It’s an apocalyptic headline for what’s actually been a pretty good week at the Statehouse. Some good ideas came back from the grave; other key principles of our legislative agenda survived to keep trudging towards conference committee. At this point in the session, we all feel a little like the Walking Dead – and we’re watching for unexpected plot twists before the session winds down in a few weeks.
Roads Open Ahead
A forward-looking, realistic infrastructure funding plan has been assailed by rhetorical barbs and intraparty infighting – but we’re pleased to put the concept in the “survivor” category this week.
The details are still in flux, though. The Senate Tax & Fiscal Policy Committee made a number of changes to HB1002 before passing it Tuesday –
The revised bill falls short of the $1B annual need for road funding, but is a major step towards a long-range solution that includes diverse new revenue-generating tools; we’ll call that a win. Further, the tone of public comments and committee discussion seems to indicate that a workable compromise is increasingly likely to emerge from conference.
Senate up-and-down on other key investments:
We’re mixed on other aspects of the full Senate budget plan, passed unanimously by the Appropriations Committee on Thursday. But a few priorities we share with Governor Holcomb are back after being buried by HB1001, even as others now need resuscitation.
Notably, the revised budget leaves out any cigarette tax increase (the Chamber-backed Alliance for a Healthier Indiana originally lobbied for a $1.50-per-pack increase, later trimmed to $1 in HB1001). This deals a blow to healthcare advocates (while the budget does slightly increase funding for anti-smoking programs), but also leaves a $300M revenue gap with the House version that will make it tougher for the two chambers to come together on infrastructure funding.
The Senate also zeros out Governor Holcomb’s proposed billion-dollar ‘Next Level Indiana’ entrepreneurship and innovation fund, unwilling to tap the Major Moves trust fund for that purpose.
But on a number of other key issues, the Senate improves on the original House blueprint, or has at least moved in the right direction from earlier hearings:
Reforms Resurrected (and it feels so good)
The appointment of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction looked to be dead and buried back in February after SB179 narrowly failed, thanks to Senate rules on voting for a House measure duplicating a defeated Senate bill. But the House version, HB1005, got new life this week after getting tweaked enough by the Education Committee to pass parliamentary muster (a possibility we raised a few weeks ago) and get an 8-4 endorsement.
The ‘new’ bill turns the office into a Governor-appointed Secretary of Education after January 10, 2025, and establishes a two-year residency, along with education and experience qualifications.
HB1036, providing a non-partisan, merit-based selection process for Marion County judges, was never declared dead, but we feared for its life amid criticism that it would disenfranchise the local community from the criminal justice system (though leaving judicial retention in the hands of Indianapolis voters).
But the bill keeps moving, passing Senate Judiciary 10-0 after being amended to include four elected officials on the proposed selection committee as a way to reflect public opinion.
Both plans advance important principles of government reform: HB1005 means accountability, appointing an administrative office while the top policymaker (Governor) faces the voters without excuses or confusion about who leads the education agenda. And HB1036 recognizes that the judicial branch should be above politics, especially as practiced locally with slating fees and ballot maneuvering.
A Sobering Thought on Zombie Bills:
Foes of reform may disparage HB1005/SB179 as ‘zombie’ legislation that dug itself out of a procedural demise. We think of zombie bills as minor controversies that keep lurching forward every session, eating parts of our brains that we should be using on the budget, infrastructure and education issues.
For example, the cold beer conundrum – back in the spotlight this week as lawmakers tried to fix a so-called loophole allowing certain convenience stores to put their refrigerators to nefarious use. Our take is that Indiana needs comprehensive reform of our liquor laws so this topic – along with Sunday sales and other issues – can finally ‘Rest in Peace’ and allow us to move on.
In other agenda action: It’s been a busy week for other bills of note for the Indy Chamber agenda:
On Pre-K – invest, don’t request:
The debate on early childhood education has seen a disappointing trajectory this session – from a modest doubling of the existing pilot program floated by the Governor and embraced by the House, to the slight increase in funding doled out by the Senate (which could actually lead to local cutbacks in places like Indianapolis, with more counties potentially competing for meager resources).
We’ve consistently called for a real statewide pre-K program, starting at $50M. To soften the blow, some legislative leaders have raised the idea of asking for federal waivers on Head Start that would allow those funds to bolster pre-K efforts. But if we’ve learned anything the last few months, it’s that Washington D.C. is an unpredictable place – we can’t hope for a deus ex machina from Washington to make our critical investments for us. The General Assembly still has time to strengthen pre-K this year; lawmakers need to hear from the business community now on this important issue.
Finally, a positive story beyond a particular bill, or even session. This week saw the formation of a bipartisan ‘Indiana Future Caucus,’ made up of younger legislators focused on the interests of the Millennial generation – a growing share of our workforce whose career and lifestyle choices will shape what Indiana looks like for decades to come. We have high hopes for this group – there are partisan divides in the General Assembly, but often the policy contrast is ‘incremental’ versus ‘innovative.’ We hope this youth movement can push their respective caucuses faster in the right direction.
And to further the cause of Millennial engagement in the political process, watch out for the agenda of this year’s HobNob (coming up on August 31st), which will include a ‘Political Boot Camp’ aimed at potential first-time candidates.
You Voted, Councilors Listened
We encourage you to send your county councilor a thank-you note for supporting Proposal 3 to enact the Marion County Transit Plan. You can find your city-county councillor's contact information here.