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Barring any unexpected detours, we’re almost to the end of the road in this rollercoaster of a legislative session. The Senate released its version of the state budget on Thursday as both chambers eye an early adjournment date of April 21st. More issues are coming into focus as we head down the homestretch, but previous years have taught us to expect the unexpected at the Statehouse…

Party Up?
That’s the caveat to our excitement over the demise of SB141. The anti-IndyGo legislation has run out of time in the House, failing to reach second reading by Thursday. Committee hearings had demonstrated strong support for improved transit across Marion County, highlighting the stakes for infrastructure investment and economic development along rapid transit routes like the Blue Line.

At the end of the day, House leaders decided to let local voters and elected officials have the final say on IndyGo’s budget and its plans to connect people, employers and neighborhoods as we rebuild our economy from COVID. We appreciate their wisdom and the hard work of our Transit Drives Indy partners making the case for transit as a priority.

But even though the bill is dead, language could still be amended into legislation with related subject matter (e.g. other transportation or local government issues could be fair game). Anything is possible until the final gavel drops, so there’s no time for complacency: We’ll stay vigilant for last-minute maneuvering and sneak attacks on local authority to invest in public transportation.

Two Paths on Public Health:
The DMX fans out there will recognize a couple of the references in this update so far, as the famed New York artist remains in critical condition after a heart attack last week.* It’s a somber reminder of the chronic health challenges that affect so many Hoosiers closer to home, and why public health remains a Chamber priority beyond the pandemic.

We have to report setbacks on two health issues this week, leaving us with different strategic dilemmas.

The Senate removed a 50 cent per pack cigarette tax increase from its version of HB1001 (keeping a tax on e-liquids), shifting money forward from this year’s reserves to help cover Medicaid costs instead:

  • We’re disappointed in this move, especially since we were pushing a $2 per pack increase to truly reduce smoking rates for a healthier workforce and more productive economy;
  • We could still see movement during final budget negotiations – but should we be hoping for restoration of the 50-cent increase?
  • As we’ve noted in the past, settling for 50 cents a pack could also give lawmakers an excuse to forgo future increases to get to the $2-per-pack level…if we can’t reach at least $1 increase this year, it will be tough to claim a victory for health.

That’s the kind of dynamic we could now face on pregnancy workplace accommodations. HB1309 is a largely meaningless bill that simply allows pregnant workers to request such accommodations without reprisal (which they can already do under current labor law) – but it passed third reading and heads to the Governor for his signature:

  • We will continue to push for more substantive protections for expectant mothers on the job, to improve maternal and prenatal health and provide clarity for employers…
  • The passage of HB1309 could complicate our task next year, if legislators seize the chance to claim they’ve already handled this issue – also the risk of a more modest cigarette tax increase.

We see missed opportunities on both issues.

Fiscal Fracas:
For all the talk of consensus and compromise between the House and Senate on key legislation (e.g. police reform – HB1006), the Senate version of the budget does depart from the House plan in a number of important ways…do the competing versions set up a down-to-the-wire bargaining brawl in conference committee, or will middle ground on issues like education be easier to find?

Let’s compare the biggest chunk of the two-year, $36 billion budget – K-12 education:

  • The Senate allocates about the same ($15.4 billion) in K-12 tuition support that follows students to support local schools, but divides the dollars a little differently;
  • They ease off the expansion of school choice and education savings account programs originally in HB1005, and increase the additional charter school grant per student to $1,000 for 2022 and 2023 (the House delivered an additional bump to $1,250 in ’23);
  • The foundation grant per student grows to $5,846 by 2023 – about $60 less than the House formula – but the Senate significantly boosts the complexity grant for students in poverty: Complexity is set at 66% of the foundation grant ($3,858 in ’23), while the House flatlined it at $3,675;
  • The Chamber supports increased complexity support, and the Senate also increases English Language Learner (ELL) funding by $10 million and special education funding by $120 million (versus the House) – in all, a much more favorable proposal for districts like IPS that serve a higher share of at-risk students.

A few other highlights from the Senate’s spending plans:

  • Senate budget-writers had time on their side, as the federal American Rescue Plan passed Congress as they deliberated…
  • This means they were able to use nearly $600 million in federal dollars to cover Regional Recovery Grants, small business grants, incentives for non-stop flights and programs to upgrade water infrastructure (all of which we support as smart investments in a stronger recovery);
  • By accounting for federal funding and moving $150 million in unspent appropriations from 2021, the Senate was unfortunately also able to punt on the $300 million in additional cigarette tax revenue from the House budget;
  • On the bright side, the Senate maintained commitments to workforce programs like Next Level Jobs, increased the 21st Century Fund appropriation by $10 million and added $2.5 million to efforts to align secondary STEM programs with high-demand careers;
  • And finally, the latest version of HB1001 restores most funding previously cut from mental health grants and services.

Aside from letting the cigarette tax go up in smoke, there’s plenty to appreciate in the Senate proposal. You can see the full draft here.

There’s also a provision tucked away in the budget to suspend normal rules and postpone the official adjournment of the General Assembly until the fall, presumably to allow a quick response to potential vetoes of SB5 and HB1123  taking aim to public health orders and gubernatorial emergency powers.

(After bills are passed and signed by both chambers, it becomes an enrolled act ready for action by the Governor – he has seven days to sign, veto, or allow the act to become law without his signature on the eighth day. So a veto in the waning days of session could leave a bill in limbo until the next session convenes.)

Get It on the Floor:
With committee deadlines passing, the focus shifts to bills on second and third readings (or concurrence votes in their original chamber). Some of the bills relevant to our agenda that saw action this week include:

  • On a positive healthcare note, SB3 got a concurrence from the Senate, adjusting Medicaid reimbursement rules to allow telehealth in more instances;
  • HB1007 passed second reading in the Senate; it originally created a public health challenge grant program but was changed to mandate a health improvement plan that would guide future grantmaking;
  • Crossing public health with economic development, HB1283 passed third reading to create “urban agriculture zones” that would incentivize farming in urbanized areas;
  • HB1008 – the $150 million program for education learning loss grants – also passed third reading and heads back to the House;
  • SB54 (incentivizing school districts to increase FAFSA completion rates) did not get a warm welcome back in the Senate, which dissented from House amendments to set up a conference committee;
  • HB1002, strengthening COVID liability protections for healthcare and higher education institutions (adding to the civil protections in SB1, already signed into law) escaped the Senate and heads back to the House.

 

*Since posting this update it has been announced that rapper DMX has died. The Indy Chamber Advocacy Team sends our thoughts and condolences to the legendary rapper’s family and friends.

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