January 29, 2021

Weekly Statehouse Update: Special Session For Redistricting, Libertarian Ballot Rule

Article origination IPBS-RJC
The Indiana Statehouse.  - Lauren Chapman/IPB News

The Indiana Statehouse.

Lauren Chapman/IPB News

Lawmakers debated a bill to prevent future government restrictions used during the pandemic. A committee made it harder for Libertarians to make it on the ballot. And the Senate is close to eliminating all protections for wetlands. 

Here’s what you might have missed this week at the Statehouse.

Bill Would Prevent COVID-19 Restrictions

Rep. Bob Morris’s (R-Fort Wayne) legislation would ban state and local governments from limiting a business’s hours of operation or occupancy; regulating what procedures hospitals can do; and requiring mask-wearing or social distancing in a church, unless those things are already in state or federal law.

All of those are executive orders Gov. Eric Holcomb has issued during the pandemic.

The bill also says local health officials can’t close private schools and churches in order to “prevent and stop epidemics.”

Signature Requirements Bill

The House Elections Committee approved a bill to require Libertarian candidates for governor and U.S. Senate to get 4,500 voter signatures to make it on the ballot – the same requirement Democrats and Republicans must already meet.

Doing so isn’t easy – it requires time and, importantly, resources.

Libertarians don’t have primaries in Indiana; instead, their candidates for those offices are chosen at their state party convention.

The 2020 Libertarian candidate for governor, Donald Rainwater, got a higher share of the vote than any other Libertarian candidate in state history.

No one from the Indiana Libertarian Party showed up to testify on the bill. The measure, which passed the House Elections Committee in a party line vote, now heads to the full House.

State-Regulated Wetlands Repeal

A state Senate bill that would remove protections for Indiana’s wetlands passed out of committee on Monday by a vote of 8-3. 

Supporters of the bill say state rules have driven up home prices and caused headaches for farmers. But opponents say wetlands play an important role in the state and could be destroyed without protection.

There are some federal laws that regulate pollution in wetlands. But IDEM said — because the Trump administration changed the Waters of the United States rule — now the majority of wetlands in Indiana aren’t regulated under the rule.

The Biden administration plans to review several rules that were rolled back in the past four years.

READ MORE: How Do I Follow Indiana's Legislative Session? Here's Your Guide To Demystify The Process

Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on COVID-19 and other statewide issues.

Special Session For Redistricting

Indiana legislative leaders say they’re preparing to come in for a special session later this year to redraw legislative district lines.

That’s after the U.S. Census Bureau said it doesn’t expect to deliver necessary redistricting information on time.

The Indiana legislative session is set, in state law, to end April 29. But data needed to redraw congressional district lines is now set to arrive April 30 and the information for state legislative district lines may wait until July.

State law says if Indiana lawmakers don’t draw those congressional maps by the end of session, a five-person commission (made up of lawmakers and a gubernatorial appointee) draws them instead.

Indiana Black Legislative Caucus On Justice Reform

The Indiana Black Legislative Caucus says it’s pleased with progress so far this session on its justice reform agenda.

The major police reform bill of 2021 is well on its way. Supported by law enforcement, public defenders and key organizations in Black communities, the measure requires de-escalation training for all police officers. It treats chokeholds as deadly force. And it allows the state training board to “decertify” officers who commit misconduct.

Other parts of the Black Caucus’s agenda are gaining traction: a bill to create a law enforcement misconduct database and an extension of the state’s current traffic amnesty program, allowing drivers to more easily get their licenses back.

Driving Cards

In the most recent data, 2 in 5 Latinos report frequent symptoms of anxiety or depression due to stressors highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gilberto Pérez, Bienvenido Community Solutions president and Goshen city councilor, says in addition to the traditional programs that target mental health, there are other programs the state can implement. 

“One of the things that impacts the mental health of our community is the ability to be able to drive safely to work,” Pérez said.

House Bill 1138 and Senate Bill 319 would create driving cards, accessible without having to prove citizenship or lawful status. So far, neither bill has been heard in committee.

COVID-19 Liability House Bill

Indiana businesses and institutions are one step closer to being protected from COVID-19 lawsuits. A House committee passed the bill but some still worry the protections go too far.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee amended House Bill 1002 to try to limit protections to actions taken in response to the pandemic.

However, Ashley Hadler with the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association said the amended bill is still too broad. She wants language that only protects and gives immunity to claims related to exposure to injury due to COVID-19.

“This bill appears to be a solution in search of a problem,” said Hadler. “We have all of the mechanisms required under Indiana law to evaluate these claims currently. What we need in this bill is a tie to COVID-19. We do not have that here.”

