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The General Assembly started its next episode this week, an obviously unique one in Indiana history. Compared to the events of the last few days, though, this socially-distant session almost seems like a bastion of normalcy. So we’re settling back into a regular routine as well, in your inbox every Friday with legislative highlights and progress on our Indy Chamber priorities. (And a titular shout-out to Dr. Dre – get well soon.)

The House of Representatives took over a bigger space at the Indiana Government Center South, and will meet just one day a week until committees begin moving bills onto the floor. (If you’re a little fuzzy on the legislative process, here’s a helpful refresher on how things typically work.)

Let’s get (re)started:
First, the good news: Legislation granting employer (and local government) liability protections from COVID (SB1) was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and looks to be on a fast track, amid broadly supportive testimony and an amendment to include certain product liabilities. (HB1002 is the House liability bill, also assigned to Judiciary and awaiting a hearing.)

The Chamber supports this bill as a necessity for responsible employers to reopen with confidence, avoiding civil damages resulting from unavoidable exposure to COVID in the workplace. (The legislation recognizes our broader public and community responsibility to adhere to health orders and take precautions against the virus, managing the risk to businesses operating in good faith.)

We also breathed a tremendous sigh of relief with the introduction of another critical pro-business bill: HB1077, which prohibits any onerous local restrictions on kids’ lemonade stands (we’re not making this up – every glass is essential). But we do appreciate the support for the aspirations of young Hoosiers, a seamless transition to another key issue…

Ensuring the success of our schools through the pandemic is crucial to our economic competitiveness. Just as it’s important to protect employers from misplaced legal action, we should protect school districts from unintended funding cuts that take away classroom resources.

HB1003 and SB2 are companion measures sharing this goal. The bills confirm that school districts that shifted to remote learning during the pandemic should receive full per-student funding, held harmless from being assigned lower levels of state aid prescribed for fully-virtual programs before COVID. HB1003 already received a Ways & Means Committee nod on Wednesday, sailing through a critical hurdle towards passage.

The Takeover
Jay-Z took aim at Nas on this 2001 track, just as some at the Statehouse are attacking the principles of home rule with hostile takeovers of local authority. Let’s start with SB168 (yet to be posted online but described here), which would replace mayoral control and local oversight of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) with a state-run committee (including the Indianapolis mayor, who would be outnumbered 4-1 by gubernatorial appointees).

The bill may be motivated by heartfelt concerns about public safety in Indianapolis, but it’s a flawed approach. Taking management of local law enforcement further away from the neighborhoods being served would prove corrosive to confidence and community support for police at a time when their jobs are especially challenging.

The bill’s authors point to Kansas City as an example of a state-controlled local police department. However, the move in Kansas City wasn’t a political power grab, but an effort to weed out the corrupt influence of the local mob back in the 1930s. Plus, KC’s murder rate (per capita) is actually higher than Indianapolis – so we should think about the success of the model we hope to emulate.

Local control means clear accountability. We also can’t view crime as an issue confined to Marion County, a challenge that can be solved by snatching authority away from local elected officials. Violent crime is up across the U.S., including a 40% spike in homicides last summer (sadly consistent with Indianapolis). Gun violence and aggravated assaults also saw double-digit increases in 2020 nationally.

Marion County is not immune, but neither are we unique in struggling with public safety, particularly during a year wracked by economic hardship and civil unrest. But the answers lie in more resources for law enforcement, smart justice reforms and a focus on the root causes of crime, not a legislative neutering of the government closest to the people who are affected most.

Transit Tantrum, Part 2:
Another effort to wrest power from local voters and taxpayers is SB141. Last session, this bill’s author attempted to sabotage IndyGo’s expansion of transit service with a poison pill amendment (based on a misguided interpretation of state law). That effort failed, but this proposal shows the tenacity of disdain for the 60% of the Marion County electorate that voted in favor of mass transit.

SB141 seeks to move fundraising goalposts yet again for IndyGo, excluding federal grants from the already-unreasonable 10% level of non-tax, non-fare funding required to pursue rapid transit projects (the Blue and Purple Lines). Imagine infrastructure investments like the South Shore double-tracking project held to the same standard, scrambling for private donations even after securing federal commitments?

If IndyGo fails to meet the 10% private funding threshold, the bill would impound local income tax revenue, specifically raised for transit after a “yes” vote in the 2016 referendum. The bill would endanger the Blue and Purple rapid transit lines, and all the infrastructure improvements and massive potential for neighborhood development that go with them. It would risk millions of dollars in federal grants committed to these projects, which could easily flow to other states and cities.

Penalizing IndyGo endangers programs to give free bus rides to military veterans, and transportation partnerships with charter schools that allow families to choose schools beyond their neighborhoods. Because rapid transit lines are the backbone of a city-wide network, this misguided move would make it more difficult for all riders to get to work, school, the doctor or the grocery, slowing the system and our economy.

Time is money:
Oversight of police and public transportation belongs with local officials, accountable to voters and taxpayers. These bills mark major shifts between state and local control that deserves thorough vetting – and in this COVID session, that likely won’t be possible.

It’s a final, overarching observation about the session to come. COVID precautions – and the potential of an outbreak under the rotunda – will make it tougher to move as many bills as the usual long session. It means lawmakers will spend more time, relatively speaking, crafting the two-year state budget (a tough task regardless, given the fiscal effects of the pandemic). So odds are some good ideas won’t get a fair hearing, while some negative ones will fall victim to the schedule, too.

That won’t stop legislators from introducing hundreds of proposals for potential consideration. With filing deadlines coming up, we’ll be back next week with a more thorough list of bills aligned with our agenda.

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