Southern Indiana legislators outline goals for the 2023 session

Indiana lawmakers face an extraordinary challenge this session: creating a biennial state budget amid the highest inflation in decades while attempting to push laws that serve their constituents.

Local lawmakers representing southern Indiana say this will mean looking for ways to improve the state’s health, education, public safety and workforce systems without sacrificing the gains made in years past.

Lawmakers outlined their goals last week before the first day of Monday’s session to LPM News and during a breakfast hosted by One Southern Indiana, the area’s chamber of commerce.

senators

Republican Senator Chris Garten is the Senate Majority Leader, representing District 45, which includes Clark and part of Floyd County.

He said the state financial numbers are strong, even showing a current budget surplus. But he said it could be a year or two before the state sees the impact of an economic downturn and lawmakers need to be prepared.

“I think a balanced budget got us to where we are today, which has allowed us to continue to make historic investments in things like K through 12,” he said.

“That’s why these reserve accounts are so important during the bullish period, because they really create a buffer so we don’t have to cut when this recession hits [into] those accounts.”

Garten, who also sits on the budget and appropriations committees, said Senate Republican priorities in this session include support for mental health services and K-12 education. The GOP holds a stable majority in both chambers of the state government.

He also wants an increase in state police salaries to about $70,000 starting yearly, which Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, proposed in his 2023 agenda.

Garten said Senate Republicans also have an obligation to pay back the teachers’ pension fund. It is expected to be paid off within six years, which Garten estimates will free up about $1 billion in cash flow for the state each year.

Senator Gary Byrne is a Republican representing District 47, which includes Harrison and Washington counties and part of Floyd.

Elected last year, this will be Byrne’s first year working on a state budget. He said he would proceed cautiously.

“There are a lot of requests, and we just have to go through them … and figure out what our priorities are going to be.”

Byrne’s goals include legislation with Republican Rep. Karen Engleman that would get Indiana to join other states in allowing homeowners whose septic systems failed to install a new system that drains the water to the floor would.

Byrne also proposes a measure that would require the Indiana Department of Transportation to obtain approval from a local board of directors before building certain infrastructure, such as roundabouts.

Representative

Rep. Ed Clere is a Republican representing District 72, which covers New Albany.

One of his priorities in this session is to address employee issues by creating more training that would allow workers to gain skills and earn higher wages between companies.

“What I’m trying to do with this legislation is to figure out how we’re going to create an ecosystem … that facilitates the upskilling of workers at Company A who are looking for more and have the interest and ability to succeed at Company B,” he said. “How can we upskill these people and help them move to Company B without hurting Company A?”

Clere, who is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and chairs the Health and Medicaid subcommittee, also has plans for legislation aimed at improving health care and education, including funding for special education.

He is also introducing legislation that would allow voters to enter their ballots into a scanner when using local early postal voting. The current system requires members of the Electoral Board to open and scan thousands of ballots on Election Day. According to Clere’s proposal, the votes would be scanned by voters but not counted until Election Day.

Clere, who took office in 2008, said it was also the first time in his tenure that inflation had been as high as it is now.

“So that’s going to be one of the biggest challenges for the legislature.”

Rep. Rita Fleming is a Democrat representing District 72, which covers Jeffersonville. She said she hopes a bill that would increase access to contraception – by allowing pharmacists to prescribe it to people over the age of 18 – will pass this year after failing to pass in recent years. Currently, people must obtain a prescription for birth control from their provider.

Fleming has proposed the measure in previous sessions, most recently as an amendment to an existing bill during the 2022 special session. Fleming has since said that she is focused on educating other lawmakers on what the bill would do.

“There’s a concern that pharmacists will then expand their prescribing ability…that they might prescribe things other than contraceptives,” Fleming said. “That is not allowed. And this bill clearly states that this is a very well defined area for pharmacists to give women better access to contraception.

“I’m very optimistic that this bill will be well received because I think people see the need for it.”

Fleming added she hopes lawmakers will continue to support investment in health care and education and not change course in the face of a challenging economy.

“We raised teachers’ salaries, and that was commendable, but inflation more than wiped out the increases we legislated,” she said. “Therefore we have to be realistic and not pat ourselves on the back for what we have done, but we have to look at the impact of inflation across the board.”

Fleming is also seeking legislation to bring craft education into middle schools and improve support for young people in foster care after they turn 18.

abortion

This year’s regular term follows a special session Holcomb called over the summer, during which lawmakers passed restrictive legislation banning abortion in most cases. Only in the case of rape or incest are there narrow exceptions.

That law is currently blocked, and the state Supreme Court is expected to hear a challenge to the law on January 19.

Sen. Garten told LPM News last week that while he had not seen all of the proposed Senate bills for the session, it was likely that some abortion-related measures would be drafted at this session.

He added the law passed during the special session is a “good landing spot.”

“We’ll see what the courts decide [but] we are confident in the law that we passed and I have had positive feedback from the majority of my constituents,” he said.

Fleming said the recent law made her birth control even more important this year.

Republican Representatives Karen Engleman, District 70, and Zach Payne, District 66, also represent Southern Indiana but were unavailable for this story.

The meeting is expected to be adjourned in mid-April.

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