ELKHART – With only three days left of the current legislative session, four local state legislators came to the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce for a second Third House Town Hall Forum to discuss progress made in recent weeks.
“There were some who said not much would get done during this session but I think there’s a lot on the table right now and some of it sets the stage for next session,” State Sen. Joe Zakas, Dist.-11, said.
Topics currently on the table include school funding and safety bills, manufacturing, drug laws, veterans and immigrants.
“There’s been a lot on the docket for this short session,” State Rep. Tim Wesco, Dist.-21, said.
One education-related bill will make up for the shortfall in funding to education this year, as more kids than expected enrolled in public schools.
A higher education bill seeks to allow legal immigrants to test for certifications and get licenses in skills including cosmetology, nursing, engineering, architecture and more.
Another bill seeks to reorganize and streamline workforce development efforts across the state.
“When I was first elected into the legislature in 2011 it was all about getting jobs, and now we have more jobs than we have people,” Wesco said. He said in today’s world, the business community is more concerned about getting skills and necessary training for its current and future employees. “We’re just really trying to hone those efforts and make sure that we’re investing resources at the most effective places possible.”
Wesco’s bill regarding education benefits for veterans is also on the table this session. His bill seeks to create a law stating that if someone in active duty is called upon while in higher education, the university must give them the option to receive a refund or the opportunity to retake classes, rather than receiving an "incomplete" grade. The bill also seeks to ensure that benefits received by veterans are not counted against them as they seek out student aid.
Three bills related to the opioid crisis are on the table for this session, including one that would require a doctor to check a pateint's prescription history before prescribing opioids. Another bill increases punishments for drug dealers responsible for a death, and the last bill allows the Family and Social Services Administration to open nine new addiction treatment centers across the state, ensuring that every Indiana resident is within one hour of a treatment center.
Another healthcare related bill will hopefully ease tensions on the nursing home industry.
“For the last 20 years we’ve had this ongoing debate with the construction industry and the nursing industry over nursing home occupancy, how new nursing homes are built and how renovations are handled,” State Rep. Doug Miller, Dist.-48, said. The current bill on the docket would offer up a determination based on percentage of filled Medicaid-occupancy beds. “I think the thing that excites me the most is, going down the road, we’ll be able to get those two groups together and have significant conversations to improve the quality of care.”
Redevelopment groups throughout the state may see stricter rules in place if the Economic Improvement Districts bill passes. EID groups create a self-imposed tax above the city and state taxes that allow for beautification of downtown areas. They are growing in popularity in larger Hoosier cities such as Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, and Goshen has one.
Due to the lengthy process in local governments, the new taxes can take a few years to impose. The bill, according to Miller, would create a 120-day window in which the process must be completed, to lower the risk that new residents will be unaware of the tax. It would also require a certain percent of the community to be in favor of the new tax.
A bill was also passed naming the Say’s Firefly the state’s official insect.
A number of bills have died during this session. They include:
• The Indiana Appellate Court issued a ruling stating that motorhome drivers are independent contractors, overruling the circuit court's previous sentiments on the matter. More discussion will need to take place but Miller said, “Right now that specific industry is in the clear and can continue to do business as they’ve been, as independent contractors.”
• A bill seeking to make gun permits free or cheaper has died. State Sen. Blake Doriot, Dist.-12, stated permit fees go to police training and he believes many gun owners would be willing to consider paying more if they realized that. He added, “We can’t cut $8 million from their training right now.”
• Another dead gun-related bill sought to allow guns in schools located within churches.
“Even on Sundays, their members are not allowed to carry handguns,” Wesco, a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church himself, said. While his church does not have a school on the premises, he said, “It’s something that I feel should be addressed.”