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Indiana’s Top Stories Of 2017

Here are the top stories from Indiana in 2017.

Photo: Emmy Beltre

Here are the top stories from Indiana in 2017.

Indiana Restaurant Owner Deported, Drawing National Attention

Roberto Beristain owned a popular restaurant in northern St. Joseph County. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Officers detained him this spring during a routine check-in.

The story drew national attention in part because his wife voted for Donald Trump for president.

“We don’t want to have cartels here, you don’t want to have drugs in your high schools, you don’t want killers next to you,” Helen Beristain says. “You want to feel safe when you leave your house. I truly believe that. And, this is why I voted for Mr. Trump.”

His family says he came to the U.S. illegally in 1998 but had since gotten documentation to work here. He has a driver’s license and pays taxes. Shortly after detaining him, ICE deported Beristain to the U.S.-Mexico border at Juarez. It’s unclear when he could reenter the U.S.

State Lawmakers Spark Controversy

Abortion

Lawmakers passed a law related to abortion this year, but some provisions were blocked by a federal judge.

If an underage girl doesn’t or can’t get consent for an abortion from her parents, she can go to court for that consent. The new law says a judge can decide whether the parents have to be informed of that hearing. Judge Sarah Evans Barker says girls asking a court for consent are sometimes subject to threats of abuse or intimidation from their parents.

Alcohol Laws

A convenience store chain caused an uproar this year when owner Jay Ricker discovered a loophole that allowed him to sell cold beer, despite a state law that says only liquor stores are allowed to sell cold beer. Lawmakers quickly worked to close the loophole.

A legislative study committee worked over the summer to gather public input and draft recommendations for what steps lawmakers should take next. That committee failed to get enough support to recommend expanding cold beer sales.

The 2018 legislative session kicks off in January, and one lawmaker has already taken steps to introduce a bill that would allow limited alcohol sales on Sundays.

State Blocks Bloomington Annexation Efforts

Bloomington city officials proposed annexing about 10,000 acres of property into the city. State lawmakers later blocked the proposal.

Photo: City of Bloomington

Bloomington city officials proposed annexing about 10,000 acres of property into the city. State lawmakers later blocked the proposal.

Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton announced this year the city’s intention to annex about 10,000 acres of property into the city limits. After a lengthy period of public meetings, the state legislature put language in the two-year budget that blocked the city from pursuing the effort.

City officials responded by filing a lawsuit claiming the legislature’s action is unconstitutional. City officials say they spent at least $770,000 on the annexation proposal before the state halted it.

In October, a judge denied the state’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. But, the state can appeal that decision.

Hate Crimes Legislation Dies Again

Indiana remains one of just five states with no hate crimes law on the books. Efforts to pass a bias crimes law have failed in recent years, but groups continue to push for it. As the 2018 legislative session nears, Republican leaders in both the House and Senate say it’s the other chamber that controls the fate of the bill.

Several crimes throughout the state this year could potentially be prosecuted as bias crimes, if such a law existed:

An investigation is ongoing in a string of church vandalism in Bartholomew County and Brown County.  A vandal painted racially-offensive messages at three locations in Bloomington in October. Bloomington officials say 13 hate crimes were reported between July 2016 and Aug. 25, 2017.

Syringe Exchange Controversy

Several counties approved syringe exchange programs when the state gave them the option in 2015. This legislative session, lawmakers passed a law that allows county officials to establish a program without having to get permission from state health officials first. The law went into effect Jul. 1, but no new counties have approved a syringe exchange program since then.

In fact, two counties with established programs reversed positions. Both Lawrence and Madison County officials voted not to renew their programs this year.

Monroe County became the first to renew its program for two years instead of one, another provision of the new law.

WATCH: A live discussion about syringe exchanges from Dec. 14

Healthcare In Indiana

Two of four insurers offering plans on Indiana’s Affordable Care Act exchange announced in June they were pulling their plans for next year, citing uncertainty surrounding the future of Obamacare and volatility in the market.

And, Gov. Eric Holcomb is asking the federal government for permission to add a work requirement to the state’s Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0 which serves low-income Hoosiers.

Confusion Over Legal Status Of CBD Oil

A new state law allows seizure patients who sign up for a new registry to possess Cannabidiol, or CBD, without fear of being prosecuted for it. The law set off months of confusion for both patients and businesses that sell CBD.

Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill issued an opinion last month saying possession of CBD is illegal, except for those with treatment-resistance epilepsy. The decision came after months of confusion over whether stores could stock the oil. Many had been since 2014, when lawmakers legalized industrial hemp.

Rep. Jim Lucas plans to introduce a bill that would clear up the ongoing confusion over the substance.

RELATED: Watch the WFIU & WTIU News documentary ‘Cannabidiol, Kids & Politics’

I-69 Delayed (Again)

The Indiana Department of Transportation continues efforts to complete Interstate 69, which will eventually run the length of the state.

Section 5 runs between Bloomington and Martinsville. It was supposed to be complete by October 2016, but after months of delays and financial trouble, the new completion date is set for August 2018.

Section 6 will run between Martinsville and Indianapolis. INDOT unveiled the planned route for this section, but funding has not been secured.

