Casinos, health care, and education concerns for local lawmakers
By Matt Mikus firstname.lastname@example.org January 5, 2013 10:38PM
Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. | File~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:40AM
With the first super majority in both houses of the General Assembly since 1964, Republicans have the ability to pass a number of legislative measures, while Democrats are looking for ways to keep their voices heard during the process.
For representatives of Northwest Indiana, concerns that may come up this year include protecting Indiana casino revenues from out-of-state competition, funding for both K-12 and vocational education, and how the state will handle requirements from the federal Affordable Care Act.
Budget is key
Republicans stress the importance on keeping a balanced budget, helping to determine the priorities for the state.
“Most of our time will be spent on the budget,” Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said, “making sure it’s balanced and properly allocated. We have a pretty strong commitment to a balance budget, but there will be significant debate about the alleged surplus we have.”
Soliday stressed that it’s important that the state not lose site of the work done to have a budget surplus.
“We’re in a good spot,” he said. “Many other states suffered a lot more than we did. We need to keep that in mind as we move forward.”
With less state revenue due to a phase-out of the state inheritance tax and reduction in corporate income tax, and Gov.-elect Mike Pence’s discussing a 10 percent cut to income tax, Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, said it comes down to the budget.
“All these things will affect revenue for the state,” he said, “and when you have less coming in, you have less to spend.”
Dems in the middle
House minority leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said the Republican majority will need to convince its members to stay away from divisive social issues, and focus on economic development.
“We’ve got tough economic problems to solve as a state,” Pelath said. “We need to have a goal that in this state, when people work hard, their lives get better.”
Democrats are preparing for a session without the power to protest by walking out, leaving the Legislature without a quorum. That has Vernon Smith, D-Gary, concerned about
“I really feel like we only have a fair chance to get some of the things we want done,” said Smith. “We’re going to have to use the power of persuasion and the voice of the people to prevent Republicans from going too far to the right.”
“The question is,” Pelath said, “are the Republican majorities going to be able to resist trying to do all the things that they dream about. If you’re entrusted with power, it’s very easy to overreach. Speaker [Brian] Bosma and I agree that this may be time for more bipartisanship, rather than less.”
He added that Democrats may be prepared to step in and mediate when disagreements within the Republican Party grow.
Funding K-12 education is a priority, according to senators Charbonneau and Sue Landske, R-Cedar Lake. Efforts to expand education after high school may also be part of the agenda.
“There’s be a lot of talk about education this year,” Landske said, “especially vocational education and full-day kindergarten education, and making that a permanent part of the school funding formula. Then there’s also some talk about funding preschool, too.”
Concerns about funding education, and how education programs are run are priorities for the Democratic Party. Smith had concerns about how the state handles teacher evaluations, the number of charter schools in the state, and turn-around academies.
“Our former governor made two significant cuts on education,” Smith said referring to K-12 and higher education. “I hope we can do something to restore education funding.”
Casinos are going to be an issue this year, Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said, due to it being one of the top sources of revenue for the state’s general fund.
“With the possibility of Illinois and Kentucky looking to allow gambling,” Brown said, “we need to protect what we have. The status quo will not work for us, so we need to find a way to support the 11 license holders.”
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson plans to push for a land-based casino in her city, a move that has stalled in recent sessions.
Republicans may address gambling this year, to help protect state revenue from leaving to neighboring states, but it’s not guaranteed.
“Protecting gaming is a significant issue,” Charbonneau said. “I don’t mean expanding gaming. Whether you agree with it or not, the state has become pretty reliant with the revenue stream from gaming.”
Soliday stresses that the casino industry could become over-flooded if Indiana isn’t careful. He doesn’t predict a lot of large changes to casino licenses or locations.
“It’s just like any industry,” he said, “there’s only so much elasticity in the market. Anytime you touch gaming in one region, you affect the others. I’m not seeing a lot of enthusiasm in the House on that subject.”
Representatives are mixed on the new federal health care reforms that will begin to take effect within the next year.
For health care, regional Democrats hope the General Assembly will recognize the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, and prepare for it accordingly.
“The Affordable Care Act,” Pelath said, “that’s a fact of life. Now at the state level, are we going to make sure that it works, that it’s effective? One thing we do know, we can’t afford to have people going to the emergency room, when they should be going to a primary physician.”
How the state budget will be affected by the expansion of Medicaid funding will be hard to factor, Landske said. The new law has each state extending Medicaid coverage to all adults living within 133 percent of the poverty line, but because of the Supreme Court decision, states will have the choice on whether to expand the services.
“I think it will cost the state money,” said Charbonneau. “What it all means to us, it’s still pretty early to tell.”
He added that he doesn’t believe the state will set up its own exchange.
Landske added that the state should also consider funding mental health services for youths in the state.
Locally, Brown hopes to push for a study leading to a trauma center in Gary near Indiana University Northwest where the IU School of Medicine operates a regional school, since new regulations require EMTs to go directly to a trauma center.
“That means they’re automatically going to Illinois,” Brown said, “even though we have great hospitals here.”
He added that creating medical education centers near the campus will help meet demands for more doctors in Indiana.
Regional efforts will include funding to cover transportation infrastructure and consideration for economic development.
“Local city and town officials have voiced concern about funding for roads and bridges,” Landske said. “Maintenance and repair is becoming a bigger problem.”
Soliday noted new studies under way will help identify tax revenue from alternative fuel vehicles. Since fuel taxes go to fund infrastructure, trucks running on propane or compressed natural gas, as well as electric cars, don’t pay for the road use.
Labor will still be a contentious issue, minority floor leader Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, predicts. Issues regarding how union dues are collected may surface, she added.
“The battle is still on about unions and the support of unions,” she said. “I don’t know when that will happen, but that’s definitely going to be a debate.”
Securing funding for the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority is a priority for Lawson, due to its high return on investment.
“I think that’s something we can work on,” she said, “and hopefully we can come together for that.”