State lawmaker surveys show education, fiscal issues top concerns

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A review of a random sampling of constituent surveys from several lawmakers appeared to show a Republican priority to tackle education topics in the upcoming legislative session, followed by fiscal concerns.

Aside from those two broad areas of concern, questions ran the gamut from health care and broadband to farmland policies and Ohio River tolls, reflecting the individual focuses of each lawmaker.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle reviewed over 113 questions across 58 different surveys, trying to include a variety of lawmakers across the political spectrum and those with or without leadership roles within the caucus. The evaluation included the longest-serving member, Sen. Vaneta Becker of Evansville, and a smattering of new faces who will serve for the first time this year. Neither Republican caucus said they kept a databank of their members’ questions and each survey notes that the inclusion of a question doesn’t indicate whether a member supports or opposes any specific policy.

However, reviewing the questions can reveal whether an individual senator or their caucus is wrestling with an issue and how to best reflect the wishes of their constituents.

Broadly speaking …

Easily the most popular topic across dozens of surveys and in both chambers was education, especially the ongoing discussion over “reinventing high school” to include more work-based learning. Questions drilled in on whether to expand youth apprenticeship opportunities, changing graduation requirements and overall adequacy of the K-12 education system.

The next most popular category focused on fiscal policies, including taxation. Particularly in the House, Republicans seemed keen to know how voters felt about the state’s use of excessive revenue and whether funds should be dedicated to cutting taxes, investing in “quality of life” projects or pay down state debt.

Only one of the reviewed House Republican surveys included a question about retaining third graders who fail to meet reading requirements. That question proved to be more popular in the other chamber, where ten of the fifteen reviewed senators included the question, “Should Indiana law require students to be held back if they can’t demonstrate basic reading skills by the end of third grade?”

Despite that question’s popularity, one stood out for being included in 12 senator surveys relating to the two-year task force reviewing the state’s tax system. Across several meetings, lawmakers have heard testimony about what taxes the state should and shouldn’t charge, including gas taxes, income taxes, property taxes and the sales tax.

The dozen senators asked constituents which one should be eliminated or reduced; Only one lawmaker asked whether none of the above taxes should be cut or eliminated.

Spotlight on Marion County

Another popular question included in ten surveys: If a prosecutor categorically refuses to charge certain crimes, should the state give a special prosecutor authority to enforce Indiana’s laws in that county?

The question appears to be referring to Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears, who openly refuses to charge people within the state’s population center for minor marijuana possession. His district covers roughly one in seven Hoosiers, meaning a large swath of the population wouldn’t be penalized for breaking the law.

However, a broad enough law could also be applied to sheriffs refusing to enforce gun safety measures, should political fortunes shift and Democrats regain power. The General Assembly has attempted to pass a law specifically targeting “rogue prosecutors” several times but haven’t yet found acceptable language.

Indianapolis Sens. Aaron Freeman and Cindy Carrasco go even further in their constituent surveys, specifically asking if “The Marion County prosecutor not charging criminals” is one of their constituents most concerning crime issues.

Carrasco unsuccessfully attempted to oust Mears in the most recent election for prosecutor and was appointed to the Senate following the death of Sen. Jack Sandlin.

It’s unclear if House Republicans feel the same as their counterparts when it comes to cracking down on one locally elected official’s marijuana policies. While none of the Republican Senators asked about marijuana, at least five members of the House Republican caucus asked about legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. Two of those hold senior leadership positions.

Water, economic development get questions

One key question some legislators appeared to be considering: water transfers within the state, specifically whether millions of gallons of water should be transferred from Tippecanoe County to Boone County for the LEAP economic development district. LEAP stands for Limitless Exploration/Advanced Pace.

“Would you support or oppose legislation that would limit how much water can be taken from aquifers around the state?” Sen. Spencer Deery, R-West Lafayette, asked.

But it wasn’t just Lafayette lawmakers interested in water transfers. House Reps. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, and Matt Lehman, R-Berne, included an identical question in their surveys.

Rep. Kendell Culp, R-Rensselaer, asked more generically about developing a statewide water policy, including whether water should move between communities—and at what price—or if water belonged to everyone and didn’t need permission for transfers.

Several lawmakers asked about overall approaches to economic development in the state but one lawmaker had a surprising question about voter support for a casino to northeast Indiana: Sen. Justin Busch of Fort Wayne.

After one of their own faces potential prison time and a fine for accepting a lucrative position with a gaming company in return for legislative support, leadership said this year wouldn’t be the time to consider expanding the industry.

What about the Democrats?

