News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 18, 2014

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Summer study groups do the Legislature’s legwork

INDIANAPOLIS — Back before the recession of 2008 hit Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels launched an ambitious initiative called Hoosiers on the Move.

The program aimed to get Indiana’s out-of-shape residents exercising while also boosting tourism. Its primary goal was to have a useable trail within a 15-minute drive of every resident by 2016.

We’re close. More than 3,200 miles of scenic biking and hiking trails are now open to the public, and the state Department of Natural Resources estimates more than 97 percent of Hoosiers live less than 8 miles from a trail.

The problem: Too many people are afraid to use them.

Lack of security and maintenance along some trails, due in part to cuts in local and state funding, frighten away would-be patrons. So this summer, legislators are going to look at what’s needed to remedy the problem.

The state of the state’s recreational trails is just one of many issues that lawmakers will take up as 22 legislative committees and commissions meet to lay groundwork for bills that may be introduced in next year’s session.

Their topics range widely, from the underreporting of crimes against children to statewide standards for septic tanks. But they share a common purpose in giving lawmakers more time to look at issues easily ignored in the crush of fast-moving legislative sessions, when big issues – such Common Core and same-sex marriage – crowd out other concerns.

“This is the incubation period — the time to educate more people about the need,” is how state Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, describes the work to be done this summer on the trails issue.

For Karickhoff, a former city parks superintendent, the issue isn’t abstract. Three summers ago, a Boy Scout troop was hiking through the woodlands and wetlands of the Nickel Plate Trail north of Kokomo on a lovely Sunday afternoon, when their 76-year-old leader was stabbed to death by a mentally ill man. There have been other reports of harm and fear on trails around the state.

House Speaker Brian Bosma calls the summer study committees the “work horses” of the Legislature.

At times, their work may seem futile.

Five years ago, just as Indiana’s casinos were beginning to realize the threat of competition from other states, a study committee on public policy urged the Legislature to authorize land-based gaming and other changes to keep Indiana's riverboat casinos afloat. Its pleas were ignored, and the state has since seen a plunge in gaming proceeds. Last year’s casino tax revenues were more than $120 million less than in 2009.

That’s produced enough of a jolt that gaming revenues are back on the study committees’ agenda this summer, along with other tax revenue issues. They include Gov. Mike Pence’s controversial proposal to eliminate the $1 billion revenue stream for local governments and schools from the state’s business personal property tax.

Some study issues may produce a yawn among the uninformed, but they’re critical to consider.

An example from Karickhoff: the potential need for a statewide “czar” to manage Indiana’s abundant water resources that are now threatened by pollution, rising demand and wrangling over the question of public or private ownership.

“How we manage our water resources should be everybody’s concern,” Karickhoff said.

This summer, he’ll have a chance to make that case.  

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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