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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, May 13, 2018 1:00 am

General assembly

Local issues up at special session

5 bills up for vote; some affect city, FWCS, New Haven

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers return Monday for the first special session since 2009 – and the first when the governor's party has controlled both chambers since 1987.

Five bills are on tap – one on school safety, one involving school takeovers, two containing various tax matters and one with technical corrections. Several of the bills could have a direct impact on Fort Wayne, New Haven and Fort Wayne Community Schools. 

Most of the time, legislators only need overtime for budget reasons. But this year Republicans simply failed at time management on the last night – killing a number of bills.

“Unfortunate, but necessary” is how House Speaker Brian Bosma describes the special session.

In 2009, lawmakers passed a budget at the last minute to avert a government shutdown.

In 1987, the Legislature approved a historic education package that added five days to the school calendar and increased competency testing. To pay for the school changes and other spending, legislators raised the individual income and corporate taxes.

Only once in three decades – twice after this year – have lawmakers needed more time during a non-budget year.

That was in 2002 when the recession hit state coffers, and action was needed to fill a billion-dollar hole.

If everything goes to GOP plan Monday, they will have enough votes – 67 in the House and 34 in the Senate – to waive rules and do bills in one day. Each chamber must debate and vote on the bills individually.

The measure getting the most attention is House Bill 1315. It was controversial during the short session and Democrats cheered its demise on the last night.

Basically, it involves the state takeover of Muncie and Gary community schools. But Republicans are stressing another part of the bill that will create a formula of fiscal indicators to try to help districts before they get in financial trouble.

There is no formula yet and Senate President Pro Tem David Long of Fort Wayne said there is no plan to take over all public schools. He also said any attempt to talk about other possible troubled school districts is a political tactic.

“I want to make clear there is no list,” he said. “This is an effort to prevent schools from getting into dire fiscal straits.”

But there is a list. Senate Democrats have posted it numerous times. It is the result of a summer study committee last year and was created by the Legislative Services Agency. It identified 14 districts that mirror Muncie – with an accountability grade of C or lower; declining enrollment and increasing debt. Those may or may not be some of the indicators that are ultimately chosen.

Gail Zeheralis, lobbyist for the Indiana State Teachers Association, said it's natural for other stakeholders to wonder where they fit in the bill.

“It's not a ploy,” she said to lawmakers. “I hope you understand the fear.”

The legislation provides a confidential avenue for districts identified under the formula to work with the state to improve. If the district does nothing, its name would be added to a watch list of sorts.

Another bill with a local provision is House Bill 1242. Legislative leaders say it's urgent because it contains language mandated by the IRS on background checks. But there are dozens of other sections.

One tries to settle a decades-old debate between New Haven and Fort Wayne.

The dispute stems from a law regarding park districts and annexations.

The New Haven parks district has included all of unincorporated Adams Township since 1957. Over time, Fort Wayne and New Haven annexed parts of the township, giving either city control of the acquired land. But the General Assembly passed a law in 1976 that required future annexations to be handled differently. Under the law, if part of the township governed by a parks board is annexed, the annexing city collects all the property taxes but then must transfer the park revenue generated by the land at the time of annexation to the park district. Essentially the park district is allowed to keep its revenues even if another community annexes some of its land.

Ultimately, New Haven-Adams Township owns and cares for Klotz Park, which is located in the heart of the Southwick Village neighborhood. It has a soccer field, football field, pavilion and a baseball diamond. It is surrounded by a small creek and large trees.

But the city of Fort Wayne never turned over any money to the park district. And despite getting no revenue, New Haven/Adams Township has continued to maintain Klotz.

Fort Wayne attorney Mitch Harper worked with area lawmakers to craft language allowing the park district to collect the taxes in question and give half to Fort Wayne. It's ultimately only about $45,000 a year.

“It's not a huge impact but it's enough to service Klotz park,” Harper said.

He said population changes have provided new users for the park.

The New Haven-Adams Township Parks and Recreation Department recently unveiled its parks wish list and targeted for next year are replacing the pavilion and playground at Klotz Park for $150,000.

Fort Wayne Spokesman John Perlich said “our review of the legislation leads us to believe it will have a minimal financial impact on the city of Fort Wayne. We've enjoyed a positive working relationship with New Haven and envision that will continue in the future.”