Legislative Update: Row, Row, Row Your Boat Edition

The Ballad of Harbo and Samuelsen, often performed by once-and-again local band Hogeye Navvy, tells the incredible story of two young Norwegian Americans who, in 1896, became the first people ever to row across an ocean when they paddled across the North Atlantic Ocean in 55 days. 127 years later, their time record has yet to be broken by another rowing duo. To achieve their remarkable feat, Harbo and Samuelsen reportedly rowed 18 hours every day and took turns getting three hours of sleep at night.  

That, friends, is but one example of what can be accomplished when we acknowledge that we’re all in the same boat. It’s a spirit of cooperation for the common good that Indy Chamber members have repeatedly displayed during this legislative session, one we’ve glimpsed in the actions of some legislators in the Indiana Statehouse boat recently. So, strap on your life jacket and grab an oar! It’s time for the Indy Chamber Legislative Update: Row, Row, Row Your Boat edition.

Hands On! Ready, All!

The plucky American rowing team at the center of George Clooney’s 2023 film, “The Boys in the Boat," overcame challenges of economics, ego, and experience to “row as one” and beat Italy and Germany for the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Following Tuesday’s hearing on HB 1199 in the Senate Tax & Fiscal Policy committee, supporters of the Mile Square Economic Enhancement District (EED) can relate.  

Chairman Holdman and bill sponsor Senator Baldwin offered a substantial amendment to HB 1199 this week that was unanimously adopted by the committee, and the bill as amended no longer seeks to fully repeal the Mile Square EED. For this, we offer our enthusiastic appreciation to the good Senators. The need to muster dedicated resources to invest in the safety and vitality of downtown is critical. Their recognition of that fact and work to keep the discussion alive is a major step towards a sustainable solution.  

In its current form, however, we do have a few questions about how the structure would work in practice. The bill would now require a second vote to adopt from the Indianapolis City-County Council; exempt apartments and homesteads from paying the EED fee; grant the Governor an additional appointment to the EED board; change the structure of the district boundaries and funding formula, and prohibit renewal of the EED after a 10-year lifecycle. Conversations will continue with legislators about the best approach to these issues over the next few (and final!) weeks of session.

While there is still a lot of ground to cover before Sine Die, this week’s developments are a big win for the broad coalition behind the Mile Square EED. That coalition includes many Indy Chamber members, who once again demonstrated robust support for the EED in public testimony before the committee. Those efforts undoubtedly helped save the Mile Square EED boat from fully capsizing, as did the willingness of Chairman Holdman and HB 1199’s Senate sponsors to climb aboard and row with us to ensure an EED mechanism remains available to drive dedicated funding to services and investments within the Mile Square.

The Indy Chamber team will continue to work with our partners in the Senate to get the bill in the best possible position to drive solutions for the core of the capital city. We anticipate second reading amendments and will keep you all apprised of developments. 

If it helps, remember that Harbo and Samuelson first made land at St. Mary’s off the south coast of England, rather than their ultimate destination in France. Legend says the residents of St. Mary’s gathered in amazement around the two men, who by then could barely walk. “Most men would have stopped then to bask in the glory,” the song says, “after having been sunbeaten, capsized and starved. But they were both back in their boat the next morning, and in less than a week they arrived at Le Havre.” 

In other words: great job crew! Now, get back in the boat and keep rowing. 

Iceberg, Right Ahead! 

No similar lifeboat appeared for IndyGo Tuesday during the House Roads and Transportation committee’s hearing on SB 52. And, even as we take Senator Freeman at this word that all he’s seeking in SB 52 is another year to “study” the issue of dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit, let’s be clear with regard to the outcome: passage of SB 52 is to the Blue Line what the iceberg was to the Titanic. 

From 1912 to 1995, the world assumed the Titanic was sunk by an iceberg ripping a single giant hole in the ship’s skull. However, by 1997, researchers studying this ship’s wreckage announced a startling discovery: the total area of damage to the Titanic appears to be about 12 to 13 square feet or less than the area of two downtown sidewalk squares. Six small, separate wounds to the Titanic’s starboard hull brought down the “unsinkable” ship.  

