Legislative Update: Uphill Sledding at the Statehouse

The New Year is here, bringing a new session of the Indiana General Assembly and an arctic blast of subzero wind chills.  It makes you want to hang out in a grocery store beer aisle, where being cold is against the law.

At the Statehouse, issues spanning public health, education and workforce, government reform and economic development demand action – but several factors threaten to put these priorities in the deep freeze.

First, it’s a non-budget short session, with little time to deliberate.  That doesn’t stop hundreds of bills from getting filed…without the overriding structure of the budget process or a dominant issue (like property tax reform in 2008) driven by the Governor or caucus leaders, legislators are eager to have their say on an array of topics.

At the same time, leadership is often reluctant to consider significant legislation in a short session.  And when it comes to bills with a price tag, a chilly reception seems certain from fiscal solons; recent revenue reports have underperformed the projections used to craft the budget last year.

Time to turn up the heat.
We urge lawmakers to buck the circumstances of the short session and tackle a substantive agenda for a growing economy and stronger communities.  It may be uphill sledding, but some of these issues are too important to ring in another New Year before moving forward.

And time to focus on talent:
Talent continues to be our top economic priority as a region, and the session offers opportunities to help prepare our workforce for the demands of the job market and make Indy a more welcoming place to live and work.

We’ll be keeping an eye on additional reforms to the state’s workforce development system, and Governor Holcomb and the legislature remain focused on streamlining a complex mix of agencies, training programs and funding sources into a more effective, employer-driven approach.

To attract and retain diverse talent, we also need public policy that confirms our inclusive attitude as a global region: SB285 provides overdue anti-discrimination protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, while SB227 restores in-state college tuition for the children of immigrants.  SB271 creates bias crime guidelines, sending an important message that hate and intolerance are not Hoosier values.

A healthier – and safer – Indiana:
One idea that fell short last session could have implications across public health, public safety, workforce development and even boosting the state budget outlook.  By raising the cigarette tax and the legal age to buy tobacco products (to 21), Indiana could raise much-needed revenues to combat the state’s opioid addiction epidemic and other health issues…while at the same time whittling away a significant Medicaid liability (smoking-related ailments are estimated to add almost $600M to state Medicaid costs).

Curbing smoking – and allowing businesses to manage their employee healthcare costs more effectively – also leads to a healthier workforce (again, tobacco-related illness and absenteeism adds up to $2.6B in lost productivity in Hoosier workplaces).  Policies like raising the smoking age are becoming more commonplace in the major metros that are our economic peers – Columbus Ohio, for example, which just passed Indianapolis in overall population and continues to outpace us in its college-educated workforce.

The Indy Chamber is working on this issue through the Alliance for a Healthier Indiana and supports SB23 (repealing the so-called ‘Smokers Bill of Rights’).

It keeps getting later on early education.
As we write this, lots of local students are delayed from school due to brutal temperatures – but more younger children are delayed from learning opportunities and cognitive development due to outdated policies and lack of funding.

The Chamber will continue the fight for continued expansion of publicly funded pre-K focused on children and families in financial need, along with full-day day kindergarten by age 5, protecting the progress on pre-K that’s been made in Marion County while pursuing the ultimate goal of affordable, accessible programs across Indiana.  Action in a non-budget year will be a challenge, but we’ll be keeping the conversation going (looking at ongoing research by Purdue and other evidence of the benefits of early education intervention).  In the Senate, we’re pleased to support SB272 moving the compulsory kindergarten age to five.

Taming townships, rethinking redistricting
Movement on local government reform is often glacial, and the Indy Chamber has been engaged in efforts to streamline a system of Indiana government frozen in the 1800s.  This year, we’re encouraged by support from House Republicans for allowing smaller townships to merge with larger ones, which could reduce the number of Indiana townships by 300 or more (which still leaves 700 too many, but progress is progress).

In the Senate, SB231 also turns up the heat on townships piling up excessive budget surpluses by forcing stricter review of their property tax levies.   Reform takes patience, but time is running out to enact meaningful redistricting reform before the ten-year Census.  We will be pushing for a non-partisan approach that creates common-sense districts, makes our elections more competitive and government more accountable.

Cold beers, hot button issues
As we mentioned earlier, the legislative docket this year is like a fitness boot camp for New Year’s resolution-makers – packed in January, nearly empty by mid-February.  Right now there are plenty of issues generating headlines: Refunds for offended Colts fans (already sent to the sidelines by Speaker Bosma – a.k.a. Rules Committee), making English the official state language, confusion over cannabis oil, even allowing kids to take sunscreen to school without a doctor’s note (a problem we’d love to have given today’s weather).  And we agree that comprehensive reform of Indiana’s alcohol laws is long overdue.

But we hope lawmakers will narrow their focus quickly and act on the issues detailed above and others included in our 2018 Legislative Agenda.

This is the first in a series of weekly updates that we’ll continue through the session; as the list of introduced bills continues to grow, we’ll be providing a more thorough list of the legislation that matches our agenda next week. And as the action continues to heat up at the Statehouse, we look forward to reporting how the General Assembly has warmed to these ideas for keeping Indy – and the state – ‘Open for Business.’

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