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We’ll kick off this week with a bill that wasn’t initially on our radar: SB392 passed the Senate Local Government Committee and was recommitted to Appropriations. As amended, it allows ‘excluded cities’ within Marion County (like Lawrence, Speedway and Beech Grove) and townships to review and approve all zoning appeals – essentially neutering consolidated zoning authority through the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development (which would only hear variances from Center Township).

The bill started out even worse, taking away any obligation to use local gas tax revenue for major city thoroughfares. But even the softened proposal advances a weird philosophy of local flexibility and control that conveniently bypasses the unified government of Indianapolis-Marion County.

It’s just more political flexing on Indianapolis, the state capital and the place that produces one of every four dollars of Indiana’s economic output. Sadly, a session that should be focused on rebuilding from COVID and crafting a new state budget has featuring recurring anti-Indianapolis undertones, with attacks on civilian oversight of law enforcement (SB168, HB1427 and SB394) and local support for improved transit service (SB141).

Last week, we mentioned another threat to local authority aimed at Indianapolis: Governor Holcomb vetoed SEA148 last year, which would have overruled local landlord-tenant relations rules. Now, a potential veto override and a new bill, HB1541, puts renter protections on the chopping block again.

Divided We Fall:
Back to SB392 – zoning is a pretty wonky topic, but the stakes are high here. There are plenty of reasons why Indianapolis is under chronic budget pressure, but too many layers of government competing for revenue under the state property tax caps is one…instead of eliminating townships to relieve taxpayers of unnecessary bureaucracies, this bill gives these obsolete taxing units more to do.

Multiplying zoning authorities will damage the city’s ability to be proactive about economic development and strengthening its property tax base. (Another bill that passed committee this week, HB1114, doesn’t target Indianapolis specifically but does limit the ability of cities to regulate construction standards and therefore prioritize high-value development.)

Ultimately, creating a confusing patchwork of zoning appeals is a costly and illogical affront to the legacy of Richard Lugar and the primarily-Republican push to consolidate local government through UniGov, a plan that prized efficiency and positioned Indianapolis as a competitive city. Some lawmakers seem eager to sabotage the structure that’s given us a half-century of success to score a short-term partisan points.

Puff, puff, passed!
Now on to a topic that actually belongs on the state legislative docket: Raising Indiana’s cigarette tax (now the lowest among our Midwestern neighbors). HB1434  increases the tax from $1 to $1.995 per pack and imposes a tax on e-liquids that contain nicotine. We testified in favor Monday and it passed committee on Thursday, amended to dedicate two-thirds of resulting revenue to public health (Medicaid) – a big step forward, even though we’d like to see some funding targeted to solving racial health disparities.

In a talent-driven economy, the health and productivity of our workforce is an essential element of a strong business climate. Tobacco use remains one of the most damaging factors to Indiana’s health rankings, undermining our economic development appeal alongside the human costs. Nearly one in five Hoosiers use tobacco regularly, costing an estimated $7.6 billion annually in higher healthcare spending, lost productivity, and premature loss of life.

A $2 per pack increase in the tobacco tax would generate annual revenue of approximately $345 million. Even at a lower rate, increasing the tobacco tax would provide new revenue and reduce smoking over time…and even as cigarette tax revenues decline with smoking rates, Indiana comes out ahead with a stronger, more productive economy and lower healthcare costs dedicated to tobacco-related ailments.

Now it’s time to pass the bill through second and third readings, to the Senate and on to the Governor. If not now, when public health crises and budget challenges are top of mind, then when?

Playing Our Tune:
Besides, kids – you don’t have to smoke to look cool. Try joining a band instead.

SB323 authorizes the Indiana Destination Development Corporation to hire a music commissioner and pursue a statewide music development program. You may recall the Chamber launched an Indy Music Strategy to support artists, venues and other parts of our music scene as an essential part of a vibrant quality of life to attract talent (and the business opportunities that follow). Plus, the ‘music industry’ was a $1.2 billion piece of our economy unto itself, according to a pre-COVID analysis.

Like all of our hospitality and entertainment sector, musicians and the ‘ecosystem’ that supports music production and performances are facing a somber soundtrack through the pandemic. We support our homegrown artistic community and the businesses that support them, and we welcome state-level collaboration on music strategies. SB323 was heard and passed committee on Thursday.

Down to Business:
The rest of the week featured an upswing in committee and floor votes as the reality of the tough schedule ahead started becoming more apparent. A few highlights:

  • HB1006, the bipartisan police reform bill with important provisions on chokeholds and body cameras, enhanced law enforcement training and procedures to decertify officers guilty of misconduct, passed the House on a rousing vote of support and heads to the Senate;
  • HB1006 helps rebuild trust between law enforcement and the citizens; SB394 does the opposite, removing local civilian voices from policing as IMPD seeks community support amid declining homicide clearance rates;
  • Another less positive proposal, SB42, passed committee to limit local budget flexibility on public safety in a heavy-handed effort to stop nonexistent moves by cities or counties to “defund the police” (at least the bill doesn’t single out Indianapolis?);
  • To end on a high note on justice reform – HB1202  passed committee, allowing the Parole Board to review rehabilitative programming and discharge an inmate convicted pre-2014 if their time served exceeds today’s sentencing guidelines;
  • HB1004 is paroled to the Senate, creating a $31 million fund to assist small businesses through the pandemic;
  • The House also passed HB1008, leaving the Senate to decide whether to pass or fail a $150 million Student Learning Recovery Grant Program and Fund to combat learning losses through this year of disrupted education;
  • Sticking with education, HB1005 expands the state’s school choice scholarships and eligibility and HB1514 sets up the creation of a new school accountability system – both passed the Education Committee Wednesday evening;
  • Helping ease the transition from K-12 to post-secondary education and training, SB54 passed committee – requiring graduating seniors to complete the FAFSA form to understand the financial aid available to them for college;
  • Last week we reported that HB1003 passed the full House – this week, the Senate version (SB2) passed third reading: Now each chamber gets a crack at the other’s plan to fix the definition of virtual education to “hold harmless” schools that shifted from in-person to remote learning during COVID;
  • The same situation applies to COVID civil immunity legislation to protect employers from legal action related to COVID as we re-open the economy: Both SB1 and HB1002 passed their third reading votes and will be considered with an eye towards resolving any differing provisions.

Ready to Rumble?
Back on the topic of big government intrusion into local issues, SB141 could get a committee vote next Thursday (February 11th), overturning a 2016 referendum supporting mass transit and diverting local tax dollars from rapid transit projects in Indianapolis. (We should take the opportunity to congratulate former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg on his confirmation as U.S. Secretary of Transportation – and note that SB141 could risk millions of dollars of federal grants already targeted to IndyGo.)

The hits keep coming the following week, as SB168 is scheduled for a vote on February 16th. Two days after Valentine’s Day, we’ve got no love for this ill-conceived proposal to take control of IMPD away from the Mayor of Indianapolis and eliminate local accountability with a state-appointed governing board.

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