Local legislators say recent state session was a good one

(From left) Dan Leonard, Jim Banks and Travis Holdman.
(From left) Dan Leonard, Jim Banks and Travis Holdman. Photos provided.

Originally published March 21, 2016.

Indiana’s recent legislative session was a good one, legislators representing Huntington County say, with cooperation transcending party lines in order to get the state’s business done.

Rep. Dan Leonard (R-Huntington) says the session, which ended with a late evening session on March 10, was a productive one, with the $1 billion road funding bill, ISTEP testing, veterans’ benefits and the fight against methamphetamine at the top of the list in accomplishments.

“A big portion of the legislation that was passed was bi-partisan, and I’m happy about that,” he says.

Road funding
With a House bill (HB 1001), a Senate bill (SB 67) and separate proposals from Gov. Mike Pence and Indiana Democrats, lawmakers had the task of coming up with one road funding bill that everyone would accept. It passed on the last day of the session in a bi-partisan effort.

“As normally happens, there were differences of opinions, and we came together toward the end of the session in what I think was a very good compromise,” Leonard says. “We’re going to come back next year during a budget year, and put together a long-term fix for road funding.”

Leonard says Indiana has had a problem with road maintenance, which the General Assembly needs to address.

“We’ve built roads, and built roads, and built roads, and we have a great infrastructure, but it’s starting to deteriorate, and we just need to keep it up if we’re going to be competitive,” he adds.

Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Markle) and Sen. Jim Banks (R-Columbia City) agree that the road-funding bill was the biggest issue tackled by the legislature this session, and its biggest accomplishment.

“Had we not gotten that finished, there was all indication that there would have been a special session called by the governor to get that done,” says Holdman, who co-authored the bill. “It is a substantial increase in local road funding.”

The law will provide state and local road funding over the next two years with no state tax increases and no new state debt. The money will come from excess state and local reserves and by dedicating 1.5 cents from the existing 7-cent gasoline sales tax to roads.

Huntington County’s share of the road fund pot will be $2,661,690, broken down as:

• County — $1,019,663.

• Cities and towns — $1,313,052.

• Townships — $55,200.

• School corporation — $123,886.

• Libraries — $128,580.

• Special units — $21,309.

Banks says the bill provides funding for only two years and the issue will not go away soon. A study is planned this summer to look at putting a permanent road-funding mechanism in place.

“It will be a big part of the budget discussion next year,” he says.

ISTEP reform
Getting rid of the ISTEP test for Hoosier schoolchildren was also a major issue before the General Assembly. It was the first bill that the legislature sent to Pence for his signature, moving through both the House and Senate in record time.

“Everybody knows that it’s just been a problem, year after year after year,” Leonard says. “We proposed just doing away with it and coming up on a different type of test totally.”

At the beginning of the last session, most schools used the results of the ISTEP to calculate teacher effectiveness.

“It affects their pay,” Leonard explains. “So the first thing we did when we got here was pass, within about three weeks — I’ve never seen that done before — we passed a bill out of the House and out of the Senate (HB 1003, SB 200) and the governor signed it into law that school corporations were not to use the ISTEP test as a means to judge teachers, because it was just a bad, flawed test this past year.”

Leonard says he was amazed by how quickly lawmakers acted on the issue, saying that both Republicans and Democrats knew it needed to be fixed and worked together.

“I think that was also one of the best things we did this session,” he adds.

Banks, who served on the Education Committee, says the bill, which featured a “hold harmless” provision of the law for schools and teachers related to what he called “the ISTEP fiasco,” was the product of multi-level cooperation.

“That was the first piece of education legislation I remember in six years that’s related to education to where all the different sides — the legislature, legislative leaders from both parties, the superintendent of public instruction, the governor and a lot of different groups like the principals’ association, superintendents’ association — everybody came to the table together and agreed it was the right path forward,” he says.

Banks adds that the legislature created a committee that will conduct a study this summer to determine what will replace ISTEP.

“I’m sure that will be a discussion next year as well. Education dominates so much of what we do in the legislature, as it should, as over half of our state budget goes toward K-12 education,” he says. “I know that that will remain a priority. I’m sure next year will be full of issues like that.”

Tax relief for farmers
Another new bill, SB 308, provides property tax relief for farmers (SB 308). The bill eliminates the use of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 soil productivity factors, uses the most recent data available to determine the base rate for farmland assessment and changes the formula to limit the volatility in farmland property taxes.

Another bill headed to the governor’s desk directs the state board of animal health to issue a limited permit to farmers for slaughtering or preparing meat.

“If you butcher less than 1,000 chickens a year, you are totally unregulated but you are not allowed to sell them to, like, a restaurant or any type of food preparer,” Leonard explains. “Then there’s kind of a middle ground for small producers. If you butcher less than 20,000, you can get a waiver from the federal government and the Indiana Board of Health.”

The Indiana Board of Animal Health can then oversee the slaughtering process.

Leonard says Pete Eshelman of Roanoke’s Joseph Decuis Restaurant came to the statehouse and worked with the Department of Agriculture to form the new law.

“I think it’s going to be good for everybody. Again, it’s another win-win type situation and this session was really full of those,” Leonard adds.

