January 14, 2022

Weekly Statehouse update: State of the State address, partisan school board races testimony

Article origination Indiana Public Media
The Indiana Statehouse reflected in the windows of a nearby building. - Justin Hicks/IPB News

The Indiana Statehouse reflected in the windows of a nearby building.

Justin Hicks/IPB News

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Lawmakers debated whether to make local school board races partisan. A House committee easily advanced a billion-dollar tax cut. And the governor delivered his State of the State.

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

HB 1182: Partisan school board races

School board candidates would be forced to declare a political party under legislation Indiana lawmakers are considering, but the nearly two dozen people who testified at the bill's first hearing Tuesday opposed the bill. 

House Bill 1182 would require school board candidates to identify with a political party and include that designation on the ballot. Candidates would be able to list themselves as "Independent" if they don't identify as either a Republican or Democrat. The bill does not limit the number of candidates from each party who could be included in those races. 

The bill's author, Rep. J.D. Prescott (R-Union City) said he believes the change would give voters more insight into candidates' beliefs and character. 

HB 1002: House GOP’s $1 billion tax cut

A major tax cut package that will eventually cost the state $1 billion a year easily cleared a House committee Wednesday. The bill comes as the Indiana government recently posted a $4 billion budget surplus.

The measure, HB 1002, includes a mix of business tax cuts, eliminates certain taxes on utility ratepayers and lowers the state’s individual income tax over the next few years down to 3 percent.

Republicans also rejected every proposal Democrats made for the bill, including a child care tax credit and an increased renter’s deduction.

Holcomb delivers his sixth State of the State address

And Gov. Eric Holcomb delivered his sixth State of the State address. He used it to pitch his recently-unveiled 2022 agenda, highlighted by a proposed business tax cut. The speech didn’t include any new or surprising information.

Holcomb used much of the speech to trumpet recent successes: income growth and a low unemployment rate, teacher pay raises and billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements.

Democrats pointed out that many of those accomplishments were made possible through funding from the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan.

Indiana Black Legislative Caucus’s agenda

The Indiana Black Legislative Caucus says its 2022 agenda is focused on “economic empowerment.”

Caucus Chair Robin Shackleford (D-Indianapolis) said that means more than just jobs and wealth.

“Much of it includes looking at how our students are educated and the resources that go into educating Black and Brown students,” Shackleford said.

Legislation the caucus will push includes scholarships for students of color pursuing health care careers, measures to help reduce the cost of child care and a pilot program aimed at helping parents attain an education.

State of the Judiciary

Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush told state leaders Wednesday the state’s judicial system is hard at work to increase public trust and innovate.

Rush also invited a fellow justice to help deliver her annual State of the Judiciary address.

Like every part of government, courts have had to adjust to the pandemic. And Rush said to help improve access to the justice system, the state will soon unveil a tool that could make it so some people don’t need to come to court at all.

HB 1134: School curriculum and parent transparency bill

A controversial school curriculum and parent transparency bill advanced in the Indiana House Wednesday.

House Bill 1134 increases parents' authority over school content and would limit how teachers talk about things like race, religion and politics in their classrooms. 

READ MORE: House committee hears school content, transparency bill ahead of vote later this week

The House Education Committee made minor changes before voting on it – like adding a line to ensure that teachers can talk about "ideals and values that conflict with the Constitution of the United States."

Or, as bill author Rep. Tony Cook (R-Cicero) said: "Clarifies that schools can and should teach that Nazism is bad."

That particular change comes after Sen. Scott Baldwin (R-Noblesville) made national headlines for his comments during a nearly eight hour hearing on a similar bill, urging neutrality from teachers as they talk about things like Marxism and Nazism. He has since walked back those remarks.

HB 1001: Vaccine mandate bill

The Indiana House scrapped a proposal to raise unemployment insurance taxes as a penalty to employers unwilling to grant vaccine exemptions. But, they still want Hoosiers who are fired for vaccine status to be eligible to draw benefits from a pot of money funded by all Indiana employers.

In House Bill 1001, House Republicans sought a way to punish employers who didn’t follow their rules forcing employers to grant a variety of exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination. Lawmakers wanted to make unvaccinated workers eligible for unemployment benefits and raise contributions from those employers to make up for the increased costs.

SB 3: Ending the public emergency

Gov. Eric Holcomb could end the state’s public health emergency without jeopardizing millions in federal funding under a bill approved by a Senate committee Wednesday.

Unlike the HB 1001, the Senate bill – SB 3 – does not include anything about COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The federal government increased funding for several programs during the pandemic. That includes access to Medicaid for more Hoosiers and boosts to the monthly allowance for Hoosiers on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often called food stamps.

