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Pressel, Boy share thoughts on ongoing General Assembly session

La PORTE — From legislation requiring drivers to stay off their cell phones while driving to a bill insulating school districts from the results of the state’s controversial standardized test, the Indiana General Assembly has a hefty docket ahead of it halfway into its current session.

On Friday, State Reps. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, and Pat Boy, D-Michigan City, updated the community on the affairs currently gripping the state capitol during Friday’s Third House Session, which took place at Purdue University Northwest in Westville. The lawmakers discussed the pieces of legislation they’ve presented and gave their thoughts on other significant bills working their way through Indianapolis this session, which began Jan. 6.

The La Porte Economic Advancement Partnership, Westville Chamber of Commerce and Michigan City Chamber of Commerce sponsored last week’s event, which drew several dozen local officials and residents to PNW’s Dworkin Center that morning.

The discussion took place amid “halftime” this session, when surviving House bills move over to the Senate and vice-versa, Pressel said. Of the 901 bills General Assembly members have put forward this session, only 283 have advanced for consideration in the opposite chamber, the lawmaker added.

Pressel, who is currently serving his fourth year in the General Assembly, has authored a pair of these surviving bills: House Bill 1015, which would establish disciplinary guidelines for full-time firefighters, and HB 1131, which would set new standards for the installation of water and sewer main extensions.

The representative is also a co-author on HB 1070, a piece of legislation intended to tackle distracted driving – a problem Pressel has sought to address for the past three years, he said.

The bill would forbid the nonemergency use of cell phones or other mobile telecommunications devices while driving. Motorists can still use voice commands to control their devices, or can operate it via a dashboard cradle, Pressel said.

“It just can’t be in your hand,” he said. “That’s really the goal here, to get people to pay attention...pay attention to where you’re going. Let’s not endanger someone else’s life.”

Rep. Pat Boy, who is serving her second year in the state House, has authored five bills this session, though none have made it to the Senate, she said. The House Committee on Environmental Affairs did hear one of her laws, HB 1257, which would have required individuals or companies that spill contaminants into waterways to immediately notify several affected agencies, including nearby water departments.

The series of spills at ArcelorMittal last summer prompted Boy to write the legislation, she said. Water departments often do not get notice of such incidents until a day later, which could lead to catastrophe, especially if contaminants get into an abundant water supply like that of Indiana American Water, Boy said.

“It serves a couple hundred-thousand people, at least,” Boy said. “That would be a real disaster if they were drinking cyanide in their water.”

Both Pressel and Boy support HB 1001, which would protect Indiana school corporations from suffering a lower grade from the state department of education due to the results of last year’s ILEARN testing, in which less than half of state’s earned a “proficient” rating.

Educational professionals across the state, including many in La Porte County, have criticized the standardized test – which replaced the state’s previous ISTEP+ exam in 2018 – as being a “one-size-fits-all” exam that doesn’t correctly measure student proficiency. During last fall’s Red for Ed rally in Indianapolis, Boy heard from multiple teachers who told her some of the questions on the 2019 test were aimed at grade levels higher than those of the students taking it, she said.

“They might know more than what’s on the test, but if they don’t know what’s on the test or they don’t know the question they’re being asked is not something they’re supposed to know, it makes them feel defeated,” Boy said. “If they have test anxiety or any other problems with it, that makes it that much worse for them.”

Both lawmakers also voted in favor of HB 1004, which would prevent health care providers from billing a patient for amounts that exceed their insurance policy’s in-network rates. The legislation is intended to combat the “surprise” out-of-network billing that many state residents experience, Pressel said.

Though the lawmaker feels the bill doesn’t go far enough, Pressel said it does move the needle forward, giving health care providers a chance to get their act together before the legislature considers more direct intervention.

“I think it sends a valuable message,” Pressel said. “You really don’t want a builder that works in the General Assembly, or somebody else from the General Assembly that’s not a professional in that world, to tell you how to fix that problem. But it’s a problem, and we’re going to fix it if you don’t.”

The Republican also touched on HB 1007, which calls for the state to spend a $300 million surplus from the previous fiscal year on various higher education projects that lawmakers originally intended to issue bonds for. Though the proposed legislation has drawn ire from citizens, who believe the excess dollars should go toward raises for teachers, Pressel believes it is a more financially responsible move, as dividing the dollars up to educators would merely amount to a one-time, $400 stipend, he said.

