By Zach Osowski
Southern Indiana lawmakers with districts along the Ohio River are planning a new legislative caucus to represent the region's distinct interests and push for infrastructure funding and other projects.
The Ohio River Caucus, the brainchild of Rep. Steve Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, is intended to make sure the counties along the Ohio River as well as those districts in the Ohio River basin have a place where their interests and needs will be heard.
"We have a lot to gain by working together," said Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, who will be part of the group.
Stemler started planning for the caucus well before Gov. Mitch Daniels closed the Sherman Minton bridge on Friday, which connects New Albany with Louisville, after inspectors found a crack in the structure, although it's just the kind of problem the caucus could help tackle.
Stemler, whose district borders the Ohio River, said the Ohio River is critical to commerce, something that needs to be protected.
He also said the group could help address regional problems or issues, such as new clean-water mandates from the Environmental Protection Agency.
"It used to be that all sewers went to the same place," Stemler said. "Now towns have to pay more to treat water and make sure things like storm drains don't flow directly into the river."
These extra expenses could hurt both small and big towns on the river, but Stemler said he hopes the new caucus will push for ways to help those struggling communities.
The General Assembly has a number of caucuses created to represent specific interests. The House and Senate are divided into Republican and Democratic caucuses. The legislature has a black caucus and a rural caucus.
Riecken said she looks forward to an Ohio River Caucus because the group should have enough clout to make sure that the waterway stays navigable at all times and receives funding for important transportation related improvements.
She said the current infrastructure on the river is "crumbling" and that it "needs attention." That would make the caucus key if Congress approves a new infrastructure program that makes additional funding available for transportation-related projects.
The Indiana caucus also might work closely with the Congressional Ohio River Basin caucus that contains members from many different states tied to the Ohio River. They have similar goals as the Indiana caucus including economic, infrastructure and community issues.
And Riecken hopes the caucus could help Evansville establish a state port to boost the city's economic status. Currently, the state has ports at Mount Vernon and Jeffersonville on the Ohio River and at Burns Harbor on Lake Michigan.
Stemler said he is seeking full support from both chambers of the legislature and wants the caucus to be bipartisan as well.
The above is one of an ongoing series of reports from the Indiana Statehouse by students at the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism.