The League of Women Voters invited Brown Countians to meet their legislators March 11, and Brown Countians came loaded with questions.
Education funding, forest preservation, energy and internet connectivity were just some of the topics they wanted to discuss with Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, and Rep. Chris May, R-Bedford.
Some of the legislators’ responses were met with boos or laughter when answering questions related to abortion, lobbying groups, gun rights and the environment.
Since January, legislators in several states have dealt with heated town hall-style meetings. Some have chosen to not do them at all.
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Koch, Brown County’s former state representative, has attended League of Women Voters forums in Brown County for 15 years, and he said they’re “always lively.”
“In terms of the 15 years of doing these, where there are disagreements on public policy, there has always been a feeling of mutual respect,” Koch said, when asked how he thought this one went.
“I think that kind of goes back to one of the great things about small communities.”
From a show of hands, most people in the room were there to discuss forest preservation — a topic that drew more than 600 people to a Statehouse rally in February.
Moderator Julie Winn asked Koch and May if they would be willing to co-sponsor or co-author a bill similar to Senate Bill 420, which did not receive a vote during a committee hearing this legislative session.
It would have protected 10 percent of state forest land from being managed in any way, including removing or planting trees. But it still would have permitted hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, mountain biking and horseback riding in those areas.
“On the surface, to me, the 10 percent rule makes a lot of sense,” said May, who took office in January.
“The underlying reason as to why this bill was not taken to vote, I don’t truly understand that, but I am hearing you loud and clear. It’s a concern here in Brown County and hopefully we’ll get somewhere on it,” May said.
Koch added that there was reason for optimism for the bill’s supporters.
“Don’t be disappointed in the fact that your bill got a hearing but not voted on. You have the interest of the chair,” Koch said.
Koch said two other issues also need to be addressed by the state government when it comes to the DNR’s budget: base salary increases for DNR and park employees and funding increases for roads, bridges, water and wastewater needs.
“On the surface, I would be in support of increasing revenue to several agencies, there’s no doubt about that,” May said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to live within your means.”
Residents submitted a “stack of questions” to the moderator related to Senate Bill 309, which focuses on net metering.Net metering credits solar energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid. SB 309 would lower the prices that utilities pay small solar power generators for their excess energy.
Koch argued that the amended version of the bill promotes net metering by raising the cap on it from 1.5 percent to 50. The bill also grandfathers the retail rate for 866 people in Indiana who are currently net metering, or decide to do it through the summer, for 40 years.
When questioned about people believing the bill discourages investing in renewable energy, Koch said those people are “working off of outdated talking points from Citizens Action Coalition and other groups.”
CAC argues that SB 309 places a permanent prohibition on net metering in five years and ends net metering permanently in 30 years.
“This bill is an attempt by Indiana’s electric monopoly utilities to quash the rooftop solar industry and prevent homeowners and small businesses from generating their own energy on their own property using the power of the sun, the wind, and other renewable energy resources,” the group’s website states.
May did not answer questions related to SB 309 because he said he was not familiar with the bill yet.
The Republican legislators were also questioned about promoting faster conversion to renewable energy and making Indiana a leader in that movement.
“We already are. We’ve just grown by hundreds of percents over the past decade in our renewables,” Koch said.
“I can tell you a lot of the companies have told me they already have so much invested in cleaner-burning gas that I can’t see them going back and reopening closed coal-fired power plants.”
He noted that SB 309 also promotes biomass, which is recycling animal waste into energy.
“For Indiana, with the agriculture sector, the biomass is a very critical component of that,” Koch said.
“I am of the opinion that Indiana is a leader currently and/or doing things in an appropriate matter. We will continue to try and stay ahead of the curve,” May said.
Koch received another negative audience reaction when he disagreed with the wording and premise of a question related to budget cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency and how the state will work to protect the environment, air and water.
Koch disagreed with the question because it included the word “gutting.”
