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STATEHOUSE REPORT FROM REP. NANCY DEMBOWSKI

February 13, 2011
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02/14/11 As we near the end of the first half of the 2011 session of the Indiana General Assembly, lawmakers are starting to address many of this year’s major issues.

            This week alone, the House approved three bills that impact education, voter rights and economic development. They are being praised as huge steps forward in helping Hoosiers.

            Take the time to examine them in more detail, however, and you begin to find all three measures raise more questions about the direction public policy is taking in our state rather than provide answers that can benefit Hoosiers.

            Most of our time was spent on House Bill 1002, which expands charter schools in Indiana.

            As I have mentioned before, charter schools are now a permanent part of the ongoing debate over the quality of education provided to our children. All I am asking is that these schools be as accountable for the quality of their work with children as public schools, and I do not believe that HB 1002 provides that guarantee.

            We are being asked to commit the same level of taxpayer dollars to both an expanded number of experimental charter schools AND our public school system. Based on the evidence, though, charter schools perform worse than those public schools that often get the most criticism from the governor.

            According to the state Department of Education, charter schools have eight of the 10 worst ISTEP passage rates. Charters are 21 of the bottom 25, and 31 of the bottom 50.

            So yes, accountability is very important for me, particularly when it appears new charter schools will be taking a larger piece of a smaller financial pie for education in Indiana. That means children who don’t have the chance to go to a charter will be forced to make do with less at their local school. Where is the fairness for them?

            It also is easy to support the idea of vote centers. These centers would replace the traditional neighborhood precincts with a smaller number of centralized locations around a county. They are designed to reduce the costs of running elections and make it more convenient for voters to get to the polls.

            A few years back, the Legislature created a pilot program that placed vote centers in three counties. Now advocates have brought forth Senate Bill 32, which would enable vote centers to expand statewide.

            While the idea of vote centers sounds OK, there has yet to be a thorough review of how the centers performed in the three pilot counties. SB 32 offers no standards for operating these centers. All you need is approval from the Board of Elections and you can go ahead, without following any sort of state or federal guidelines.

            Without greater oversight, I am worried we are creating potential problems in voter fraud. It also concerns me that SB 32 moved quickly through both the House and Senate without any serious consideration of other ideas to increase voter participation, such as expanded early voting and absentee voting, as well as voting by mail.

            And since there are no elections of any kind taking place before the end of session, does it send the right kind of message to make this the first bill to be placed on a fast track to the governor? Shouldn’t we be putting that kind of priority on bills that create jobs for Hoosiers?

            The only “jobs” bill we have heard so far has been House Bill 1007, which expands the ability of local units of government to offer incentives to attract businesses, but through tools like tax abatements that are as likely to drive up local property taxes as create jobs.

            What was disappointing is that the majority refused to change HB 1007 to include incentives tied to job creation.

            House Democrats proposed that more tax incentives be offered to small businesses, which create 80 percent of all new jobs in our state. We tried to create a new tax incentive that encourages small businesses to hire unemployed Hoosiers. We sought to create a tax credit for businesses that pay tuition costs for workers who seek additional training. We asked that state government commit to giving Hoosiers the first crack at contracts paid by Hoosier tax dollars.

            Finally, House Democrats offered a plan to enable the state to claw back taxpayer-funded incentives from companies that do not live up to promises about job creation. The same plan would require the state to give a true accounting of the jobs that have actually been created in Indiana, as well as accurate figures about the use of taxpayer dollars to encourage companies to come to our state.

            All of these proposals were rejected by the House majority.

            And the number of Hoosiers who are out of work remains at just under 290,000.

            Here are a few ways to stay in touch while the Legislature is in session. You can call the toll-free Statehouse telephone number of 1-800-382-9842, write to me in care of the Indiana House of Representatives, 200 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, IN 46204, or send a message to my web site at www.in.gov/H17. While visiting my web site, you also can sign up to receive regular e-mail updates from the Legislature.

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