Supporters hold out hope for redistricting bill

Redistricting emerged as the top topic of discussion during Monday’s weekly Third House session.

Even though the redrawing of Indiana’s congressional and statehouse districts won’t take place until 2021, concerns continue to grow that legal challenges will be made to the current district lines.

That’s due to a federal court striking down congressional maps for the first time due to partisan gerrymandering. The Jan. 9 ruling by a three-judge federal panel was in regard to districts in North Carolina, about 55 people attending the forum learned Monday at Mill Race Center.

To illustrate the growing concern, State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, said he was asked last week by George Angelone, executive director of Indiana Legislative Services Agency, to sign an affidavit stating his efforts to establish redistricting standards are intended to remove political bias from Indiana maps.

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Angelone said he wanted the affidavit for anticipated federal court intervention, Walker said.

“That makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up a bit,” the Columbus senator said.

But Walker is willing to sign such an affidavit because he believes lawmakers spend too much money and energy trying to rig systems that could be used to address issues and solve problems, he said.

As chairman of the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, received criticism last February for refusing to allow a committee vote on the establishment of an independent commission to draw legislative maps.

Upon questioning from retired Columbus attorney Mike Mullett, Smith denied using what’s been called “the Hastert Rule” or “Majority of the Majority” rule in that decision.

Mullett’s theory is that a vote will not be allowed on a bill unless a majority of the controlling party in government supports it.

In his defense, Smith said if a committee vote fails, it can kill momentum to address issues that might take years to rebuild.

“When I didn’t call down that bill, it was because it didn’t have any criteria,’ Smith said. “There was no Hastert Rule. If I don’t think there’s enough support, I will not call it down for a vote.”

Walker said there are so many factions within the GOP on redistricting right now that there is no consensus on the best steps going forward.

Township consolidation

Although a bill that requires the smallest Indiana townships to merge with larger ones passed out of committee last week, both Walker and Smith said they expect House Bill 1005 to die in committee.

The measure has the potential to eliminate Clifty and Jackson township governments in Bartholomew County, as well as every other Indiana township with a 2010 population of less than 1,200 residents.

However, the fact that the measure was moved last week to the House Ways and Means Committee, instead of the House floor, indicates it’s too costly to pass during this year’s short legislative session, Smith said.

Walker agreed with Smith that the bill — authored by Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville — is the wrong approach to fixing fiscal problems in townships.

“Well, why don’t we merge counties or school districts if we’re trying to be efficient?” Walker asked. “Because you lose community identity, and it’s important to preserve that.”

Discussion moderator Jesse Brand asked whether the bill was intended as a stepping stone toward destroying township-level government, which has been attempted without success for several years.

Although neither Walker or Smith directly answered Brand’s question, both said they would prefer that county councils, rather than township advisory boards, provide oversight of township budgets.

Child welfare

Indiana has long maintained a “moderately poor track record” on the issue of child welfare, Walker said.

While hundreds of millions of dollars has been spent on hiring additional case workers, the state has not been providing adequate training and support for those employees, Walker said.

Several bills have been introduced to address last month’s claim by a former state child services director that a “tsunami of heroin and the opioid crisis has pushed child welfare systems nationally to their breaking point.”

Local resident Ed Davis asked whether pharmaceutical companies should be forced to pick up the enormous costs necessary to addressing problems in child welfare systems.

When Walker said that’s not likely because drug manufacturers are already being sued at multiple levels, Davis asked why the lawmakers just don’t raise the taxes on those corporations.

There was no direct reply to Davis’ suggestion from either lawmaker.

In other legislation tied to the opioid crisis, Walker spoke in favor of a bill that would require all first-responders to keep a statewide database updated with all Hoosiers receiving a heroin overdose antidote.

Another bill outlined by Smith would insure that every death certificate on an overdose death include toxicology information.

Both measures would help enable the state to obtain more federal grant money to address the opioid problem.

Third House schedule

Third House Sessions, which allows the public to ask questions and express concerns to their state lawmakers, is scheduled to be held weekly through at least March 12.

Sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, the forum at 7:30 a.m. every Monday at Mill Race Center, near the corner of 8th and Lindsey streets.

Legislative update

As of 8 a.m. Monday, 450 bills had been introduced in the Indiana House, while 436 bills were filed in the Indiana Senate.

Both the House and Senate have moved about 40 bills from one chamber to the other.

Wednesday is the deadline for all bills to be voted on in the House before they can be passed on to Senate.

Sources: State Sen. Greg Walker, State Rep. Milo Smith

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