KENDALLVILLE — Noble County’s state legislators, Sen. Sue Glick and Rep. David Abbott, fielded questions Saturday morning at a legislative forum in the Community Learning Center’s auditorium. East Noble’s social studies AP class, taught by Andy Bell, sponsored the forum in partnership with the CLC and the local political parties.
An audience of 40-50 people listened as Glick and Abbott spoke about work on bills currently moving through both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly, which is half way through its 2021 session.
Both lawmakers characterized this legislative session as unusual because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed the way the legislature operates. Glick said no members of the public are permitted in the Statehouse, unlike other years, and lawmakers have no personal interaction with constituents to gather feedback and input.
“It’s not easy to govern in a vacuum,” Glick said.
The top issue for this session is the state budget, both lawmakers said. Glick said census data, used to create legislative districts, will be delayed by the pandemic until September. The legislature will have to hurry the redistricting process along and conduct the required public hearing and town hall meetings to meet the map deadline set by law.
“The law requires districts to have equal numbers and we try to keep people of like interests together so they have a voice,” Glick said.
Indiana gained population this year, with growth mostly in the Indianapolis area and in central Indiana. Rural areas lost population, which will mean that rural districts may be geographically larger in order to capture enough population.
Abbott said that, over in the House, lawmakers had to change the location of their sessions to the Government South building for social distancing.
“It’s like an Amway convention at an old Best Western hotel,” he joked.
Coping with COVID has slowed the work, Abbott said, with fewer bills introduced and fewer bills passed. He said 600 bills were introduced in the House, with 118 passed. The Senate introduced 404 bills and passed 108.
Abbott said HB101, the budget bill, is balanced and will pass out of the House on Monday. He said Indiana has a AAA credit rating, one of only three states with that rating.
Sales tax revenues for 2020 are better than expected, Abbott said. Many bills address issues that have roots in the pandemic. He said the COVID Immunity bill is something that restaurants, businesses and nursing homes wanted to protect themselves from lawsuits filed by people who may have contracted the virus in their establishments.
The bill, if passed, provides protection but doesn’t absolve businesses of all accountability. Abbott said accountability can be addressed through civil lawsuits.
Audience members questioned the lawmakers on teacher pay, election integrity, concealed-carry gun permits and broadband access among the topics during the question-and-answer part of the forum.
Retired Kendallville banker Jerry Kessler bluntly told the lawmakers that teachers are the “backbone” of the community in helping children develop into productive adults and should be paid a living wage, not minimum wage. He suggested teachers have a minimum salary of $60,000.
“You’re telling teachers that we don’t want to pay them for their jobs,” Kessler said.
Kessler said he was in favor of private schools and that some of his family members attended private schools. He said no voucher money should go to homeschooled students because “Indiana is the only state that doesn’t supervise homeschool.”
Both lawmaker defended the state’s educational policy. Glick said two-thirds of the state budget is dedicated to education with one-third of the budget to do everything else. She said one problem is low base salaries for new teachers, who are coming out of college with student loans and are trying to establish their households. Local school boards determine salaries.
Abbot said the legislature chose to pay schools 100% for virtual learning students during the pandemic instead of the established rate of 85%. He said school consolidations and reducing regulations for districts are other ways to help public schools.
“Indiana is fourth in the nation for the amount in its budget that is dedicated to education,” Abbott said. “Choice is going to be the future. Parents say they want private schools. Funding has to come with the student.”
One man asked the lawmakers what Indiana was doing to cooperate with other states in “regaining election integrity.”
The questioner referred to Indiana joining 22 other states in a Texas lawsuit filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in December to overturn the vote results in four states, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, ruling that Texas did not have legal standing to sue and lacked legal interest in how other states conduct elections.
Lower courts dismissed 60 lawsuits alleging election fraud for lack of evidence.
Abbott said the offices of the secretary of state and attorney general would handle election matters and not the legislature.
Glick said she is carrying a bill in the Senate that would abolish any ban on any election laws in the future, even though Indiana didn’t change any of its election laws in 2020. She claimed governors in other states used the pandemic as an excuse to suspend or change election procedures.
The Republican lawmakers also touched on the issue of limiting the governor’s executive power to make decisions during long-term, statewide emergencies like the pandemic. Lawmakers have complained that Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, didn’t consult them during months of the “Back on Track” plan.
Glick is carrying SB407 to limit the governor’s executive orders to 30 days for emergencies that affect 10 or fewer counties and 30 days for statewide emergencies. She cited the pandemic and the hacking of state computer systems by a foreign power as examples of statewide emergencies.
The bill provides that in case of a statewide emergency, the governor would have to call an advisory council of House and Senate leadership on Day 15 of the 30-day executive order to be part of decision-making going forward.
Glick also said there’s consideration being given to amend the Indiana Constitution to allow the Indiana General Assembly to call itself into special session. At present, only the governor has that power.
Abbott supports the legislative council concept and said the corresponding HB1123 also specifies that churches can’t be closed by executive order.
The bill also bans local health department officials from issuing more restrictive executive orders in a public health crisis that the state has issued. Health department officers would be forced to consult with county commissioners in an extended public health emergency.
Liognier Police Chief Bryan Shearer praised the lawmakers for HB1006 that funds diversity, de-escalation and bias training for police, but urged them to listen to law enforcement concerns before repealing the concealed-carry permit law. Shearer said the permit requirement means police get valuable information about who should and should not be permitted to carry a weapon.
Shearer said there is a difference between the right to own a firearm and the right to carry a weapon, either openly or concealed. He said the bill under consideration doesn’t take away the right to own a gun, but it does limit the presence of a weapon.
“We had 7,200 people that were vetted for mental illness who did not need a gun,” Shearer said. “The permit process lets law enforcement know that you have a gun. I ask that the permit process remain intact for information.”
In response to a question about broadband access to rural areas, Abbott said that $250 million has been appropriated to expand broadband to rural areas because it is a necessary utility, the same as electricity, water or sewer services, for remote work for adults and virtual and e-learning requirements for students.
He said providers are reluctant to “build that last mile” in rural areas because there are fewer customers to provide a return on their investment. Even so, providers don’t want to share that opportunity with others, either.
“REMCs have the infrastructure in place,” Abbott said. “The providers don’t want to go the last mile, but they don’t want anyone else to go there either.”
Glick mentioned Auburn as one of the small cities that began providing broadband access years ago and are now extending service to other nearby smaller communities.
“It helps people work from home and makes these communities more attractive to live and work there,” she said.
Glick said government’s job is to provide connectivity at an affordable cost so that residents, education and businesses are served.