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It was a hectic week at the General Assembly, followed by a Friday that put all of the happenings at the Statehouse in proper perspective. We decided to delay this update by a day in light of the devastating news, as our thoughts are focused on the families of those affected.

So thanks for spending part of your weekend on our recap of the waning days of this legislative session: The Senate passed its version of the state budget, state revenues were predicted to surge above previous expectations, tempers flared over full truck weights and empty school buildings, and IndyGo was accused of tinting the windows of its buses to obscure empty seats. Whew.

Let’s start there, with transit. As we reported last week, SB141 did indeed die in committee, prompting its author to look for another way to attack the financial capacity to improve public transportation in Marion County. The new target was HB1191, a bill covering a number of utility issues.

The bill was amended to force IndyGo to pay for utility relocations created by infrastructure improvements around rapid transit – both retroactively (the Red Line) and going forward (covering the Blue and Purple Lines), an obvious move to sabotage the budgets of these projects. The relentless attacks on transit are drawing backlash from the business community and the public-at-large – but will this latest gambit work?

The amended bill passed third reading on Tuesday and drew a dissent its House author. At this writing, the conference committee has been named (with House Transportation Committee Chair Jim Pressel and Representative Blake Johnson, a transit supporter, as House conferees along with Senators Eric Koch and Shelli Yoder) and scheduled for this Monday, April 19th at 8:30AM.

And in case you were wondering, the tinted windows are actually an efficiency measure to keep IndyGo buses cool (unlike the overheated rhetoric on display from opponents of public transportation); the ‘bus wrap’ advertising that also makes it tougher to see into some buses also generates private revenue for IndyGo – exactly the type of fundraising that was the stated focus of SB141.

Jackpot!

On to a brighter development: The state revenue forecast released Thursday featured such a sunny outlook that tinted windows could come in handy. The updated projections added nearly $2 billion in tax collections to the next two years, as strong consumer spending (boosted by another round of federal stimulus) and better-than-expected wage growth look to fuel Indiana’s financial rebound from COVID.

This “make it rain” revenue report certainly changed the tone of the first conference committee session on HB1001 on Thursday afternoon. A few issues we’re watching:

  • How much of the “new” revenues will go to K-12 education?
  • And how will increased education spending be split among school choice (will the budget move back towards the original House expansion of choice in HB1005?), baseline per-student tuition support and aid to students in poverty (along with English Language Learner and special education grants)?
  • Will mental health funding be fully restored, after initial cutbacks were eased in the Senate plan?
  • Can economic development programs be strengthened even further with a mix of federal stimulus and state general fund support? (Most of the Senate’s investments in initiatives like the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative – or READI – are backed by federal dollars, making them by necessity short-term commitments with a 2024 ‘expiration date.’)

Perhaps the overarching question is whether budget negotiators will fully embrace this unexpected revenue windfall to make significant changes to the final spending plan, or take a cautious approach to tapping into this unprecedented $2 billion bonanza? We’ll have the answer in the next few days.

The Walking Dead(line)

This week also marked third reading deadlines in both chambers, meaning the end of the line for a number of bills – with the caveat that “zombie” language (provisions that refuse to die) could still pop up in conference committee reports for related legislation. But the action in the last few days of session shifts to concurrence or dissent decisions on amended bills, conference negotiations and final votes.

  • Speaking of deadlines, Wednesday was the last day for Hoosier students to submit a FAFSA application for college financial aid – completion rates are down across the nation; SB54 (incentivizing school districts to increase FAFSA completion rates) aims to help, but may miss a deadline of its own…its conference committee hasn’t produced a consensus yet.
  • Another Senate education bill, SB414, will also head to conference after a dissent motion (our main interest in this bill is its calls for interim studies of complexity funding and learning loss prevention).
  • HB1007 has an easier path, avoiding conference altogether with a concurrence from the House – it creates a public health grant program (funded by federal stimulus in the Senate budget) guided by the findings of a state health improvement strategy.
  • HB1283 also got a House concurrence for the creation of “urban agriculture zones” that would incentivize farming in urbanized areas to expand access to healthy food and agricultural business opportunities.
  • Another concurrence: HB1008 (the $150 million program for education learning loss grants) was accepted by the House with changes – given the influx of federal money to school districts for learning loss prevention, this grant program was retooled to encourage partnerships with community organizations to create after-school and other programs to help students catch up outside the classroom.
  • A less constructive concurrence comes with HB1541 on landlord-tenant relations – the bill addresses overly-broad language in SEA148 (revived over Governor Holcomb’s veto earlier this year) but still weakens local authority to pass stronger renter protections at a time when housing is a priority.
  • Perhaps more troubling still, the Senate narrowly concurred with an amended SB358, changing the so-called “dollar law” (governing the transfer of unused public school buildings to charter schools) to share the revenues from the sale of a school building with charters within that district, allow post-secondary institutions to claim unused properties along with charters, and adding new compliance;
  • We support charters and diverse learning opportunities for students, and encourage IPS to strengthen its innovation network partnerships (and share referendum revenues for teacher pay raises at innovation schools) – but as we push IPS to be more efficient, we believe they should be able to recapture income from the redevelopment of unused facilities to reinvest in the classroom;
  • Tightening the dollar law, on the other hand, could actually cause districts to keep underutilized buildings instead of right-sizing facilities to put students and teachers ahead of bricks and mortar.
  • HB1002, strengthening COVID liability protections for healthcare and higher education institutions, also earned a concurrence and a trip to the Governor’s desk.
  • But the Governor’s desk isn’t always the last stop for legislation: Both chambers acted this week to override Governor Holcomb’s veto of HB1123, limiting local health authorities and gubernatorial emergency powers (this one likely moves from the legislative process to the legal system).

It’s the final countdown…

From hip-hop to hair metal, we’re counting down the days until we can take a breather, and hopefully say sine DIE to anti-transit plotting for a little while. By the time this hits your inbox there will be less than a week left in the session…as least until its time to reconvene for redistricting. So watch for a deeper dive on the final budget and our legislative wrap-up (before you start missing the weekly updates, register for our upcoming Pancakes & Politics event for a live General Assembly review).

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