Halftime Showdown

This week marks the halftime break for the General Assembly, a pause after third reading deadlines that gave lawmakers a chance to stock up on milk and bread before digging out to focus on the legislation that survived the other side of the statehouse.

As any Bengals fan will happily tell you, anything can happen in the second half. What will the next five weeks hold for issues like vaccines in the workplace and politics in the classroom, tax relief and regional economic development? Some issues may go down to the last few plays, but here’s how things seem to be trending.

Some bills appear to be on a bipartisan glide path, like SB2 protecting school budgets from COVID-related enrollment and remote learning fluctuations. But there are plenty of bills that can expect a cool reception in their second chamber, like the House Republican plan to cut individual income and business equipment property and sales taxes, HB1002, which now faces a skeptical Senate.

Drop it like it’s hot:

We’ve covered how quickly the Senate dropped SB167 amid fiery backlash from teachers and school administrators, parents, representatives of the business community, and other citizens concerned about educational quality and equity.

The fight continues to defuse or defeat HB1134 which similarly threatens to stifle honest and accurate discussion of history and racial issues in the classroom, along with programs to promote diverse and inclusive learning opportunities for all students.

We urge the Senate to continue listening to educators working with students now and employers hoping to hire them in the future. Critical thinking, the ability to consider unfamiliar even uncomfortable ideas and perspectives, and the skills to succeed in a diverse workforce are all vital to a well-rounded education. Don’t quash these valuable lessons with vague legislative mandates.

You’ve also heard repeatedly about the importance of safeguarding the rights of businesses to set employment policies and safety precautions, including requiring COVID vaccinations. Dropping broad vaccine exemptions from HB1001 to align with SB3 would ease Indiana out of the public health emergency while salvaging our pro-business reputation and saving lives in the process.

(And you know we had to drop a halftime hip-hop reference with Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Kendrick Lamar performing at the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks; maybe we can leverage the hospitality bid fund in SB245 to go after an encore show?)

Hurry-up offense:

It was a scramble to get through a long list of bills before the clock ran out on third readings this week; some of the action of interest to our agenda:

  • SB82 passed third reading on Tuesday, requiring all graduating high schoolers to complete the FAFSA form for higher education financial aid—a step forward for post-secondary access and affordability.
  • SB361 also passed third reading as part of the last-day push. The bill expands the state’s economic development toolkit with financing options for innovation districts, authorization for new film production and remote worker incentives, and adjustments to other business attraction and employment incentives.
  • We’re neutral on SB164 (which passed third reading Tuesday as well), but it’s worth noting: The bill requires Indianapolis (via the Metropolitan Development Commission) to notify excluded cities within Marion County of potential tax abatement agreements across their borders. We support coordination and transparency, as long as this doesn’t represent a step towards multi-jurisdictional approvals and bureaucracy that delays economic development deals (an issue we confronted last session regarding zoning variances and appeals).
  • SB370 allows the creation of community infrastructure districts, similar to existing economic improvement districts (EID) supporting targeted financing via business self-assessment within a designated area. We endorsed easing the requirements to start these districts (we also support relaxing EID rules, for that matter), and will continue to work to broaden this approach into a practical tool for more communities.
  • Relevant to infrastructure investments in Indianapolis and other urban areas, SB166 expands opportunities for public-private partnerships financing transportation projects in counties with populations over 199,000. (Senator Kyle Walker deserves a shout-out for a productive first half of his second session in the General Assembly and for getting this measure through third reading along with SB245—statewide sports and convention bid funding—and others.)
  • We mentioned last week the need for affordable housing in proximity to employment centers (supporting residential development tax credits via SB262), including rental options. We’ve had mixed success advocating for local flexibility to enact renter protections during the pandemic, so we’re pleased that HB1214 passed third reading with some reasonable restrictions on past eviction records following former tenants and harming their future ability to secure housing.
  • SB230 is another modest step forward on housing stability and fair play for renters, pushing an interim study of habitation health and safety standards for rental properties and enforcement authority-it passed third reading as well.
  • SB284 continues to adjust statutory language to support appropriate use of (and reimbursement for) telehealth services, as policymakers work to implement longer-term lessons learned from the realities of the pandemic.

Sticking with public health, we need to play catch-up on HB1193, which passed the House unanimously last week. It revises provisions passed in the state budget last year dictating how Indiana’s portion of a $26 billion national settlement against opioid manufacturers and distributors is divided among the state and local governments (and for what purposes).

The original formula allocated just 15% of the total to municipalities and counties on a per capita basis. This pushed cities like Indianapolis to withdraw from the state settlement to pursue their own litigation; more rural epicenters of the opioid epidemic were also shortchanged. The proposed revision would provide more resources to local governments and use a weighted formula recognizing the impact of opioid abuse relative to population in hopes of luring more localities back into the state-level agreement and boost Indiana’s share of the overall settlement.

Opioid abuse has been resurgent during the pandemic after a few years of progress and is among the public health issues we’re focused on to improve workforce participation and productivity, reduce long-term healthcare costs, and build a stronger economy.

Conflicts on crime & corrections:

Public health and criminal justice are similar in some ways—complex topics that defy simplistic solutions, affecting many Hoosiers in very personal ways, but also broadly impacting Indiana’s economic competitiveness. Battling violent crime is a priority we all share, but policies that fill jail beds without making communities safer only diminish the potential of our human capital.

We’re pleased that HB1359 passed third reading, supporting successful transitions from the juvenile justice system for young Hoosiers. HB1369 also heads to the Senate: The bill, which we also championed last year, provides sentencing relief for the currently incarcerated if their offenses are reclassified or sentencing guidelines are adjusted.

Earlier in the session, HB1004 was among the first bills to pass the House, reclassifying Level 6 felonies (including many drug offenses) to detention in state prisons instead of county jails—a source of growing fiscal stress for local budgets already dominated by public safety spending.

But the Senate took a step in the opposite direction this week by passing SB165, which allows the Attorney General to intervene in local prosecutor’s offices if certain offenses (e.g. drug-related charges) aren’t being aggressively pursued.

Unfortunately, the bill seems to single out Marion County for political purposes (acknowledging the author’s protests to the contrary). A package of other Senate bills targeting crime in Indianapolis deserves more consideration and debate in the House. Ultimately, our continued vitality depends on keeping residents and visitors safe and businesses secure.

We’re less confident in proposals that effectively base pretrial detention on ability to pay instead of propensity to flee or commit additional crimes—or could jeopardize efforts to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the neighborhoods most impacted by violence.

Add these to a list of contentious issues looming over the second half of this short session. We’ll be back next week with the latest after this icy interlude.

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