THIRD HOUSE: Legislators discuss mental health, housing

Legislators representing Bartholomew County are wading through 676 bills filed in the Indiana House of Representatives for the 2023 legislative session. Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, said Monday that 40 of those bills had already passed the House and 54 were on their second reading.

“This session has started at quite a clip,” he said.

Lauer, along with Rep. Jennifer Meltzer, R-Shelbyville, and Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, discussed some of these bills — along with those being considered by the state Senate— during the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce’s virtual Third House Session on Monday. Mental health services, development incentives and economic development grants were just a few of the topics legislators touched on.

Walker discussed Senate Bill 405, which he authored. The bill “requires the office of judicial administration to establish and administer a program to provide a regional pool of mental health examiners who are available for appointment upon request by a court to conduct: (1) a competency examination of a defendant; and (2) mental health evaluations following a notice of an insanity defense; in a criminal case.”

As of Feb. 2, the bill had been reassigned to the committee on appropriations.

In discussing his reasons for authoring it, he said that county jails have become “de facto mental health treatment centers” across the state, despite this not being their intended function or area of expertise.

“I had a judge in a rural county talk about the fact that they can see the opportunity and there may even be some resources,” he said. “But in order to do the assessment, if it’s a low-level offender, they might have to hold that person longer in order to get the mental health assessment at a cost to the county of $3,000, $4,000, $5,000. It’s easier and cheaper to hold that person, even if they’re found guilty of the offense, their sentence may be time served, and they’re back on the street without any consideration for their mental health. It just becomes a revolving door. It’s not good for the community. It’s not good for them.”

Walker hopes that the bill will continue forward and move the burden from the county budgets to that of the state.

Meltzer said that the House is also focusing on mental health and pointed to House Bill 1006, which was referred to the Senate on Feb. 1. It outlines the circumstances under which a person “may be involuntarily committed to a facility for mental health services and specifies that these services are medically necessary.” The bill also establishes a local mental health referral program to provide mental health treatment for certain individuals who have been arrested.

“It specifically addresses the 72-hour holds for individuals who are a danger to themselves or others, or gravely disabled,” said Meltzer. “So those individuals that desperately need help and, I agree with Senator Walker, that they do not belong in our jails. And currently that’s where they are. And our criminal justice system, which is made up of lawyers like myself, are not trained to deal with individuals who have mental health diagnoses, including addiction.”

Lauer also expressed support for House Bill 1006.

“It’s going to help these people that need mental health services and to get well, instead of sitting in a jail cell without addressing the root problem,” he said.

Additionally, Meltzer has joined House Bill 1194 as a co-author. This legislation pertains to competency to stand trial and which individuals are able to perform competency exams. The bill also allows a court to dismiss criminal charges, without prejudice, if “(1) a substantial probability does not exist that a defendant will attain competency restoration or if the defendant has not attained competency restoration after six months of restoration services; (2) the defendant has a certain diagnosis; and (3) the defendant is charged with a misdemeanor or Level 6 felony.”

Lawmakers are looking to expedite the competency exam process so that individuals are not sitting in jails for six months, said Meltzer. They’re also seeking to identify the proper healthcare providers to fulfill this service.

Following lawmakers’ opening remarks, Chamber President Cindy Frey posed questions about a variety of subjects, including House Bill 1005, which would establish a residential housing infrastructure assistance program and residential housing infrastructure assistance revolving fund.

About 70% of the money from this revolving fund would be used for housing infrastructure in municipalities where the population is less than 50,000. The other 30% would be used for housing infrastructure “in all other political subdivisions.”

When asked about his opinion on House Bill 1005, Lauer noted that its language could change before it reaches the House floor.

“I’m watching it closely, and I think the idea is OK, but I’m reserving my judgement for the final version,” he said.

“Representative Meltzer, I could see this being helpful in parts of your district, thinking about eastern Bartholomew County, where we have some developable land,” said Frey. “Your take?”

Meltzer expressed interest in the bill and agreed there is a desperate need for more housing.

“I was speaking to a Realtor over the weekend, and I know in Shelby County, we’re looking at approximately 44 to 50 houses in the entire county that are available for sale right now,” she said. “That’s just not sustainable. And it’s been this way in a lot of the district, including eastern Bartholomew County, for over a decade. And so we need houses.”

One issue for rural communities is that adding infrastructure is expensive, which makes the houses themselves more expensive. Funding from the state could help offset some of these costs, said Meltzer.

Like Lauer, she plans to watch the bill carefully as it progresses to ensure that it really will be helpful for local governments.

Frey also asked Lauer and Meltzer about the state’s proposal to fund a second round of Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) grants.

The competitive matching grant program encouraged Indiana communities to partner together on proposals for future growth and improvement in their region, particularly in regards to talent attraction and retention. The South Central Indiana Talent Region— which includes Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties, as well as Edinburgh — was awarded a $30 million READI grant in December of 2021.

However, communities later found out that their use of these funds was limited by federal restrictions, as the state had used American Rescue Plan dollars to fund the READI grant program. At a local level, this meant that plans to use READI funding for a research and development test track complex at the former Walesboro airport had to be scrapped, as this was not an eligible use of funds.

Frey said that Columbus City Councilman Tom Dell had submitted an inquiry about whether the proposed second round of READI grants might feature fewer restrictions and more flexibility as to which projects qualify.

Meltzer said this will depend on whether the state uses American Rescue Plan funds to support the second round.

“I have not read the specific language, so I cannot speak to whether the current bill is removing those (limitations),” she said.

She added that some of the program’s restrictions were put in place by the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and fiscal agency Ernst & Young.

Lauer said he believes it’s likely that more flexibility could be added to the application requirements for these grants.

“Also, the Community Crossings grants, I think, have worked out very well,” he said, “and so with regard to the scope and the dollar amounts for these and the maximum for cities and towns, these are all on the table, being discussed and trying to find the right path forward to not only help our communities to grow and have the resources that they need, but also to make sure that we pass a fiscally responsible budget and a balanced budget.”

Both he and Meltzer expressed approval of what READI grants have accomplished so far.