HB 1077: Eliminating handgun licenses

Indiana’s requirement to get a license to carry a handgun in public would be eliminated under legislation easily approved by the Indiana House on Tuesday.

HB 1077’s proponents say law-abiding citizens shouldn’t have to petition the government for the right to carry a handgun in public.

Law enforcement groups oppose the bill, HB 1077. They argue the license system is the best way for officers in the field to know who’s allowed to carry.

Earlier in the week, Indiana House Republicans blocked an effort that would’ve required gun owners to safely store their firearms when a child could access them.

HB 1159: Payday loan rates

Advocates are again pushing lawmakers to pass legislation that would cap annual percentage rates of small loans. Hoosiers for Responsible Lending wants rate caps put in place to help protect thousands in the state from predatory lending.

The coalition consists of veterans organizations, faith communities, consumer groups and social service providers. The group supports legislation from both Sen. Ron Alting (R-Lafayette) and Rep. Carey Hamilton (D-Indianapolis) that would cap payday loans at a 36 percent interest rate. 

“I have for four years been listening to the predatory lending industry try to defend themselves and make a case for why they should exist in our state. And I have not been convinced, frankly, I find their arguments defenseless,” said Hamilton, author of House Bill 1159

Indiana is one of 25 states without strong rate caps on payday loans. This means lenders can have annual percentage rates as high as 391 percent. 

HB 1196 and SB 313: Solar access

Renewable energy advocates and some lawmakers say Hoosiers need better access to solar power to have energy independence. That was the takeaway of this year’s Renewable Energy Day at the Indiana Statehouse.

Sen. Shelli Yoder (D-Bloomington) said Hoosiers should be allowed to decide how they get their energy.

She’s proposed a bill, SB 313, that would require investor-owned utilities to create at least five community solar projects. Community solar allows customers to buy into a solar project and then receive some credits for excess energy it delivers to the grid.

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Rep. Mike Speedy (R-Indianapolis) has proposed a bill, HB 1196, that would stop homeowner’s associations from banning solar panels on homes or putting “unreasonable limitations” on solar panels. But homeowner’s associations would have a say in the aesthetics — and Speedy said that could increase property values in neighborhoods with solar.

SB 196: Agricultural seed tests

Farmers will have to pay more to get their seed tested by the state if an Indiana Senate bill, SB 129, becomes law. It passed unanimously in committee on Monday.

The Office of Indiana State Chemist offers to test seed for purity and germination, but only charges about half as much as what private companies do.

John Baugh is with Purdue University’s college of agriculture — where the OISC is located. He said the low fees make it hard for the agency to pay for testing materials and labor on a service it isn’t required to provide.

SB 147: Underground pumped storage hydropower

A state Senate bill, SB 147, would add a type of energy storage to the state’s list of clean energy resources — such as wind and solar. Underground pumped storage hydropower generates energy by passing water through a turbine as it moves from a higher reservoir to a lower one.

This technology can store power from wind, solar, or even coal. It’s been around for decades and accounts for most utility-scale energy storage in the U.S. But it hasn’t been used much in Indiana.

The caverns left by abandoned coal mines, gypsum mines and limestone quarries could open up a new opportunity for the technology in Indiana — and that could benefit communities losing coal mines too.

HB 1150: School zone traffic cameras

Some Indiana lawmakers want local communities to be able to put traffic cameras in school zones, aiming to decrease speeding in those areas.

The number of miles traveled by vehicles in 2020 decreased, an effect of the pandemic. Yet the number of traffic fatalities went up. And Indiana is above the national average for those deaths.

A House committee heard testimony on the bill, HB 1150, Wednesday. But there’s no indication the legislation will get a vote or advance any further.

State Sen. Frank Mrvan retires

One of Indiana’s longest-serving state lawmakers abruptly announced his retirement Tuesday, effective immediately.

Sen. Frank Mrvan (D-Hammond) served in the Senate for 39 years, representing northwest Indiana. In a statement announcing his resignation, he didn't say why he’s leaving. But health problems have kept him from the Statehouse for much of the last few years.

Mrvan called his time in office “an incredible honor and responsibility.” And he singled out his work with military veterans and labor unions during his tenure.

"As our region, state, and nation continue to face unprecedented challenges in relation to our health, education and economy, I will continue to do all I can to be engaged in these issues, and supporting the incredible work of our Northwest Indiana non-profits and charitable organizations that make a difference for so many individuals and families," Mrvan said in a press release.

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