Senator Ed Charbonneau was kind enough to pay a visit to the Ideas in Motion Media office for a one-on-one interview with publisher Chris Mahlmann about education, La Porte County, the state of Indiana and good news, among many other topics!
Chris Mahlmann, Ideas in Motion Media Publisher: Senator, welcome. Thanks for coming back!
Ed Charbonneau, Indiana State Senator: It's my pleasure. Anytime I can come over here and be a part of good news I welcome the opportunity.
CM: We haven't had you in a little while, so tell me about the year that's past. What do you see as some of the significant hallmarks that have been accomplished?
Senator Charbonneau: We've finished the session in March. I think a couple of really significant things that came out of this session will help us well into the future as a state. We've fully funded full day kindergarten. It's something that we've been struggling with for a long time. We understand that getting children into the education process as early as possible is extremely important. We somewhat funded it last year, but this year we finally bit the bullet, took $80 million and put it into the school funding formula to fund full day kindergarten. Another one is that we've begun the process of eliminating inheritance tax. Indiana was one of only a few states that still had an inheritance tax. Primarily, one of the big areas where it's an issue is farmland. You have a farmer that passes away and wants to pass his farm onto the children of the family. The inheritance tax is a pretty significant chuck that's taken out of the estate. It's not at all rare that we've had situations where they've had to sell part of the farm to be able to pay the inheritance tax. We've taken care of that one. Those are two really significant issues that we addressed this time around in the session.
CM: So despite rumors to the contrary, there actually are people in state government who get along.
Senator Charbonneau: Absolutely. There's that perception out there that everybody's always fighting each other and all of the legislation that is passed is strictly along party lines. When you go back and look at the records of votes you find that the vast majority of the legislation that we pass is bipartisan. It's not the at-your-throat kind of legislation process that you read about. Certainly there's going to be disagreements that go on, but far and away most of the legislation is bipartisan.
CM: What do you see in the six months ahead? With elections coming up what do you see as the things that people are going to be deciding upon that are really critical?
Senator Charbonneau: Certainly, one of the big ones is healthcare. I think everyone agrees that we need to address healthcare. The question is how do we want to do it. This last session we passed some legislation called a healthcare compact. We would like the opportunity at the state level to take care of the healthcare issues instead of depending on the federal government to do it. We firmly believe that we can do a better job of spending money and controlling spending. I think the track record that we've shown in Indiana over the last 6-8 years certainly bears that out. What's gone on over the last 6-8 years is nothing short of remarkable. Indiana is the talk of the nation with what we've done controlling costs, balancing budget and going from a roughly $2 billion deficit to a budget surplus and we've done it with no tax increases, which is pretty remarkable. Whenever I'm around the country with legislatures from other states, the first thing they want to talk about is the budget. I think we Hoosiers should be very proud of what's going on.
CM: Education you touched on early on. It's been a contentious issue statewide and is something that brings attention federally and even locally here. How do you really address education and how do you dispel the notion that republicans are attacking education?
Senator Charbonneau: There are a lot of perceptions out there that are not correct. If you just take a step back, when we were facing a budget not that many years ago that was in the red by about $2 billion, our K-12 education is slightly more than 50 percent of our budget. Just looking at those raw numbers, if we're going to make up a $2 billion deficit, the logical conclusion would be that you're going to have to cut a billion of that out of K-12 education. We didn't do that. As a state, we went to every other agency that's funded through the general fund and started making cuts there. It wasn't until all those cuts were done that we reached the point that we now have to address K-12 education. At that point we reduced funding to K-12 education by about $280 million. I look at it from the standpoint that we went over and above to protect K-12 education with what we've done. Everyone has adjusted accordingly. The bottom line is, you want to look at results. Change is difficult. You understand the concerns and the complaints, but the bottom line is, if you look at results and what's going on in the classroom, we're getting better. Scores are getting better. It's a new era for education. Some of the stuff that's going on I find very, very exciting. Something that's simple, but big, is dual credit. A student can be going to high school and getting college credit at the same time. As taxpayers continue to struggle with meeting their budgets, it's a great way to help the next generation of college graduates to pay for their college. It's much cheaper to get that college credit while you're still in high school until you get to IU, Purdue or Wabash or wherever you might go. Along those same lines, we've started paying attention to some colleges increasing the number of credit hours for certain degrees. We said, 'wait a minute, as you're increasing the number of credit hours, you're increasing the cost.' We're really making sure that whatever credit hours are required are really needed to get that degree. There's a lot of stuff that's going on that is very positive in the education realm. Change is very difficult, but we have to continue to change. The effect is in the classroom, where the scores are going up. Lastly, the secret in my mind to a good educational system is getting excellent teachers in the classroom that we pay well, and the parents do their jobs raising their kids.
