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You know we have to drop a Wu-Tang reference during a budget session (when cash does rule everything around us), and this week offered reasons for optimism about a better tomorrow right around the corner.

It starts with a promising step towards restoring trust between law enforcement and the communities it serves. There’s perhaps no way to heal the long history of tragedies suffered by victims of systemic racism and violent crime alike, but we can push for a future of safer streets and equal justice.

HB1006 represents a step forward towards that vision of tomorrow. The bipartisan police reform bill defines and limits the use of chokeholds (unless officers are confronted by deadly force), provides mandatory de-escalation training, penalizes officers who intentionally tamper with body cameras (with funding for more body cameras coming in the state budget) and establishes procedures to decertify and track officers guilty of misconduct.

The legislature also acted on plans for tomorrow’s (post-COVID) economy.  SB1 got a thumbs-up committee vote, limiting the legal fallout from COVID by granting employer liability protections. HB1004 creates a $30 million small business restart program (we welcome the reinforcements to our Ready to Restart and Recovery grant programs!) and awaits a Ways & Means hearing.

A Healthier Tomorrow, Too:

But a healthy economy depends on getting past the pandemic, and a couple of bills focused on public health concerns also saw movement this week:

  • SB47 grants pharmacists the ability to administer COVID vaccines to accelerate distribution – committee action on the bill didn’t hurt a bit, as it sailed towards a floor vote;
  • SB3, helping state law (and Medicaid regulations) keep up with advances in telehealth – attempting to codify some positive lessons from the past year – was heard in committee this week;
  • HB1007 creates a state health grant program to address broader public health challenges;
  • Among these broader concerns are prenatal health, infant and maternal mortality: SB10 passed committee, creating a study of maternal mortality in Indiana with a process to review cases of death during pregnancy;
  • From analysis to action on maternal health, we continue to join Governor Holcomb in supporting common-sense workplace accommodations for expectant mothers on the job (HB1358 and SB246 both provide these basic protections).

On a less positive note, the prognosis for a cigarette tax increase dimmed a little this week, as the first draft of HB1001 didn’t address it (more on the budget later). But our hopes aren’t up in smoke quite yet, as HB1434 proposes the increase as a policy issue.

Outclassing COVID:

Education priorities also got some attention this week (headlined by K-12 funding levels in the budget – it’s next, promise!):

  • SB2, protecting schools from funding cuts based on shifts to remote learning, passed the Senate Education & Career Development Committee (to await further discussion in Appropriations) – the House version, HB1003, is a step ahead on second reading;
  • HB1008 creates a student learning recovery grant fund to combat the educational losses suffered by students through COVID, especially impactful in urban school districts hard-hit by the public health crisis (and where more students come from households ill-equipped to provide a secure, supervised environment for remote learning or seek out other opportunities);
  • HB1009 recognizes the challenges that come with pursuing a degree or workforce certification during these tough times, with an economy still reeling – it loosens eligibility requirements so Hoosiers aren’t forced to choose between public aid for their families and trying to upgrade their skills for a better career and brighter future.

Drop it like it’s hot:

It’s no secret that the task of crafting a new two-year state budget would be challenging as the General Assembly convened last week. Last month’s updated revenue forecast predicted better-than-expected tax collections as the economy rebounded from COVID over the 2022 and ’23 fiscal years, but spending demands outpace available resources even in the best of times.

So Governor Holcomb’s budget plan was hotly anticipated, and got plenty of attention when it dropped on Wednesday. K-12 education fared pretty well, growing by 2% in 2022 and another 1% in 2023, including $15.4 billion in direct tuition support, assigned per student to local schools. Overall, nearly $18 billion of the $35+ billion budget goes to elementary and secondary education.

It remains to be seen how the money gets divided, including how the level of “complexity” aid to low-income students is added to the foundation grant; we believe ample complexity funding is needed to provide equitable educational opportunities to all students regardless of family resources. We’ll be watching how the school formula evolves and the impact on districts like IPS.

A few more observations on HB1001:

  • While K-12 grows, state support for pre-K (one of our priorities) takes a small cut (from $20 million to $18.9 million annually);
  • Higher education, which absorbed a 7% cutback last spring, is fully restored and nudged higher by 1% each year – important as we work to build a more highly-educated, highly-skilled workforce to drive advanced industry economic development;
  • Some state agencies saw funding restored to pre-COVID levels, while others take continued cutbacks to balance increases to education and other areas – we’re pleased that the Indiana Economic Development Corporation goes forward at full strength as our state partner in business attraction;
  • On the other hand, the Housing & Community Development Authority’s annual funding is cut nearly a third from its 2019 mark – we need more detail, but troubling as workforce housing and neighborhood redevelopment continue to be key parts of our agenda;
  • Since we started with HB1006, we should note that the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy gets a $400,000 funding boost over the biennium, hopefully anticipating stronger training requirements;
  • Finally, the budget includes nearly $5 billion in state transportation investments from the general fund and dedicated revenues (and stops transfers from gas tax revenue to cover other expenses, getting back to the spirit of the long-term infrastructure strategy we supported in 2017).

We’ll dig into more detail on the budget in coming weeks as Ways & Means deliberations get underway.

One step forward…

We started on an upbeat note, as some good stuff happened this week. But inevitably, the legislative session often feels like one step forward, one or two steps back.

For example, SB207 gives local government more flexibility in how to spend road funding among construction and operational expenses. It passed out of committee this week, in a modest win for local control.

But compare that with the drastic attacks on home rule embodied in SB168, the takeover of IMPD that replaces mayoral control with a state-run committee, and SB141. This bill, as we detailed last week, seeks to sabotage IndyGo’s expansion of transit service while overturning the results of the 2016 referendum that supported (and funded) these plans.

In another good news/bad news scenario, employer liability protections moved forward in the Senate (as we described earlier), to help reopen and rebound from COVID. But the same Senate heard SB74 allowing employees to sue businesses who require vaccinations to protect co-workers and customers.

In the push to rebuild our economy, we can’t sacrifice business confidence to anti-vaxx dogma.

But that’s life at the Statehouse – pushing for the positive and fending off the negative. We’ll be back next week with more on this balancing act, reports on committee action and a deeper dive on the budget.

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