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Even with controversial right-to-work legislation behind them, a pair of state lawmakers on Saturday learned that local constituents still have plenty on their minds.
State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, and State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markel, held a town hall-type meeting Saturday morning in Decatur — the third such event hosted by the pair in the past two months. Unlike the previous two, during which right-to-work bickering and a heavy presence by organized labor dominated the sessions, topics raised during Saturday's event covered a wide spectrum of issues. From a statewide smoking ban to wind towers to inheritance tax to the high price of gasoline, the two dozen residents in attendance had plenty to talk about.
With the current session of the Indiana General Assembly scheduled to conclude on Friday, Lehman and Holdman said the spirit of bipartisanship at the Statehouse has been greater than most Hoosiers would assume. Holdman said that of 235 bills passed by the Senate, "the overwhelming majority was passed with bipartisan support." Lehman said the House passed some 40 bills last week, "and 99 percent of them passed unanimously."
But both lawmakers agreed there is still work to be done during this wrap-up week. Yet to be resolved are the House and Senate versions of a bill outlining the rights of Hoosiers to resist police officers they feel have illegally entered their homes. A similar resolution must be found to a smoking bill which took vastly different forms in each chamber, and lawmakers have yet to agree on whether or not surplus budget revenue will be returned to taxpayers, and the finishing touches must still be placed on a bill to phase out the state inheritance tax.
Holdman and Lehman said they voted against the current smoking ban, but for greatly different reasons. Holdman said he opposed the legislation because of the large number of exemptions it contained, calling the bill "worthless," while Lehman said he believes in the right of individual business owners to make such decisions without government interference.
One man in attendance urged the lawmakers to take a more active role in regulating wind farms, stating that the majority of funding for such projects come from federal and state grants. The man took particular exception to setback requirements that allow wind turbines to be erected within 1,000 feet of residences.
While Holdman said setback issues are still a local plan commission decision, he voiced "some concerns" about the growing number of wind farms across the state.
"I'm on the Energy and Environmental Affairs committee, and I can tell you that IDEM (Indiana Department of Environmental Management) does not have a good handle on wind farms, and that there have been no state regulations issued to date."
The Republican lawmaker said he worries about the future, "in 20 years, when the (government) subsidies are gone and these monstrosities (turbines) litter the landscape. I think we need some long-term plans in place."
Holdman said various versions of legislation to phase out the state inheritance tax over a 10-year period has passed both the House and Senate, with the final version still to be worked out. "Indiana has some of the highest inheritance taxes in the nation, and a substantial number of people — especially those on the wealthy end — are leaving the state to avoid the inheritance tax," he said.
With gas hitting $3.99 a gallon in Decatur on Saturday, several other residents in attendance wanted to talk about rising gas prices. Lehman said the issue "is not one the state can deal with" other than to reduce the state gas tax. And if that were to happen, "someone else will lose revenue."
And even though Gov. Mitch Daniels has already signed into law a bill making Indiana a right-to-work state, meaning that new employees cannot be forced to join a union, a few people in attendance at Saturday's meeting nonetheless hurled barbs at the local lawmakers for their votes. Both Holdman and Lehman voted in favor of the bill.
One woman in the audience, however, said the legislation is already attracting new jobs to Indiana. Jessica Howell, assistant director of government affairs for the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, cited firms which have committed to bring jobs to Noble and Wabash counties, to name just a few, solely because the state adopted the right-to-work legislation. Lehman said 23 companies have inquired about coming to Indiana since the bill was signed.