Bills on underused school buildings and absentee voting advance; Holcomb signs first 2023 bill

Lawmakers are facing deadlines that could determine the early fate of some bills

By: - February 23, 2023 6:45 am

Some public school districts would have to give up “underutilized” school buildings under a bill being considered. (Getty Images)

Indiana school districts could be forced to make their underused buildings available to charter schools under a bill that advanced Wednesday to the full Senate.

The state’s existing “$1 Law” already requires districts to sell or lease vacant or unused instructional buildings for a single dollar. 

Senate Bill 391, authored by Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, clarifies that the law additionally applies to “underutilized” buildings. If 60% of a school’s space is not dedicated to classroom instruction, that building could be offered up to a charter school, higher education institution, or a nonprofit educational program, according to the proposal.

Buildings used for offices or storage must dedicate at least 50% of space for those purposes. 

The bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee 8-4, along party lines.

Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger (From the Indiana Senate Republicans website)

Rogers said she filed the bill in response to some Hoosier school districts dodging current law by keeping school buildings open “just for storage or offices.”

“Taxpayers paid for that building to be used for public education,” Rogers said. “All too often, buildings are being kept open to use for storage or offices, when there are much less expensive options available.”

The bill applies only to school districts where enrollment has dropped by at least 10% over five years and where there is another suitable building serving the same grades located within 20 minutes of the specific building. 

Qualifying districts would have to compile an annual report of instructional buildings to determine if any are underused. Any such facilities would then have to close and charter schools would be notified. 

The Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) would be the final arbiter on which school buildings will be available to charter schools. The Indiana Attorney General’s Office is in charge of that process now.

Critics of the bill previously testified that it would limit a local school board’s authority to decide what to do with its buildings.

Those in support of the measure maintained charter schools don’t have access to property tax revenue like traditional public schools do. State lawmakers are currently considering separate bills to require school districts to share property tax dollars with charters. 

Holcomb signs first bill of the session

Hoosiers have their first new law for the year — and it’s a retroactive business tax deduction in time for tax season.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill on Wednesday, according to his office, letting certain pass-through entities deduct all state tax payments on their federal tax returns. Senate Enrolled Act 2 is Indiana’s workaround to a federal cap.

“I am really appreciative of the effort that went into passing this piece of bipartisan legislation,” bill author Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, said. “Seeing the commitment to moving this forward in a timely manner reinforces the legislature’s and state’s commitment to helping Hoosier small businesses. This new law builds on our already strong business climate and continues to make Indiana a great place to live and work.”

Businesses that pay income tax as a corporation can get unlimited deductions already. But businesses whose owners or shareholders pay individual income taxes — like limited-liability corporations and S Corporations — can only deduct up to $10,000.

Both chambers passed the bill unanimously earlier this month

Changes to absentee voting

Indiana’s on track to bring voter identification requirements to the applications required to obtain mail-in ballots, after the House on Wednesday approved House Bill 1334. Proponents say the bill would add security to elections, while opponents say it’s not necessary and would further drop the state’s dismal turnout rates.

Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, is moving a bill that will make it harder to vote by mail in Indiana. (Monroe Bush for Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“Currently, the only verification of an absentee ballot application is to match the signatures,” bill author Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola, said on the floor. “I believe that it is time to bring our absentee ballot applications up to par with voting in person.”

The bill would require prospective voters to provide identifying information — the last four digits of a Social Security Number, Indiana driver’s license number, or other form of I.D. — on their mail-in ballot applications.

County election boards would have to match at least one of the numbers with information in the voter’s registration record. If there were no match, the county’s partisan clerk would send back a new application with an explanation of what went wrong.

“If it makes it harder for any one person to vote, especially the elderly, it’s voter suppression,” Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, said. She argued widespread voter fraud is not a problem in Indiana.

“This bill is not a voter fraud bill — it’s a voter identification bill,” said Rep. Kyle Pierce, R-Anderson.

The bill also bars units of government from mass-mailing applications, but ditched a clause banning any marks from highlighters on applications. It passed 64-28.

Bringing cursive writing back to Hoosier schools?

Meanwhile, a bill that seeks to get Hoosier schools one step closer to bringing back cursive writing was unanimously approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee. The bill now heads to the full chamber. 

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg. (Photo from Indiana Senate Republicans)

Senate bill 72 originally required traditional public and charter elementary schools to include some form of cursive writing curriculum for the state’s younger students.

Bill author Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg — who has filed similar bills in the last decade to no avail — said the amended version of her bill would instead require schools to report to the state education department about whether cursive writing is part of the curriculum there. The IDOE is then tasked with creating a report with that information.

Leising said she hopes the bill will see success with this language, instead. 

“A lot of our younger people can’t read cursive now, because they were never taught cursive. Not that they have to use it in their real life, but it certainly would be helpful to them in their adult lives to be able to read cursive,” Leising said Wednesday, adding that many young adults today even struggle to sign their names. “I think that there’s really a reason that we need to rethink Indiana’s policy on not mandating cursive.”

Cursive writing hasn’t been required in the state’s public schools since 2010. 

At least 21 states currently require cursive to be taught as part of the public school curriculum, according to the National Education Association.

Leising said many private schools in Indiana are teaching the writing style, but the majority of public schools are not. That creates a disparity between students, she said.


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.