CORY -- Money, education and property taxes were the main topics of discussion at the first Cracker Barrel meeting of the year Saturday at the Cory Fire House.
District 37 Senator Richard Bray, District 46 State Representative Vern Tincher, District 43 Representative Clyde Kersey and District 44 State Representative Nancy Michael gave brief addresses and conducted a question-and-answer session during the two-hour meeting, which discussed a wide array of state and local issues.
The first topic of discussion was the budget. Bray said the state budget was $770 million short of expectations. He said a recent survey had been conducted in which 81 percent of residents said the state needed to cut back. He agreed, but said doing so was very difficult.
For one, Bray said that half of the state's budget was tied into education, which is already stretched thin. Also making things problematic was the loss of between 80-90,000 jobs in the state last year. The speakers seemed to think job creation was the strongest way of correcting the budget problem.
Representative Kersey mentioned there was $1.5 billion of non-committed money that was planned to be used on Interstate 69. He suggested that this money be used to correct problems with roads in residential areas, which would create more jobs.
"If we can get people back to work, we can smooth this out," Kersey said.
The new budget proposal is due April 29.
The most in-depth discussion came when discussing education. Rep. Tincher said there were several steps that needed to be taken to correct current problems with schooling. For starters, he said Gov. Mitch Daniels' plan to spend $100 million on revamping state correctional facilities showed his "priorities were out of balance," and said this money would be better spent on education.
Tincher also pointed it may be wise to dip into the state's "rainy day fund" which, as its name suggests, provides services in times of financial need. It was also pointed out that school systems in other regions of the country have saved money by cutting back the number of days in which school is in session. Rep. Kersey downplayed the likelihood of this calling it "a last ditch effort." Indiana schools are required to be in session for 180 days.
The biggest concern raised with education is the state's drop-out rate. The graduation rate of Indiana high school students is currently 67 percent, which all attending parties agreed was too low. A general consensus was that this was directly related to problems with the ISTEP+ system.
Kersey said that the current ISTEP+ program pointed out which students needed academic help but was not set up to give them the help they needed to improve their academic standing. He said that even students who earned the grades to merit attendance in their graduation ceremonies were not allowed to because they did not have the adequate ISTEP+ scores needed to complete high school.
"This test says all kids have the same ability mentally," he said. "It doesn't take into account that some kids study hard to get good grades."
Tincher drew applause from the audience when he said that the state would save between $30-40 million by eliminating the ISTEP's+ altogether. However, this is not a possible step due to Indiana's standing with the "No Child Left Behind" act. Without the ability to eliminate the test, he said there had to be proper remediation services set up with kids who struggle with the test so that they don't fall behind. He stated, however, that there may not be adequate funds currently set up to fund such programs.
Lastly was the discussion of property taxes, most notably, for farmers.
There was a dispute about "caps," which is the amount people have to pay in property taxes. Homeowners are currently made to pay 1 percent of their assessed land value, while farmers are to pay 2 percent. Farmers are currently paying both percentages to cover their homes as well as their equipment and various other farming expenses.
According to the State Constitution, the property should be equally assessed. Governor Daniels is currently pushing for an amendment that allow for farmers to pay a grand total of 2 percent caps expense.
This new plan was still met with some resistance. Some farmers were wishing to have their payments reduced to the 1 percent homeowner caps expense. Sen. Bray informed them that this was not in their best interest.
A Supreme Court ruling stated that all land has to be assessed at market value. If farmland were to be assessed at homeowner cost, farmers would be charged between $3-4,000/acre. As it stands, they are currently charged $1,200/acre. Bray said that the property tax jump would be "devastating" to the farming community.
Amid lively debate, the session came to a close after more than two hours of discussion. Rep. Nancy Michael, who was new to the proceedings, said she was glad to see a good turnout at the meeting and strongly encouraged all in attendance to stay involved as the state heads for continued difficult times.
"It's an exciting time, but it's a scary time (for the state)" Michael said. "Now, more than ever, we need to hear your voices up at the statehouse."
The next Cracker Barrel meeting will take place on Saturday, Feb. 21, at 10 a.m., at the Fire House in Cory.