“Nobody wants to hand out a check and then next go around, we don’t have that money again,” Pressel said.

Boy, who voted against the legislation, said she wanted the state to devote some of those dollars toward paying the United States Army Corps of Engineers $800,000 for a study of the Great Lakes shoreline, which has suffered massive erosion problems in recent years, she said.

Pressel and Boy also fell on different sides of another controversial bill, HB 1414, which, among other provisions, would delay the closing of any coal-fired electric generation plants until May 1, 2021.

The Democrat was one of 41 House members who voted against the bill, which passed through the chamber with 52 votes. Boy said ignores the massive cleanup of coal ash that will be required once these plants – including the NIPSCO plant in Michigan City – are eventually phased out in favor of cleaner energy sources, she said.

“If we keep burning coal, we’ll have more and more coal ash sitting in ponds that leach into the soil and eventually into the groundwater,” Boy said. “Those were going to be a nightmare to clean up in the first place, and holding off on retiring the coal plants is not going to be environmentally good.”

Pressel, on the other hand, voted for the bill, saying the wait will give state power companies additional time to develop a plan to retire their coal-fired plants without significantly affecting customers’ bills, he said.

“If we’re saving 50 percent and we’re buying clean energy, I’m all in,” Pressel said. “But, so far, no one’s been able to show me that plan.”

The three chambers will host another Third House Session at the end of this year’s legislative session. The event will take place at 7:30 a.m. Friday, March 20, again at PNW Westville.

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SkillUp realizing a positive return on investment

MICHIGAN CITY — Through an Indiana Department of Workforce Development grant, employees and employers are seeing a significant return on their investment in the SkillUp program in La Porte County.

Tim Johnson, president of MCTD Inc. in Michigan City, has been a proponent of the program since its inception.

“We have been involved in all three iterations of the program over the past couple of years,” Johnson said. “Manufacturing jobs in La Porte County need educated employees who are trained for the unique technology that is used in our production.

“The SkillUp program has allowed our corporation and others to benefit by upgrading the skill set of employees on our factory floor.”

The Northwest Indiana Workforce Board oversees the use of grant money to prepare the pipeline of workers for manufacturers in the county and greater region. The board has partnered with several local schools and manufacturing organizations to ensure that the funds are used to improve the skill set of current employees, as well as provide educated and trained workers for the future.

In the case of MCTD Inc., the tangible results showcase the benefits of the program, Johnson said.

“We use CAD/CAM software called Mastercam for 3D CNC machining. Finding workers who know how to use the software to its fullest capabilities is very challenging,” he said.

“Through the SkillUp grant, we were able to send one of our current employees to a class in South Bend. Mike (Granger) was able to acquire new skills that benefited our company and expanded his individual skill set.”

That’s just one example of how the SkillUp grant benefits manufacturing companies and workers across La Porte County and the nearby region.

CNC is short for computer numerical control, Johnson explained.

The CNC process automates the process of manual control, where live operators are needed to prompt and guide the commands of machining tools via levers, buttons and wheels, he said.

“A CNC system resembles a regular set of computer components, but the software programs and consoles employed in CNC machining distinguish it from other forms of computation. Workers trained in CNC machining are very valuable assets to their management.”

3D machining is a new version of Mastercam software that expands the capabilities of CNC processing, he said.

“Machinists must be trained in how the software works in order to reap the benefits. It can be challenging to find the appropriate classes to learn the software. Ivy Tech in South Bend offers the class every year, and MCTD Inc. took advantage of the opportunity.”

Granger has been an employee at MCTD for more than 20 years and jumped at the chance to take the class and expand his skill set. Johnson worked with NWIWB to get SkillUp funds for the tuition at Ivy Tech, and MCTD paid for books and other necessities.

The collaboration resulted in Granger acquiring the Mastercam skillset to utilize the software for machining at MCTD, Johnson said.

“That provided the company with a new ability to offer clients 3D CNC machining in tool and die machines they sold. The company benefited financially, and Granger acquired a valuable skill set that made him an even more employable machinist.”

The return on investment has been impressive.

“The Mastercam software allows me to program our machines faster and more precise,” Granger said. “3D machining is the forefront of technology for manufacturing. I was excited and grateful to be get the opportunity to take the class and learn new tools.”

