Taxes, schools focus of session

A proposed fuel tax for Hoosier motorists and the fate of the state’s On My Way Pre-K preschool program dominated discussions during a legislative town hall March 25 in Seymour.

State District 69 Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, state District 44 Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford and state District 45 Sen. Jim Smith of Charlestown discussed those issues and others and fielded questions from the dozen people who attended the hour-long session at the Jackson County Learning Center.

House Bill 1002, labeled the “Gas Tax” by some, is the proposal to raise the fuel tax 10 cents to help pay for the upkeep of the state’s roads and highways. If enacted, the tax also would increase one cent each year to adjust for inflation. That bill passed the House 61-36 on Feb. 16 and is now up for consideration in the Senate.

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Lucas voted for the bill in February and said it was a responsible decision to help solve an important problem for the state.

The measure would raise about $1.2 billion in revenue for roads each year and will cost the average Hoosier $5 per month.

“Tough decisions have to be made,” Lucas said.

After the meeting, Koch declined comment about the measure, but said there is a need for a plan to help pay for upkeep of state roads.

“I’d say right now I’m neutral on the subject,” Smith said following the meeting.

Lucas said he was confident a roads bill would pass this session because of a commitment by the legislature and Gov. Eric Holcomb to solve the issue.

Lucas said he voted for the bill despite a 2012 pledge he made to not raise taxes. Koch also signed that pledge.

When asked if he thought the vote violated his previous promise, Lucas said he did, but still felt he did the responsible thing by voting for the bill.

I made the pledge not anticipating the situations that have arisen, but I believe I made the right vote by dealing with this issue in a responsible manner and not kicking the can down the road to stick future generations with the road funding problem,” he said. Lucas pointed out the tax had not been raised since 2003 and was in need of an update, especially with the conditions of the state’s roads.

David Ruble of Crothersville attended the meeting and discussed the tax.

He said he was completely against the tax before the meeting, but is now unsure because of the need for road updates.

Ruble said he felt all the representatives seemed to be working in good faith with the public, but he still didn’t learn as much about the legislative session as he thought he would.

”They seem like really decent guys,” he said. “I still didn’t learn as much as I would have liked to to give me more knowledge about the state’s plans.”

Much of Saturday’s talk involved the state’s On My Way Pre-K preschool pilot program.

Jackson County is one of five counties currently participating in the pilot program and there are 13 On My Way Pre-K providers throughout the county with a 14th one preparing to join that list.

At one point, Smith referred to the program as daycare and said it fostered a “dependency on government.”

Erica Woodward, project manager for Jackson County’s On My Way Pre-K program, disagreed.

”It’s just a label,” she said of referring to the program as day care. “We always promote to be kindergarten-ready in a classroom setting and day care is not a classroom setting.”

She then invited all three legislators to visit any of the providers, parents and students to see the program firsthand.

”I’m hoping some of them take me up on my invitation to come see what our program is all about,” she said.

”Many feel that preschool isn’t necessary, but it is because it gets children kindergarten-ready because you can’t throw a child that has never been in a classroom setting into a classroom with 30 kids.”

Lucas said he did not support the program, but that since it is now in a pilot stage, the state needs to commit resources to the program to see it through.

Koch said the state has been weighing whether or not to expand the program to five more counties.

”Right now we don’t have enough data to expand to 10 counties,” he said.

Woodward said she would like to see an expansion.

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}The legislators also took time to discuss the state’s drug problem. Koch said the state is taking a three-prong approach of prevention, treatment and enforcement to help alleviate the problem.{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}He said it is an expensive problem to solve.{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}”It cannot be solved through enforcement alone,” Koch said.{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}He said much of the problem stems from people “doctor shopping” to get multiple prescriptions of opioids.{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}Koch shared data that showed from January 2016 until the end of September 2016 there were more than 102,000 opioid prescriptions issued in Jackson County alone.{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}”We all know people that need medicine, but that’s a staggering number,” he said.{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}Opioids have also been responsible for many people using heroin, he said.{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}Koch said he thought this session has been a good one because the legislature has worked on important issues and stayed clear of the more controversial issues.{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}”It’s not one that’s been dominated by controversial issues that we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “It’s been a very constructive session — mostly bipartisan — and differences in opinion are always going to happen but I think it’s been a good session on fundamental issues to the health, safety and education and the economy of the state.”{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}Lucas said participating in town halls is one of his favorite parts of being in the legislature because of the opportunity to discuss issues with constituents.{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}”It provides an opportunity to engage with the public and discuss the issues and what is going on during session,” he said.{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}Lucas said he was discouraged that so few took part in Saturday’s session.{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}

{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}{span class=”_5yl5”}{span}{span}”It’s kind of sad to see so few people take advantage of these opportunities to meet with and question their elected representatives,” he said.{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}{/span}

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Jordan Richart is a correspondent for The (Seymour) Tribune.