A Columbus woman’s plea to reinstall a cap on what is already one of the nation’s largest school voucher programs received a strong show of support at Monday’s Third House legislative session at Columbus City Hall.

Approved by state lawmakers in 2011, the voucher program attracted about 3,900 students in its first year. However, it has now grown to more than 32,000 children, according to a Dec. 26 story in the Washington Post.

While the program was originally touted as an opportunity for low-income children to escape failing schools, Columbus resident Vickie Ranson said half of the voucher money is now going to students that have never stepped foot in a public school.

“It seems like a runaway train to me because there’s no cap,” said Ranson, whose comments received a strong round of applause from the 45 people in attendance.

Ranson also suggested to State Rep. Milo Smith and State Sen. Greg Walker, both Columbus Republicans, that the General Assembly hold off on voucher expansion until after the University of Notre Dame completes an evaluation of the current program late this year.

Walker said the proposed voucher expansion may have actually been attached to House Bill 1004, which expands funding for pre-kindergarten initiatives, by the bill’s opponents.

“It may be this was a roadblock for pre-K,” Walker said.

While Walker said he doesn’t expect voucher expansion to survive the legislative process this year, the senator said 96.5 percent of education funding still goes to public schools.

“That’s a good number in my book,” Walker said.

Cold beer sales

News that two Ricker’s convenience stores, including the one on 25th Street in Columbus, were selling cold beer and liquor became a larger-than-expected topic at the Statehouse last week, Walker said.

While Walker said he could support legislation that would stop other convenience stores from doing the same thing, he doesn’t think he can support any effort against the Ricker’s outlets in Columbus and Sheridan that already have the liquor license.

“Ricker’s did everything above board in applying for the license, and I don’t think anyone was deceived,” Walker said. “To take away what is a valid operating license seems to me to be an overreaction.”

Smith, however, contends that service counters that separate the alcoholic drinks from the public don’t comply with state law. Smith also said he is worried other conveniences stores will attempt to follow Ricker’s lead.

“If (the law) isn’t changed, we could have 30 more carry-out liquor stores in Columbus,” Smith said.

Online sales tax

With Indiana currently missing out on collecting $250 million to $400 million in sales tax from out-of-state online retailers, Smith has become a vocal supporter of Senate Bill 545.

Authored by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, the measure requires online retailers without a physical presence in Indiana to collect sales tax if they receive more than $100,000 in revenue annually from Indiana — or engage in more than 200 separate transactions with Hoosier customers.

Since retailers with brick-and-mortar stores have to charge 7 percent more than their online competitors, that’s not a level playing field, Smith said.

The six-term lawmaker said he believes that’s one reason JCPenney announced March 17 it would close its store in FairOaks Mall, among 138 Penney’s stores nationwide, by the end of June.

After pointing out that states are coming up with different solutions to address online sales tax issue, Walker advocated for Congress to take up the issue in order to create a national uniform policy.

But since such proposals have long failed to get any traction on Capitol Hill, it’s up to the states to pass their own legislation on collecting online sales taxes, Smith said.

It is only when differences in state policies become a nuisance that Congress will be motivated to finally address the issue, Smith said.

School prayer

A bill that originally would have mandated time for public prayer during assemblies, sports competitions and other school events, was brought up by Columbus resident Mary Kohen.

With acts against the Muslim and Jewish communities on the rise, Kohen said she doesn’t believe the timing is right for House Bill 1024, Kohen said.

She also claimed she heard a state lawmaker describe Buddhism as “some crazy stuff” that Hoosiers need to avoid during a conference hearing last week. However, she was unable to give that lawmaker’s full name.

Although the measure authored by State Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, was passed by the House, the bill underwent substantial changes last week in the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development.

Instead of mandating time for public prayer, the amended bill now affirms students’ rights to wear religious clothing or jewelry. The measure also allows students to voluntarily pray or engage in religious activities during school.

Clock ticking

Less than four weeks remain in the 2017 Indiana General Assembly session, which is required to approve the state’s biennial budget.  Unless lawmakers choose to extend the session, the state legislature will adjourn no later than April 22.

Third House sessions, sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, are held every Monday morning while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. The 7:30 a.m. meetings in the Cal Brand MeetingRroom at Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St., allow residents to learn where their representatives stand on matters before the state legislature.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.