NOTE: This article that features The Chamber's event, Legislative Preview, was published on January 12, 2024 in the B Square Bulletin by Dave Askins. Photos are provided by B Square Bulletin.
More than 100 people were assembled at The Mill at midday on Friday for the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce Legislative Preview.
This year’s session of the Indiana legislature started on Jan. 8 and will wrap up by mid-March.
Friday’s crowd got to hear four Indiana state legislators answer a question posed by Bloomington’s new mayor Kerry Thomson—about mental health.
Thomson’s question, which she had written out on one of the cards distributed for that purpose, was read aloud by the Bloomington Chamber’s CEO, Eric Spoonmore:
The state is experiencing a mental health and substance use crisis. This cannot be addressed simply at the local level. What can be done about it at the state level, to ensure health care before criminal justice?
Taking a crack at the question in turn were the four state legislators who attended the event: Eric Koch (District 44 state senator), Shelli Yoder (District 40 state senator), Bob Heaton (District 46 state representative), and Peggy Mayfield (District 60 state representative).
Yoder is a Democrat. The other three are Republicans.
Koch led off by pointing out that the senate’s majority caucus last year had put forward a bill [SB 1], which was eventually signed into law. Among other things, the bill authorizes application by the state for Medicaid amendments, waivers, and mental health program participation. The bill also establishes a helpline for emotional support.
About the bill, Koch said, “I hope that that helps make a difference.” Koch also pointed to Monroe County, where Bloomington is seated, which he said had pioneered problem-solving courts. Such courts help avoid treating “jails and prisons as a place to warehouse people with mental illness,” Koch said.
Yoder was one of many co-authors on last year’s bill cited by Koch. She allowed that the bill had appropriated some money. But she added, “Indiana does not have an infrastructure to really respond to the great need that every community is facing when it comes to mental health needs.”
Yoder said she’d had breakfast with Thomson that morning. She’d talked to Bloomington’s mayor about the idea of changing “the definition of when an individual can receive care.” It’s something that was done recently in California, Yoder said.
The bill that California’s governor signed into law late last year expands the eligibility of people who are eligible for conservatorship to include people who are unable to provide for their personal safety or necessary medical care, in addition to food, clothing, or shelter, due to either severe substance use disorder or serious mental health illnesses.
Yoder continued by saying, “We are responding right now with the emergency room and or our county jail. … That’s not a plan. It’s not a strategy.” She wrapped up the point by saying, “We need to take a long look at the ways in which we can create an infrastructure system to support the senate bill that we passed last year.”
Heaton pointed to funding as the challenge. “It takes money,” he said. Heaton said that Notre Dame made a recent announcement that the school is going to contribute $165 million towards a new mental health hospital in South Bend. Heaton said that since the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like mental health as an issue “just kind of exploded.”
Based on data from the city’s B Clear data portal, Bloomington’s police department has for sure seen a post-pandemic surge in calls for service that are related to mental health. From 2016 through the end of 2019, the median number of calls for service per month classified as mental health calls was around 12.
In 2020, that number nearly doubled to 21. The next year, BPD averaged 46 mental health calls per month, followed by an average of 64 monthly calls in 2022.
BPD finished 2023 with an average monthly mental health call volume of almost 80.
Commenting on mental health, Mayfield called last year’s bill “progress” but said the problem was not yet solved. Mayfield noted that Indiana Supreme Court chief justice Loretta Rush had mentioned in this year’s annual address on the state of the judiciary that local specialty courts, including mental health courts, are having some success.
Another topic getting some discussion by the four legislators on Friday included child care.
Koch pointed to a bill [SB 2] that the senate majority has put forward this year, which deals with child care access and affordability.
Yoder described child care as less of an accessibility issue and more of a question of its existence. “It’s not accessible when we don’t have a workforce,” Yoder said. She added, “We have 600,000 parents who are struggling to find child care today in the state of Indiana.”
About the bill that Koch had cited, Yoder said, “There are good ideas in that bill, but there’s no money. …There’s nothing appropriated there.” So Yoder said she wants to work with the bill’s sponsor, District 5 senator Ed Charbonneau, on revisions to the legislation. “The problem is facing Hoosier parents and our children right now,” Yoder said.
Mayfield the issue of childcare is personal for Mayfield, because her daughter-in-law is expecting a child. Mayfield said she’d told her: “Look for childcare now.” October is the first opening she can find, and Mayfield called her “lucky” to find something at $400 a week.
Yoder told the group at the chamber’s event that she is filing a bill [SB 208] that would repeal the law that bans most abortions in the state of Indiana. That’s virtually certain not to go anywhere. Yoder said she weighed whether she should use up one of her five allotted bills on that topic. But Yoder said she’d heard a clear message from her constituents that she should file it.
Another bill that Yoder has filed [SB 203] would eliminate the sales tax on menstrual discharge collection devices.
At a November meeting of Indiana NOW, Yoder told the group about her plan to file essentially the same bill she’d filed in the 2023 session [SB 259] and in the 2022 session [SB 169]—both of which would have removed the 7-percent state sales tax from “feminine hygiene products.”
A similar bill had been filed in the house during the 2020 and 2021 sessions [HB 1226 and HB 1273].
The 2024 includes a key vocabulary change from “feminine hygiene products” to “menstrual discharge collection devices.”
In November, Yoder said that calling tampons and pads “hygiene products” makes them sound like toothpaste and deodorant. “It is not deodorant. It is not toothpaste. Last I checked, you can absolutely go to school and go to work without using deodorant and toothpaste.”
According to the fiscal impact statement for this year’s bill, it would reduce state revenues by $5.1 million in 2025 and $5.7 million in 2026, if the state’s 7-percent sales tax were not collected on menstrual discharge collection devices.
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