Can this legislative session get any more surreal? We’re dealing with socially-distanced committee hearings, the House taking over a bigger space with a smaller schedule (one day a week as a full body), at least a dozen other ways COVID has changed the legislative routine.
There are some odd ideas on the docket, too, like banning cities from changing their names (who knew Google Maps has a lobbying team?). Some lawmakers are anxious to curb Governor Holcomb’s public health authority while simultaneously giving him effective control of a local police department (SB168).
Now comes this unexpected pause in the action, as committee hearings and floor sessions were cancelled this week as a precautionary measure against the threat of violent unrest at state capitals across the country. All’s quiet at this writing, but better safe than sorry.
Plus, we can use the light schedule to take a breath and recap highlights from a couple of key parts of our agenda. We share many priorities with Governor Holcomb, who delivered his State of the State address on Tuesday.
Next Stop, Next Level:
Holcomb hailed the state’s fiscal management through the pandemic, as Indiana protected K-12 funding and came out of 2020 with $2 billion in budget reserves and our ‘AAA’ credit ratings intact. We applaud Holcomb’s prudent approach to budget policy, balanced by a willingness to invest in education, infrastructure (including digital connectivity) and workforce development. The Governor’s Workforce Ready and Employer Grant programs are successfully helping Hoosiers upgrade their skills for in-demand occupations, and we’re happy they got a shout-out from the podium (and more importantly, in the budget).
A healthy workforce is a productive workforce, and maternal health should be a priority on the job. Governor Holcomb again made the case for common-sense workplace protections for expectant mothers, and we’re here for it: “Women make up half Indiana’s workforce and should expect reasonable accommodations…let’s get this done for the well-being and security of Indiana’s current and future working mothers.”
We’re also eager to learn more about the Next Level Regional Recovery program unveiled by the Governor in his speech, which – as we read it – would take advantage of better-than-expected revenue growth to fund regional economic development initiatives (particularly focused on advanced industries, shout-out to the work of the Brookings Institution in this arena).
Regionalism is a pillar of our Chamber agenda for a stronger economy, and we’re heartened by any effort to encourage cooperative effort…especially now, as we work to rebuild our economy from COVID. The timing also couldn’t be better for us to capitalize on this program, as Indy works towards a new five-year economic development strategy (CEDS).
Speaking of which, let’s move through a broad overview of the legislation that’s aligned with our priorities (starting with economic resilience):
- There’s been movement on both SB1 and HB1002 protecting employers from civil immunity related to COVID-19;
- Similar to the Rapid Response lending and grants program funded by the City and administered by the Chamber, HB1004 establishes a $31 million fund to assist small businesses through the pandemic;
- There are several bills which reference work sharing programs to encourage businesses to retain workers – even at reduced hours – with partial unemployment benefits; HB1235 and SB44 establish work sharing employment programs with partial federal support;
- Accessible mass transit continues to be a priority for economic recovery – unfortunately, we’re playing defense on this issue: SB141 would jeopardize future development of rapid transit in Marion County by setting unrealistic standards for private fundraising to support public infrastructure (as we covered in more detail last week);
- Mass transit is critical to a more connected community, but COVID has also highlighted the demand for digital connectivity – there are a host of bills this session seeking to expand rural broadband (in addition to investments ongoing through the Next Level Connections program), but urban areas face hurdles in access and affordability of high-speed internet as well…we’re seeking a balanced strategy to bridge the digital divide.
The economic resilience of our largest business district – downtown – is an obvious priority for the Chamber given the challenges (real and perceptual) that were growing pre-COVID and exacerbated by the pandemic – for example:
- We supported language last year that addressed increased panhandling activities, later blocked by federal judicial action – we continue to seek statutory changes (and support a potential appeal to last year’s ruling) allowing a targeted approach to legitimate public safety concerns from aggressive panhandling while acknowledging the social service needs and other root causes;
- To address the need to invest in downtown recovery and resilience over the long haul, we’re focused on amending the current Economic Improvement District statute or pursuing another sustainable financing mechanism to protect downtown vitality and address public safety, homelessness support and inclusive growth initiatives.
We covered the proposed increase in direct tuition support ($15.4 billion over 2022 and 2023) for local schools in the state budget (HB1001) last week – but the level of K-12 funding is only part of a broader debate over education finance that includes the amount of aid that should be targeted to students living in poverty (the complexity index), whether charter schools should share in local property tax revenue and more. A few key education bills of interest:
- SB 2 and HB1003 address the definition of virtual education for schools that shifted from in-person to remote learning in response to COVID (we support this ‘hold harmless’ provision to avoid unwarranted funding cuts driven by public health precautions);
- HB1005 establishes the Indiana Education Savings Account Program for students requiring special education, in the foster care program or with a parent in the military;
- HB1008 creates a $150 million Student Learning Recovery Grant Program and Fund to combat learning losses through COVID, a move the Chamber supports;
- Two bills we’ve supported in the past to boost post-secondary attainment are up for another push: HB1086 provides in-state college tuition for anyone who has earned a high school diploma or attended high school in Indiana for at least three years, while SB54 requires students to complete the FASFA financial aid paperwork to better understand the financial resources available to them if they choose to pursue higher education.
We mentioned workplace protections for expectants mothers as a State of the State shout-out, but our health policy agenda continues to grow as COVID reveals new issues and the need for more preventative action:
- SB3 and HB1286 both prohibit Medicaid from specifying originating sites for purposes of Medicaid reimbursement (rules that would rule out telemedicine in many cases), while HB1347 seeks to expand list of medical professionals that may accept written orders;
- While SB1 and HB1002 protect employers from COVID-related liability, SB74 takes a big step back by allowing employees to sue businesses that require COVID vaccines to protect co-workers and customers – by injecting (pun intended) dangerous anti-vaxx dogma into our public health system (we oppose it, if you didn’t get the message, joining a growing chorus of opposition to the bill);
- Less controversially, HB1007 creates a Department of Health grant program for prevention, addressing health issues and challenges;
- HB1009 crosses education and health – it loosens TANF eligibility requirements (counting financial aid against income requirements) 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 (another bill, SB233, increases TANF payments upward for cost of living);
- And finally, presumably tying many of these issues together, HB1100 requires the Department of Health, in consultation with FSSA, to study and prepare a five-year plan to improve the physical and behavioral health of Hoosiers.
One more note on public health – as we mentioned last week, the budget did not include a cigarette tax increase (or acknowledge revenue from such an increase), and it didn’t make the State of the State either. But we haven’t given up: HB1434 cigarette tax from $1 to $1.995 per pack and imposes a tax on e-liquids that contain nicotine, depositing the resulting revenue into the state general fund (we’d prefer a targeted use for public health purposes, but acknowledge the strain Medicaid is putting on general fund resources as another health-related fiscal challenge).
Next week, from public health to public safety – we led off last week with a positive note on HB1006, the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. But we’ve also noted the politicization of policing via SB168 , the ill-conceived effort to take control of IMPD away from the Mayor of Indianapolis and civilian oversight (and local accountability). As these and a host of other public safety bills await hearings, we’ll do a deeper dive into this critical issue.