Virtual School Funding Bill, SBOE Lawsuit

An Indianapolis parent is suing the State Board of Education after it changed a policy to ensure full funding for students learning remotely because of COVID-19. It's part of an ongoing advocacy effort by parents who want virtual schools funded at the same level as brick-and-mortar schools.

Virtual schools get 15 percent less funding per student than in-person schools in Indiana, and the state has been working to circumvent that law and preserve full funding for schools using virtual learning because of the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, lawmakers are continuing to fast-track the virtual funding legislation that would align state law with the board's decision.

Legislative leaders said Thursday there is interest from lawmakers in increasing virtual school funding levels. It comes after virtual school advocates showed up in multiple hearings on legislation working around the 15 percent rule. The General Assembly made the change in 2019, before it was revealed two virtual charter schools faked their enrollment – stealing millions of dollars in state funding. 

TANF Bill Moves Forward

A bill that would gradually expand assistance for impoverished Hoosiers with children easily passed a committee vote Monday with only two senators opposing it. It now goes to the Senate floor. 

Each year, Indiana receives about $200 million from the federal government to give cash assistance, child care and work training to some of the state’s poorest parents. It funds a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or simply TANF.

Although it's federally funded, the state gets to decide who is eligible for that assistance and how much money they get. 

Unemployment Fraud Bill

A bill that attempts to crack down on unemployment insurance fraud passed an Indiana House committee, but some are worried it could instead penalize people making sincere mistakes on applications.

House Bill 1152 would disqualify and create penalties for people who fail to disclose new income while getting benefits, or falsify a fact on an unemployment insurance application. Current laws penalize false material facts – that is, facts that most people understand would affect their eligibility. The new bill would change that to any incorrect fact.

Rep. Ryan Hatfield (D-Evansville) says the bill goes too far and could penalize people who make honest mistakes because they don’t understand the system.

“Some folks don’t have high school degrees with all the English writing skills that some of us have,” he said. "Their applications may include false facts that they didn’t intend to be false or misrepresentative of their situation.”

Vote-By-Mail Changes

Indiana lawmakers want to make a few changes to the state’s vote-by-mail system in the wake of a surge of mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Current law says if a voter who requested a mail-in ballot can’t physically mail it back in, only someone living in their house can do it for them. Valerie Warycha, Indiana secretary of state deputy chief of staff, said legislation would let any family member return the mail-in ballot.

“For example, my mother and father don’t live with me but they are registered voters. I, as their daughter, could take possession of their ballot and turn it in,” Warycha said.

The measure heard in a Senate committee Monday would also change the deadline to return a mail-in ballot. It’s currently noon on Election Day. Under the bill, it would be 6 p.m., when polls close – but only in counties that use vote centers or electronic poll books, which is at least 70 counties statewide.

Union Dues Bill

Teachers may be required to take extra steps to pay union dues if a bill discussed Wednesday becomes law. It’s the only paycheck deduction that would have new requirements, and the Indiana State Teachers Association says it singles out and attacks them. 

If the bill becomes law, this summer teachers would have to start signing a form to allow union dues to be taken from their paychecks. The school would then have to confirm each decision via email. Employees would then have to repeat the process each year, while simultaneously being informed of their right to not be in a union on the form in large, bold font. 

Advocates say it would prevent teachers from having dues deducted without their knowledge or being coerced or bullied into joining the union against their will.

Energy Task Force Extended Two Years

A state House committee voted to extend a task force charged with developing energy policy for Indiana for another two years. But some lawmakers are concerned the new makeup of the task force wouldn’t best represent Hoosiers.

Under the bill, the task force would have fewer energy experts appointed by the governor and none of them would have to represent utility customers.

Democratic lawmakers — who tend to favor renewable energy sources — would also likely make up less of the task force. Republicans would get to appoint twice as many lawmakers. 

Military Family Relief Fund Admin Fee

Some veterans groups are upset with legislation that would allow the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs to take money from the state’s Military Family Relief Fund for administrative costs.

The Military Family Relief Fund gets most of its money from specialty license plates. And the state Department of Veterans Affairs wants to take up to 15 percent of that funding to pay for administrative costs in managing the fund. That would be more than $200,000 a year.

The department has sent back an average of $146,000 to the state General Fund in unused money the last few years.

Wastewater Service For Underserved Communities

It may get easier for underserved communities with failing septic tanks to get water and sewer systems. A state House bill addressing that issue passed out of committee by a unanimous vote on Tuesday. But the bill doesn’t cover everyone who needs help.

According to the Indiana Department of Health, every year more than 20,000 septic systems need to be repaired or replaced. Failing septic systems can leak wastewater into local streams and lakes. It can also get into drinking water wells and make people sick.

Extending new water and sewer lines can be expensive.

This bill would allow a utility to waive that cost for underserved communities and raise rates on its existing customers instead. The utility would have to show that adding these new customers would bring rates back down in the long run.

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