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Putting the “old” in old school – if you can remember the “Bridge Wars” hip-hop beef between MC Shan and KRS-One, you should probably be vaccinated by now. But we’re rewinding back to the ‘80s because bridges are decent metaphors for this week in the General Assembly.

There’s a lot of maneuvering at the moment to bridge differences between the House and Senate on key legislation, to minimize back-and-forth negotiations and cut down on conference committees as leadership pushes to adjourn a week early.

With both chambers dominated by GOP supermajorities, common ground might seem easy to find – but more members from safer seats means less incentive to compromise (consider this our low-key plea for non-partisan redistricting standards). With bills like HB1006 (police reform), we’ve seen a conscious effort to avoid amendments and keep things moving on a fast track.

Most notably, we’re seeing bridge-building on key budget priorities (HB1001). We notice an amendment to SB414 (covering various education matters) assigns a study of aid to students in poverty (the so-called complexity index) to the Department of Education – a move that could mean a bargain on the school funding formula that defers more dramatic change. (The complexity index was a sticking point between House and Senate fiscal leaders in the 2019 budget session.)

We’ve talked about complexity funding as an investment in educational equity – and therefore long-term economic inclusion – as well as a crucial budget issue for school districts like IPS. So if there’s no adjustment to complexity, we’d urge additional resources for special education and English Language Learner (ELL) programs to ease the impact on districts that serve student populations with unique challenges outside the classroom.

Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide
Complexity funding is an issue that bridges one of the more vexing chasms in Indiana politics and policy – the divisions among urban and rural communities. Given the prevalence of poverty in rural Indiana (given a deficit of high-wage job opportunities and declining population base), funding to support opportunities for low-income students should unite urban and rural school corporations.

Broadband access is another urban-rural issue that’s gained urgency through COVID, for different reasons (affordability for poor families in cities, connectivity in general for isolated corners of rural Indiana) – but the drive to accelerate action has only focused on one side of the digital divide:

  • The House Utilities, Energy & Telecommunications Committee heard three Senate broadband bills this week – SB352, SB359, SB377 – amending all of them to conform closely to HB1449;
  • So HB1449 becomes the vehicle for state financing of broadband projects, prioritizing rural connectivity but neglecting the practical hurdles to high-speed service for urban households;
  • A major caveat to these plans is the incoming influx of federal funding (via the American Rescue Plan), some of which can be targeted to broadband development – as well as more specific federal programs to support schools and library subsidies to households without access.

A couple more bills that boast constituencies from big cities and small towns alike:

  • Convenient access to healthcare is a commonplace challenge that can be (at least partially) addressed by more telehealth services – SB3 passed third reading and heads back to the Senate, adjusting Medicaid reimbursement rules to allow telehealth in more instances;
  • And HB1283, creating “urban agriculture zones” that would incentivize farming in urbanized areas, passed the Tax & Fiscal Policy Committee Tuesday – a way to diversify urban land use, enhance access to healthy, locally-grown food and open new opportunities in Indiana agriculture.

Infrastructure Weak?
(Speaking of bridges, did you know nearly two hundred in Marion County are overdue for repairs?)

As the Biden administration rolled out its $2 trillion infrastructure plan this week (with a Hoosier at the helm), closer to home we’re still fighting off efforts to weaken Indy’s public transportation system and millions of dollars of existing federal investments in streets, sidewalks, curbs and other infrastructure improvements.

Without another Roads & Transportation Committee meeting on the schedule,  we’re cautiously optimistic that SB141 may run out of time. (Let’s use it as fertilizer for an urban agriculture zone!) But we continue to read the fine print and monitor amendments to even tangentially-related legislation, lest the language pop back up. We encourage all transit advocates to keep a watchful eye on the General Assembly as well.

The City of Indianapolis also announced its 2021 construction priorities in our municipal version of Infrastructure Week, identifying $167 million in road, bridge, sidewalk and other upgrades and maintenance. It sounds like a lot, but given limits on the local tax base and inequities in the state road funding formula, resources will never catch up to actual needs without policy changes.

(To drop just one number on you, based on how funding is calculated – e.g. using road miles versus lane miles – Marion County gets 60 cents for every dollar per capita in local road aid from the state. So next time you’re rage-tweeting about potholes, drop an #INLegis along with your @IndyDPW.)

A discussion of these structural disadvantages in infrastructure funding did happen during last week’s committee hearing on SB141, and we value the opportunity to jump-start discussions of a more equitable road funding formula, changes to the Community Crossing grant program, and other ways to align infrastructure resources with actual transportation needs (and economic output generated by the movement of people and goods around and through our city).

Money Moves
In an attempt to make your Good Friday better, we’re getting this update out a day early…so as we speak, Senate Appropriations is hearing a final round of testimony on HB1001 this morning. We expect the Senate budget to drop next week, so we’ll regroup on how closely it hews to the House plan.

Crossing the bridge when we come to it:
We’re seeing more bills passing or heading towards third reading, meaning it’s time to reconcile any changes through the latter part of the session; once an amended bill heads back to its original chamber, that body can either vote to concur with the new version or burn that bridge with a dissent vote – which triggers a conference committee (and the need for both houses to vote again on the conference report).

We saw our first conference committee this week, producing a consensus version of HB1123, allowing the General Assembly to convene as an interim check on gubernatorial emergency powers. There’s no final vote scheduled yet, as Governor Holcomb readies his veto pen.

Other action the week (so far):

  • HB1309 doesn’t seize the chance to address common-sense workplace accommodations for expectant mothers, but simply allows pregnant workers to request such accommodations without reprisal (which they can already do under current labor law) – the bill passed second reading nonetheless;
  • SB10 creates a maternal health study which could hopefully highlight the shortcomings of HB1309 – it got a concurrence vote this week;
  • From maternal to mental health, HB1127 also gets a concurrence – it adjusts Medicaid rules and makes other changes to expand mental health services;
  • SB218 passed third reading and earns a concurrence from the Senate; notably, its focus on township poor relief and homelessness programming was amended to address aggressive harassment as a public safety concern;
  • HB1008 – the $150 million program for education learning loss grants – passed second reading and is up for a final vote in the Senate;
  • SB54 (incentivizing school districts to increase FAFSA completion rates) did pass third reading, putting the ball in the Senate’s court to accept the shift from the original bill (a mandate) to the current version (an incentive program); and finally…
  • HB1002 gets out of committee, strengthening COVID liability protections for healthcare and higher education institutions (building on the work of SB1, already signed into law).
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