More Johnson County residents would be able to pursue vocational education, send their kids to preschool and possibly get a little something extra in their pocket from an income tax break.
They also potentially could face higher taxes for road work or pay in a different way to get potholes fixed.
State lawmakers who represent parts of Johnson County expect the Indiana General Assembly will tackle all those issues this year during the session that starts Monday. They said they’ll focus on education, jobs and other issues, such as how to bring in more money for road funding as gas tax revenue dwindles.
They’ll be responsible for passing a two-year budget that’s estimated to cost $28 billion to $29 billion. That blueprint will outline how much will be spent on state workers salaries and state programs, such as interstate highway road work and job training at Ivy Tech Community College.
Here’s a look at this year’s legislative session:
Timeline: The session begins Monday and must end by April 29.
Budget: State lawmakers will have to approve a two-year budget of about $28 billion, after they get updated financial projections in April.
Other top issues: Road funding, education and job training, jobs and economic development, a proposed tax cut and health care funding
WHAT THEY’RE PROPOSING
Here is a look at what local legislators who represent parts of Johnson County are proposing this session.
Founding new towns
State Rep. John Price, who represents parts of White River, Franklin, Needham and Blue River townships, wants to require referendums in order to create towns, such as the proposed town of Center Grove. He said the current process of getting 50 signatures and the approval of the commissioners was outdated, and a town should be created only as a reflection of popular will.
State Rep. David Frizzell, who represents part of White River Township, wants to require that all school referendums be put on the fall ballot so that more people are likely to vote, since turnout is higher in general elections.
Price and State Rep. Woody Burton, who represents part of White River Township and Pleasant and Clark townships, want to speed up the foreclosure process on abandoned homes so they can get back on the market more quickly. Cities and towns have asked for the process to be shortened so they don’t have to spend as much time and expense on maintaining vacant properties.
State Sen. Brent Waltz, who represents a portion of White River Township that also is in Greenwood, wants to have middle school and high school students take financial literacy classes that would teach them skills such as how to balance a checkbook and how to pay down credit card balances every month.
State Rep. Woody Burton wants to require big-box and grocery stores to put hard liquor behind the counter so that minors can’t shoplift it.
Waltz wants to let schools retest students who fail the ISTEP without parental consent, because they can’t always reach parents within the two-week period that’s currently required.
Purchase of stolen goods
Burton wants to require that jewelry stores get reimbursed if they inadvertently buy stolen goods. McGee & Co. Fine Jewelers in Greenwood suggested the requirement after thieves broke in and stole jewelry that turned up in Florida less than 24 hours later. Florida has a law that jewelry stores must be compensated for any stolen jewelry they bought if they checked to make sure it wasn’t stolen.
Burton is considering different pension reforms, including raising the minimum amount from $300 a month to $400 to $500 a month.
State Sen. Rodric Bray, who represents most of White River Township and all of Union and Hensley townships, wants to allow judges to be able to review confidential child abuse reports while doing child custody hearings, so they know about any history of abuse or neglect before deciding guardianship.
State Rep. David Frizzell wants to require two-thirds approval in the legislature for any tax increase to ensure there’s broad support and as a protection to taxpayers.
Frizzell hopes to let people see physical therapists without first seeing a doctor to bring Indiana more in line with other states.
Eric Koch, who represents parts of Nineveh and Hensley townships, hopes to require state agencies to study the impact that any new regulations would have on private-sector employment and to do a report on how many jobs it would create.
Greg Walker, who represents all of Pleasant, Clark, Franklin, Needham, Nineveh and Blue River townships, hopes to set up a program that would allow small businesses with fewer than 25 employees to offer
401(k)s. He’s also proposing a bill that would encourage state employees to set aside more toward retirement.
Burton and State Rep. John Price want to prevent police officers from writing $130 traffic tickets for unsigned vehicle registrations by putting the signature line on the front of the form so it’s more apparent that people are supposed to sign and also by giving drivers the opportunity to sign the paperwork if an officer finds that it’s not signed during a traffic stop.
State Sen. Brent Waltz wants to prevent police officers from downloading the contents of a cellphone without a search warrant.
Waltz hopes to change tax policy so that graduates from military academies enjoy the same tax status as commissioned officers in the Indiana National Guard, so they don’t have to pay more in state income taxes.
Diesel fuel tax collections
Walker wants to have the state collect sales taxes on diesel fuel at the wholesale level, so that sellers can’t skirt paying gas taxes and fraudulently undercut their competition.
“Certainly, the budget will be all-encompassing this session,” State Rep. Eric Koch said. “School funding, university funding and health care will be the three big parts of the budget, and that will be our primary focus.”
The budget and some critical funding questions may not be resolved until April, when new financial projections will be released about how much revenue the state can expect, Koch said.
A key funding question is expected to be how to pay for road repairs at both the state and local levels. Lawmakers will have to decide whether to collect new taxes for road projects, increase the gas tax or use some of the state’s projected surplus. They also will have to figure out whether the state can afford an expansion of the Medicaid rolls under the new federal health care law or a 10 percent income tax cut proposed by Gov.-elect Mike Pence.