Likewise, Freeman’s latest bill doesn’t so much rip a giant hole in IndyGo’s Blue Line as slice into it at precisely the spots that will cause the Blue Line to sink. Delaying construction of the Blue Line will undoubtedly cause additional cost increases. The federal government has informed IndyGo that the delay and cost increases will cause the Federal Transportation Administration to withdraw $150 million of grant money it previously pledged to the Blue Line. Loss of federal funds will push the cost of the Blue Line out of reach for IndyGo and the tens of thousands of Marion County residents who voted to increase their own taxes to build projects like the Blue Line in their city. The lack of a robust, affordable, rapid public transit option is also likely to negatively impact Indy’s ability to continue attracting NBA All-Star-type events. Local organizers have done a yeoman’s job attracting major convention business to Indianapolis, but they’re competing with peer cities where public transit is a staple.

To quote Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, the ongoing Statehouse squabbles over all things IndyGo leaves the Indy Region floating on “a Native American water vessel without any means of propulsion.” At a time when the region has so much going for it — as was on full display this past weekend — we’d like to see legislators and local leaders pulling together on the things we know support a healthy and growing economy, like public transit.  

Setting aside the question of whether leaving $150 million in Federal grant money on the table will cause future grant requests from the state to be taken less seriously, and ignoring the issue of whether it’s appropriate for state legislators to interfere with a municipality’s ability to implement plans adopted by voters, better public transit is crucial to the Indy Region's ability to level up against stiff competition from our peer cities. 

Indy Chamber members will have one last opportunity to keep IndyGo’s Blue Line afloat when the House Roads and Transportation committee reconvenes on Tuesday, February 27, at 10:30 a.m. Click here to send a message to members of the committee and House Speaker Todd Huston, respectfully urging them to vote “no” on SB 52 and allow the Blue Line to proceed. Or click here for phone numbers if you’d prefer to leave a polite voicemail message. As with the EED, the voice of Indy’s business community may encourage legislators to row with us on this critical issue for the Indy Region’s future.

Oxford [University] Blues 

The 1984 flick “Oxford Blues” tells the tale of a Las Vegas hustler who cons his way into Oxford University and, subsequently, onto its fabled rowing team to win the affections of a beautiful British aristocrat. Film critics were hard-pressed to find anything positive to say somewhat ambivalent about the movie, which also describes our reaction to SB 202, heard this week in the House Education committee. 

In case you missed the bill’s media coverage this past week, SB 202 would establish a post-tenure review process to be conducted every five years and create a policy preventing faculty from gaining tenure or promotions if they are “unlikely to foster a culture of free inquiry, free expression and intellectual diversity within the institution.” Under the bill, faculty cannot, at risk of losing tenure, “subject students to political or ideological views and opinions that are unrelated to the faculty member’s academic discipline or assigned course of instruction.”

The language of SB 202 is carefully couched in terms of “intellectual diversity.” But a careful reading, courtesy of our friends at Indiana Capital Chronicle, finds the bill is “strikingly similar to a bill passed in Florida, SB 266, which ended tenure for university faculty in the state by instituting a five-year review for all faculty. The outcome of that review is determined in large part on faculty adherence to the law’s ban on teaching about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). SB 202 simply replaces the term DEI with ‘intellectual diversity.’

Bills like SB 202 will, in the long run, create a two-tiered system of higher education across the country where faculty of all disciplines and political persuasions flock to states where tenure remains intact. Attacks on institutions of higher education don't move the ball forward on making Indiana more attractive to the college graduates our workforce desperately needs, or the companies who want to employ them. 

College doesn’t make young people liberal; it’s youth that does that. Here’s hoping legislators let this bill drift out to sea and concentrate efforts on accelerating our already thriving state economy towards new levels of competitiveness, rather than letting ideological fights distract us.

Booze cruise, anyone? 

Happily, there was a little news out of the Statehouse this week that put some wind in our sails….or at least under the little paper umbrellas in our cocktails. Lawmakers moved closer to ending Indiana’s 40-year ban on the social convention known as Happy Hour when the House voted to adopt HB 1086 on Tuesday. They also took a step toward what we’re calling “libational diversity” by passing HB 1025, which would put liquor-based ready-to-drink mixed beverages under a wine license, allowing beer wholesalers to sell them. This is the kind of cooperative legislative action that, as the saying goes, really floats our boat. 

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