Full plate in final week

70 bills remain, includes gas tax, ISTEP replacement

The Indiana House and Senate each have nearly 70 bills to consider during the Indiana General Assembly’s final week, visitors to the final Third House session of the season learned Monday in Columbus.

A new gas tax and the replacement of the ISTEP test are among surviving bills remaining in play, said State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus.

But a measure that would make Indiana’s elected schools superintendent a position appointed by the governor will likely die this week, Smith said.

“Over the past 44 years, that position has only had a Democrat for four years,” Smith said. “So what’s the big deal?”

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House Speaker Brian Bosma has suggested that he’s also not in a rush to make the change, the Columbus lawmaker said.

Budget

The most important chore during the final days of the state legislature will be the passage of a two-year, $32 billion budget, Smith told about 35 people at Columbus City Hall.As of Monday, the House and Senate were still far apart on some key tax provisions, especially whether cigarette taxes should be raised by $1 a pack, The Associated Press reported.

Supporters want the cigarette tax increase to fill a funding gap that will be created if a proposal to use all current sales taxes on fuel purchases for infrastructure improvements is approved.

Although the Senate made changes earlier this month that would spread a gas tax increase to five additional cents a gallon annually over the next two years, Smith said it might still revert later this week back to 10 cents a gallon all at once in July.

A Senate proposal that would add a $5.25 surcharge on every tire purchased in Indiana no longer has Smith’s support. A new concern he expressed Monday is that the surcharge could hurt tire retailers located in communities near state borders, he said.

That proposal has also received a cool reception in the Senate, said State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus.

Despite the differences, Smith said he still believes the budget will be passed before Friday’s anticipated adjournment — especially after it was announced last week that tax revenues are projected to increase $200 million more than expected in the coming years.

ISTEP

House Bill 1003, which proposes a plan for a system of tests to replace ISTEP that would be known as “ILEARN,” was the center of much debate at the Statehouse last week.The main issue appears to be whether the final proposal should include language that would expand the state’s voucher program to children who receive a preschool grant, The Associated Press reported.

When Columbus resident Art Turner spoke against the voucher expansion, he was applauded Monday by about a half-dozen people in the Cal Brand Meeting Room.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. board president Rich Stenner urged Smith and Walker to always vote the will of their constituents, rather than try to appease legislative leaders such as Bosma or Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

But in his remarks, Stenner did not specifically mention a topic or bill.

Two priorities regarding an ISTEP replacement is that it should be less expensive and not as time-consuming for students, Smith said.

Redistricting

It’s been more than two months since Smith, who chairs the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, refused to allow a vote on a proposed redistricting bill.Nevertheless, the topic has continued to surface in one form or another almost every week during the Third House sessions.

When Columbus resident Dennis Baute asked Smith and Walker what they want or expect out of redistricting, Walker said it will ultimately come down to keeping a judge from forcing new districts on the state.

“I would think that, ultimately, redistricting should be following the will of the people,” Baute said.

In response, Walker said there is too much disagreement among constituents and lawmakers to make such a determination.

In order to achieve both transparency and a balance, Walker said he advocates having two state employees specializing in census data score any proposed changes in districts.

Using input from both lawmakers and Indiana residents, those employees would determine whether the proposed changes would be positive, negative or neutral in reflecting both major parties.

The issue of redistricting will be taken up by a summer study committee.

Net Metering

State lawmakers have approved a bill to phase out the state’s net metering program, sending it to the desk of Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb.Senate Bill 309 reduces the rate that utility companies pay for excess energy that owners of solar panels or wind turbines sell back to the grid.

Columbus Community Solar Initiative coordinator Mike Mullett released a detailed letter he wrote on his group’s behalf to Holcomb, urging the governor to veto the measure.

In the letter, Mullett claims the exchange rates are not just and reasonable and were established without proper grounds or research.

The letter also denies claims by advocates that net metering amounts to taxpayer subsidies of solar power.

DNA

The two state lawmakers representing Columbus are split on a bill regarding DNA testing that has already passed the Indiana General Assembly.The measure, which calls for the testing to occur upon a person’s felony arrest rather than conviction, has also been sent to the governor’s desk.

Smith argued the bill needs to include automatic expungement of the collected DNA if the defendant is ultimately found not guilty or the charges are dismissed.

However, Walker said keeping those records would exonerate the innocent, as well as help law enforcement officers solve and connect crimes.

More than half of states allow for DNA collection in some form when a suspect is arrested or charged, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

As of Monday, Holcomb had not taken a public stand on the issue.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

General Assembly countdown

Indiana lawmakers have set a Friday deadline for adjournment of the 2017 General Assembly.

Last month, the legislators announced they would try to adjourn a week earlier than originally scheduled, due to an anticipated lack of available lodging next week in Indianapolis.

But if the lawmakers are not able to reach a budget compromise, they could continue negotiating until the official April 29 deadline.

Monday was the final Third House legislative session of the year, sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.

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