The analysis wasn’t able to get a full sampling for every caucus. Several of the surveys for the Indiana House Democrats weren’t yet available as of publication, including leadership. However, many of the survey questions available reveal similarities to their counterparts, including questions regarding marijuana legalization and water transfers from Tippecanoe County.

The smallest caucus—the 10 Senate Democrats—was also incomplete because Sen. Eddie Melton’s replacement hasn’t yet been named.

A review of 18 Democrats, nine from each chamber, included questions about expanding mail-in voting, reversing the abortion ban, rolling back permitless carry and tenant protections.

Several asked their constituents about their support for ballot initiatives, a process where residents can vote directly on initiatives that advocates have used to protect abortion access and legalize marijuana in other states. Republicans didn’t include questions on ballot initiatives, which Indiana’s constitution doesn’t permit and which GOP leaders have rebuffed previously.

House Democrats had some additional questions about creating a tax credit for parents and guardians paying for childcare or pre-K expenses along with paid family leave and collective bargaining for educators.

Deadlines for constituent responses vary by caucus and chamber so Hoosiers interested in finding their representative should visit iga.in.gov to verify their lawmaker before visiting their member’s caucus page to find the survey.

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3 thoughts on “State lawmaker surveys show education, fiscal issues top concerns

  1. “Another popular question included in ten surveys: If a prosecutor categorically refuses to charge certain crimes, should the state give a special prosecutor authority to enforce Indiana’s laws in that county?”

    What a ridiculous questions for lawmakers to ask.

    1.) The question is asked in such a way that does not make clear that it is in reference to Ryan Mears decision to not prosecute simple marijuana possession. There is every indication – including the results of summer legislative task-force – that Hoosiers broadly support marijuana legalization.

    2.) Prosecutorial discretion is the cornerstone of any working criminal justice system. Especially in Indianapolis (and nearly every other city its size), where prosecutors, police, courts, and public defenders are all overwhelmed. The only victims of simple possession of marijuana are people who get annoyed by the smell of marijuana (which includes me), whereas the victims of clogging the courts with such cases would be every single person who deserves justice for more serious matters. Each and every defendant has the right to a fair and speedy trial; overloading the criminal justice system with low stakes prosecutions increases the odds that more serious offenders will get off easy. In some cases, this may mean that some violent offenders get off the hook completely because they weren’t given their day in court early enough. In other cases – most cases – it means that the prosecutor’s office will offer relatively light plea deals such offenders can be given some sort of punishment before the clock runs out. We are already seeing the latter play out without prosecuting simple possession, and various jurisdictions around the country are seeing the former.

    3.) For many of the reasons I laid out in my second point, Indianapolis hardly prosecuted simple possession of marijuana prior to Mears’ time in office. It’s not worth the city’s time. The only thing that Mears did differently from those who came before him was the public announcement that such simple marijuana possession cases would not be prosecuted. Those who smoke marijuana in Indianapolis already knew that. If anything, the public announcements allows police to focus on more important things, while giving residents who smoke marijuana – which is a high percentage all throughout Indiana – more trust in the police.

    4.) Yet again, state lawmakers who couldn’t push their unpopular ideology through elected positions in Marion County’s municipal government refuse to believe that they are wrong. Instead of acknowledging that they are the ones who hold unpopular opinions, they try to codify their unpopular opinions through the back door. The State Legislature needs to hold itself to a higher standard than to allow itself to be abused by failed Marion County politicians who use the authority of the statehouse to make undemocratic power grabs.

  2. As someone who has designed and conducted public opinion surveys over a 30+ years career, it is important to understand that the survey audience and the methodology of the questions asked can influence the responses.

    For instance, if a state lawmaker posts the survey on his or her website (either the official state website or the campaign website), the universe of responses will be small and self-selected. So the results are more likely to reflect the known views frequently expressed by the politician posing the questions.

    And how those questions are posed also can bias the responses. Professional pollsters who seek an honest reflection of an individual’s views will take great care to construct questions in the most neutral way possible. “Loaded” questions that invite a desired response are avoided at all costs, while questions that are multiple choice and posed as “which is closest to your view?” are better than simple questions that can only be only as “yes” or “no.”

    I assume that the survey the state legislators send out are not designed by professional pollsters, and more likely than not are written to get responses that largely agreed with the stated positions of the legislators.

    Also, survey results typically only suggest “what” people think, not why they think the way they do on the issues. That is why, in my career, I always recommended to clients that focus groups held after surveys are conducted are a better key to understanding their target audiences. A 90-minute discussion of 8-10 people, repeated multiple times in multiple locations, provides a better, larger, more complete picture of what people really think – or if they are thinking at all.

    Bottom line, take the results of these legislator surveys with a grain of salt. Better yet, disregard them altogether.

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