Statehouse update


The first month of this year's legislative session came to a close last week, and the economy continues to dominate most discussions at the Statehouse, including how Indiana might spend its share of President Obama's federal stimulus package. Once again, reporters from the Franklin College Statehouse Bureau provide a great roundup of the top stories from state government over the past week. Our thanks to Renee Bruck, Katie Coffin and Eric Bradner.

Daniels ready to spend

Indiana will spend federal stimulus money quickly to spur job growth once that money reaches the state, Gov. Mitch Daniels said Wednesday. ??

Daniels said Indiana would get between $4 billion and $5 billion under the federal stimulus package the U.S. House passed Tuesday. That package gives the governor authority to decide how to spend much of those billions.

Spending the money quickly on one-time programs that will create jobs for Hoosiers, Daniels said, will be his priority as he determines how to spend the stimulus money. ?Before it reaches the state, the federal stimulus package, which is currently carrying a price tag of more than $800 billion, must also pass the U.S. Senate. Then, the House and Senate must iron out their differences before the package goes to President Obama to sign.

But with unemployment rising rapidly, Daniels said it's critical the state be ready to spend stimulus dollars to create jobs as soon as it reaches the state's bank account. Daniels named roadway construction, clean water projects and weatherization as programs he'd direct stimulus money toward. ??

According to the governor, the Indiana Department of Transportation is nailing down a list of already-planned projects, and will begin accepting bids on some of those projects as early as Monday. ??

"Our plan is to be out of the gate as fast as any state ... in getting these projects started," Daniels said.??

Of Indiana's share of the stimulus plan the House passed Tuesday, more than $1 billion would go straight to school corporations. Daniels urged schools to spend their money on one-time projects and not to rely on those higher spending levels and build the money into their base budgets. He said the state couldn't sustain that level of education funding after the stimulus money dried up.

Unemployment woes

With more than 8 percent of Hoosiers out of work, state lawmakers on Thursday discussed ways to make sure the state can pay for unemployment checks itself, rather than continuing to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government to cover those payments. ??

Department of Workforce Development Commissioner Teresa Voors told the House Labor and Unemployment Committee that the state has already borrowed $300 million through a federal government credit line. She said unless the Legislature refills the state's unemployment insurance trust fund coffers, it will have to continue borrowing money to write unemployment checks. ??

After heated questioning, lawmakers said it's crucial to fix the state's starved unemployment insurance trust fund. "This is going to be a highly emotional issue. We have a lot to cover," said the committee's chair, Rep. David L. Niezgodski (D-South Bend). "I, everyone else at this table and the rest of the General Assembly has got to play a role. We have got to do this in a bipartisan means."??

Business leaders also testified to the need for action. ??"Unemployment isn't going down, it's going up," said George Raymond with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce about the newly released 8.2 percent unemployment rate in Indiana. ??

While many agree that something must be done to reverse the problem of the unemployment insurance trust fund, not many solutions were brought forth. ??"We ought to plan for what we [have] before us," said Ed Roberts of the Indiana Manufacturers Association. "We've got about 50 patches that we've been building for years. The question is which of the patches needs to be sown together to make the quilt."

Recycling waste as energy

The House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee approved measures Tuesday that would require the state to study ways livestock waste can be transformed into renewable energy, change the way corn market funds are accounted for and increase the sum in the grain indemnity fund by $5 million.

Rep. F. Dale Grubb (D-Covington) introduced House Bill 1033. It requires the utility livestock group to explore the use of livestock waste anaerobic digestion systems as a renewable energy source in hopes that it will aid in economic development.

Grubb said this can "enhance the possibilities of renewable energy," which could also attract more jobs to Indiana.

Rep. Joe Pearson (D-Hartford City) introduced HB 1217 and HB 1218.

HB 1217 would require the corn market development council's money to go into the corn market development account, which is an account in the general fund.

Kent Yeager, director of public policy with Indiana Farm Bureau, and Cress Hizer, president of the Agribusiness Council of Indiana, both testified in support of the bill.

HB 1218 would increase the amount of money that needs to be in the grain indemnity fund from $10 million to $15 million. This means that if the fund drops to $10 million, the grain indemnity fund board can begin collecting money again.

A few committee members expressed concern that, since the fund currently exceeds $15 million, there may not be a need for legislation. Hizer said the state needed the extra protection.

"This is innovative. It's great public policy," Hizer said.

All three bills passed through the committee without a single negative vote.

Anti-terrorist investing

Tuesday, the House Committee on Labor and Employment approved a measure that would prevent the state's public pension funds from investing in companies that do business in terrorist nations.

House Bill 1547, sponsored by Rep. David Niezgodski (D-South Bend), is similar to the Sudan divestment bill that previously passed through committee and became law. This bill addresses the countries of Iran, Syria and Cuba.

Niezgodski described the bill as a close mimic of the Sudan bill but with a much longer time frame than the bill that addresses Sudan.

"We're not saying that companies that do business in Iran automatically support terrorism, but millions of American investors are unwittingly and unintentionally indirectly supporting terrorist-sponsored regimes like Iran by sending state employees' hard earned investment dollars to companies that do business with those regimes," said Christopher Holton with the Divest Terror initiative.

Holton also said that other states have seen more of a return from terror-free investing than with investing with companies that have business dealings in terrorist states.

After testimony from other witnesses in support of the bill, the committee approved HB 1547, 11-0.

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