Terre Haute’s Budget Woes Worsen

Terre Haute has long operated at a multi-million dollar deficit, but the issue came to a head this year when state audits raised doubts about the city’s ability to continue operating as a municipality.

City and Vigo County officials say Mayor Duke Bennett should have informed them of the problems much earlier. City Council approved a 2018 budget in October that cuts about $2 million, chipping away at the $8 million deficit.

WATCH: A live discussion about Terre Haute from Sep. 21

County Jails Struggle With Overcrowding

Just about every Indiana county is struggling with more inmates than the county jail can contain. A proposed new jail in Vigo County is effectively on hold after critics raised questions about its projected costs. In the meantime, the county is housing inmates at other jails.

In Marion County, at least 16 inmates at the Indianapolis jail were recently sleeping on mattresses on the floor in holding cells.

Officials in Bartholomew County decided to spend more than $2,200 to reinforce jail cell doors after three officers were injured during a disturbance.

A recent state Supreme Court rule is allowing some counties to experiment with releasing some people charged with a crime without requiring a bail payment.

RELATED: Watch “Justice For All?” an in-depth look into the state’s public defender system:

Education: Graduation Requirements & Testing

ISTEP Replacement

After years of problems with administration and vendors for the state’s standardized test, the ISTEP, the General Assembly crafted legislation to create a new test. ILEARN, the replacement, is for students in grades 3-8, will be given on a computer and allow Indiana scores to be compared with scores nationally.

Graduation Requirements

The Indiana State Department of Education approved new requirements for high school graduation this year. The controversial move sparked opposition from some school leaders, teachers, parents and professional associations.

Federal Diploma Requirements

Indiana’s high school graduation rate is expected to drop significantly when new federal guidelines take effect at the end of this school year.

The Every Student Succeeds Act changes the requirements for getting a high school diploma.

Under the federal law, thousands of general diplomas would no longer count. General diplomas require fewer math, social studies and science credits – and less testing. The change could decrease the state’s graduation rate by as much as 12 percent.

State officials are asking for a delay in the change, to allow INSBOE to prepare.

Hoosiers Watch Total Solar Eclipise

A child watches the solar eclipse from the shores of Lake Monroe.

Photo: Barbara Brosher

A child watches the solar eclipse from the shores of Lake Monroe.

Hoosiers joined millions of people in watching a solar eclipse on Aug. 21. Southern parts of the state achieved 99 percent totality, while thousands of Hoosiers traveled across the southern border to experience a total eclipse.

A southern Indiana brewery got in on the excitement by creating a special brew just for the eclipse.

Are you still hanging on to your eclipse viewing cards or glasses? A few local organizations are collecting them for use in the next solar eclipse.

Much of Indiana is in the path of totality for the solar eclipse in 2024!

Rural Utility Provider With Highest Rates In Indiana Faces FBI Investigation

The Utilities District of Western Indiana provides electricity to about 16,000 homes across several south-central Indiana counties. A WFIU & WTIU news investigation revealed UDWI customers pay the highest rates in the state and one of the highest rates in the Midwest.

After allegations of money mismanagement, the co-op board fired CEO Brian Sparks in June. Sparks is now suing UDWI claiming breach of contract and unpaid wages. The FBI is actively investigating.

See a complete timeline below: 

East Chicago Continues Struggle With Lead Contamination

The lead and arsenic contamination in East Chicago, Indiana has not been cleaned up. The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered six companies to clean up contaminated soil and indoor dust at the federal Superfund site. The cleanup is expected to cost four times initial estimates.

Residents are suing several companies over the contamination, alleging they “wreaked havoc” in the neighborhood.

Learn more in Blood, Lead & Soil: A Year In East Chicago:

In 2016, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland told residents of West Calumet Housing Complex they had to move out because of lead and arsenic contamination. The announcement sparked a year of frantic action from residents, public officials, activists, and lawyers that’s still ongoing.

Indiana Public Broadcasting looks at the past year and takes stock of what’s ahead. Click to see exclusive video, photos, audio and documents and listen to the full broadcast.

Protesters Ramp Up Opposition To Logging In State Forests

Activist groups increased efforts to prevent timber harvest in state forests this year. In the 2017 legislative session, a bill that would have set aside 10 percent of forests where logging could not occur died in committee without enough support to pass. Although lawmakers have previously proposed such legislation, this marked the first proposal with bi-partisan support.

The DNR Division of Forestry this year sold timber rights to about 1,700 trees on a tract of back-country in Yellowwood State Forest. Protesters fought to prevent the sale and continued efforts after Hamilton Logging got the bid.

Logging on the tract began in mid-December, but protesters are not deterred. The Indiana Forest Alliance is already promoting a bill for the 2018 session that would set aside a portion of state forests to be protected from logging.

Division of Forestry officials have long maintained that timber harvest is a tool for healthy forest management; older trees are removed so that young trees have room to grow.

The DNR launched a new web page this year: yellowwoodtruth.com. The site explains the division’s reasons for timber harvests in the state-owned forests.

Watch: Timber Buying and Best Management Practices (DNR video):

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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