Forum: State legislators focus on budget in upcoming session

The 2019 State Legislative session will focus on the state’s budget for the next two years.

The area’s two state representatives and two senators spoke on the 2019 session and took questions from an audience of about 40 people Tuesday during a special event sponsored by the Jasper Chamber and hosted at Vincennes University Jasper.

State Sen. Messmer R-Jasper, State Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, State Rep. Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper, and State Rep. Stephen Bartels, R-Eckerty, gave brief overviews of their goals during the hour-long lunch event.

Those focuses include increasing or examining school funding and increasing teacher’s pay, workforce development, rural broadband and addressing the ongoing issues with the Department of Child Services.

Regarding school and teacher funding, retired teacher Teresa Kendall urged the legislators to address the pay issues for teachers which in turn could help the apparent teacher shortages some areas in the state are experiencing.

In response, the legislators agreed that while they could increase funding for school corporations, they did not want to dictate how those corporations used that funding locally. Sen. Houchins expressed concern that she had seen a corporation in her district use additional funding to increase the pay for administrative personnel to the tune of $6,000 annually for a school superintendent for example. Meanwhile teachers in that corporation received an average of $200 in an annual pay increase.

Houchins also stated she would like to see a pay matrix created to guide teachers’ salaries over their career. She added that it could help level out pay for senior teachers while providing a better pay increase for new teachers or those earlier in their career.

Rep. Bartels pointed out that he was taking a hard look at school funding and noted that the uncertainty of funding has caused school corporations to be hesitant to give pay raises. Rather than being locked into the increased budget amounts with pay increases for teachers, when school corporations receive extra funding, they divvy it out as stipends to teachers.

“As a business owner, I understand this,” he added.

Rep. Lindauer pointed out that while they are going to take a look at this issue, there is only so much money that can go around.

Members of a grassroots effort to stop the creation of Riverview Energy, a proposed plant to convert coal to diesel in Dale, asked the legislators to look into the detrimental impact it could have on the area.

Dale resident Mary Hess, president of the group, asked the legislators point blank if they supported the project and if they supported it receiving direct or indirect funding through the state. Three of the legislators — Sen. Houchins said the plant was not in her district and she didn’t have an opinion on it — said they supported the project based on the local government support it had received so far.

Bartels added that decision was in their hands and he would not make that decision for them.

In regards to funding, Sen. Messmer pointed out that the state never directly funds a project.

Lindauer stated he approved of tax incentives based around tax abatement for a project like this.

Ferdinand resident Rock Emmert told legislators that the plant would likely have a detrimental impact on the public, environmental and economic health of the region due to the smell it would emit as well as pollution levels.

He urged them to do something to regulate the plant.

Sen. Messmer stated that the state legislature did not have control over the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the department assigned to regulate emissions and the environmental health of the state.

“The General Assembly does not have authority over any regulatory agencies in the state,” he said.

Air permits for the plant are currently under review by the department.

Mike Kendall, the new head of the Dubois County Democratic Party and a former state senator, told the legislators they did have some oversight in the form of funding approval.

The legislative session begins Jan. 3. The Jasper Chamber will host multiple meetings with legislators during the session.

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