Committees are the engine driving the 2009 session of the Indiana General Assembly right now.
With more than 700 bills filed for consideration in the House and more than 600 measures in the Senate, it makes sense that committee meetings take up most of our time at this point in the session.
Members of the Ways and Means Committee continue to deliberate over a new biennial state budget. From now through the middle of February, they will review budget requests from state agencies and universities.
In my next few Reports, I want to give you an idea of the scope of the committee work that’s under way. Although the state budget is the only bill we must pass in 2009, there are discussions taking place on many other proposals that are likely to become law later this year.
As Indiana’s unemployment rate goes over 8 percent, well above the national average, I continue to look for ways to help families get through this crisis. Actively pursuing aggressive programs that put Hoosiers back to work is one priority on my agenda, but there are other areas we must address this session.
For example, Indiana ranks well above the national average in numbers of mortgage foreclosures, but those numbers do not reflect the hardships facing so many families who are being forced out of their homes.
At a time when many Hoosiers are losing jobs and being forced to decide which necessities of life may have to be set aside because they do not have the money to pay for all of them, they should not have to worry about the risk of losing their homes. To respond to their concerns, a series of measures are being offered this session.
A critical component of several of these bills are the creation of a mediation process that enables lenders and borrowers to sit down and negotiate details on a loan to prevent foreclosure. House Bill 1408 helps establish a Home Ownership Prevention Task Force to counsel homeowners facing foreclosure.
House Bill 1081 requires landlords to notify tenants if a rented property has been foreclosed, enabling the tenant to cancel the lease without penalty. Another proposal under consideration would establish a grace period to prevent foreclosure against anyone who has lost a job and is unable to receive unemployment benefits because the state has no money to pay those benefits.
We also continue to seek reforms in the way we conduct our elections. A proposal (House Bill 1099) being debated in the House Elections Committee would make it easier for Hoosiers with disabilities to take part in early voting and ensures that anyone still in line waiting to vote when a polling place closes will be allowed to cast a ballot.
The same bill provides that any student ID issued by a state-accredited university or college can be used as a valid voter ID. A second measure (House Bill 1346) will allow firefighters, first responders and other public safety officers who are called away on an emergency while waiting to vote to come back after the call and cast a ballot.
Clearing committee was House Bill 1207, which would require restaurants with at least 10 locations in Indiana to clearly display nutrition information on menus. This bill would provide customers with information on the meals they are ordering, including calories, cholesterol, fat, carbohydrates and sodium content.
Before closing, I want to mention that hundreds of people came to the Statehouse this week to protest the governor’s plans to close the Soldiers and Sailors Children’s Home in Knightstown in eastern Indiana. The Indiana State Department of Health proposes to shut down the home in May.
The home, which has helped troubled children for nearly 150 years, is a special project for veterans groups across Indiana, and their involvement is playing a large role in spurring lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to file legislation keeping open a facility that has helped thousands of at-risk kids receive care and an education.
If you need to reach me during the 2009 session, you can call the toll-free Statehouse telephone number of 1-800-382-9842, write to me in care of the Indiana House of Representatives, 200 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, IN 46204, or submit your comments to my web site at www.in.gov/H80. <www.in.gov/Hxx.> While visiting my web site, you also can sign up to receive regular e-mail updates from the Legislature.
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