Legislative Update: Amazon Prime Time

This week, the General Assembly settled into the frenetic three-week stretch between first and third readings (as bills are assigned to committees to either stall, perish, or pass for a full vote in their chamber of origin) before the session hits halftime – more than a hundred bills were heard or acted on over the last five days.

But before you could say “Alexa, track legislative agenda,” the news that Indy made the cut as a top twenty finalist for the massive Amazon HQ2 project added a new twist to the work of this legislature.

Obviously, legislation like SB257 (clarifying the sales tax-exempt status of software-as-a-service business) is more visible as lawmakers look to build on our tech-friendly climate; this bill passed Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee 10-0 on the eve of the Amazon news.

Workforce and education, already critical priorities, take on added urgency as HQ2 would boost local demand for tech-savvy talent even higher.  Among other proposals, SB172 looks towards the next generation of IT workers by adding computer science to the K-12 curriculum – it sailed unanimously through the Education Committee Thursday.

The technology industry is notable for an inclusive corporate culture and insatiable demand for a diverse workforce.  The Amazon news makes an even more obvious business case for an ‘open door’ for talent, backed up with comprehensive statewide anti-discrimination policies.

Mind on my money, money on my mind
Most immediately, some legislative action may be necessary to structure an incentive package appropriate for HQ2; Speaker Bosma signaled his willingness Thursday to move this session if necessary.

Swift action would be another credit to Indiana’s pro-industry bona fides.  Competitive incentives are important…especially in tandem with other moves to strengthen our economic climate, some of which stray from the traditional ‘business agenda.’

‘Eyeing’ more inclusive, sustainable growth
Earning a spot among the top twenty favored metros for a project like Amazon HQ2 puts Indy among some elite peers.  But sustaining this momentum takes strong, healthy communities – for businesses to grow, Indy has to be a place where people can thrive.  That means addressing broader socioeconomic challenges, too.

Indiana remains one of just five states without any type of bias crime law, for example.  We’re part of the bottom ten in smoking rate; only Nevada spends less than we do on public health.  While only half of all states protect the rights of all their citizens based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Indiana’s part of the wrong half, as noted above (we’re also on the wrong side of the median when it comes to incarceration).

All these dismal data points chip away at our biggest economic asset – human capital, our ability to welcome new talent and help today’s Hoosiers do better tomorrow.  There are a number of bills that tackle these issues:

Bias Crimes: There’s a real chance to pass bias crime protections this session.  Two major bills are in play: The Chamber supports SB418 – a sentence aggravator; SB271 treats bias intent as a separate offense).  Director of Policy Tim Brown spoke Wednesday at a Statehouse rally featuring a broad coalition of concerned citizens, social and criminal justice advocates and business…and we’re encouraged by the show of grassroots enthusiasm to match legislative momentum.

Tobacco:  As we mentioned last week, a strong tobacco bill was unveiled this week – HB1380 would raise the state cigarette tax by $2 per pack (from 99.5 cents to just shy of $3) and the legal smoking age to 21.  We support it as a way to cut healthcare costs, contribute to a healthier, more productive workforce, and yield much-needed tax revenues to close our public health funding gap.  Chief Policy Officer Mark Fisher spoke at another rally Wednesday on this issue, joining an array of partners in the Alliance for a Healthier Indiana.

Food Deserts:  Lack of access to healthy food options has also been a challenge for Indianapolis, as high-poverty neighborhoods tend to be isolated from groceries and other daily necessities.  Expanded mass transit will help tackle this issue; SB232 also acts to create a new organization under the Lieutenant Governor charged with developing a strategy engaging public, private and philanthropic agencies to address food deserts – it passed unanimously out of the Family and Human Services Committee.

Transitioning to Work:  We also need to ease the path back into the job market for those who face unique hurdles along the way. HB1047 (helping veteran students qualify for financial aid) passed the full House this week.  SB11 (qualifying ex-drug offenders for SNAP benefits as they work towards employment) is poised for a vote in the full Senate, as a conflicting measure stalls in the House.  HB1152 (‘traffic amnesty’) will help those with traffic violations keep their driving privileges, to get to work as they pay off their fines – it passed the Courts and Criminal Justice Committee unanimously this week.  HB1134, creating a workforce drug recovery program, will be heard next week.

Skills to Pay the Bills:
As mentioned last week, SB157 establishes a “Real World Career Readiness Program” to help high school students successfully enter the job market, creating a potential “13th grade” including an apprenticeship, co-op, or work-based learning program.  The bill was graded ‘incomplete,’ however, and held for one week by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.  Increased K-12 funding also continues to move through the House.

HB1002, the broader workforce reform and restructuring proposal described in greater detail last week, also received its first hearing in Ways and Means this week – we look forward to more discussion (and action) towards a smarter, more streamlined workforce development system aligned with employer needs.

Proceed to Checkout (even on Sunday):
Almost, but not quite, overshadowed by the Amazon announcement, the House joined the Senate this week in passing Sunday carryout alcohol sales through an important committee vote.  HB1051 passed the House Public Policy Committee 12 – 1, while companion measure SB1 was engrossed for third reading in the Senate.  (Cold beer continues to get a cold reception, failing its Senate committee test 9-1.)

Down to Business
As the legislature gets down to business, the fate of our agenda will come down to business:  Specifically, the business community speaking out at the Statehouse over the next two months, giving the employer perspective on tobacco, the ongoing discussion on early childhood education, and upskilling our workforce.

Of course, the biggest challenge is compelling government to change itself.  We’re hopeful of trimming back township government this year.  We also believe that fair and competitive elections lead to better policymaking, so we’re taking on non-partisan redistricting reform (SB326, a good first step, will be heard on Monday).  Your voices can certainly make a difference on these difficult issues.

The great news from Amazon shows how far Indy has come, and the payoff from our efforts to rethink economic development and embrace regional cooperation.  But we can’t let up, in implementing ‘Accelerate Indy,’ broadening our vision to embrace a more inclusive economy, and pushing good policy at the Statehouse.  We’ll need your continued support and involvement to pull important bills across the finish line this Spring.

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