Legislative Update: Pass the Mic

The last couple of weeks in the General Assembly have featured hours…and hours…of committee hearings on topics like downtown development (SB7) and economic development (SB563), on to marathon hearings on gaming issues (SB552) and municipal powers earlier this week. There’s been lots of passing the mic – more than forty witnesses testified on SB552 – but not much passing of significant legislation on to second reading.

So many major bills being heard and held in committee is a procedural byproduct of behind-the-scenes haggling.  With another three weeks before third reading deadlines, bottling up bills in committee allows legislative leaders to build consensus and settle key issues in caucus before exposing members to any fractious floor votes.  So for all the testimony given in public, much of the real action is taking place away from the microphones.

That doesn’t mean hearings can’t be important.  On bias crimes, backroom business-as-usual would likely produce a compromise that just isn’t good enough – a toothless bill without specifics, easier to pass but far short of what’s needed to protect Hoosiers from hate and protect Indiana from ongoing economic trauma.

So we’re waiting for SB12 to get its hearing in the House Courts & Criminal Code Committee, which met Wednesday and dealt with bills creating a state definition of terrorism (ignoring the rising threat of hate crimes terrorizing Hoosiers), tweaking misdemeanor penalties and a few other matters – leaving for next week or the week after the most consequential matter on its docket.

We’ll be ready with a strong show of public support for a meaningful, effective bias crimes law; delaying a hearing is okay, as long as the committee doesn’t further delay justice for victims of bigotry and intolerance.

Get in where you fit in
Another reason for holding legislation in committee is the process of finding appropriate vehicles among these surviving bills for language that may have fallen by the wayside.  Amending bills in committee is an easier (and lower-profile) exercise than making such changes during floor deliberations, so holding bills in creates more flexibility for such maneuvering.

This tactic could revive tobacco reform (raising the cigarette tax and legal purchasing age), which could find a home in the budget or a related bill like HB1444 (e-liquid taxation).  In this case, lawmakers have been swimming upstream against overwhelming public support from voters and constituents, so we haven’t given up on a tactical accommodation to the cause of a healthier, more productive Hoosier workforce.

Status: It’s complicated.
Another issue that needs a mix of public awareness and private deal-making is the ever-controversial school funding formula (even beyond teacher pay).  Changes to the ‘complexity’ formula (directing dollars beyond tuition support to address poverty, English-as-a-second-language, etc.) would hit urban and rural districts alike, favoring suburban districts with growing enrollment but fewer demographic challenges.

In short, proposed revisions would use federal SNAP and TANF participation to calculate a district’s complexity allocation, which artificially limit a real count of households in poverty (based on eligibility and duration limits on these programs).  We’re concerned about the hit to IPS, which is working to be more efficient and has already taxed its residents to boost teacher pay – we don’t need to create another hurdle to success in our largest school system.

This is an issue where urban and rural districts should find common cause, and avoid the popular narrative that seeks to divide big cities and smaller communities.  Schools serving these areas confront similar growth in poverty, and should be supported as catalysts for upward mobility.

Hold up, wait a minute…

  • SB552 (gaming) is a perfect example of holding a bill to keep negotiating and smooth out any rough edges or political risks ahead of floor action – this sweeping bill has high economic stakes for two larger cities (Gary and Terre Haute), impacts every other casino community, and has statewide implications for the legalization of sports betting; as mentioned earlier, this week’s hearing turned into a grueling affair that should have had oddsmakers giving an over/under on the number of hours it would take (nearly six).
  • SB281 (School Administrator Contracts) limited superintendent and principal buyouts, a populist sentiment (that education funds should go to teachers and classrooms, not settling disputed contracts) that again exposes the tension between state oversight and local control and negotiating authority that has complicated the teacher pay debate – continuing the theme, the bill was held.
  • SB562 (Education Matter) focuses on getting some additional data on teacher preparation programs – lawmakers decided they needed additional deliberation on the bill itself, and held it.
  • SB607(Workforce Diploma Reimbursement Program) creates an outcome-based, adult high school diploma program with grant funds to pay providers that help adults graduate with skills that would provide a sustainable income…in case you aren’t seeing the trend, yep, held.
  • Staying on education, HB1629 (Various Education Matters) is a grab-bag of K-12 issues that was also held, dealing with student suspensions, civic education curricula, funding for charter school students attending career centers, data requests and the definition of ‘elementary schools,’ etc.
  • SB497 (Taxation of Short-Term Rentals) was also held, despite the remarkably persuasive (by its brevity) testimony of the Indy Chamber’s Chief Policy Officer.
  • SB566 (Residential Tax Increment Financing) was held as well’ it would create a residential TIF for single family homes (without requirements for battling blight as in a HOTIF) in counties with populations below 100,000 (obviously, we’d like to see the population ceiling lifted to provide a tool for addressing housing issues across Central Indiana as well).

Tilting at Windmills
SB535 (Extraterritorial Powers) is a perfect case study for reading between the lines to determine the real issues behind a bill.  The legislation limited municipalities in exercising certain authorities within a ‘buffer zone’ of a few miles beyond their city/town limits.  Depending on which side of the debate you were on, this:

  • Sabotaged efforts by municipal leaders to address critical health and safety issues just beyond their borders that would spill over and affect their citizens; or
  • Protected Hoosiers in unincorporated areas from overreach by the officials they have no power to vote for (a recurring theme in a number of bills curbing annexation powers as well, like HB1359).

But what really drove this bill was wind – lucrative land contracts for wind turbines and citizen remonstrators against having them built nearby.  This seemingly narrow piece of legislation drew hours of passionate testimony, as residents fighting wind turbines had successfully appealed to city and town leaders in a few instances around the state to exercise their extraterritorial powers to stop wind projects after their appeals to county commissioners had fallen on deaf ears.  Amid the controversy, the bill was held.

What did pass?

  • HB1344 (Nurse Licensure Compact) passed unanimously after being amended to add a $25 licensing reciprocity fee and other conforming changes to mirror the bill which passed the Senate (SB436).
  • SB416 (Medicaid Coverage for Doula Services) allows for doulas to be covered by Medicaid; the bill passed unanimously, as lawmakers looked beyond its short-term fiscal impact to recognize a good way to reduce Indiana’s unacceptably high maternal and infant mortality rate;
  • Speaking of which, SB278 (Local Fetal Infant Mortality Review Teams) passed committee 12-0 – it establishes local infant mortality review teams to analyze local trends and issues affecting the problem, and gives flexibility to local regions as to who they want on these teams;
  • HB1125 also passed the Local Government Committee unanimously, giving funding flexibility for electronic monitoring programs, a modest step in what should be a much bigger push to help local governments grapple with growing public safety and corrections costs (perennially one of the fastest-growing categories of local expenditures), including ex-offender re-entry programs to create new taxpayers instead of recidivists;

Finally, as we mentioned last week, HB1005 ran into minor turbulence via debate over the qualifications for the (re-named) Secretary of Education role; however, the bill moving up the date for an appointed Superintendent of Public Instruction to give accountability for a high-profile issue – education – to the highest-profile elected official – the Governor still passed the full Senate on a closer vote than common sense would dictate (29-19) and heads to the Governor – score one for government reform!

And for even more up-to-the-minute news on #INLegis, follow the Business Advocacy team on Twitter:

Mark Fisher - @FisherIndy
Tim Brown - @TimJBrownLaw
Taylor Hughes - @STaylorHughes

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