State representative hopefuls battle over schools, roads, money

Two candidates running to represent northern Johnson County in the state legislature sparred over school choice, road funding and the minimum wage in a debate this week.

Republican incumbent Woody Burton, of Whiteland, and Democrat challenger Ed O’Connor, of Needham, are running for state representative in the 58th district, a position Burton has had since 1988. They met at the Greenwood Public Library on Tuesday night for a debate hosted by the Greater Greenwood Chamber and the Friends of the Greenwood Public Library.

The candidates highlighted clear differences in their agendas, such as disagreement over whether the state should provide school vouchers, if the gas tax should be raised to fund road projects and if a higher minimum wage is needed.

But on two issues they found consensus. Burton, a real estate broker, and O’Connor, a retired veterinarian, agree that a bipartisan committee should be in charge of setting up the election districts. Both also want the state to take an intentional approach to tackling drug addition by treating is as an illness rather than a crime.

The two candidates were asked what their criteria would be for changes to Indiana’s constitution.

Changes to the constitution need to be take seriously, avoid following fads or special interest pressure and protect civil rights, O’Connor said.

Constitutional amendments provide the state with control over what is going on, Burton said. For example, he wants the voters to decide on rules governing which restrooms people use, he said.

“I believe that if somebody tells me my kids or my grandkids has to share a bathroom with somebody of the opposite sex, I have the right to say something about that,” Burton said. He was referring to an issue that surfaced earlier this year, when the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education released guidance that transgender students should use the restroom or locker room they identify with, not their birth gender.

When issues such as these come up, the public should have a chance to vote on them, he said.

Here’s a look at where the candidates stand on education funding, how to pay for road work and the minimum wage.

‘Orchestrated attack’

“Public education is under an orchestrated attack,” O’Connor said.

Indiana’s school voucher program, which covers a portion of the cost to send children to private schools, has taken away money from public schools, he said.

The result is larger class sizes and fewer programs for the schools that educate the vast majority of Indiana’s students, O’Connor said.

The state legislature spends 60 percent of its budget on education, and that funding has continued to increase, Burton said.

Parents should have the right to choose how their child is educated, and school choice is especially beneficial to low income families, who otherwise wouldn’t have that option, he said.

Only a small percentage of the education budget goes to charter or private schools, Burton said.

The choice to attend a private school shouldn’t be sponsored by tax dollars, O’Connor said.

Where’s the money?

Neither candidate disputed that more funding is needed for Indiana’s roads but disagreed on where that money should come from.

Options such as an increased gas tax or toll roads should be an option for funding road improvements, which is one of the top priorities of the legislature, Burton said.

An increase to the state gas tax would be a huge mistake, O’Connor said.

Living wage

Indiana workers deserve to be able to earn a living wage and not have to rely on food stamps, O’Connor said, but he didn’t specify how much he wants the minimum wage to increase.

National chains aren’t harmed by minimum wage increases, O’Connor said. His example: A Papa John’s pizza can be bought for $5.99 in Seattle, which has an $11 minimum wage and in Greenwood, where the minimum wage is $7.25.

The market should decide what wages are, not the government, Burton said. An increase to the minimum wage just means a more expensive Big Mac, Burton said.

Several local restaurants already pay above the minimum wage in order to get the quality of employees that they need, he said.

Common ground

The candidates agree on several issues.

Both support having a bipartisan group in charge of state redistricting efforts after the 2020 census.

Gerrymandering has robbed voters of having viable choices in many elections across the state, O’Connor said.

Burton has been in office for nearly three decades but has only faced opposition in the general election several times, O’Connor said.

Both parties are guilty of gerrymandering, and fairer districts should be created, Burton said.

Another point they found agreement on was handling the influx of illegal drugs.

Treating drug addiction as an illness rather than a crime is essential, both candidates said.

The cost of treatment is much cheaper than sending people away to jail, O’Connor said.