This week marked the first full week of the 2018 legislative session. Gov. Eric Holcomb delivered his State of the State, Sunday alcohol sales took a historic step, and a Senate panel voted to expand food stamps to ex-offenders.
Holcomb Addresses DCS In State of the State
Gov. Holcomb waited until close to the end of his speech to the General Assembly to address the ongoing crisis at the Department of Child Services. He didn’t say much – mostly praise for the new director and caseworkers. But he did promise to provide progress reports before the end of the legislative session on an independent consultant’s review of the agency.
“We’ve engaged outside experts to conduct a complete assessment of the safety and welfare of our children,” he said. “We’ll be transparent and we’ll provide you directly with progress reports.”
The rest of Holcomb’s speech focused on his agenda and set new, specific benchmarks for the state to meet in the coming years, particularly in workforce development.
Holcomb focusing in on the state’s infant mortality problem. Sets goal to make Indiana best in Midwest by 2024 in that measure.
Indiana currently has 7th highest infant mortality rate in the country, and is worst among its neighbors. #INSOTS
— Brandon J. Smith (@brandonjsmith5) January 10, 2018
Sunday Sales Moves Forward Easily
A bill to legalize Sunday alcohol sales from noon to 8 p.m. easily and unanimously passed a Senate committee this week – the first time such legislation has ever advanced in that chamber.
“We know that alcohol will continue to have a role in our society as it always has, but what role are we going to give it?”
Public Policy Committee Chair Ron Alting (R-Lafayette) is the author of the bill. He says a key to its passage is support from both grocery and liquor stores – the first time those groups have ever agreed on the subject.
A House committee took testimony on its version of the measure, but will hold its vote next week.
The Coalition To Reduce Underage Drinking, represented by director Lisa Hutcheson, wants House lawmakers to require clerks to receive alcohol training, to increase the alcohol tax, and require stores to keep alcohol in a separate area, not scattered throughout.
“We are not prohibitionists. We know that alcohol will continue to have a role in our society as it always has,” Hutcheson says. “But what role are we going to give it? The role of convenience beverage that is as accessible as milk or candy?”
Food Stamps For Drug Offenders
Indiana is one of four states still blocking federally-funded food assistance for certain drug offenders. A Senate committee voted unanimously to advance a bill that would lift that lifetime ban.
Senate Bill 11 would open SNAP benefits to drug offenders, as long as they complete their parole and probation requirements as specified by the court.
The ban includes any conviction of a Schedule 1 drug offense, for example: cocaine, marijuana, opioids, and LSD.
School Funding Fix Advances
Legislation that would fix a school funding shortfall unanimously passed out of a key committee Wednesday.
The proposal would make up to $75 million dollars available this and next academic school year.
Public schools currently face a $16 million deficit, but lawmakers expect it to grow earlier next year when more data on students is available. Another shortfall for the 2018-19 school year could also happen, they say.
The funding gap was caused by a miscalculation in school enrollment. Around 6,300 more students attended public schools than expected this year.
Senate Republican Priorities
Republican lawmakers in the Senate unveiled their session priorities this week. Those include Sunday alcohol sales, the roll-out of mandated prescription monitoring to prevent opioid abuse, workforce development, and the regulation of property seizure.
Also included in those priorities is a bill to cover a school funding gap, by allowing the State Budget Agency to transfer reserve money.
Absentee Ballots & Voting After Death
All Hoosier voters could cast absentee ballots by mail without any excuse under legislation advanced Monday by the Senate elections committee.
“We don’t monitor [absentee voting]. We don’t show up at the person’s door to make sure they’re really out of town.”
Under current law, a voter must provide a reason they’re voting absentee by mail – for instance, they’ll be out of town on Election Day. The bill from Sen. Frank Mrvan (D-Hammond) would eliminate that requirement – anyone could vote absentee by mail.
Elkhart County Clerk Wendy Hudson represents the Indiana Clerks Association. She says no-excuse absentee voting will help increase voter participation. And she says asking for an excuse serves little function beyond filling out a line on a form.
“We don’t monitor it,” Hudson says. “We don’t show up at the person’s door to make sure they’re really out of town. We don’t call their employer to make sure that they’re really working.”
And the committee approved legislation to ensure every valid absentee vote is counted – even if the voter dies before Election Day. That approval comes despite objections from Secretary of State Connie Lawson’s office.
Benefits for Veterans
Military veterans won’t have certain financial resources considered when applying for tuition aid under legislation advanced Tuesday. The bill would ensure resources including GI Bill benefits and Social Security aren’t counted against veterans when applying for financial aid.
Hoosier veterans gathered at the Statehouse to meet lawmakers and talk about their priority issues for the fourth annual veterans legislative day. The group asked lawmakers to restore more veteran benefits, including tax breaks.