t necessarily even want to see someone when they relinquish the child,” Holdman says, “so this gives them the ability to do it without disclosing their identity whatsoever.”

Most other bills this session will be submitted for fixes to the intended legislation or cleanup of language, he adds.

All three legislators say the session may end early, perhaps by the end of February, due to the lack of major issues and also because this is not a year in which the General Assembly must address a budget. The final day of the session is currently set for March 14.