Legislative Update: Statehouse Hide-And-Seek

There’s no getting around it: It was a disappointing week at the General Assembly, as two of our key priorities – tobacco taxes and age limits, and bias crimes – died without a formal vote.  Strong and diverse coalitions (including the business community) sought action on these worthwhile measures…but resolutions were hidden in procedural maneuvers.

There were a number of good bills that moved forward this week, beating third reading deadlines – we’ll cover the highlights below.  We shouldn’t skip past the earnest work of legislators advancing important issues of economic development, expanded transit options, community redevelopment and more.

But as we get ready to root against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick this weekend, think of it this way: Faced with two game-changing ‘plays’ heading into halftime of the session, we got the legislative equivalent of a punt – not once, but twice.

Choking on a procedural smokescreen:
In a puzzling move, a day after  HB1380 (the Chamber-supported proposal to raise the legal age for buying tobacco to 21) passed the House Public Health Committee unanimously, the bill was recommitted to Ways and Means just hours before committee deadlines – effectively killing it for the session.

House leaders cited the bill’s fiscal impact, saying a higher smoking age would cost the state revenue from decreased cigarette sales.  But this rationale is a flimsy smokescreen, as the committee had stripped a provision from the original bill to raise the cigarette tax itself – a move that would have led to more revenue, and an opportunity for Indiana to climb out of the cellar in state rankings of public health spending.

But the more powerful argument against this narrow view of HB1380’s potential impact is that decreasing Indiana’s smoking rate will help businesses and the state manage rising healthcare costs – we have no doubt that a healthier workforce would generate tax revenues (and save public healthcare costs) overwhelming the paltry $14M in annual lost tobacco taxes cited by House Republicans.

This move might have earned the distinction as the most short-sighted of the short session – but unfortunately, the backroom beatdown of HB1380 has competition.

A Bias for Inaction:
The bias crimes bill (SB418) was again denied a committee vote, and Senate GOP leaders announced this week that the legislation would again perish.  This comes on the heels of last week’s contentious hearing, where a parade of professional activists portrayed the bill as a case of Orwellian overreach rather than a straightforward attempt to protect all Hoosiers and punish hate-inspired crimes.

So Indiana will remain among just five states without some kind of bias crime law on the books, to the detriment of our business climate appeal to employers that value an inclusive culture and diverse workforce.  Despite bipartisan support and a recent poll showing two-thirds of Hoosiers supporting action on bias crimes, along with leading employers, a fractious Senate Republican caucus couldn’t come together behind the bill.

“All (We) Do Is Win”
DJ Khaled’s hip-hop anthem could be the slogan for most of the safely-drawn legislative districts in Indiana – and it’s in dire need of a remix.  More competitive elections are a potential antidote to bills getting buried like this week; real general election contests could force lawmakers to heed widespread support for getting tough on hate crimes, or be mindful of the electoral costs of ducking issues like tobacco and public health.

The need for accountable representation is why your Indy Chamber supports nonpartisan redistricting reform.  SB326 takes a modest step in the right direction by creating objective redistricting guidelines; while clarifying amendments to the bill were shot down in the full Senate, it ultimately passed the chamber by a third reading 48 – 0 vote.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?
As mentioned earlier, the week’s work isn’t fully defined by the tobacco and bias crimes setbacks.  A host of other bills moved on to the second half of the session, others were sidelined or still in second reading limbo.  We’ll offer a longer list of the bills that still have a shot at success in the next update, after third reading deadlines have officially passed.  For now, here are a few more notable outcomes from the week that was:

  • The House did move towards correcting a legislative misstep of the past, passing HB1080 to remove the arbitrary prohibition on light rail as part of Central Indiana’s mass transit – now it awaits action in the Senate;
  • SB11 (qualifying ex-drug offenders for SNAP benefits as they look for living-wage work) passed the full Senate by a wide margin;
  • HB1152, the temporary amnesty program allowing Hoosiers with unpaid traffic fines to keep their driving privileges to get to work, met a similar fate to the tobacco legislation, recommitted to die in Ways & Means;
  • The push to modernize local government continues, as HB1005 – consolidating smaller townships, reducing their total number by roughly 300 across the state, passed as amended out of House Ways and Means to face further amendment and discussion on second reading before the full House;
  • Speaking of modernization, HB1065 updates “high speed internet” standards by raising Indiana’s minimum speed thresholds to match the federal definition; the bill passed the House unanimously after being amended to keep authority to administer and deploy high speed internet with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) (the original draft transferred power to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission);

A number of workforce and education measures also made progress this week, or are at least still hoping to make the grade on second reading:

  • HB1002, reorganizing workforce funding and programs as detailed in previous updates, passed out of House Ways and Means on an 18 – 4 vote; it was amended on the floor to include ongoing legislative analysis of the effectiveness and return-on-investment of the various workforce and technical education programs and awaited a third reading vote;
  • HB1426 consolidates Indiana’s four high school diplomas and eliminates the requirement of end-of-course assessments; it also allows the state Board of Education to explore and establish math and science requirements for the state’s Core 40 curriculum – it’s currently on second reading, awaiting ‘graduation’ from the House;
  • SB172 creating the next level computer science grant program to help train teachers in technology and strengthen K-12 computer science programs reached the next legislative level too, passing on third reading 48-1;
  • SB157, the “Real World Career Readiness Program” to help high school students successfully enter the job market, was amended into SB50, the broad-based Senate workforce and technical education bill (on track to meet HB1002 in conference committee, if both survive second and third readings);
  • SB297 creating an ‘Employability Skills Curriculum,’ awaits second reading.

So stay tuned next week for a “halftime report” on surviving bills – and appropriate to this Groundhog Day, a forecast for the last six weeks of session.

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