Terre Haute Tribune-Star. Feb. 5, 2021.

Editorial: House GOP education bill out of step with Hoosiers

A few years ago, the Bowen Center for Public Affairs’ annual Hoosier Survey asked Indiana residents about taxpayers funding vouchers for students to attend private and charter schools.

Fifty-eight percent of Hoosiers favored tax dollars going directly to Indiana’s public schools in that 2015 survey by the Bowen Center at Ball State University. Only 39 percent supported using state funds for private and charter school vouchers.

The leadership of the Indiana General Assembly’s ruling party has different education priorities, more aligned with the national education reform movement.

Controversy over House Bill 1005 epitomizes the contrast between the dominant Republican Party’s top legislators and average Hoosiers.

Indiana is struggling to attract and keep its public school teachers. A 2019 Rockefeller Institute study showed Indiana ranked last in the nation in teacher salary increases since 2000. Hoosier teachers and supporters demonstrated. Gov. Eric Holcomb appointed a commission to find specific ways to bolster educators’ pay, and after two years, the panel released its findings, outlining 37 recommendations to lift the average teacher salary to $60,000. It would require an investment of $600 million annually.

Though Holcomb’s 2019 and 2021 agendas have not included direct pay increases for teachers, his budget strategies have contained funds to pay down pensions and allow local school districts to boost pay scales.

The 2020 Hoosier Survey showed 55 percent of residents believed teacher pay should be increased and that the General Assembly should be responsible for providing the funds.

And, the disruptive coronavirus pandemic has stressed the finances of Indiana public schools, as districts work to equip staff and families with remote learning tools.

The introduction of House Bill 1005 seems to shrug off all of those pressing matters.

Instead, the Republican bill, as introduced, would have invested $202 million of the two-year education budget to expand the state’s voucher program and create education savings accounts. Those accounts would provide state funding to parents of special needs children, kids in foster care, and children of some military members and veterans to be used at their discretion for private school, home schooling, tutoring and other services.

The expansion would also open up vouchers to a higher-income tier — families of four earning $145,000 a year, or families of five earning $170,000, according to the Indiana School Boards Association.

Indiana has already become a petri dish for the national reform movement, diverting funds from public schools to its voucher program, where accountability is less stringent. The Legislature should instead put those funds toward public schools, so they can fully deliver the services and programs that any Hoosier kid would need and retain their teachers. Those public schools accept all students, as the Indiana Constitution requires. Ninety percent of Indiana students attend those public schools.

Amid pushback, the bill’s authors have amended it and reduced its overall cost to an estimated $60.7 million, according to the Legislative Services Agency. Still, its core intent clashes with the priorities of most Hoosiers.

“Lawmakers should reject education savings accounts and voucher expansion, and instead build on the good budget supporting public education passed in 2019 by continuing to address the teacher pay gap and funding a tuition support increase that keeps pace with, or exceeds, inflation,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association.

Legislative leaders should roll up their sleeves and commit to bettering public schools, which are the cornerstone of Indiana communities’ future.

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Kokomo Tribune. Feb. 4, 2021.

EDITORIAL: Indiana should expand access to birth control

When it comes to childbirth, the saying goes that babies will come when they’re ready — but sometimes, we’re not ready when they come.

Couples and single moms who experience unintended pregnancies are found across socio-economic groups, but it’s the families lacking financial resources who are most adversely affected.

They can ill-afford the cost of bringing a baby into the world — hospital and doctor bills can be staggering, even with health insurance — let alone the expenses associated with raising a child to adulthood.

The health of women is compromised, too. Prenatal and postnatal care for the mom, even when complications occur, are out of the question when money is short and life complexities are plentiful.

State Rep. Rita Fleming, a physician from Jeffersonville, noted in a recent op-ed how Indiana is failing women when it comes to access to birth control, endangering their lives and often the lives of their child, in the womb and after birth.

Fleming referenced the Indiana Maternal Mortality Report, issued in December, which showed that among the 63 women with pregnancy-associated deaths, 23.8% had no prenatal care, and 28.6% had care only in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

Improving access to birth control is a crucial step to improving health outcomes for Hoosier women, who experience unintended pregnancies at a rate of nearly half.

House Bill 1525, authored by a trio of Democrat women — Reps. Chris Campbell of West Lafayette, Tonya Pfaff of Terre Haute, and Sue Errington of Muncie — is a good start.

The legislation seeks to fill the gap when employee health insurance doesn’t offer coverage for birth control drugs and devices. HB1525 compels health insurers — as a condition of doing business in Indiana — to provide coverage for eligible participants.

The bill goes a step further, requiring Indiana’s insurance commissioner to “regulate rates for the birth control coverage to ensure that the rates are not excessive, inadequate, or unfairly discriminatory.”

That’s an important aspect of the legislation that will enable Hoosier women to better safeguard their health and actively engage in family planning.

But insurance coverage for birth control is only a first step in a longer journey to empower women with control over their own bodies.

Last year, Fleming proposed legislation that would have allowed pharmacists in the state to prescribe birth control, eliminating the need for doctor visits and improving access by virtue of pharmacy locations and hours of operation.

While the bill failed to pass, it’s the type of practical measure that’s needed. Lowering the cost of birth control is another.

Indiana can and should do better by its families and its women, who outnumber men in the state by over 97,000. Women who serve in the Legislature make up only a fifth of the governing body, though, so HB1525 will need not only bipartisan support, it’ll need multi-gender backing to succeed.

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South Bend Tribune. Feb. 7, 2021.

Editorial: Raise Indiana’s cigarette tax for health’s sake

Indiana lawmakers are considering increasing the state’s cigarette tax for the first time in more than a dozen years.

The proposed increase of $1 per pack is lower than advocates have called for in the past. But it’s a reasonable step in a state where more than 1,100 Hoosiers die each year from smoking and about 1,400 die of exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The increase called for in House Bill 1434 would bring the tax to $2 per pack. It would also impose a new state tax on vaping liquids.

The bill’s author, Julie Olthoff, R-Crown Point, said her goal is to lower smoking rates. She believes that a $1 per pack increase would achieve that goal, while a $2 per pack increase is too steep.

Indiana’s cigarette tax, which hasn’t been increased since 2007, is lower than its neighboring states, including Illinois, with a cigarette tax of $2.98, Michigan at $2 and Ohio at $1.60. The average state cigarette tax is $1.89.

Dr. Richard Feldman, whose column appears on these pages, is among those who support raising the cigarette tax. In a recent column he wrote that raising the cost of tobacco “is the single most effective strategy in reducing tobacco use. For every 10 percent increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes, smoking is reduced about 7% in children and 4% in adults.”

Also supporting an increase are The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Indiana Hospital Association, United Way of Central Indiana, American Cancer Society, Indiana State Medical Association and American Heart Association.

In advocating for an increase, Kevin Brinegar, Indiana Chamber president and CEO, said that the state’s high smoking rates increased health care costs for businesses and hurt Indiana’s economic competitiveness.

Among the costs is about $2.93 billion annually in medical expenditures, with nearly $590 million of these expenditures covered by Medicaid.

The state, which faces a mountain of health issues but lags behind other states when it comes to public health funding, should do something it hasn’t done in 14 years: Raise the cigarette tax.

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