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We’re three weeks away from March Madness descending on Indianapolis, but we’re more than ready for a timeout at the Statehouse: This week offers a few days off after third reading deadlines, when legislation has to be voted out of one chamber to survive and start the process again in the other house.

It’s not quite halftime, though; if a House bill is changed in the Senate, or vice-versa, negotiators from both chambers have to resolve the differences through a conference committee and potentially hold a concurrence vote to approve the compromise proposal. Only then does the final buzzer sound.

So it simplifies the process to avoid amendments. In the case of HB1006, for example, Senate leaders hope to pass the bipartisan police reform plan unchanged from the House to avoid conference and concurrence – recognizing the hard work that went into building consensus behind the bill, and desire for swift action on an important topic.

(On the budget, in contrast, the Senate is certain to swap in its own spending priorities and set up conference negotiations in the final days of session.)

Highlight Reel:
In addition to HB1006, there were plenty of other bright spots on our first-half scorecard – a few key highlights:

  • Staying on criminal justice, HB1202 is a step forward on sentencing reform (providing flexibility on tougher mandatory minimum sentences enacted in the past);
  • SB1 (providing employers with civil immunity from unreasonable COVID-related lawsuits) has been signed by the Governor (as we mentioned last week), while the House companion (HB1002) hits the Senate as a vehicle to address any lingering COVID liability issues;
  • Another bill to help businesses rebuild from the pandemic, HB1004 creates small business recovery grants ($30 million total) – it sailed through the House and awaits a Senate Appropriations hearing;
  • HB1008 creates K-12 learning loss prevention grants (and appropriates $150 million in unspent education funding this year for the program); it’s also on a fast track to Senate Appropriations;
  • The House and Senate have taken different approaches to protecting schools from budget cuts creates by shifts to virtual instruction during COVID, so progress has been slower here – but both bills (HB1003 and SB2) passed third readings and have swapped chambers for more work;
  • HB1009 removes higher ed financial aid as income for the purposes of qualifying for TANF poverty support, to make it easier for low-income Hoosiers to pursue college without risking benefits – another bill, SB233, updates TANF income requirements (both are alive and well after third readings);
  • Speaking of financial aid, SB54 passed third reading as well – it requires high school graduates to complete the FAFSA to understand the financial resources available to them for post-secondary education;
  • On the community and economic development front, SB323 passed the Senate last week to be taken up by the House – it creates a music production incentive program to help revive our music scene after the crushing impact of COVID on live performances and entertainment venues;
  • SB359 addresses broadband access through financing options for local government and oversight through INDOT that could help metropolitan communities as well as rural areas: We’ve noted that digital divides affect all parts of Indiana – including urban centers – and this bill has potential to be broadened to include more comprehensive solutions;
  • SB213 also hits the House, adding accountability and expanding revenue capture and reinvestment capacity for high-performing certified technology parks;
  • SB215 creates the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative to support local redevelopment projects;
  • Regionalism also gets some love in the House budget: As we mentioned last week, HB1001 includes $150 million for the Governor’s Regional Recovery Grant program…specifics are sparse, but this initiative could drive regional economic development and pay off some of the planning enabled last year by SB350;
  • The budget also includes a cigarette tax increase (at 50 cents a pack, it’s a start) and $50 million for the Hoosier Health grant program proposed in HB1007 (which also survived third readings).

All in all, there’s a lot of progress to celebrate in the first chapter of this COVID-addled session: Well-funded workforce programs, regional economic development, public health, smart justice reform, even pre-K (which got a modest bump to $22 million a year in the House budget).

Deee-fense!
Sometimes the bills that don’t pass are even more important than the ones that do – playing defense on negative legislation has taken a lot of energy this year. But we’ve rejoiced in a few rejections:

  • SB168 would have put IMPD under a state-dominated oversight board; it was pushed to a summer study committee (where we’d continue to argue for local control) and there’s a chance it will stall altogether in the House;
  • SB394 was found guilty of being bad policy and was defeated in committee: It would have overturned local efforts to strengthen civilian oversight of police to rebuild trust and cooperation between law enforcement and the communities they serve;
  • We also got a defensive stop on the most negative elements of SB392 (Marion County Zoning), which passed third reading after cutting an added layer of township zoning bureaucracy;
  • But we need to keep trying for a turnover on SB311, which did pass third reading – is would similarly overrule local authority around law enforcement (specifically ‘use of force’ policies).

Of course, we’re really putting a full-court press on SB141, which strips funding from IndyGo for bus rapid transit routes – risking substantial infrastructure investments and federal funding, writing off the widespread potential for economic development and neighborhood redevelopment along the Blue and Purple Lines, ignoring the will of Marion County voters and impounding local tax dollars dedicated to improving transit service.

We’re disappointed this anti-transit, anti-taxpayer, anti-Indianapolis legislation passed the Senate; we’re urging the House to call a flagrant foul on this affront to our aspirations as a more connected city.

Life After Death
From basketball to Biggie Smalls – a cautionary note: Legislative language can come back to haunt us even after being declared “dead.” If a bill hasn’t been ‘decisively defeated’ (51 votes against it on third reading), its substance can still be amended into other legislation dealing with a similar topic.

So because SB394 didn’t make it to the floor, we have to keep an out for attacks on the IMPD General Order Board, along with other ideas that could pop up unannounced.

It works both ways, of course. HB1309 (a fairly meaningless bill allowing pregnant employees to request accommodations on the job) made it to the Senate; under these rules, there’s a chance for more progress on workplace protections for expectant moms by pulling in language from other introduced bills.

One State, Same Team:
We started this update looking ahead to March Madness – we’d like to end on a more serious and somber note. You’ve all heard about the debate on the House floor last week that spilled into personal attacks and confrontations outside of the chamber. We’re not here to relitigate the specifics, but to add a few broader thoughts:

It’s important to acknowledge the goodwill and positive intentions of leaders on both sides of the aisle, including Speaker Huston’s heartfelt remarks and commitment to civility expressed on Monday. His recounting of a weekend conversation with Representative Porter was a poignant reminder that the General Assembly is a place of personal friendships, not just partisan divides.

That being said, the events of last week are inexcusable, and we must do better. No legislator or staff member should ever feel unsafe while conducting the people’s business, and even the most spirited debate should preserve decorum and respect, and value diverse perspectives.

We also have to recognize the context around these events. Racial equity and economic inclusion deserve more consideration in our legislative process. We’ve taken promising steps forward on issues like law enforcement reform…but to many in Indianapolis, the General Assembly has seemed too willing to take over their police department, take away their transit system, and take sides in their landlord-renter disputes.

Events like last week feed that narrative and make it harder to find common ground on policy priorities.

In a few weeks, the eyes of the nation will be on Indianapolis as we host an NCAA championship unlike anything we’ve seen before. We can’t afford controversy that damages our reputation as a championship city – and a state that works – just as we prepare for our moment in the spotlight. As we welcome visitors back to our capital city, let’s show that Hoosier Hospitality doesn’t stop at the Statehouse steps.

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