CM: Last bit on education, you've learned an awful lot about a group that's very near and dear to my heart, the Porter County Career Center. I think it's just an excellent model of effective education, very committed teachers and teachers that are bringing about real impacts on the kids.
Senator Charbonneau: I can't speak highly enough about what goes on at that school. It starts with the leadership at the top with Jon Groth. I never miss an opportunity to go over and talk to the students. I was invited to speak when they had their honor society induction earlier this year and spend time talking to about 150 kids individually as they were being inducted. They are a very, very impressive group of folks. What they're learning at the career school is the fundamentals about responsibilities and accountability in life in addition to the skills to do jobs. I spoke to a couple of classes studying a healthcare field and was extremely impressed with the instructors and the students. As we discussed what they were learning, their job experience when they were going out on the job was pretty incredible stuff. That ends up with about 25 of the 30 students in each class with jobs lined up already. If they were graduating, they had a job that they could move right into. Almost all of them had already gotten their certified nurses' assistant license from the state. I think someone that's not familiar with what goes on there has a perception that's not correct. It's good kids doing a great job of learning to be able to compete in a global market. You just can't get away from the fact that any company has a whole lot of options and they want to get the best and the brightest and the most well-trained individuals so that they're able to compete in the global marketplace. They shouldn't have to worry about teaching a new employee that they aught to show up on time and that they've got to be there every day. It's not rocket science stuff, it's the fundamentals, but it's so important.
CM: We've just expanded into La Porte County. You've followed us back when we were just ValpoLife, then we moved into Portage and now we've gone out to La Porte County. Tell me a little bit about any personal connections you've got to Michigan City, La Porte and the county overall. Tell us about any highlights you think we might find as we move east.
Senator Charbonneau: I've always had as part of my district three townships over in La Porte County. It's Wanatah and La Crosse, so I'm familiar with it from that standpoint. I've spent a lot of time in Michigan City; I love La Porte; Sharon and I like to eat at restaurants over there. It's a great, great community. Certainly Jim Arnold, who's the state senator over in that area, and I are good friends. A lot of good restaurants over in that area; I noticed on your Facebook page you're taking a survey of favorite restaurants in La Porte County. The Heston Bar and Portofino Grill are two that we've frequented quite a bit.
CM: Closing it out, where do you see some major initiatives happening throughout Northwest Indiana that you are happy to see happen?
Senator Charbonneau: I think the one issue that is going to come up in the Regional Development Authority and whether or not we want to continue that and whether the state is going to continue funding it. That's one that I'm going to be working on. We've struggled over time, as an area, to work as a team. There are lots of reasons for that, right or wrong, and they are perceptions again that you have to deal with. You just can't do this alone anymore. It's a teamwork process and everybody needs partners. The more we can work together the better off we're going to be. I think we're making progress, but it's a slow process.
CM: You probably see when economic times are challenging, people defend their turf a little bit more, rather than maybe open up to some of those partnerships.
Senator Charbonneau: You're right on the money. There's a reluctance to let down your guard and say 'Let's work together.' We have the issue of 911 call centers that's an issue with some of the counties around the state, Lake County is struggling a little bit with it right now, so that's another one, but again it gets to the fact of working together, which at time seems to be a foreign concept.
CM: Highlighting a couple of good pieces, what are some good pieces of news that we might not be aware of that you might want to highlight.
Senator Charbonneau: I'm glad you opened the door because the good news is that September 16 Sharon and I will be celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary. In this day and age, it's something that we are extremely proud of. The other thing that I wanted to make sure I had a chance to comment on was to commend you for the first annual Good Life Awards. I thought that was just an outstanding evening. Just all the way around, remarkable turnout for the event and what a great concept, focusing on good news and good people. My hat is off to you, please keep up the good work.
CM: Well, we thank you. You've been an early supporter and engager of ours and we look forward to having you back again for another update.