Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, met with Brown County residents March 7 in the Salmon Room of the County Office Building during Meet Your Legislators, an event organized by the League of Women Voters of Brown County and Farm Bureau.
Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, was invited but was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict.
By a show of hands, more than half of the room indicated they were concerned about the Indiana Department of Transportation’s intentions to make major changes to Yellowwood Road and Yellowwood Lake Road.
However, no new information came from that discussion, and Koch did not give an opinion on the road project.
Yellowwood State Forest Property Manager Jim Allen said an open house will be conducted at the state forest office to allow public comment on the project, which is being paid for through a Department of Natural Resources fund to improve public access to DNR properties.
Yellowwood Lake Road resident Charles Cole said he does not believe the open house will allow the input he believes is necessary due to the size of the Yellowwood office and Cole’s experiences with DNR.
Julie Winn, president of the Brown County League of Women Voters, said the league intends to organize a community discussion and asked Koch if he would be willing to attend. Koch said he would be interested. Winn said Steele would be invited, too.
The cutting and selling of timber from state lands was questioned repeatedly throughout the meeting.
Koch said he and Steele had encouraged the legislature to do a study last summer that would have allowed advocates and opponents of timbering on public lands to express their concerns and justifications. However, the legislative council decided against the study, he said.
“Personally, when I lose a tree on my property either through disease or death, I replace it with two,” Koch said.
Under questions over whether the rate of timbering is sustainable and what the state’s motivation is for allowing it on public lands, Koch invited Allen to explain the program.
“Mr. Allen is the expert; I’m not a forester,” Koch said.
The increase happened because of the rate and level of growth, Allen said. He said many the trees in the forest are reaching maturity; and if they are not harvested, the DNR risks losing them to natural death without them being put to any use.
“Part of the reason was to catch up on that and get those trees out before they start dying,” Allen said.
He said the people involved in timbering have a vested interest in maintaining a healthy and thriving forest.
He said there is no need to plant new trees in Indiana in order to maintain the canopy, as the natural abundance leads to natural growth that keeps up with harvesting. He said the current rate of timbering is 60 percent of the current rate of growth, and there is a net increase in total timber in the forest at the end of each year.
Allen also said the DNR has made efforts to identify and set aside areas that are determined as needing special protection by making them natural preserves that cannot be timbered.
The people who really need to hear concerns over timbering are the heads of the Natural Resources Committee, Koch said. He said that, though he does not sit on that committee, he would pass along the concerns to his colleagues.
Local resident Dave Seastrom asked Koch if he would support Rep. Steve Braun’s, R-Jasper, bill to set aside 10 percent of all state forest land that could not be timbered.
“I’ll take a look; I’ll do my homework as I do on any issue,” Koch responded.
Bill Miller, who said he owns a tree farm in southern Brown County, said he was concerned that the state selling timber undermines private sales, as costs are lower for the state, since it doesn’t have to pay the same taxes.
Local resident Gene Elias raised concerns that some of the logging trucks bring invasive species into the clearings created during timbering. He asked Koch to consider regulating the industry to hold loggers accountable for invasive seeds that piggyback on the trucks.
Several members of the local education community were present to raise concerns over school funding. They included Brown County Schools Superintendent David Shaffer, school board President Carol Bowden and a group of students.
Bowden asked about a plan that would change the formula for how state money is distributed to school corporations.
“Please address why the statement of new money for public schools is accurate, when it appears that it is a magic show of moving money from one budget line to another budget line and is declared new money,” she asked.
Koch said the “new money” has to do with more money going into the formula than in the past. However, although the result is more money per child, declining enrollment across south-central Indiana leads to less money overall for school corporations.
Koch said he has taken an interest in that problem and intends to discuss it with Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who is involved more closely with the budget process.
An unidentified man in the audience raised concerns over education vouchers to pay for private school education, citing it as a violation of the separation of church and state.
“Technically the money is not going to the schools; it’s going to the parents,” Koch said.
Koch said constitutional concerns had been addressed in the Indiana Supreme Court.
Koch also noted that his wife is a public school teacher and that he supports vouchers as a way to open up education options that address the needs of each child.
He also addressed concerns over the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress program. He said the legislature has shortened the ISTEP, but he did not respond to concerns over whether the test is effective in measuring the abilities of students.
Local resident Mike Mullet asked Koch about whether there should be concerns that state Senate bills now moving to the House might bring back items that some had objected to in House Bill 1320. That was a bill Koch had introduced that concerned the rates at which people producing their own power are reimbursed for sending excess power back to the grid.
Koch said he had not read the bills that Mullet referenced — SB 412, SB 309 and SB 177 — but that he did not intend to resurrect anything from HB 1320 by adding it to a Senate bill.
Koch cited his history of supporting net metering, allowing individual energy producers to sell energy to utility companies.
Right to die
Local resident Susanne Gaudin asked Koch about allowing terminally ill patients of sound mind to request a doctor’s aid in dying. Currently, six states have such legislation, and 25 are considering it, Gaudin said.
She asked Koch what his position was on the issue, though there is no such legislation under consideration in Indiana. “Do you feel perhaps the time is coming — or is now — to start discussing this in Indiana?” she asked.
“I would prefer to focus on life,” Koch responded, bringing discussion back to a bill he supports that would allow terminally ill patients to try medications that have not yet received FDA approval. However, he invited Gaudin to follow up with him on the issue.