Legislators say budget to be biggest challenge as ‘long’ session starts

The “long” legislative session convenes today at the Indiana Statehouse, and the three legislators representing Huntington County say it’s the budget that will prove to be the biggest challenge, as lawmakers struggle to balance it while making provisions for other important issues.

State Rep. Dan Leonard (R), who represents District 50, says he just hopes to be able to get through the session during a budget year, balancing what he calls a “fairly tight budget.”

“The governor actually took reversions and funded DCS (Department of Child Services) $286 million more this past year,” Leonard said, “and their budget request is for the $286 million more.”

Leonard says he gets the feeling that the state will receive more revenue this year, about $350 million, he estimates.

“But when you take the $286 (million) out and then the increase in Medicaid, which is going to be about another $75 (million), it’s totally shot the $350,” he says.

Leonard says that scenario doesn’t leave any funding for education, and teachers need salary increases from the state. That will be an issue for debate, he says.

“If we’re going to do even, say, a 2 percent increase in funding for schools, it will have to come from somewhere,” he adds.

Leonard will likely be busier than other legislators, serving as subcommittee chairman for local government on the Local Government Finance Subcommittee of House Ways and Means. He is also on the Judiciary Committee and Labor and Employment Committee, and will chair the House Rules and Legislative Procedures Committee, which he describes as a sizable undertaking.

“It involves reading every bill, reading every amendment offered to every bill and it’s a pretty extensive chairmanship. And I’m new at it,” he says. “I’ll be carrying the agency bill for both the Department of Local Government Finance and also the Department of Workforce Development. So I’m hoping to get through it.”

State Sen. Andy Zay (R), who represents District 17, also sees education as an important issue for this next session.

“It’s important – maybe more important than it ever has been – to get the dollars back to our schools so they can better fund our teachers and give an increase to teacher salaries,” he says. “There’s been a lot of consternation about that, whether the state should be involved in that or whether we should leave that responsibility to our school boards. I firmly believe that belongs in our local communities with our school boards to negotiate those contracts and be intimately involved in setting teacher pay scales, but we need to be their partner in that in making sure we get those funds to them.”

The senator says other important issues this session involve infrastructure and also workforce development legislation, which he says is an ongoing challenge in the next several years in Indiana, as the state seeks solutions to retrain older employees to work upcoming skilled jobs and transition high school graduates to the workforce. Zay says 100,000 jobs are now waiting to be filled in the Hoosier state, with projections climbing to a million in the next several years.

“A big piece of that is keeping them home, working with our institutions of higher ed., working with our K through 12 schools and making sure that students coming out of those facilities understand the opportunity that’s available,” he adds.

Zay also plans to introduce two bills this session, one called “Care Portal” – a program working with faith-based ministries and not-for-profit industries in standing beside DCS case managers to meet simple needs in a case that churches or non-profit agencies can provide, rather than go through the court system.

The second bill would bring health clinics into schools and enable school corporations to provide broader access to medical and mental health needs. It would present the opportunity to capture federal Medicaid funds and put them to work in schools, he says.

Zay’s committees include Utilities Insurance and Financial Institutions (ranking member), Commerce and Technology and Environment.

Sen. Travis Holdman (R), representing District 19, says besides working on the balanced budget challenge, he plans to introduce eight or nine tax bills, several of them “cleanup” measures to reflect changes in the economy.

“We review all the tax incentives on a rotating basis, and we’ve got I think seven or eight coming up this time which, most of them have not been used very much,” he explains. “We try to be wise about how much we give away based on tax incentives.”

Holdman also has a bill for a school safety levy, which would allow a school corporation to have a 5-cent referendum on the current tax rate.

The levy would allow corporations to fund school safety measures such as hiring school security and resource officers as well as mental health counselors.

“Some of them are using dollars already out of their regular operating account, but this would allow them extra funding to help supplement what they’re doing already,” he adds.

Holdman’s committees include Senate Committee on Tax and Fiscal Policy (chairman), Senate Committee on Appropriations and Rules and Legislative Procedure.

Other issues coming before lawmakers this year include sports gaming, a hate crimes bill, and jail reform.

The current session is expected to last until late April. By law, legislators must conclude the session no later than April 29. Standing committee hearings, which typically occur at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, can be viewed live online at iga.in.gov. This site also provides committee calendars and meeting agendas.