Kokomo’s highly disputed baseball stadium was once again the main topic of discussion at a Third House legislative forum held Friday.

Sen. Jim Buck and Rep. Heath VanNatter gave an update on the current legislative session and were available to answer questions from the public at the second of two open forums; a legislative luncheon on May 13 will wrap up the series organized by the Greater Kokomo Chamber of Commerce.

VanNatter spoke for less than 5 minutes on the four bills he authored that are still under consideration this session, which include amending procedures for the sale of non-surplus municipal property, expanding requirements for the state building commissioner position, creating a study committee to identify obsolete statutes so they can be repealed, and regulating e-liquids used in electronic vaping devices as an alternative to smoking.

Buck dedicated the majority of his 20-minute opening statement to defending Senate Bill 100, a bill he authored that would allow the Indiana Department of Homeland Security to issue a cease and desist order to stop work on Kokomo’s Municipal Baseball Stadium.

Of the eight parcels of land within the baseball stadium project that are designated for hazard mitigation open space, three would not comply with their intended use under the city’s original plans for the stadium. After months of back and forth among the City of Kokomo, IDHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the city and IDHS have filed lawsuits against each other and FEMA suspended Indiana’s access to the hazard mitigation grant program.

“There are 20 communities now across our state that are negatively impacted by the reluctance of FEMA and the City of Kokomo to come into some form of compliance,” Buck said at the Third House forum. “I’ve noticed with interest as time moves forward how a plea of innocence now is starting to wane and some of the compromise that’s taking place as a result of a severe punishment that’s come to all 92 counties.”

Buck distributed copies of letters from FEMA to IDHS and from IDHS to the Howard County Planning Commission to those attending the forum, and he asked what they would do with that information in his position. City attorney Beth Garrison asked Buck whether he thought the information he passed out was one-sided since it did not include any correspondence from the city to the state explaining Kokomo’s perspective on the project.

She also asked whether he would consider it government overreach if FEMA were to control construction on the project beyond the eight parcels designated as hazard mitigation open space. Buck said the eight parcels in question may impact the rest of the property.

Buck said he is afraid a “game of chicken” will result where the city and FEMA are unwilling to change their stance on the project.

“From the very beginning, there were two ways to come into compliance and two ways only: 1. Come into compliance. Put those properties back as the title required. Or 2. pass federal legislation that allows FEMA to overlook this violation. Those two requirements have not changed to today,” Buck said.

“So we’re in constant negotiations as to at what point will this state be punished for the erroneous building on property that the administration new in advance was in violation,” he continued.

David Tharp, special projects manager for the City of Kokomo, brought up plans for constructing an apartment complex at 304 S. Main St., which is across Union Street from the baseball stadium and near one of the parcels of land that is supposed to be left as open space.

Tharp cited the fact that the Indiana Economic Development Corp. granted $5.2 million in tax credits to the property developers as evidence that the state is supportive of developing the property in question. Buck said the apartment complex is probably in danger too.

Other discussion at Friday’s forum centered on education issues, like the House budget bill that includes a rewrite of the K-12 school funding formula and bills that would change how the state board of education chair is chosen.

SB 1 would allow the state board of education to elect a chair from its members. Currently the superintendent of public instruction – an elected official – acts as chair of the board. After ongoing disputes between Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who is the only Democrat holding statewide office, and the rest of the board, bills were introduced in both the House and Senate to change the process by which the board chair is chosen.

“I have no problem with Glenda Ritz. In fact, I like her. … If you don’t think [the state board of education] is dysfunctional, you haven’t been paying attention,” Buck said. “That new board has the opportunity to elect a new chair or re-elect Glenda. I see no reason for the eight new members not to elect her as their next chair. If they don’t, the simple question we have to ask is why?”

Kokomo School Corp. Jeff Hauswald pointed out that House’s changes to the school funding formula, which would provide schools with less additional funding for their low-income students, will have a negative effect on some districts.

“Poverty is going up, and complexity costs more as the people of Indiana get more poor,” Hauswald said during the public question-and-answer segment. “If you look at the schools that have the greatest harm [from reduced compensation for low-income students], 67 percent of the students in those schools are students of color. … I think it’s time to make race part of this conversation. We have a room of mostly white people, and with all due respect, I believe children of color are being negatively harmed by this change.”

Hauswald noted that he’s pleased the budget includes an increase in the foundation amount schools receive per student, but he asked the Senate to minimize harm in other areas of the formula.

VanNatter also emphasized the investment in the foundation amount, and he noted that every school in his district would see an increase under the House budget proposal.

"The budget's written by a small group of people, and I have the option to vote for it or against it," he said.

Buck said he hasn’t seen the specifics of the budget bill passed by the House yet.

“The dollars, we are trying to follow the child,” he added. “That’s going to be a boon to some school districts and that’s going to be a negative to others. But you can’t deny a child funding because they come from an affluent area.”

Jonathan Schuck, principal of the Kokomo Area Career Center, also noted that the proposed budget would reduce funding for career and technical education, and he asked Buck and the rest of the Senate to take a closer look at that aspect of the budget and at least maintain current funding.

Education reporter Lauren Slagter can be reached at 765-454-8587, by email at lauren.slagter@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @LaurenSlagter.

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