Southern Indiana lawmakers outline goals for 2023 session
Indiana lawmakers are tasked with an extraordinary challenge this session: creating a biennial state budget amid the highest inflation in decades while attempting to advance legislation that will serve their constituents.
Local lawmakers representing Southern Indiana say that will mean looking ahead for ways to improve the state’s health, education, public safety and workforce systems while not losing progress made in years past.
The legislators outlined their goals last week ahead of the first day of the session Monday, to LPM News and during a breakfast hosted by One Southern Indiana, the area’s chamber of commerce.
Republican Sen. Chris Garten is the Senate majority floor leader and represents District 45, which covers Clark and part of Floyd County.
He said state fiscal numbers are strong, even showing a current surplus of funds. But he said it may be a year or two before the state sees the effects of an economic downturn, and lawmakers have to be prepared.
“I think balancing budgets is what got us to where we are today, what's allowed us to continue to make historic investments in things like K through 12,” he said.
“And so that's why those reserve accounts are so critical during the bullish time, because really what it's doing is creating a buffer so that when that recession does happen, we don't have to cut [into] those accounts.”
Garten, who’s also on the Budget and Appropriations committees, said Senate Republican priorities this session include support for mental health services and K through 12 education. The GOP holds a steady majority in both chambers of state government.
He also wants to see an increase in state police pay to about $70,000 starting annual salary, which Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, proposed in his 2023 agenda.
Garten said Senate Republicans are also committed to paying down the teacher pension fund. It’s expected to be paid off within six years, which Garten estimated will free up around $1 billion in cash flow to the state each year.
Sen. 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'll proceed cautiously.
“There’s a lot of asks, and we'll have to just go through those…and figure out what our priorities will be.”
Byrne’s goals include legislation with Republican Rep. Karen Engleman that would involve Indiana joining other states in allowing homeowners whose septic systems have failed to get a new system installed that would discharge the water on top of the ground.
Byrne is also proposing a measure that would require the Indiana Department of Transportation to get approval from a local governing board before building certain infrastructure like roundabouts.
Rep. Ed Clere is a Republican representing District 72, which covers New Albany.
One of his priorities this session is to help address workforce issues by creating more training that would allow workers to gain skills and higher pay between companies.
“What I'm trying to figure out with this legislation is how do we create an ecosystem…that facilitates upskilling workers in Company A, who are looking for something more and have the interest and the aptitude to succeed at Company B,” he said. “How do we upskill those folks and help them move over to Company B, while not hurting Company A?”
Clere, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee and is the chair of its Health and Medicaid subcommittee also has plans for legislation that aims to improve health care and education, including special education funding.
He’s also introducing legislation that would allow voters using in-person early absentee voting to be able to insert their ballots into a scanner. The current system involves members of the election board opening and scanning thousands of ballots on Election Day. Under Clere’s proposal, the votes would be scanned by the voters, but still not tallied until Election Day.
Clere, who took office in 2008, said it’s also the first time during his tenure that inflation has been as high as it is.
“So that's going to be one of the biggest challenges the Legislature faces.”
Rep. Rita Fleming is a Democrat representing District 72, which covers Jeffersonville. She said she hopes a bill that would increase access to birth control – by allowing pharmacists to prescribe it to people over 18 – will pass this year, after failing to pass over the last several years. Currently people must get a prescription for birth control from their provider.
Fleming has proposed the measure during previous sessions, most recently as an amendment to an existing bill during the 2022 special session. Fleming has since said she’s focused on educating other legislators on what the bill would do.
“There's a fear that pharmacists will then extend their prescribing ability…that they might prescribe things other than contraceptives,” Fleming said. “That's not allowed. And this bill clearly states that this is a very well defined arena for the pharmacists to provide greater access to women for birth control.
“I'm very optimistic that that bill will be favorably received, because I think people see the need for this.”
Fleming added that she hopes lawmakers will continue their support of health care and education investments and not change course in the face of a challenging economy.
“We did raise teacher salaries, and that was commendable, but inflation has more than erased the raises that we legislated,” she said. “So we have to be realistic and not pat ourselves on the back for what we've done, but we have to look at the impact of inflation all across the board.”
Fleming is also pursuing legislation to bring skilled trade training to middle schools and improve the support for young people in foster care after they turn 18.
This year’s regular legislative session follows a special session Holcomb called in the summer, during which lawmakers passed a restrictive bill banning abortion in most cases. There are narrow exceptions only for rape or incest.
That law is currently blocked, and the state supreme court is expected to hear oral arguments on a challenge to the law on Jan. 19.
Sen. Garten told LPM News last week that while he hadn’t seen all the proposed Senate bills for the session, it’s likely there could be some measures drafted related to abortion this session.
He added the law passed during the special session was a “good landing spot.”
“We'll see what the courts decide, [but] we feel confident in the legislation that we passed, and I've gotten good positive feedback from the majority of my constituents,” he said.
Fleming said the recent law makes her birth control bill even more important this year.
The session is expected to adjourn in mid-April.
Coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by Samtec, Inc. and the Hazel & Walter T. Bales Foundation.