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Lawmakers report good things from 116th session

May 20, 2009
Billed to be a final legislative meeting, Saturday morning's review of the 116th session of the Indiana General Assembly with Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, and Rep. Dennie Oxley I, D-Taswell, sponsored by the Crawford County Chamber of Commerce and held at the Crawford County Judicial Complex at English, ended up being an update instead.

Failing to pass a two-year budget prior to the end of the regular session, the legislature will convene in June for a special session.

"The governor is supposed to be putting together a proposal to the House and Senate leadership and their fiscal team," Young said, "and, if they can come up with an agreement, my hopes would be that we could go back in one or two days and agree on a budget and get the state funded."

Both Young and Oxley, who participated in his first General Assembly, voted for the two-year budget that the Senate proposed after an earlier one-year budget put forth by the House failed. The Republican-controlled Senate, Young said, did not favor a one-year budget, as the state traditionally has had a two-year budget.

"It wasn't a perfect budget," Young said of the Senate-proposed spending plan, "but I felt, under the financial circumstances and everything we were dealing with here in the state, it was about as good of a budget as we were going to get. It kept schools functioning; it kept all the state institutions functioning."

The budget passed in the Senate, but failed in the House, after Gov. Mitch Daniels threatened to veto it.

Oxley was one of just 27 House members to vote for the budget.

"I did vote for the budget as Sen. Young did, because, like him, I thought that was the best we were going to get," he said. "I thought, if we go to a special session, funding is going to be worse than it was at the time that we voted. So, I went with it, and it didn't get through the House, so the governor got his way."

This year's session, which lasted Jan. 7 through April 29, saw 184 bills pass both chambers. However, that represented just more than 14 percent of the 582 bills put forth in the Senate and 711 offered in the House, which may be a record low, Young said.

"That, I think, is very indicative of the financial troubles that we face through the world and, of course, here in Indiana, as well, and have been dealing with for some time," he said.

Both lawmakers said they were pleased that legislation to protect struggling Hoosiers, in the form of mortgage foreclosure assistance and shoring up the unemployment insurance trust fund, passed.

"To try to give people some relief and make it a little bit more difficult to foreclose property, we passed some legislation, SEA 492, which, in fact, puts some additional burden on lenders before they can foreclose property," Young said.

Mortgage lenders now will be required to send a written notice to homeowners in default and offer to meet with them to negotiate a foreclosure agreement.

Oxley said the state's unemployment insurance trust fund has about $1 billion in unfunded liability and the state has had to borrow from the federal government to make benefits payments.

"We did get a bill passed to try to help," he said. "It's not the answer; it's not going to correct it all, but at least it's going to help."

Daniels had proposed requiring people to work at least 42 weeks per year to be eligible for unemployment benefits, Oxley said. The problem, he explained, is that would have made many, if not most, construction workers, who are limited by the weather on how much they can work, ineligible.

"We were able to maintain unemployment benefits the same as they are now; there's no cut to the benefits to the workers," Oxley said.

Some employers, he said, will be required to pay higher unemployment insurance premiums, but "actually, we are still below the neighboring states on what we charge our employers to pay into unemployment benefits."

Both legislators said they were pleased that legislation pushed back changes to local government sought by the governor. Young also talked about lawmakers' success in preventing property tax caps being added to the Indiana Constitution. He said the caps are already state law and the constitution doesn't need to be amended.

The lawmakers also talked about other notable legislation, including some that they authored or co-authored, that was passed into law. They include:

•Requiring the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to maintain a small business division to assist small businesses in obtaining state and federal tax incentives.

•Expanding current law to allow tuition benefits to Indiana residents who have received a Purple Heart, no matter when they served in the military.

•Allowing military family leave to a biological child, an adopted child, a foster child or a stepchild of a person who is ordered to active duty.

•Protecting the Clean Water Indiana Fund from transfers to other funds.

•Using federal funds to identify areas in the state where telecommunications and information technology services are not available, in an effort to begin connecting them to the state's communication grid.

•Giving volunteer firefighters who are injured in the line of duty job protection for up to six months.

•Allowing golf carts to be driven by licensed drivers on roadways where local governments authorize doing so.

•Requiring state educational institutions to purchase mid-level blends of gasoline and ethanol, E85 and blended biodiesel fuel to the extent possible.

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