By JACOB CURRY

INDIANAPOLIS  —  Considering the attention that teacher pay and school safety have garnered over the last year or so here in Indiana, it might not be a stretch to say there are people in the Statehouse who have their work cut out for them early in 2019. 

State Senator Jeff Raatz (R-Richmond) has just taken the helm of the Senate Education Committee after Sen. Dennis Kruse relinquished the chair. Sen. Raatz believes he is transitioning to the chair position quite well, emphasizing that he’s not looking to rush the process or make rash changes to the approach of his predecessor. He summed up his strategy in one word, “thoughtful.” He says that means taking it slowly when it comes to understanding unfamiliar issues or establishing strong relationships with education leadership in the House and the new members of his committee. Raatz added that he and his fellow members have also looked for ways to better manage the committee’s time, especially during public testimony.

Raatz dubbed teacher pay and school safety as the top priorities on the education agenda this session. On the issue of teacher pay, he praised the proposal Gov. Holcomb put forward in his State of the State address, calling it “brilliant” and noted that it “took some of the heat off of us, or off of me, in respect to trying to at least come up with ideas.” Of course, the issue is one that falls more under the purview of the budgetary committees, but as Raatz recognized, “It certainly affects everything we do.”

Speaking on school safety, Raatz was optimistic on the Senate’s approach, a consolidation of four bills into the “hodgepodge” Senate Bill 266. In particular, Raatz singled out one of the bill’s fundamental provisions, that it will not use the Secured School Safety Grant program, as what he sees to be its best part. As other Republicans have expressed, Raatz stated that the provision keeps the SSSG funding program sustainable, preventing what he called a raid on the fund for the benefit of SB 266.

The senator also highlighted some of his own bills as ones to look out for, two of which are designed to help relieve pressure on teacher salaries. The first of these, Senate Bill 606, removes a limit in the Indiana code which states that certain factors (e.g. years of experience or holding a degree in additional content areas) may not account for more than 33.3% of the calculation used to determine a teacher’s salary increase. The second, Senate Bill 362, increases the income tax credit for teachers on spending for classroom supplies from $100 to $500 per year.

Raatz talked about a third bill as well, intended to improve Indiana workforce education programs. Senate Bill 420 creates further incentives for businesses to support industry credentialing Organizations, nonprofits who manage work-based learning initiatives for students, by offering a sizable 50% tax credit on all donations. The senator said he sees the bill as “a benefit all the way around.” However, he acknowledged that the benefit may not be shared equally, acknowledging that “in some respects, it’s selfish on an employer’s behalf, because the concept is, they’d be creating a workforce pipeline for themselves” but added that “at the same time they have skin in the game.” 

Regardless, Raatz said it’s in the best interest of the state and its students for these types of opportunities to be well-funded, and the senator sees SB 420 as a pathway to do so.

Looking forward, Raatz sounded assured of the direction his committee was taking. On the larger agenda, he did note that he has the usual concerns that come along with education – particularly competing for adequate funding in a tight budget – still, he remained optimistic in his assessment of the committee and the legislature: “I’m pleased at this point with where we’re at.”

Meredith says teachers weighing options

The president of Indiana’s largest teachers’ union says they’re waiting to see what lawmakers do before deciding whether to take more serious action (Atkinson, Indiana Public Media). Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith says the governor and legislators have indicated a willingness to make progress on teacher pay and benefits. Striking is illegal for all public employees in Indiana, including teachers. But Meredith says it doesn’t mean teachers won’t take action if needed. “If they do take off the table the things that they had put on the table, then it would certainly be time to regroup,” she says. Meredith says ISTA is planning a weekend rally during the middle of the legislative session. Recently, teachers in Los Angeles County walked out of schools and protested for six days before reaching an agreement that included a 6% pay raise and funds for classroom support staff. Meredith says Indiana teachers are seeking some of the same terms. “This is not just about money, this is also about the conditions in which our students learn,” she says.

Charbonneau water plan passes Senate

State Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, has crossed the first bridge required to put into effect key recommendations of Indiana’s 2018 Water Infrastructure Task Force (Carden, NWI Times). The longtime champion of improving the state’s water quality, capacity and distribution mechanisms on Monday won unanimous chamber approval for Senate Bill 4. 

