Local lawmakers discuss upcoming session, vaccine mandates at chamber event

Next year’s legislative session, school boards and vaccine mandates were a few of the hot topics at the county chamber’s latest event featuring local lawmakers.

State Rep. Michelle Davis, R-Whiteland, and State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, were the panelists Thursday night at Aspire Johnson County’s sixth Legislation Matters event, Pints and Policy, which took place as MashCraft Brewing in White River Township. Officials discussed their priorities in a Q-and-A format.

The first talking point was a look ahead toward the Indiana General Assembly’s 2022 session, which ceremonially began last week.

Walker has been playing defense this year due to changes in the local and national environment, he said.

Some lawmakers are reacting to things that are short-term, and not thinking about the long-term, Walker — who has been in office since 2006 — told the packed room of Johnson County’s business leaders. He also criticized lawmakers making more bills that turn local issues into state issues.

“I think we get ahead of ourselves if we don’t have some experienced people to say, ‘This is just a moment,” Walker said. “We’ve got ways to react to that moment that don’t require legislation.”

The conversation shifted toward the regulation of solar and wind farms, and what Walker says is a need to establish a fee similar to the Licensed Underground Storage Tax, or LUST. Earlier this month, the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. started work on two new solar farms in White and Jasper counties in northwest Indiana, and last month, Doral Renewables, an Israeli company, began work on a solar energy farm that is planned to cover some 13,000 acres across Starke and Pulaski counties in northern Indiana when completed, making it one of the largest in the country.

Lawmakers have not looked at the long-term impact of solar and wind farms, Walker said.

“We haven’t focused on what happens when thousands of acres of land becomes dedicated to industrial machinery (solar and wind farms) in rural communities and the money’s gone … and there’s no more profits, and now it’s time to disassemble and restore that land to its original form,” he said.

Walker told the audience he was looking to create a bill to implement a fee next session, saying renewable energy is not about leaving behind a super-fund site.

Davis’s priority is still education. She spent a majority of her first session talking to parents and educators about Critical Race Theory, The New York Times’ 1619 Project, socio-emotional learning and masks in schools, she said.

There is talk in the Statehouse about making school board positions partisan, and requiring candidates to declare their political party, Walker said. However, he doesn’t think its a great way for parents to exercise their influence of school boards, and it will create more partisanship. Instead, Walker is planning to file a bill that would give school board members the option to identify their party and leave it to local school districts.

Moderator Eric Prime, an Aspire board member and attorney at Van Valer Law Firm, asked business leaders in the audience their thoughts on the proposals. A majority of the audience was against requiring school board members to declare their party and making the position electable. In two follow-up questions, some said they would agree in making it optional, but the majority said to leave it as is.

Legislators were asked about what bills may be introduced as the state deals with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The House has had many discussions on vaccine mandates and has a working group, of which Davis is a member, she said.

The conversation shifted toward the vaccine mandate for private employers, which is currently being challenged in several states, including Indiana, in federal courts. Walker supports the state’s amicus briefs filed against the mandate, and said the federal government doesn’t have the range to tell private employers what to do.

With Indiana’s history as a an “at will” state, meaning employers do not need to have a good reason to terminate an employee, Walker believes it should be an employer’s decision to require a vaccine, and also that unions for companies, if they have one, should be able to weigh in as well.

Regardless of what happens at the federal level, Walker says the state shouldn’t restrict employers from implementing a mandate if they choose to do so. Davis agreed.

Legislators also discussed public transportation in Indiana, which is subsidized whether it’s a highway or a bus, Walker said. A decision may need to be made about how to pay for future infrastructure, as the state’s road and motor fuel excise taxes pay for about 30% of the cost of infrastructure, he said.

Next, lawmakers discussed tax cuts which are rumored following comments made by House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, on Monday when he said he the GOP-controlled House would support cuts to the state’s 3.23% individual income tax rate or expanded credits to reduce what income taxes are owed. Huston said a proposal would be finalized after an updated state revenue forecast is presented to legislators in about a month, The Associated Press reported.

However, Gov. Eric Holcomb on Thursday told reporters “we shall see” when asked about the tax cut possibility, and said the state’s revenue growth is likely influenced by federal COVID-19 relief spending.

State government saw overall tax revenue grow 14% during the last budget year as collections bounced back stronger than expected from the COVID-19 pandemic recession, pushing its cash reserves to $3.9 billion as of June 30. Tax revenue has kept growing, with the state collecting about $560 million, or 10%, more than expected during the four-month span through October.

The size of the state surplus is triggering Indiana’s automatic tax refund law, with about $545 million being divided evenly among taxpayers through an estimated $170 credit on state tax returns submitted next year.

Walker discussed the automatic refund with those in the audience, saying he doesn’t understand why lawmakers are talking about tax cuts when the state has the automatic refund procedure. He also said the surplus was likely influenced by the federal relief spending.

The county’s affordable housing crisis was the final topic of the night.

Davis said it has been a topic of discussion that House leadership wants lawmakers to learn more about. Lawmakers are looking for an answer to fix it, but they don’t have one yet, she said.

Right now global markets are experiencing a big ripple, causing disruptions virtually everywhere, especially in home construction, Walker said. In a global economy, it’s difficult to connect the dots on what is causing the issue, so there’s not one person truly in charge of it.

“Over time, it will start to rebound itself … but in the short-term it is a terrible problem, and I don’t know how to fix it,” he said.

Looking ahead to the upcoming legislative session, Davis is looking forward to being in the actual House chamber, after having to be in a different rooms due to COVID-19 safety protocols. She is working on several bills, and told the audience she’s open to hear from them and learn about what issues matter to her constituents.

“If you would have asked me two years ago (whether) I would ever write a bill, I probably would have said absolutely not (unlike now),” Davis said.

Walker told business leaders he wants his constituents to reach out to him about issues and criticized lobbyists at the Indiana Statehouse and the lack of reaching across party lines in Congress.

“We are only as good as the people we listen to in the Statehouse, and there are people who are paying a lot of money to talk to us, and (they) are not necessarily the ones we should be listening to,” he said. “If I think a big money interest is going to do something to harm our citizens, I’m going to speak out against it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.