Biggest  accomplishments
As the House Subcommittee Chair of Local Government on the Ways and Means Committee, Leonard says his biggest accomplishment this past session was HB 1273, which makes it easier for local governments to work with the state and the Department of Local Government Finance.

“There were a couple of bills that I think will help the Department of Local Government out and counties out,” he says. “The Association of Counties was very happy with some of the things that were in it and the Department of Local Government Finance was happy. So, usually, that’s a pretty good indication that we may be working in the right direction.”

Unemployment insurance reform is another accomplishment that Leonard says he’s proud of. That bill, HB 1344, dissolved the Indiana Unemployment Compensation Board and transferred its duties to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

“Through all of the (economic) downturn when we were working on trying to shore up the trust fund, and we ended up borrowing $2.2 billion from the federal government, the board of directors was nowhere to be seen,” Leonard says. “The department now reports quarterly to the budget committee, and this summer, we’re going to … study putting together some type of board or committee to oversee that trust fund. It needs to be people who have some kind of fiscal sense.”

Holdman says his abortion-related bill was his biggest accomplishment of the session. The bill, SB 313, jointly authored by Holdman and Sen. Liz Brown, along with HB 1337 make it a crime to sell or transfer fetal tissue. Holdman says the remains must be cremated or interred, with the exception of a case requiring an autopsy.

In addition, the bill outlaws abortions done solely because of the unborn baby’s race, sex, ancestry or disability.

“We’re being told that that’s going on,” Holdman explains. “Families will say, ‘We wanted a boy,’ but the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl. We’ll take care of that for you if you want us to.’ If that’s the sole reason for the abortion, it (the new law) makes it illegal for doctors to do that.”

Other bills Holdman sees as significant include a new law (SB 67) allowing cities with a population larger than 10,000 to pass their own wheel tax.

“(Previously) the county would have to adopt a wheel tax for a city to get the benefit of the wheel tax,” Holdman says. “But the new law will allow cities to make that decision on their own.”

Another bill (SB 80) co-authored by Holdman seeks to reduce the number of meth labs in Indiana by allowing pharmacists to block ephedrine sales if they don’t think the customer has a legitimate medical need for the medicine.

“It does not require a prescription to get pseudoephedrine unless you are a convicted drug dealer,” Holdman said. “If the pharmacist knows you, the pharmacist or his assistant can enter you as a patient, and if they’re convinced of your honest deeds then they can fill the prescription or sell the pseudoephedrine over the counter to the patient.”

Banks says his legislation affecting Hoosier veterans is no doubt his biggest accomplishment in the past session, noted that he devoted considerable time to either authoring or sponsoring several bills in support of veterans’ benefits. Those bills include:

• SB 145, which allows funeral directors to turn over unclaimed cremated remains of verified veterans to veterans’ service organizations to be placed in a state or national cemetery.

• SB 295, which expands the Indiana Military Family Relief Fund (MFRF) by opening up the fund to any veteran of any national conflict or war who is also an Indiana resident and a current or honorably discharged member of the armed forces or National Guard. This bill also creates a place on state income-tax forms to enable taxpayers to donate all or part of their refund to the MFRF. Veterans may apply for the grant through the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs.

“It’s that, more than any other bill, I’m most proud of working on, and authoring and passing through the legislature,” Banks says. “When the fund was created, it was devoted to only post-9/11 veterans. We’ve expanded the eligibility twice during the time I’ve been in the legislature, before this time, but it still remained only accessible to post-9/11 veterans. So for the first time … it would open up that funding for one-time grants to veterans in need … to all veterans who served during wartime or a conflict.

“I think most importantly of the Vietnam-era veterans, who are now Senior citizens. That era of veterans has a number of veterans that I’ve met as a state senator in times of need. Now they’ll be able to access a $2,000 or $2,500 grant to pay their bills.”

Banks adds the MFRF is funded through the purchase of military license plates and no tax dollars will be used to fund the grants.

• SB 362, which extends the rights, benefits and protections found in the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to members of the Indiana National Guard who live in another state during a state-sponsored activation.

• HB 1089, which requires the Indiana Veterans’ Affairs Commission to submit an annual review to the governor and Legislative Council on the welfare of Indiana’s veterans. The bill also urges the Legislative Council to study the issue of district service officers.

• HB 1271, which requires the Department of Child Services to notify the Department of Defense Family Advocacy Program if a child of an active-duty military member is the subject of a substantiated investigation of abuse or neglect.

• HB 1313, which redefines a “Hoosier Veteran” in Indiana code when in reference to certain veteran programs. The definition includes that a Hoosier veteran must be a resident of Indiana, have served in a branch of the armed forces and not have been dishonorably discharged. The bill also requires state agencies with programs for veterans and the Veterans’ Affairs Commission to update to the new definition.

As of press time, most bills that were passed in the General Assembly still awaited the governor’s signature. Pence has seven days to sign or veto a bill. If he does not sign it, it automatically becomes law on the eighth day after receipt.

To view details and actions on all the bills from this past legislative session go online to the Indiana General Assembly’s website, iga.in.gov.