Legislative Update: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

The Statehouse this week has been like a limestone roller-coaster, keeping your advocacy team working nearly non-stop.  In the wake of the Amazon news, there was a new sense of purpose and plenty of HQ2-inspired rhetoric around economic development.  We took two steps forward on transit flexibility and redistricting, but stood still (hopefully temporarily) on bias crimes.

Other bills were heard but held in committee, as sponsors and supporters maneuvered to measure opposition and make deals for the final push before third reading deadlines.  It added up to a long week that was sort of like Wednesday’s icy morning commute in Indianapolis – slow going, lots of braking and finger-pointing, and more than a little cursing.

But we won’t stop pushing towards our destination – getting as much of our agenda through the General Assembly gauntlet before March 14th – even if travel gets tricky along the way.

Rotunda repair work:
Public Works crews are busy fixing our winter-worn streets, the General Assembly worked on some public policy repairs this week, too:

  • The House Roads Committee moved towards correcting the arbitrary prohibition on light rail as part of Central Indiana’s mass transit future (part of a compromise to pass the enabling legislation for regional transit in 2014) by passing HB1080 this week;
  • The Senate Elections Committee also took a modest step towards building a better redistricting process (a prerequisite for more competitive elections in a political system that many regard as broken) by passing SB326 on Monday, creating objective redistricting guidelines (if not a nonpartisan authority);
  • The Senate Tax & Fiscal Policy Committee also tried to patch up the uncertainty regarding the sales tax status of software-as-a-service business; SB257 – our preferred solution when this issue hits conference committee – passed the panel unanimously, while HB1316 (the House companion measure) also passed Ways and Means;
  • Of course, the best time to fix a problem is before it becomes a problem: As drafted, SB242 would have hindered local economic development by sunsetting Certified Tech Park tax incentives and other business credits, and putting onerous restrictions on local economic development tools – fortunately, most negative provisions were removed in committee; we’ll be watching carefully in case they re-emerge.

Bias for action:
For all of our eagerness to welcome global firms to our state – the kind of companies that have put Indy on the high-tech map in recent years – lawmakers shied away this week from taking a bold step towards positioning Indiana as a more welcoming, inclusive state…the climate preferred by these innovative employers that value a diverse workforce.

The bias crimes bill (SB418) was denied a committee vote this week after a tough hearing that saw the measure take heat from those who believe it doesn’t go far enough (arguing for tougher sentences) and from those who are oblivious to any problem with being one of the last remaining states without any hate crime laws.

Some argued that the bill goes against “equal protection” – while at the same time fighting tooth and nail against equal protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  We ask legislators to reject this tired type of cognitive dissonance and make it clear that hate isn’t tolerated by Hoosier elected officials or employers.

It’s also undeniable that some Hoosiers face unique hurdles to employment…or that we’re a stronger state when more of us are working and paying taxes.  HB1134, creating a workforce drug recovery program, passed the Employment, Labor and Pensions Committee but was referred to Ways and Means.  SB11 (qualifying ex-drug offenders for SNAP benefits as they look for living-wage work) passed out of Senate Appropriations after being amended to take effect next year.

“I go to work”
To make the Kool Moe Dee classic relevant to more Hoosiers, several more straightforward workforce and education bills saw committee action (though the two biggest bills were held back for some additional homework):

  • SB157, the “Real World Career Readiness Program” to help high school students successfully enter the job market, passed out of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee on a 9 – 2 vote;
  • SB297 also seeks to ease the path from high school to college and career success with ‘Employability Skills Curriculum’ resources created in collaboration with the Department of Workforce Development (DWD); the bill was amended to extend the Indiana Career Explorer pilot program and passed out of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee with an 11 – 0 vote;
  • SB172 creates the next level computer science grant program to help train teachers in technology and strengthen K-12 computer science programs; bill was amended in Senate Appropriations to remove the continuous appropriations for the program and ensure that federal funding stays in the fund – it passed unanimously with those changes;
  • The most far-reaching House bill, HB1002, continues last year’s push to streamline and consolidate various workforce training programs, empowers DWD (and gives new workforce authority to the IEDC) and creates a corporate income tax-funded Next Level Workforce Fund; the bill didn’t get a vote in Ways and Means last week and saw no action this week – so next week is do-or-die for the most substantive progress on workforce issues;
  • In the Senate, SB50 commissions a study of Indiana’s Pell Grant program in Indiana, establishes employee relocation and employer training tax credits, creates a Career Coaching Program through Ivy Tech and the Commission for Technical Education (CTE) and new funds for non-degree CTE programs – this broad-based bill was amended to remove the segregated CTE funding and changes to the 21st Century Scholars program and held for next week, buying time for vote tallying and the possibility of further amendment;
  • As the two broadest proposals dealing with workforce development, HB1002 and SB50 take divergent approaches and are likely to collide in conference committee, meaning that significant action on this critical issue may be in flux up until the waning days of the session (many bills – as with the software sales exemption – are ‘dual tracked’ in both chambers).

Sunday Celebration:
Speaking of dual-tracking, both the House and Senate versions of Sunday alcohol sales (SB1 and HB1051) have passed their respective chambers.  In this case, as the bills are identical, a conference committee can be avoided altogether by one house concurring with the other version of the legislation – regardless, it looks like July 1st (the day when new laws take effect) will be a Sunday to remember across Indiana.

Small loans, big impact:
Indiana’s workforce is our biggest economic asset – human capital.  But let’s face it, especially for small start-up companies, financial capital is pretty important, too.  HB1288 expands the definition of “lenders” under the state’s Capital Access Program, opening the door to supporting microloan initiatives like the Chamber’s.  President of our Business Ownership Initiative Carrie Henderson testified on behalf of the bill; her team has closed nearly $370,000 in microloans, backed by the SBA and regional investors, to help up-and-coming businesses deal with temporary cash flow issues or get much-needed growth capital without meeting traditional lending standards.  The bill passed the Small Business and Economic Development Committee on Thursday.

Up in Smoke:
No, this isn’t a Cheech and Chong reference aimed at the various cannabis measures being passed around the House and Senate this year – we’re more interested in the cigarette tax and smoking age going up.

On Monday morning, January 29th, the House Committee on Public Health will consider HB1380, which would raise the state cigarette tax by $2 per pack and the legal smoking age to 21.  As we’ve stressed repeatedly, we support these moves (along with repealing the so-called ‘Smoker’s Bill of Rights’) as a way to cut healthcare costs, contribute to a healthier, more productive workforce, and yield a revenue stream for public health.

Advocates for health and economic development will storm the Statehouse to show their support for the bill at 10:00AM Monday, and groups like the Chamber will release a statement of support to lawmakers.  Consider joining us if you’re able.

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