Child Safety and Welfare Week in review: Assistance for military service members, education initiatives, drug testing...

Week in review: Assistance for military service members, education initiatives, drug testing public assistance recipients and more

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The Indiana General Assembly is moving rapidly through the second half of session as senators face a February 23 committee hearing deadline. Legislation that moves through the second house without amendments will proceed to the governor for final consideration. Bills amended by the opposite chamber must return to the house of origin for consideration of changes made. This summary highlights some of the bills now moving through the Senate.

Assistance for military service members
HB 1059 would extend financial assistance available to military service members and their families through the Military Family Relief Fund. The Senate Homeland Security, Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committee approved the bill, which would extend from one year to three years the time that a service member or a service member’s dependent may be eligible to receive assistance. Emergency grants up to $5,000 may be awarded to families in need of assistance for needs such as food, housing, utilities, medical services, transportation and other essential family support expenses. The relief fund is primarily funded through the sale of “Support Our Troops” license plates. As of August 31, 2011, the Indiana Department of Veterans’ Affairs reported that the fund had awarded approximately $751,000 to 262 families since it was created in 2007.
Home energy assistance

The Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee approved HB 1141, which would restore the state sales tax exemption that expired in 2009 for home energy assistance acquired through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Under the bill, the home energy costs paid through the program would be exempt from June 30, 2012, to July 1, 2020. The state sales tax exemption allows more of the assistance funds to go directly to utility costs and weatherization efforts.

Indiana’s program is divided into two components: the Energy Assistance Program and the Weatherization Assistance Program. The program is primarily funded through the federal LIHEAP block grant.

Households earning up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for assistance through LIHEAP. The most vulnerable persons—the disabled, elderly, and households with a child under six years of age—are given top priority. LIHEAP offset the costs of heating for approximately 168,000 low-income households in Indiana last year.

Education initiatives

The Senate Committee on Education and Career Development approved several bills including the following:

HB 1134 would prohibit school districts from charging families for the cost of bus services to and from school. The proposal is in response to recent student transportation problems experienced by several school districts including Franklin Township Schools in Marion County. After parents rejected a referendum that would have brought in additional funding last year for the school district, which faces an $8 million budget shortfall, its bus service for the 2012-2013 school year was outsourced to a company that charged parents a transportation fee of $47.50 per month for the first child and $40.50 for each additional child. Other schools around the state are experiencing similar budget shortfalls due in part to the removal of school funding from property taxes under the tax cap plan and referendum requirements approved by the 2008 General Assembly. School transportation budgets and construction projects continue to be funded through property taxes, while operating budgets are now determined by the state. As amended in the committee, the bill does allow a school corporation or educational service center to charge a fee for transportation to an athletic, social, or other school sponsored extracurricular function.

HB 1220 would provide the Indiana Commission for Higher Education with the authority to approve or disapprove existing or new certificate, associate, baccalaureate, or graduate degrees at state universities and colleges. The legislation would require each state educational institution to review its undergraduate degree programs to determine the number of credit hours required for the degree and to report the results to the commission, including a justification for any associate degree program of more than 60 hours or baccalaureate degree program of more than 120 hours.

These education initiatives now advance to the Senate floor for consideration by the full body.

Drug testing of public assistance recipients
Legislation that would require drug testing for public assistance recipients stalled in the Senate Health and Provider Services Committee. HB 1007 received a tied vote of 5-5 in the committee on Wednesday morning after lengthy debate on the merits of the bill and the program’s potential $1 million implementation cost. The bill could come before the committee again next week for a second vote. Under the plan, the state Family and Social Services Agency would have been required to develop and establish a pilot program in three counties to test for the use of controlled substances by individuals receiving assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF is a program that provides cash assistance and supportive services to families in need with children under the age of 18. Several concerns regarding the legislation are that drug testing welfare recipients as a condition of eligibility could be costly, and it would cause unnecessary delays in benefits to those who need them most, particularly children. The bill was amended by the House of Representatives to include a drug testing requirement for state legislators.
Sentencing conversions
The Senate Corrections, Criminal and Civil Matters Committee advanced a measure which would allow a court to convert a Class D felony to a Class A misdemeanor post-conviction under certain conditions. Under HB 1033, the conversion would only be allowed if the convicted individual is not a sex or violent offender, the offense was a non-violent offense, at least three years have passed since the person completed the sentence, and the person has not been convicted of a new felony. In addition, the bill specifies that if a person is convicted of a felony within five years after a conversion, a prosecuting attorney may petition a court to convert the person’s Class A misdemeanor conviction back to a Class D felony conviction. The committee amended the bill to prohibit employers from asking an employee, contract employee, or applicant whether the person’s criminal records have been sealed or restricted and to include perjury in the list of convictions that cannot be converted. HB 1033 now goes to the full Senate for its consideration.
News from the House
A bill to allow Indiana public schools to teach creationism in science classes may be stalled for this session. Senate Bill 89 has been assigned to the House Rules Committee by the House Speaker who has said that the bill is not likely to get a hearing in that chamber. Although the proposal was amended in the Senate to add other faiths, some lawmakers have expressed constitutional concerns.

To stay informed about bills moving through the General Assembly or to track legislation, log on to www.in.gov/legislative. From this site, you can also watch House and Senate committee hearings and session floor debate.