Candidates for Indiana’s House of Representatives faced off last week during the candidate forums where those seeking a seat debated on issues facing their respective districts.
Held at Inventrek Technology Park, the debates covered a range of topics facing the districts, including rural broadband, the laws surrounding hemp, and how the state budget will be affected by COVID-19.
Running unopposed, District 32 Representative Tony Cook (R) sat alone at the debates, followed by District 38 incumbent Rep. Heath VanNatter facing Tom Hedde (D). Lastly, District 30 hopeful Dylan McHenry (D) discussed his platform opposite incumbent Rep. Mike Karickhoff (R). Incumbent county treasurer Christie Branch (R) also had time to discuss her campaign at the beginning of the forum after missing last week’s debate due to an illness. She’s facing Ed Foster (D).
The lone candidate for District 32, incumbent Cook, had a chance to answer questions without rebuttal after his opponent, Amie Neiling, dropped out earlier this year.
Cook discussed U.S. 31 and how the bypass was affecting his district. U.S. 31 encompasses several spots in District 32, and Cook said he’s been working recently to ensure work on the highway doesn’t negatively affect his district.
“Mainly, I think of the interstate commerce that we have and the tremendous opportunity it provides as the crossroads of America,” Cook said. “We literally are the crossroads of America.”
Still, Cook said he was concerned with how construction on the highway may affect local businesses and that “the state owes it to try and do anything and everything we can to not dislocate businesses and cause areas of concern for our citizens.”
Incumbent VanNatter once again faced off against Democrat Hedde. This year’s race is a repeat matchup of the last term in 2018. VanNatter defeated Hedde then by a 40-point margin.
Hedde and VanNatter talked about their top priorities for the upcoming legislative session, and both candidates varied greatly in their responses.
Hedde, a former school teacher, prioritized education as a key focus for his campaign, as well as healthcare and the environment.
“What comes out of our education base is young people out of work out there, and they either go to college, trade school, or an apprenticeship and then be able to get a job that way and be a productive member of Indiana society,” Hedde said. “So, education needs to be a top priority as far as that goes. There’s so many issues that it’s necessary to be addressed. Affordable healthcare needs to be addressed. The environment needs to be addressed. EPA keeps dropping regulations for limits on it, and a lot of corporations are violating those limits and paying the fines, rather than cleaning it up. A clean environment is very important as far as that goes.”
Hedde also said that the state was fortunate to have a surplus in the budget for this year. He also said that, if needed, taxes could be raised, but he would have to “look at the services needed first.”
Conversely, VanNatter spoke out against raising taxes, citing that it was too early to tell how the budget will play out this session with regard to COVID-19.
“We’re going to have a very difficult budget cycle. I don’t want to speculate on what’s going to be cut and what’s not. It’s too early to tell until we start seeing some of the revenue forecasts that come out closer to April when we actually pass the budget,” said VanNatter.
VanNatter also discussed authoring a bill that would decriminalize marijuana, as he did earlier this year with House Bill 1048. Although that bill failed, VanNatter said he again would author a bill in the hopes of decriminalizing the drug, saying that the state was “wasting valuable resources on a pretty minor offense.”
Both candidates also were questioned on smokable hemp, a variant of the marijuana plant that contains little to no THC. Recently, SEA 516 was implemented, going against the updated 2018 Farm Bill that reclassified hemp to not be a controlled substance, as hemp has 0.3 percent THC. Though SEA 516 restricted the manufacturing and selling of smokable hemp, a coalition of pro-hemp businesses and hemp farmers, including some in Howard County, are in the process of continuing a legal battle that they hope will rescind the law, allowing them to resume the manufacturing of smokable hemp.
VanNatter, a proponent of smokable hemp, co-authored the bill that reclassified smokable hemp to legal status, and he said that he was disappointed when the lawsuit from the pro-hemp group was dismissed.
“I was extremely disappointed that we didn’t get it passed,” VanNatter said. “I was pleased to see the lawsuit filed and disappointed when that was dismissed. We got a lot of farmers in House District 38 that are growing. We got businesses. There’s a business out in Russiaville that is growing, processing, and bottling CBD oil. They were selling smokable hemp when they could. We’re going to drive people like that out of our community if we don’t legalize smokable hemp.”
Hedde concurred and added that he also would like to see medical marijuana legalized, especially in terms of assisting those suffering from PTSD or those needing it for pain relief as a substitute to painkillers.
Longtime incumbent Karickhoff faced off against newcomer McHenry for the District 30 seat. Karickhoff has served as a state representative for 10 years. Prior to that, he served on the Kokomo City Council for six. McHenry is a school teacher at Marion Community Schools and became involved politically when he joined the Red for Ed rally at the statehouse in 2019. As such, education was a high priority for the Democratic hopeful.
Both candidates agreed that rural broadband was the necessary next step in getting their constituents a leg up in the coming years, especially as working from home becomes more commonplace. McHenry in particular called for the need for easy and reliable internet access for rural communities.
“We know that internet access is the great equalizer, and we’ve learned that now more than ever over the last few months. As an educator and living in a rural community, we’ve seen just how difficult it can be for students and families and for farmers if they don’t have access to the internet that they need,” McHenry said. “Recent studies have come out and shown that 10 percent of students in most of the districts in District 30 don’t have access to internet at home, and that becomes a major problem when you’re trying to educate students from a distance.”
Likewise, Karickhoff said he hopes the state can partner with local businesses and local political entities to expand internet access to far-reaching areas.
The candidates also discussed the issue of unemployment and how they will ensure businesses continue to operate in Indiana through the pandemic. Karickhoff discussed how businesses were “flooding” to District 30 and, in particular, was excited to see lower-than-expected unemployment rates as during the shutdowns.
“I mean, we have safe communities,” Karickhoff said. “We have communities where housing values are relatively inexpensive for high-quality housing. Businesses will relocate. Businesses have realized that if you have access to internet, you can conduct business. People that have high-dollar real estate in downtown big cities, I’d say they’re shopping for places like District 30.”
McHenry responded by emphasizing the need for change and that it was necessary to locate industries that have a high need for employment.
“As we reopen and get people back to work, it’s important to realize a lot of companies, everybody has had to change the way they do business the last couple months,” McHenry said. “And so Indiana must continue to work and identify areas of high need for employment and continue to work and providing and resourcing to pursue those careers through programs like Next Level Jobs.”
Incumbent treasurer Christie Branch had the chance to discuss her platform in a short forum. Joining the office in 2013 and caucused in at the helm in 2020 after former treasurer Wes Reed joined the city administration as controller, Branch highlighted her experience with the treasurer’s office and the ways they have been successful as of late.
“In 2016, while I was chief deputy under then-treasurer Reed, we put an emphasis on online bill pay, which not only helped with billing but significantly impacted our collections in a positive way, increasing our collection rate by almost five percent and added nearly $4 million annually to local units of government county-wide.”
Branch also said that after the treasurer’s office transitioned to a new collection agency in 2018 that emphasized delinquent property taxes, the county saw a significant jump in the collections of back taxes for personal property to the tune of $166,000, compared to $32,000 in 2017.
Currently, Branch said that Howard County collected 97 percent of spring 2020 taxes, which was in line with last year’s collection rate.