INDIANAPOLIS — Democratic state representatives serving in the Republican-dominated Indiana House typically face a choice during chamber policy debates: fight or educate.
Last month, when amendments to the GOP state budget were up for consideration, three Region Democrats chose the second course, and it ultimately may help ensure the needs of their communities get addressed in the legislative session's second half that starts Monday.
State Reps. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago; Chuck Moseley, D-Portage; and Vernon Smith, D-Gary, unlike many of their Democratic colleagues, did not file budget amendments that forced members of the Republican supermajority to vote against popular policies, such as a minimum wage increase or anti-discrimination standards at religious schools where student tuition is paid using state tax dollars.
Instead, they focused on critical issues facing residents of East Chicago, Porter County and Merrillville, explained how state assistance would benefit all of Indiana, and accepted the assurance of the GOP budget leader that their concerns will be seriously considered and possibly resolved.
Harris requested $3 million to pay off the emergency state loan provided in 2016 to the School City of East Chicago when Carrie Gosch Elementary School was required to relocate to a shuttered middle school just before classes began, due to lead contamination in the soil around the original school building.
He said as result of the lead contamination and other issues, East Chicago schools have lost some 700 students in the past three years, along with about $5 million in associated annual state tuition support, putting the district in an extremely tough financial position.
"The time has to come to start working on paying back this $3 million, and obviously, based on the loss I just talked about, the School City, financially, is a little stressed," Harris told House members.
"So I am here to ask you for your help once again in terms of paying off the loan, and eliminating this debt from the School City of East Chicago."
The House GOP budget architect, state Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said following Harris' presentation that he's "sympathetic" to the school loan issue facing East Chicago schools, but he still asked state representatives to defeat Harris' proposed budget amendment.
"I promised him that we would work together and think about what the proper solution moving forward is. I will honor that in the second half," Huston said. "Rep. Harris, you have my word we'll talk about, think about, how we move forward with this."
Notably, Harris did not request a roll call vote on his amendment, allowing it to be defeated instead on an unrecorded voice vote, so GOP lawmakers will feel no pressure to continue voting against East Chicago schools if the loan forgiveness later is included in other legislation.
Moseley, likewise, strategically did not demand a roll call on his defeated proposal to insert $1 million in the state budget to address beach erosion in Porter County.
The amendment would have fully funded the required local match for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study on combating the massive beach losses seen in recent years at Portage and Ogden Dunes, while also providing money for near-term beach nourishment efforts.
Moseley explained to his colleagues that Lake Michigan's beaches are the most popular tourist destination in Indiana, with more than 3.6 million visitors a year, and the lakefront is a significant component in the state's quality of life and business attraction programs.
"Unfortunately, Indiana's beaches are eroding. Without a solution in place these beaches will continue to erode, putting Indiana's most visited place at risk. And it also places hard assets that we've invested millions of dollars in, in jeopardy that we could lose forever," Moseley said.
"This is not a dramatic effect. That's a fact — forever."
In response, Huston said he only became aware of the beach erosion issue in February, and after seeing the dramatic differences in the large lakeshore images displayed by Moseley in the House chamber, Huston said his current position is "not a hard no" on Moseley's funding request.
"I think there's some more information since the proclamation, which is awesome, about becoming a national park. In the second half, I think we'll have a chance to study this and learn more and really understand the obligations," Huston said.
"We'll work with our Senate partners around this. I know I've been contacted by friends like former Rep. Dermody, and others in that area, and we'll certainly keep it open for consideration."
Also still on the table is potential state authorization for Merrillville to impose a food and beverage sales tax of up to 1 percent to fund a convention center and other developments near the intersection of Interstate 65 and U.S. 30.
Smith withdrew the amendment prior to a House vote after Huston pointed out that all local food and beverage tax authorizations this year have been consolidated in House Bill 1402, and Merrillville could be added to that legislation in the Senate if Smith is able to demonstrate support for the tax from both local government and business leaders.
"It's going to make a big difference to Northwest Indiana, and to the state, by providing valuable tax dollars in the form of sales tax," Smith said. "I just really want to (help) this town that's really growing."
Lawmakers have until April 29 to devise a final state spending plan that must be approved by both the House and Senate to advance to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb to be signed into law.