Local representatives take on state’s biggest issues

The future of Indiana’s roads and the fate of the state’s standardized testing system were top priorities at the first Bartholomew County Third House meeting of the 2016 legislative session.

Nearly every chair in the Cal Brand meeting room of Columbus’ City Hall was filled Monday as a crowd of about 60 people gathered to hear what three area legislators had to say about issues being considered in the Indiana General Assembly. Participants included state Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, and Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, whose district includes the communities of Hope and Hartsville in northeastern Bartholomew County.

Locally elected state lawmakers have been attending the Third House meetings with constituents for more than 45 years, the longest running Third House session in the state, said Cindy Frey, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the meetings.

Chief among the Republican legislators’ priorities is passing a bill that funds continued improvements to the state’s infrastructure system. The state’s infrastructure fund is dwindling, so lawmakers are scrambling to find money to complete road improvement projects.

Three different ideas for generating funds for road improvements have been presented so far this session, Eberhart said.

House Bill 1001 proposes raising the gasoline tax from 18 cents to 22 cents and using the additional revenues — an estimated $280 million — to fund infrastructure improvements.

However, Republican Gov. Mike Pence is not supporting that proposal. Instead of raising the gas tax, Pence said in his State of the State address earlier this month that he wants to use money from the state’s reserves to fund road work.

“I think when you have money in the bank and the best credit rating in America, the last place you should look to pay for roads and bridges is the wallets and pocketbooks of hardworking Hoosiers,” Pence said during the address.

From his perspective, Smith said the gasoline tax should be rebranded as a road user fee. He would support using funds collected from the user fee to pay for road work.

Smith also has proposed his own solution to the road funding problem — House Bill 1131, which would create a supplemental motor fuel tax.

Smith’s proposal would change the gas tax based on the overall cost at the pump. The scale for his tax proposal would be:

  • Gas is less than $1.55: supplemental tax would be 10 cents
  • Gas is at least $1.55 but less than $2: supplemental tax would be 7 cents
  • Gas is at least $2 but less than $2.50: supplemental tax would be 5 cents
  • Gas is at least $2.50 but less than $3: supplemental tax would be 3 cents
  • Gas is at least $3 but less than $3.50: supplemental tax would be 1 cent
  • Gas is at least $3.50: supplement tax would be zero

However, Smith said his proposal has gotten no traction so far this session.

Outside of the gas tax, lawmakers also are considering raising the cigarette tax to pay for road work.

Right now, consumers pay a 99.5 cent tax on a pack of cigarettes, but the House Republican’s proposal is to raise that tax by $1.

Stephanie Womack, who attended the Third House meeting on behalf of the tobacco control program of Columbus Regional Health’s Reach Healthy Communities, said about 23 percent of Hoosier adults are smokers, so her group would support raising the cigarette tax to cut down on statewide tobacco use.

Growing up, Smith said he has vivid memories of listening to his parents coughing because of their tobacco use, so he also would support raising the cigarette tax.

The extra money generated from the higher tax would go into the state’s Medicaid fund. That would free up money in the general fund that was previously used to pay for Medicaid to instead be used for infrastructure projects, Smith said.

“It’s kind of a user tax,” Smith said. “If you’re going to smoke, you should be paying for the Medicaid cost.”

Eberhart, however, said he is only lukewarm to the idea of increasing the cigarette tax.

The House also is discussing the possibility of adding additional lanes to state interstates for toll roads, which could generate funds for infrastructure improvements, Smith said.

“There are some tough choices we’re going to have to discuss,” Eberhart said.

The final road funding bill comes out of the Senate, where lawmakers are proposing using $430 million in local option income tax revenues to pay for road projects, Walker said.

Walker acknowledged that House and Senate members are lukewarm to the road propositions from the opposing legislative body, so a compromise will not be found quickly.

“That will come down to the wire,” he said.

Education issues

Aside from infrastructure funding, the Republican lawmakers touted their recent success in passing two education bills that will not penalize teachers or schools for results of the 2015 ISTEP+ exam, which showed a dramatic drop in scores across the state.

The legislation, which Pence signed into law last week, would allow schools to take the better of their 2014 or 2015 school letter grades. The bills also do not tie teacher pay to results of the 2015 test.

However, local education leaders still are calling for further education reform at the state level, a call the lawmakers say they are working to answer.

John Quick, superintendent of Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., advocated a total end to the ISTEP exam, a position widely shared by most Indiana legislators.

The difficulty, however, lies in finding a way to replace the exam. The state would lose about $300 million in federal education funds if it does not administer a statewide standardized test each year.

The state recently signed a contract with Pearson, which will administer ISTEP for the next two years.

However, Quick said a change in test vendor does not mean a change in test content. Students will essentially be re-taking the 2015 exam this year, he said.

In lieu of the traditional standardized testing system, Quick advocated for making the switch to the ACT, which offers assessments for elementary school students as well as the commonly known college entrance exam. The results of those formative exams would be applicable not only across the state, but across the country, Quick said.

Locally, making that switch would save the state thousands of dollars. Currently, about $320,000 is invested in BCSC to pay for ISTEP, but the cost of the ACT would only run in the $10,000s.

Additionally, Quick called for multiple school accountability measures at the elementary school level, rather than relying solely on the state standardized test to track school performance.

For example, Quick said the state could measure a school’s safety, attendance rates, community service and other measures to determine its overall performance.

Smith said conversations about education reform would be ongoing for several years until lawmakers can find a solution that is fair to educators.

LGBT discussion

The Third House meeting also included limited discussion about changes to the state’s civil rights law.

LGBT advocates have been calling for an amendment to the state’s civil rights code that would add protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers.

Republican lawmakers, however, have been working to find a compromise that would expand LGBT protections while also providing certain exemptions for religious beliefs.

Rather than adding specific LGBT protections, Smith advocated for finding an overarching solution that would prevent all forms of discrimination against all Indiana residents.

“When we add another protection, who are we leaving out?” Smith said.

All bills must make it out of their committees by Thursday in order to move forward, Eberhart said. Based on the continuing debates, he said he is not sure if lawmakers will meet that deadline on an LGBT bill, so a resolution on the issue could be delayed another year.

Third House times

Third House sessions are hosted every Monday starting at 7:30 a.m. in the Cal Brand meeting room of Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St., and will run through March 7.

If Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. closes school due to weather, Third House will not convene. If there is a 2-hour delay, the session will begin at its regular time.

Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, has a committee meeting that conflicts with the Third House meetings, so when he is able to attend Third House, it may not be for the whole session.

Where to find bills

To read the full versions of the bills discussed in Third House, or any other bill in the General Assembly, visit iga.in.gov/legislative. Under the search tab, use numbers, key words/phrases or names of legislators to locate the bills.

How to reach lawmakers

To contact Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, or Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, who represents the northeastern part of Bartholomew County, call their Statehouse office at 800-382-9841. Smith’s local district office phone number is 812-372-2121, and Eberhart’s local district office phone number is 317-232-9793.

To contact Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, call his Statehouse office at 800-382-9467 or 317-232-9984.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.