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This first week of spring featured some upbeat news outside the Statehouse, as Governor Holcomb addressed the COVID crisis on Tuesday evening. Among the highlights: Vaccine eligibility expands to all Hoosiers (16+) at the end of March, and we also passed the one million vaccination milestone this week.

The statewide mask mandate will also become an advisory after April 5th as cases continue a steady decline – we urge employers to proceed carefully on basic health precautions.

From a policy perspective, there’s some noteworthy nuance here: The Governor emphasized that local officials are still empowered to issue public health orders adjusted to conditions in their communities. In Marion County, the mask order and some capacity restrictions will be extended as we work towards a safe and successful return of March Madness (and look ahead to the month of May).

It’s a funny concept, balancing state-level leadership with the principle of home rule. Imagine if the same type of respect for local autonomy extended to other parts of our agenda…

Under Construction
That’s a not-so-subtle transition to this week’s hearing on SB141 in the House Roads & Transportation Committee. The bill tramples on local public transportation priorities by rewriting the rules for IndyGo and undoing the results of the 2016 Marion County transit referendum to cancel rapid transit projects. At times, the hearing seemed more like a City-County Council meeting as lawmakers debated the details of neighborhood traffic patterns and the pros and cons of dedicated lane bus routes.

By reopening rapid transit plans already settled at the local level, the bill risks millions of dollars in federal funding for the Blue Line itself, but also for road repairs, new sidewalks and curbs, and other infrastructure investments that are desperately needed along Washington Street.

The loss of federal grants and the diversion of local income tax dollars were justified by the Senate author insisting, “We can’t afford this.” What we really can’t afford is playing politics with economic development and neighborhood redevelopment potential as we work to rebuild from COVID.

As to the dubious assertion that people and employers on the west side of Indianapolis don’t want improved transit and better-maintained streets, our testimony was followed by representatives from Indy Gateway and the West Side Chamber of Commerce speaking out in support.

The hearing ended with the bill being held – stalling its progress, just like its supporters want to stall our transit system. This could be a good sign, running out the clock on bad legislation as we enter the homestretch of the session, but we’re keeping a cautious eye on compromise proposals – a few final thoughts:

  • We do appreciate the recognition by a number of lawmakers during the hearing that Marion County faces structural disadvantages in infrastructure funding, noting inequities in the local road aid formula and the possibility of raising grant limits for cities under the Community Crossings program;
  • But the price of equitable infrastructure shouldn’t be sacrificing years of analysis, engineering and public outreach around dedicated lane rapid transit along Washington Street (the Blue Line) – and writing off federal grants that were earned through these efforts;
  • We’re open to proposals that improve transit, invest in multi-modal transportation options, and treat Marion County taxpayers fairly in doing so.

My team is on the floor.
Yeah, basketball is back and we just dropped a Hoosiers reference on you. We couldn’t be more proud of our teammates in Transit Drives Indy – way too many to mention (which is a testament to the breadth of support for mass transit in Indianapolis and across the metro), but we owe a special shout-out to our regional business partners: OneZone, Aspire Johnson County, MIBOR (transit also drives residential development and quality of life appeal), Indy Gateway and the West Side Chamber, major employers like the Cook Group, the Indianapolis Airport Authority, the list goes on and on…

It’s been a tough fight, but this coalition has been just as tough (and tenacious) in playing defense on behalf of business owners, bus riders, neighborhood leaders and everyone who wants a more connected, competitive city.

Things that make you go hmmm…
We haven’t weighed in on the push to curtail the governor’s emergency powers, which in part is motivated by the desire to preserve the prerogatives of the General Assembly as a branch of government – but there’s little hesitation to blithely meddle in areas typically reserved for local governments.

Transit is one example, housing (specifically landlord-renter relations) is another: HB1541 also passed committee this week – this bill “cleans up” overly broad language in SEA148 (which was resurrected over the Governor’s veto this session) but local authority to pass basic renter protections is still significantly curtailed.

We did get some good news on housing from the House, as SB214 passed third reading – it reinstates some property tax incentives for the development of low-income housing, and allows counties to seek payments from developers to be reinvested into affordable housing.

Bright side:
We started on a positive note before jumping into the war on transit, so lets end on the bright side too:

  • We got a pleasant surprise on HB1004 earlier this week – the Senate doubled funding for the small business recovery grant program (to $60 million total) before passing it unanimously back to the House;
  • HB1007, which creates a $50 million state health improvement grant program, moved a step closer to third reading success – it passed Senate Appropriations this week after being recommitted due to its fiscal impact and is now eligible for floor action;
  • Same goes for HB1008 – Senate Appropriations gave the nod to this $150 million program for education learning loss grants (there was some discussion around federal funding in the American Recovery Plan for the same purpose, raising some low-key concerns about duplicative funding);
  • Sticking with education but moving to the House, SB54 (incentivizing school districts to increase FAFSA completion rates) was also recommitted to Ways & Means but got its stamp of approval on Wednesday.

Senate Appropriations also held more hearings on HB1001 (the state budget) Thursday. We generally liked what we heard out of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, including plans to raise limits on the venture capital investment tax credit and add funding for non-stop flight incentives (as Indy continues to make progress in this area).  We also appreciated the urging from Senator Holdman to “think bigger” about innovative ways to outpace neighboring states in attracting new investment.

Spring Broke:
We also took it as a good sign that the Appropriations K-12 Funding Subcommittee rescheduled a planned hearing for Thursday, hearing hours of testimony from educators, interest groups, parents and students from across the state on the education funding formula – with school budgets on the line, the stakes are high as districts face tough fiscal challenges even beyond COVID.

There was plenty of discussion about the proposed expansion of school choice scholarships and education savings accounts; the Senate won’t take further action on HB1005 (the original vehicle for these proposals) because the same language is included in the budget.

We were more focused on complexity aid to students in poverty and how it’s calculated – a major issue for IPS and other urban districts that serve large populations of at-risk families. We support equitable funding to help today’s students – our future workforce – overcome challenges beyond the classroom to pursue college and career success alongside their peers from more advantaged backgrounds.

The complexity formula may not change this late in the game as the Senate accelerates its deadlines for action on the budget, but legislators got an earful and we could see a bigger debate over how to divide up per student funding over the summer.

To work in one last mention of transit, it isn’t like IPS isn’t also working to become more efficient (and expand opportunities for students) – we strongly support their plan to begin using IndyGo to transport high school students (starting with a 600-student pilot), reducing costs and enhancing mobility beyond the school day for kids who otherwise lack reliable transportation.

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