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In a lot of ways this year’s General Assembly budget session will be a familiar one despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with legislators’ primary focus set on passing a balanced two-year budget, debating education funding increases and building back the state’s cash reserves.

While more than 1,000 bills have been introduced this session, those are the Assembly’s top priorities, Kokomo’s local state legislators said Friday at 2021’s first Third House Session.

Held by the Greater Kokomo Chamber of Commerce at Inventrek, State Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, and Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo, were in attendance and spent one hour detailing their legislative priorities and answering questions from the public over Zoom.

Here’s some of the issues talked about Friday.

EXECUTIVE AUTHORITY

While many of the issues talked at the state legislator will cover familiar ground, such as education, the debate over Gov. Holcomb’s emergency executive authorities have been brought up solely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Numerous bills have been authored looking to limit the governor’s emergency powers. HB 1123 limits how many times the governor can renew an emergency declaration. Currently, every 30 days the emergency declaration can be renewed. Under the bill, the governor would need legislative approval to extend that first declaration for another 30 days.

Some other bills forbid the governor and local officials from closing schools or churches. Others specify that business restrictions must be applied equally across an entire industry such as not allowing big retailers with multiple services to operate at the expense of smaller, specialty shops.

Sen. Buck has authored his own bill on emergency powers. In it, SB 75, any order from the executive or judicial branch that “invades the constitutional or lawful authority of the legislative branch” is null and void unless approved by the General Assembly.

“Even though it should be clear to everyone we have three coequal branches of government, some of that has gotten out of wack,” Buck said. “It’s short and crisp, trying to send a message to the courts that yes, the legislative branch knows its place in the coequal branches of government and does not want the other two treading on us.”

EDUCATION & TEACHER PAY

Buck, Karickhoff and VanNatter did not specifically address the recently released report on the state’s teacher pay issue that found the state would need to make an investment of at least $600 million to remain competitive with other Midwestern states. The issue was not brought up by the legislators themselves nor was it one of the curated public questions asked Friday.

While Holcomb’s two-year budget calls for a 3% increase in K-12 spending over the next two years and a 2% increase in higher education over two years, it’s silent on the teacher pay issue and the aforementioned report, which he commissioned to be done.

Holcomb’s budget does propose investing into the teacher’s pension fund, freeing up $70 million annually. The idea is that school districts would then divert those savings to increase their teachers’ pay, though Holcomb’s budget doesn’t explicitly call or order districts to do so.

Karickhoff spoke positively of the governor’s proposal to pay down teacher’s pension debt.

“By paying down a big chunk of teacher pension debt, we’re going to continue to be able to invest in K12 education because that debt was being paid by local school corporations,” he said.

It’s up to the General Assembly as a whole if it will agree with the education spending bump. According to the Indianapolis Star, Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said earlier this month the GOP is hoping to increase education spending but didn’t outright commit to it and added the caucus would introduce a bill to expand the state’s private school voucher program.

MARIJUANA

For the third year in a row, VanNatter has introduced a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Under the bill, if someone is caught with less than two ounces of marijuana, they would not face jail time. The bill doesn’t outright legalize the recreational use of the drug, however.

“I have not got a commitment yet on whether it’ll get a hearing or not,” VanNatter said about his decriminalization bill.

A separate bill coauthored by VanNatter would establish a medical cannabis program in the state. Indiana is one of the few remaining states that has not full legalized medicinal marijuana.

As more and more states legalize recreational marijuana, there’s been a push by the public and some state legislators to legalize the drug in the Hoosier state. Democratic State Sen. Karen Tallian has authored two bills – one would establish a commission to regulate all forms of cannabis that have been legalized in the state, while the other would decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for adults and repeal marijuana possession as a level 6 felony.

Outright legalization of marijuana remains unlikely at the moment, as Gov. Holcomb has repeatedly said he is against legalization in part due to the federal government still classifying it as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the same as heroin.

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