They’ll weigh proposals, such as how to fund preschool programs, pay for more school safety officers in the wake of the Connecticut elementary school shooting and control prison spending by getting nonviolent offenders sentenced to more probation and less prison time.
Lawmakers are expected to draft 1,500 to 2,000 bills that potentially could include proposals to bar same-sex marriage and decriminalize marijuana.
Local legislators have been working on drafting their own bills, including proposals that would speed up the foreclosure process with abandoned homes, move school referendums to the fall election and require public votes to found towns such as the proposed town of Center Grove. They want to prevent police officers from writing $130 tickets for unsigned vehicle registrations or downloading the contents off your cellphone without a search warrant. They want state agencies to evaluate how new regulations would affect jobs, and require the approval of two-thirds of the legislature for any tax increase.
The lawmakers representing Johnson County include new faces. State Rep. John Price, State Rep. Eric Koch and State Sen. Rodric Bray will represent Johnson County in the Statehouse for the first time.
“It’s a budget year, and that will be a top priority of course,” Bray said. “They’re optimistic there will be an increase in revenue, but prices also go up every year. There’s a lot we need to get funded, and that will be one of the more important issues of the day.”
State Sen. Luke Kenley, who heads the appropriations committee, said lawmakers’ top priorities would include road funding, figuring out how to deal with the added cost of the federal health care law, and education, particularly expanding vocational education for adults.
Kenley said one of the most pressing issues was how to generate more money for road repairs. Major Moves money from the lease of the Indiana Toll Road has mostly been spent. The last Major Move-funded project slated for Johnson County was completed last year.
That money had paid for about $34 million of road projects, including a resurfaced State Road 252 and an expanded stretch of State Road 135.
Paying for road repairs
Another problem facing both state and local government is that most of the funding for road work comes from fuel taxes, and that revenue is dwindling, Kenley said. Drivers aren’t paying as much in gas taxes because of the growing popularity of more fuel-efficient, hybrid and electric vehicles, and that means less money for roadwork, he said.
People are buying more fuel-efficient cars, and new federal regulations also require that all vehicles, including pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, get more miles to the gallon, Kenley said.
“We could do fewer road projects,” he said. “But we’d all be driving on gravel roads.”
For state lawmakers, options include raising the gas tax, adopting a per-mile tax for hybrid or electric vehicles or increasing license plate fees, Bray said.
Gas prices already are high, and people likely wouldn’t want a gas tax increase to make them any higher, Bray said. He also said he’s not comfortable with a proposal to install GPS devices in electric vehicles so they can be taxed for every mile they drive, since they’re not paying gas taxes.
That idea would raise privacy concerns about the government tracking where people are going and also would hit families with big bills that they might not be able to afford once or twice a year, instead of letting them pay smaller amounts of gas tax when they go to the pump, he said.
“It’s vitally important not to raise taxes, but we’ve got to be very cautious if we’re not going to be able to fund everything that everybody needs,” Bray said. “We’ve got to pay for road funding and keep an eye on how we’ll do that.”
State Sen. Brent Waltz said he opposes Kenley’s proposal to add a license plate tax of up to $50 per car for road funding.
Waltz said that would put too much of a burden on families and the state should instead pay for roadwork with some of the $2.15 billion surplus it accumulated this year, after state government spent less than it made from tax revenue.
The state could use $100 million to $120 million of that money, and that would only be a fraction of the $1 billion in surplus funds that are left in the bank, Waltz said.
Education a focus
Uncertainty about how the state will pay for road repairs and the federally mandated expansion of health care raise questions about whether the state can afford Pence’s proposed tax cut, Kenley said. Medicaid costs, for instance, could jump by a projected $3.5 billion by 2015, and the state doesn’t know how much its share will be over the long term, he said.
The state must balance its budgets and spend no more than it takes in, Kenley said.
“We’ve cut taxes a lot, two times in the last four years,” he said. “We cut property taxes six years ago. We cut corporate incomes taxes and the inheritance tax. I don’t know if we can do another, but the answer will lie with how good the economy is and how much revenue we can expect.”
Lawmakers also have to fund other needs, such as an expansion of vocational education, Kenley said. The goal is to have 60 percent of young people earn advanced degrees, and in many cases that would involve technical or vocational degrees from Ivy Tech or other community colleges, he said.
State government could offer more grants and scholarships for adults pursuing vocational degrees, Kenley said.
Offering more vocational training promotes economic development and could bring more jobs, State Sen. Greg Walker said. Companies will come to Indiana if it has a qualified workforce who are trained and prepared for the jobs in demand, he said.
Improving education will be critical for attracting more businesses and creating more employment opportunities, State Rep. Woody Burton said. Another initiative likely will be to fund preschool education for all, he said.
The goal will be to ensure that low-income families can enroll their children in early education programs, State Rep. David Frizzell said.
“We’ll see if there’s a way to support that cost and also to bolster and strengthen workers’ skills at different trade schools,” he said. “Education is going to be one of the important things for this legislative session.”