The measure divides the state into water regions to promote local utility cooperation and consolidation, requires utilities to annually measure their water lost due to leaky pipes, mandates the governor appoint a “water czar” to coordinate state water programs and creates a state task force to tackle stormwater management issues. In addition, the legislation encourages water utilities to replace galvanized steel service lines at the same time as they replace their lead lines. 

“The issue is when you have galvanized lines that connect to lead lines, the galvanized lines will absorb the flaking that happens to the lead lines,” Charbonneau said. “So even if you come in and replace the lead lines, you’ve not completely fixed the problem.”  “If we pass this legislation, Indiana will be the first state in the nation to have a comprehensive removal plan. So it’s nice to become a leader in the water area that we just haven’t been up to this point in time.” The measure was approved 48-0 and now goes to the House.

Soliday’s Porter election bill advances

State Rep. Ed Soliday’s (R-Valparaiso) legislation improving efficiency and accountability in Porter County elections advanced out of the House of Representatives on Tuesday.  “Many issues emerged during the 2018 election in Porter County, including the delayed opening of 12 polling places and the complete disorganization of early and absentee ballots,” Soliday said. “By restructuring the board of elections and putting protocols in place, we can prevent the same collapse from happening during future elections.” Under this legislation, the number of officials on the Porter County Election Board would increase from three to five, all absentee and early voting ballots would be counted at a central location, and all employees would be subject to the rules in the county employee policy manual. Under the legislation, the election board’s director and assistant director would be chosen by the county clerk and must be from different political parties. Currently, the director is appointed by the county chair of the political party whose nominee for secretary of state won the popular vote in the county during the last election, and the assistant director is appointed by the county chair whose nominee received the second highest number of votes. Soliday said after reviewing the issues that emerged in the 2018 Porter County election, he discussed potential solutions with local officials from both parties and the secretary of state’s office. He said those discussions resulted in this legislation.  “This board structure has received tremendous support from state and local officials,” Soliday said. “The new organization would be more accountable and efficient, and provide more clarification for voters and the board.”

House passes Pryor transition bill

Indiana House members have passed legislation authored by State Rep. Cherrish Pryor (D-Indianapolis) that will ensure a smooth transition to office for newly-elected officials in local government. By a 97-0 margin, representatives passed House Bill 1140, which requires state and local officials to develop a checklist of pertinent information that the new officeholders would need to ensure a seamless transition from the incumbent official to the successor. “These checklists would include details like who has contracts, the number of employees in that office, their job descriptions, and salaries, along with a flow chart that shows a chain of command,” Pryor said. The lists would be required for offices at the township, town, city, and county levels.

Tax amnesty bill passes Senate

Indiana lawmakers considering property tax amnesty period (IBJ). The bill approved 48-0 by the Indiana Senate would allow counties to waive penalties and interest if overdue taxes are paid by May 2020.

Lawmakers consider tax on e-liquids

Indiana lawmakers are considering tax on e-liquids. House Bill 1444 would impose a tax of 8 cents per milliliter on e-liquids (IBJ). The tax could generate between $4.16 million and $7.33 million in annual revenue.

Volunteer firefighter bill expected to pass

Indiana volunteer firefighters may get some funding relief in the form of increased clothing allowances (Indiana Public Media). A bill at the Statehouse would double the minimum allowance each department distributes from $200 to $400. Sen. Rick Niemeyer is one of the bill’s three authors and says it is overdue. “At least 15 to 20 years it has not been increasing,” he says. “We all know what the increase in public safety and fire protection and all that plus the cost of equipment and stuff is a long time coming.” Niemeyer anticipates the bill to pass out of the House later this week.

Groups address teacher pay

Two education groups released a plan Tuesday to combat a teacher shortage in the state – and it’s not cheap (Kelly, Fort Wayne Journal Gazette). Lawmakers are in the middle of drafting a new two-year budget and have identified teacher compensation as a key priority. The Stand for Children Indiana and Teach Plus Indiana report assesses the state of the teaching profession in Indiana and puts forth several recommendations to combat teacher shortage and help retain teachers in the Hoosier State. The first is to increase funding for teacher pay to align teaching with other professions. Indiana should initiate a dramatic increase in funding for teacher compensation.