The possibility of an economic recession may tighten purse strings during the upcoming session of the Indiana General Assembly.
State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, predicts the possibility of a recession will prompt lawmakers to carefully scrutinize any proposed new expenses.
Some of the signs lawmakers are hearing about include declining home sales in key Indiana areas, rising interest rates, indications of inflation and increases in consumer credit card debt.
“We’ve already committed to several expenditures dealing with reducing drug use, infant mortality, jail overcrowding and improving schools,” Walker said. “Any new expense introduced for the first time will be heavily scrutinized.”
The Indiana General Assembly will conduct 61 business days after it convenes at 1:30 p.m. Thursday to consider a new two-year budget. The budget session is tentatively scheduled to adjourn on April 29.
While Democrats picked up three additional House seats and one additional seat in the Senate, that was not enough to upend the Republican super-majority at the statehouse.
The creation of a two-year state budget will be the top priority for all Indiana lawmakers, according to both Walker and new 59th District state Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus.
In early December, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said he was dedicated to signing all-inclusive hate crimes legislation during this legislative session. If the legislation would pass, Indiana judges could hand down tougher sentences for crimes motivated by race, religion, age, gender identity and sexual orientation.
State Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, released draft legislation in November that, if passed, would remove Indiana from the list of five states without a hate crime law. The bill was created with input from prosecutors, judges and a variety of interest groups, ranging from religious and minority coalitions to business and university organizations, including working closely with the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council.
But Walker said the language he’s anticipating in the bill will not contain specific lists or categories of hate crime victims. Instead, he said words such as “everybody” and “all” should be used in regards to who is protected by hate crime measures.
When asked whether he thinks these bills will make it through both chambers, Walker said there are too many new lawmakers for him to make a prediction.
While Lauer anticipates an honest and healthy debate, the new state representative said he believes much of the public pressure to enact hate crime legislation is political.
“The reality is that Indiana judges are already given very strong latitude in handing down longer sentences due to a bias,” Lauer said. “I want to make sure judges keep their ability to modify sentences when there are extenuating and aggravating circumstances.”
Thirty-three states, as well as Washington D.C., have legalized cannabis for recreational or medical uses.
Walker and Lauer are for legalizing cannabis — just as long as its the industrialized hemp advocated by President Donald Trump when he signed a bipartisan farm bill on Dec. 19.
Walker says it’s past time for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make a determination regarding the use of marijuana for medical purposes. However, he said he will not support any legalization that declares marijuana a medicine until an FDA approval is made.
In terms of approving the drug for recreational purposes, Walker says he’s attended seminars and read studies that show too many negative outcomes for marijuana smokers, and an increase in criminal activity in states that have decriminalized the drug.
Lauer said the legalization of marijuana has not been an issue raised by many of his constituents. In contrast, there are many in Bartholomew County who are extremely concerned about the negative impact of methamphetamine and opioids.
“In terms of medical and recreational marijuana use, I’m very reticent to take that leap,” Lauer said. “We’re just going to have to wait and see.”
In October, an interim study committee voted unanimously for the General Assembly to consider legislation that permits sports wagering.
While Walker says one of the goals is to reduce the size of the illegal gambling market, he’s just not sure how effective any legislation is going to be.
“Sports wagering is going to happen, no matter what we do,” Walker said. “It is especially difficult to enforce state laws at offshore gaming sites, or when bets are being illegally made by a cellphone.”
While Lauer said he needs to learn more about the issue before he determines how he’s going to vote on the matter, he thinks limits need to be set. Lauer said his top concern is that there is no betting on games involving children, such as Little League baseball or high school football games.
Advocates such as Bartholomew County Indivisible are pushing for an end to gerrymandering, which essentially means the redrawing of electoral maps to favor one political party over another.
Most Republicans haven’t budged on the issue, and in some cases, refused to give committee hearings to redistricting bills.
When Walker introduced a redistricting reform bill last winter, he described it as “just a baby step” toward creating an independent redistricting commission.
In response, Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody called Walker’s bill an attempt to run out the clock to draw the maps in 2021, and lock in their political power for another decade.
For years, advocates have called for an independent committee to draw the Indiana’s legislative and congressional maps, instead of the General Assembly.
Lauer calls that “a terrible idea” for constitutional reasons, saying that it is Indiana law that state representatives and senators control the redistricting process.
“When you look at other states that have gone this route, they are lobbied by special interest groups and large businesses,” Lauer said. “It’s just gerrymandering in a new form.”
Rather than set up an independent commission to redraw district lines, Walker said he wants to hear ideas and proposals from a variety of Hoosiers regarding redistricting. After receiving the input, lawmakers could choose “the cream of the crop” in statistical information.
Low-level felons in county jails
Lauer was on the Bartholomew County Council when state lawmakers ordered that any person sentenced to less than one year behind bars would serve that time in the county jail, rather than in a state penal facility.
While the Indiana Department of Correction gave $35 a day in compensation for each Level 6 inmate being held in a local jail, some county officials said it’s not enough money to house the inmates.
Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers estimates the actual cost is closer to $75 per inmate per day. Using that figure, he believes state lawmakers are creating an additional $438,000 financial burden on local taxpayers each year.
Lauer said he’s already written a bill that will raise the level of compensation from the Department of Correction from $35 a day to $55 as “a starting point.” He also plans to introduce legislation that will make it easier for jails to transfer Level 6 felons to a state institution if they become too disruptive or commit additional felonies while in a county jail.
While Walker agrees the current level of compensation is inadequate, the state senator believes there are positives in housing low-level felons at county jails. The practice helps to put the financial burden of decisions made by local judges and police officers back on their own community, rather than shifting it all on the state.
Right now, state penal institutions have become the third largest expenditure in state government, Walker said.
The state’s largest teachers’ union said it expects Indiana’s relatively low teacher pay to be addressed in 2019. If it isn’t, the Indiana State Teachers Association said they’ll consider walkouts similar to those seen in other Republican-dominated states in 2018.
Lauer said he anticipates a bipartisan effort focused on allocating more dollars for schools. He said Indiana can do better in focusing on teacher retention, as well as improving pathways to acquiring high quality educators for schools.
But Walker emphasized that salaries for local corporations are usually set by the school district’s budgets, not by the statehouses.
“It’s really the school boards and the superintendents that have the greatest influence on the process,” Walker said.
State lawmakers should get involved whenever it is discovered that certain school systems have not been fair and equitable to all their employees.
“But we need to let the local folks sort things out and work through these problems,” Walker said.
So what do state legislators representing Columbus think about meeting constituents once a month, instead of weekly, during the General Assembly?
In November, the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce announced they would no longer sponsor Third House sessions on a weekly basis.
Instead, the sessions will be held on the fourth Monday of the month — January through April — at Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St.
While changes in legislation might become less visible without weekly Third House sessions, keeping tabs on those changes won’t become more difficult,” said State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus.
Those interested in the process a bill goes through can keep updated by tracking a measure through the Indiana General Assembly website, Walker said. That website is iga.in.gov/.
“But most people are only interested in the outcome, rather than the process,” Walker said.
State Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, said the Chamber of Commerce is hoping to make the Third House session a more significant community event that attracts larger audiences and more legislators.