Two Republicans challenge incumbent for GOP District 59 nomination

Difficult discussions about road funding, standardized testing and LGBT Hoosiers could face one of three Republican candidates vying for the District 59 House seat if they are elected to serve in the Statehouse.

Incumbent Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, is running against former Bartholomew County Council president Ryan Lauer and Bartholomew County assessor Lew Wilson to win the Republican nomination for the District 59 House seat.

The three candidates will face off in the May 3 Republican primary. The upcoming election will be a rematch for Smith and Lauer, who ran against each other in 2014.

Lawmakers spent much of the 2016 session discussing solutions to the state’s dwindling infrastructure funds, the ISTEP+ standardized test and extending protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers, with legislators pledging to bring those issues back in 2017.

Throughout the debate over LGBT rights, Smith has said he favors a more comprehensive approach to anti-discrimination legislation that ensures all Hoosiers are protected from discrimination.

While Lauer said he does not believe in any form of discrimination, he also said he would not support legislation that infringes on citizens’ rights to freedom of religion, a major sticking point of the ongoing civil rights debate. He also said governments should have a limited role in defining relationships.

Wilson said emotions surrounding LGBT issues were running high this year, so tabling the issue for next year’s session was a good idea.

Lawmakers were also divided this year over the best way to generate funds for statewide infrastructure projects.

Smith had been a proponent of the House’s plan to raise the gas tax by 4 cents a gallon to generate about $280 million in road funding revenue, a plan that was ultimately rejected in the General Assembly this year, but will likely be revived for discussion again next year. The higher tax should be viewed as a user fee drivers must pay to travel on Indiana roads, Smith said.

Smith also authored House Bill 1131, which would have incrementally increased the supplemental gas tax based on the price at the pump to a maximum of 10 cents if prices were below $1.55. However, that bill did not receive any traction in the General Assembly.

Additionally, Smith co-authored House Bill 1110 this session. That bill proposed lowering the amount of local option income tax (LOIT) revenues the state keeps in reserves to 15 percent and releasing the funds to local governments to use for whatever purpose they see fit, including road projects.

Legislators chose to adopt the reduction in LOIT revenue reserves into Senate Bill 67, which was part of the larger road funding package passed by the General Assembly.

Wilson also is a proponent of using additional gas tax revenues to fund road improvement projects. The assessor said he would not support any bill that lowers the gas tax as prices at the pump rise.

But Lauer is a staunch opponent of any gas tax increase, especially Smith’s idea to incrementally increase it based on gas prices, because he does not believe that is a conservative approach to raising infrastructure revenues.

Instead, Lauer favors using money in the state’s $2 billion reserves as a cash infusion to kick-start infrastructure repairs and improvements.

The General Assembly approved an infrastructure plan that taps into the state reserves while also promising to study a longer-term funding solution next session.

Lauer has proposed his own 10-year plan for road work that deals with the challenge of maintaining safer roads. As the former county council president, Lauer said he has a good understanding of the struggles the county and city of Columbus are facing in keeping up with road and bridge repairs.

Finally, lawmakers next session will re-visit the issue of creating a statewide standardized test as they prepare to completely phase out the current ISTEP exam at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

A 22-member task force consisting of education professionals such as teachers, administrators and testing experts was created to study over the summer the best way to replace ISTEP.

Smith said lawmakers should rely on the recommendations of the task force to adopt a new streamlined test that is accurate, timely and effective.

Wilson said he believes the state has taken too much control of the testing process and should allow school corporations to decide on their own how and when standardized tests will be administered. He also said state officials should place less emphasis on test results and should instead trust the judgment of school boards and administrators.

Lauer is also in favor of bringing together a panel to study ISTEP. He is advocating for teachers to have access to students’ scores and continual progress, shorter testing time frames and lessening the burden teachers bear from the pressure of standardized tests.

Aside from the Republican candidates, Democrats Bob Pitman and Dale Nowlin are also running in the May primary for the Democratic nomination for the District 59 seat.

Lauer bio

Age: 38

Party: Republican

Current occupation: Senior engineer in test technology engineering at Cummins, Inc.

Education: Indiana University-Bloomington, bachelor of science, biochemistry

Previous elected offices held: Bartholomew County, 2011 to 2014

Previous elected offices sought: Bartholomew County Council (2010, successful); District 59 representative (2014, unsuccessful)

Community involvement: Member/chairman of Grace Lutheran Church congregation; Sheriff’s Merit Board; Community Corrections Advisory Committee; Computer and Data Board; UnCommon Cause; “Save Eos” campaign

Family: Wife, Blair; daughters, Awyn and Lillian

Smith bio

Age: 65

Party: Republican

Current occupation: Tax Consultant, Inc. – owner and operator

Education: IUPUC

Previous elected offices held: District 59 representative (2006-present)

Previous elected offices sought: District 59 representative (successful)

Community involvement: First Christian Church elder; Family School Partners advisory board

Family: Wife, Diane; Four grown children, Chris, Melissa, Lauren, Abby

Wilson bio

Age: 69

Party: Republican

Current occupation: Bartholomew County assessor

Education: Milligan College (Elizabethton, Tennessee)

Previous elected offices held: Bartholomew County assessor, since 2011

Previous elected offices sought: Bartholomew County assessor Р2006 (unsuccessful), 2010 (successful), 2014 (successful)

Community involvement: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints member, counselor to the Bishop; Boy Scout Troop 566; Mill Race Center member; Bartholomew County Right to Life board member; Pregnancy Care Center volunteer

Family: Wife, Bettie; four children.

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