Bills providing resources to address the opioid crisis plaguing Indiana communities will likely receive little debate and strong support during the upcoming short session of the Indiana General Assembly, Columbus legislators say.

That’s because narcotic addiction threatens the state in ways ranging from public safety to workforce development and education, said State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus.

But instead of just treating the symptoms, a second state legislator said he wants more information on why people get hooked on drugs such as heroin and prescription pain pills in the first place.

“Is it over-prescribing?” State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus. “Or have some people lost all hope for a better tomorrow?”

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If the latter turns out to be the case, Smith said lawmakers need to work to restore that lost hope.

In a related matter, Smith said it will be essential to address points raised in the Dec. 12 resignation letter of Mary Beth Bonaventura, director of the Indiana Department of Child Services.

In the opening paragraph of her letter, the five-year director referred to the “tsunami of heroin and the opioid crisis which has pushed child welfare systems nationally to their breaking point.”

Bonaventura said in the letter that funding cuts amount to Hoosier children “being systematically placed at risk, without the ability to help them.”

A member of the House Family, Children and Human Affairs committee, Smith said the DCS director wasn’t complaining about a lack of funds when they talked a few years ago.

Instead, Bonaventura said her department was suffering from a lack of personnel willing to handle emotionally draining responsibilities, Smith said.

Investigating and addressing problems impacting children will be Smith’s top priority during the upcoming session, which runs Jan. 3 to March 14, he said.

Hot topics

Without major issues such as budgets or transportation to deal with, contentious matters, so-called push-button issues, will likely surface over the next three months, said Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

Controversial push-button issues are often divisive, drawing emotional responses from voters and polarizing them into different groups.

Measures dealing with guns, elections, taxes and alcohol sales will likely be filed starting next month, Smith said.

While push-button issues often surface in both the media and citizen conversations, most are not top concerns of lawmakers, Walker said.

“We need to stay focused on infrastructure and workforce development,” said Walker, who indicated that Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is expected to request refinement of existing legislation in those areas.

Another significant issue likely to spark lively debate will be educational attainment, the senator said.

For his part, Walker wants more opportunities for residents to receive specific job-skill certifications, rather than focusing primarily on traditional college education, he said.

Alcohol

Indiana is the only state regulating beer sales based on temperature and one of only nine restricting or prohibiting Sunday alcohol sales, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.

“We are on the trailing edge of other states in this matter,” Walker said.

Last summer, convenience store owner Jay Ricker got around the cold-beer ban by turning stores in two locations, including one in Columbus, into restaurants and then getting liquor licenses for those locations.

Although lawmakers quickly banned that tactic, two unique developments emerged last month.

Two powerful lobbying groups — the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers and the Indiana Retail Council — announced they have resolved differences that previously led state lawmakers to give up on efforts to overturn the Sunday carryout sales ban.

Days later, the Alcohol Code Revision Commission voted 8-7 in favor of cold beer sales for stores like Ricker’s.

But since two commissioners were absent, it wasn’t considered a majority opinion, and a official recommendation will not be made to lawmakers.

Walker sees upcoming discussions on these matters as a debate between consumer interests and public safety, he said.

Smith said he prefers to wait another year to consider changes on alcohol sales until a two-year study commission completes its work in 2019.

Hate crimes

Indiana is one of only five states without a law assessing penalties for crimes that target people because of certain characteristics, such as their race, religion or sexual orientation.

Both state lawmakers from Columbus are of the same mind regarding creating such laws: hate-crime legislation is not necessary.

Indiana judges already have the authority to either extend or reduce sentences, based on mitigation or aggravating circumstances, they said.

“Every crime is different, with its own unique circumstances,” said Smith, who added judges should base sentences on victim impact, rather than motive.

If such legislation were passed, it might backfire by providing people with what Walker calls backward ideologies attention they don’t deserve, the senator said.

Instead of a legislative response, Walker suggests more cultural discussions regarding hate crimes.

Redistricting

If the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling regarding the drawing of electoral maps in other states, it might prompt Indiana lawmakers to prepare themselves for a legal challenge.

But currently, there is no evidence that Hoosier lawmakers have engaged in gerrymandering, the two Republican lawmakers said.

“We must have been doing a pretty good job (drawing legislative districts in 2011), or we would have been challenged,” said Smith, chairman of the House Elections and Apportionment Committee.

But last February, Smith received criticism for refusing to allow a committee vote on the establishment of an independent commission to draw legislative maps.

Walker, who supports same-day registration and voting, said he has written a bill to establish criteria for the 2021 redrawing of Indiana’s electoral maps.

“Everybody has different criteria,” Walker said. “Until we agree on what criteria should be considered, how will we know we have a good district?”

But there won’t be much time to consider changes. Due to a number of factors on the legislative calendar, Smith said the House Elections and Apportionment Committee will only have about four meetings before adjournment.

When maps are redrawn after the 2020 Census, the main objective should be on keeping neighborhoods and communities with like interests together in the same district, Smith said.

Guns

A bill to allow specific congregation members designated as security team members by a church/school organization to carry handguns during services will be introduced by Smith, he said.

That proposal is far narrower in scope than the constitutional carry bill authored by State Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, that died in the legislature last winter.

His proposal, which states a person able to legally carry a handgun is not required to obtain a state license or permit, was examined by a summer study committee this year.

But when the summer was over, lawmakers concluded it wouldn’t have much impact one way or the other, Smith said.

Although the controversial proposal received a lot of media attention last winter, Walker cited Lucas’ bill as an example of promoting a push-button issue.

“It may receive a long debate, but it’s not a topic of sufficient gravity,” Walker said.

Third House sessions

The annual Third House sessions, sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, are scheduled to begin Jan. 22.

The 90-minute free weekly forum allows local residents to discuss pending legislation in the Indiana General Assembly with their elected representatives.

Third House sessions begin at 7:30 a.m each Monday at Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St., and continue until lawmakers adjourn for the year.

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