“It is getting back to local control,” May responded. “Your local government is tied directly to your community, and the more local control you can have, the better.”
When asked again what the state legislature is doing to protect the environment, Koch said that was left up to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
“What are each of you doing specifically to move rural internet connectivity forward?” Winn asked the two.This legislative session, Koch authored Senate Bill 478, which would provide utility easements so that rural energy cooperatives and other nonprofit co-ops can use their existing infrastructures to deliver high-speed, fiber-based broadband within the same energy “footprint.”
“It is extremely exciting, because when you overlay the map of our REMCs territories with a map of our underserved broadband territories, it’s just almost a perfect match,” Koch said.
An audience member stood up and asked Koch about Duke Energy and other for-profit electric companies.
“My guess is that Duke’s easements … they can probably do it,” Koch said.
May said he would support Koch’s bill. It passed 40 to 2 in the Senate and is being reviewed in the House.
“It’s a tremendous step forward. I’ve got a personal experience with this with my children being sent home from school now with Chromebooks,” May said. “We’re going to have to get it to the homes of the students.”
Legislators were questioned about using tax dollars to fund vouchers, or scholarships, for “choice” schools, including private schools. This session the legislators will determine the state’s budget, including funding for public education.“I think part of the answer is, why is there a demand for vouchers?” Koch said.
Koch authored Senate Bill 30, which started as a conversation he had with Superintendent Laura Hammack during the Brown County Fair last summer.
“She was telling me about the marketing plan that the school corporation was working on to win back students that were exercising other options and she needed more data,” Koch said. “She knew how many students were exercising those options but did not know where they are going.”
The bill requires the Indiana Department of Education to provide public school districts information on not just the number of students using vouchers but also where those students are attending school on those vouchers. The bill has been referred to the Indiana House Committee on Education for review.
“The importance of that data is, when we know where people are going, we can sometimes infer why they are going there, and if it is a true issue, then the leaders will fix it. If it is a perceived issue, then they can fix it in a different way,” Koch said.
“What I see a lot of in my district, maybe even moreso than vouchers, is inner-district transfers where people reside in one school corporation, but they are exercising the choice of going to another public school corporation,” Koch said.
Koch received a negative reaction from the audience when he said he would not support an independent review of redistricting — redrawing the boundary lines of legislative representation in Indiana.“What I often don’t hear are the facts of the last redistricting in Indiana,” Koch said. “We produced maps that were a product of nine field hearings throughout the state. We had public access terminals set up throughout the state that were loaded with the same software we were using, that anybody who thought they could do a better job were invited to use those computers and send us maps.”
Koch said those maps received support from both Democrats and Republicans.
“There are people out there who don’t like election outcomes and try to blame that on things other than election issues. That’s out there as well,” he said. “Our Founding Fathers didn’t want an independent commission. The Founding Fathers wanted … for us to do it.”
May said he would support an independent review, but House Bill 1014 which was about that issue, did not get a vote in committee this session.
“I don’t know why anybody would not be in favor of an independent review of redistricting, but I think you need to let the committee system work,” he said.
Toward the end of the program, Winn asked Koch and May to comment on the role of American Legislative Exchange Council in Indiana legislation and how they view ALEC.ALEC is a group that advocates for limited government, free markets and federalism, according to its website.
“It’s no more or less than the other two of the three national organizations,” Koch said mentioning the Council of State Governments and National Conference of State Legislatures.
“They all provide resources, and they all have a role to play. I would say no more or less than the other two” he said about ALEC’s influence.
May, a freshman legislator this session, said he had not heard directly from ALEC.
“I am not a member. I know they have a conference coming up this summer that I am invited to. I won’t say that I’m not (going to be a member), but I’m not at this current time,” May said.
According to ProPublica, an independent and nonprofit newsroom, Koch is listed as receiving contributions from ALEC.
One audience member spoke out during the program about ALEC not being open with the media when the other two organizations are.
The legislators did not respond to that comment.