The 12-week class at Ivy Tech was a 30-minute drive for Granger, one he was happy to invest in. He said the class not only taught him the use of the software, but enlightened the way he thought about CNC machining.

“Learning what 3D machining could do provided me with a different way of looking at the job,” he said. “The software utilizes applied physics to be more efficient. I feel like I can accomplish new and unique tasks in our business.”

Johnson calls it a win-win for the company and the employee.

“Both of us have benefited from Mike’s new skills,” he said. “This is what the SkillUp program was intended to do – keep and improve manufacturing jobs in La Porte County.

“Machining occupations are growing and evolving in La Porte County, and we encourage other local manufacturers to join the collaboration to build the workforce we need for today and for the future.”

Linda Woloshansky, president and CEO of the Center of Workforce Innovations and staff to the NWIWB, said the impact of this initiative will be tremendous, not only on manufacturing sector partnerships, but also on the community.

“The intent is to develop a framework which can be applied to other industries and in other counties throughout the region,” she said.

“The initiative will also extend outstanding opportunities for high school students, including those who participate in Career & Technical Education, local college students, and adults seeking a career in manufacturing,” Woloshansky said.

And SkillUp is not just for current employees. The program is available for high school students interested in a career in manufacturing, as well as those currently unemployed and in search of a manufacturing career, she said.

High school students and parents are encouraged to contact their school’s career counselor to learn more about SkillUp. Those looking for a manufacturing career can contact Work One.

– From staff reports

Man found dead at scene of off-road-vehicle crash

WALKERTON — Indiana Conservation Officers are investigating an off-road vehicle crash sometime over the weekend that left a 74-year-old man dead near Walkerton.

About 9:23 a.m. Monday, a motorist called 911 to report what appeared to be a single vehicle ORV accident involving an unresponsive male, according to Matthew Maher of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Law Enforcement.

Conservation Officers arrived at the site near 33880 Union Road in unincorporated Walkerton to find the ORV and the victim, Maher said.

After investigating, officers said the ORV was eastbound when, for unknown reasons, it left the south side of Union Road and struck a tree along Beall Ditch.

The St. Joseph County Coroner arrived and pronounced the subject deceased. His name has not yet been released.

The cause of the accident is unknown at this time, as is the time of the death, Maher said. There were no witnesses to the crash and evidence indicates it occurred prior to Sunday’s snowfall, he said.

The victim was not wearing a helmet or proper safety equipment at the time of the crash, according to IDNR.

“Conservation Officers stress safe operation of ORV’s and the use of proper protective equipment such as helmets,” Maher said.

The name of the victim is being withheld pending notification of family.

– From staff reports

Smith seeking County Council seat

La PORTE — A longtime La Porte resident has announced his candidacy for an at-large seat on the La Porte County Council.

Joe Smith said his passion for community service and love of his hometown have inspired him to “pursue this opportunity, which will enable me to make a positive impact in La Porte County government and for the people that live here.”

Smith has lived in La Porte County his entire adult life. He attended and graduated from La Porte High School, studied business at IUSB and the University of Phoenix, and is employed at Evolving Solutions Inc. in La Porte.

He is a active in the community as a member of the Door Village Lions Club, Sons of the American Legion Squadron 83, VFW Auxiliary 1130, Polish Falcon Nest 564, PRCU Club, 463GOP and the La Porte County Republican Party.

Smith said his campaign will focus on “fiscal responsibility and cooperation between all government entities within La Porte County.

“The council has the ultimate decision-making power regarding fiscal affairs. The council has authority to view or review fiscal matters, determine proper policy, and set priorities for the allocation and expenditure of county funds,” Smith said.

Those powers, as determined by the General Assembly, include:

Approving and fixing annual operating budgets of all county government offices and agencies

Establishing salaries, wages, per diems, and other compensation for all county officials and employees

Fixing tax rates and establishing levies on all county property for the purpose of raising funds to meet budget requirements in conducting county business, as well as authorizing the borrowing of money in the form of bonds and notes

Appropriating public funds, i.e., authorizing the expenditure of county money by particular officials or departments for specific purposes

Authorizing certain purchases or sales of county owned land

Smith said he believes “responsible spending and planning will allow for positive economic development and growth for a better future, in all of La Porte County.”

To learn more about Smith, or to get involved or donate to his campaign, follow him on social media at fb.me/electjoesmith2020 or contact him at com2electjoesmith@comcast.net or (219) 402-7929.