Legislators tout progress on legislation, budget process

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HANCOCK COUNTY — As the Indiana General Assembly passed the halfway point of its session, Hancock County legislators said they are happy with what they’ve been able to accomplish.

The Greenfield Area Chamber of Commerce held a legislative update meeting on Tuesday, March 2, where members heard — virtually — from Sen. Mike Crider and Rep. Bob Cherry, both R-Greenfield, about how the session has gone so far. Both said it has been a successful one despite the unusual circumstances.

“It’s been an odd-feeling session,” Crider acknowledged, with restrictions in place like witnesses needing to testify remotely from a separate room during committee hearings. “…As a committee chair, it’s a little bit awkward.”

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Crider said the process overall has been productive and even bipartisan — 92% of bills passed by the Senate had bipartisan support, he said, and 52% were passed unanimously.

Bills had a deadline last week to be approved in their house of origin. Those that passed out of the House and Senate are now in the opposite chamber.

The Daily Reporter spoke with each of the four legislators representing Hancock County about their thoughts on how the session has gone so far and how successful their legislative priorities have been.

Mike Crider: Focus on mental health

Because of the need to complete a state budget during this session and the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, state senators were limited to introducing 10 bills. Crider introduced nine; of those, seven passed the House, and the two others were not considered because bills with similar language had passed, Crider said.

Crider’s bills mostly focused on issues he has prioritized in the past, like mental health and domestic violence. Bills that passed the Senate include one that would increase the penalty for domestic violence cases involving strangulation; one that would require more training for law enforcement officers who deal with sexual assault victims; and one that would allow more health care workers to diagnose mental health problems.

The Senate is currently considering the budget, with a House version already completed. Senators will hear from state agencies about their financial needs beginning next week. Ultimately, both houses of the legislature will meet to reconcile their visions for the state budget.

Crider said he is concerned about one area of the House’s budget: cuts to funding for mental health services. He hopes to see those dollars restored in the final version.

House Bill 1001, the comprehensive state budget bill, cuts $26 million from mental health services. Cuts include funding for treatment of serious mental illnesses, addiction treatment, and the Recovery Works program, which is designed to assist incarcerated people with mental health problems. The advocacy organization Mental Health America of Indiana has condemned the cuts, saying Hoosiers need these programs more than ever amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, Crider said, he is impressed with how the legislature has adapted to lawmaking in the era of COVID-19. Some anticipated that meeting in person would lead to outbreaks of the virus, he said, but so far that hasn’t happened.

“We have, up to this point, stayed healthy and we’ve gotten quite a few things done,” he said.

Bob Cherry: ‘Money should follow the kids’

Cherry said he put most of his focus this year on the budget process, rather than individual pieces of legislation. Many important items are included in the budget, he said, including a new magistrate position for Hancock County, which he originally advanced as a separate bill and which he expects to receive easy approval from the Senate.

The budget, Cherry said, prioritizes several of his major concerns, including infrastructure, Medicaid funding, and paying off bonds that will free up more money for the state in the future.

He also praised the budget for expanding Indiana’s school choice program, often referred to as vouchers, but said he wasn’t happy with the method the current version chose for doing it.

“I think the poverty level was increased too much and too many people may be eligible for it,” he said, referring to income thresholds

Cherry said he supports public schools, which he attended and sent his children to, but believes parents who aren’t happy with their public schools should have the choice to send their children elsewhere.

“I believe the money should follow the kids,” he said. “We’re not funding the schools, we’re funding the kids.”

Another bill on education Cherry filed did pass the House. House Bill 1186 would change current rules that financially penalize school corporations when students graduate early. The legislation would allow early graduates to be included in student counts in the second half of the year, providing additional funding to the corporation. Cherry said he expects the bill to pass the Senate as well.

Next session, Cherry said, he hopes to reintroduce a bill that did not advance this time around calling for a member representing affected school districts to be added to boards for tax-increment financing districts.

Sean Eberhart: ‘On a good path’

Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, said he is pleased that the House has completed a balanced budget that includes increases in funding for law enforcement and for K-12 education.

Eberhart said that because of the unusual challenges the legislature was facing this session, he chose to only file two bills. One, House Bill 1224, would legalize the sale of craft hemp flower. The state law currently bans the growth and sale of what it defines as “smokable hemp,” although it lacks the active component found in marijuana, THC. The other, House Bill 1395, is the annual bill to fund the state’s natural resources management.

Both bills passed the House, and Eberhart said he expects them each to have a hearing in the Senate in upcoming weeks.

Eberhart said legislators have dealt well with the session’s challenges, and that he hopes aspects of the House’s normal procedure can return as more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I think we’re on a good path,” he said.

Chris Jeter: Learning the ropes

Rep. Chris Jeter, R-Fishers, is serving his first full term in the House, which means participating in his first budget session. Although Republicans hold a large majority of the seats in the House, he said, that doesn’t mean they all have the same priorities, but he is generally happy with the areas that were prioritized in the budget, including education and infrastructure.

“I’m really impressed with the way the House handles the budget process,” Jeter said.

As a freshman legislator, Jeter said, he is still learning about the process and introduced a limited number of bills this year. One of them, House Bill 1293, amends the law so that an order granting a motion to discharge a defendant before trial may be appealed to the supreme court or the court of appeals. The bill is now being considered by the Senate. Jeter said the bill, which was relatively non-controversial, was a good one for him to become accustomed to House procedure.

Jeter also introduced House Bill 1189, which would enhance the penalty for killing a law enforcement animal to a level 4 felony, punishable by up to 12 years in prison. Currently, the offense carries a maximum penalty of one year. The bill, which Jeter said was inspired by the killing of a Fishers police dog, did not make it out of committee. He said he hopes to reintroduce it next session.

“Even just the money that’s spent on training, that alone warrants a higher punishment,” Jeter said.

Overall, Jeter said, his first session has left him feeling positively about his House colleagues and the state’s future.

“I think the priorities you’ve seen out of the caucus this year are solid, and I think they reflect a state that’s doing well,” he said.

Redistricting on hold

The legislature needs to complete two main tasks this year: passing a state budget and drawing a new map of districts for the state legislative and congressional districts. Both were intended to be completed during the regular session. The budget will be, but the redistricting process has hit a snag due to delays in receiving census results. The population data from the 2020 census is needed to complete the redistricting process.

The date by which legislators can expect to receive the data from the federal government has been pushed back several times. Crider said the latest date he has heard is in September. The legislature will need to reconvene for a special session in order to create the maps.

Crider said he is concerned about the late date; 50% of state Senate seats and all state House seats, come up for a vote in 2022. With primary elections scheduled for May of 2022, a later redistricting process means less time for candidates to decide whether they want to run considering the new boundaries of their districts. It’s also conceivable that some lawmakers will find themselves drawn completely out of their current district.

“It’s going to be a pretty big deal to get that thing finalized,” he said.

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Controversial bill that would have rolled back regulation of building standards dies without a vote in House. Page A5

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