Indiana Legislative Update – Cautious Optimism

On March 6, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Indiana. Since then, there have been 664,446 COVID-19 cases in the State, with 12,231 heartbreaking deaths. While the past year has been one of trials, uncertainty and heartbreak, it has also been a year that reflects the resiliency and resourcefulness of Hoosiers. 

In this week’s update Dr. Kristina Box announced, “steady progress” in getting Hoosiers vaccinated. More than a million Hoosiers have begun the vaccination process, with 1,061,173 having received first doses and 633,123 Hoosiers are now fully vaccinated. Questions emerged about which of the three currently available COVID-19 vaccines was best. Dr. Box gave no preference suggesting Hoosiers should “get whatever vaccine you can,” calling all options “highly effective.” At this time Indiana will maintain the 300+ testing sites, having determined that with variants emerging it was prudent to maintain testing operations rather than having to rebuild them later if Indiana experiences a resurgence of the virus. 

The new color-coded county maps released were only in blue and yellow this week, with no county across the state in red or orange status. Governor Eric Holcomb received questions about various states across the Country dropping their mask mandate. The Governor remained resolute in stating he will focus on Indiana-specific information to make future decision, “Sure, I’ve talked to governors – we are very aware of what people are thinking, but all I know is we are on the right path.”

Eligibility for the vaccine will continue primarily based on age, with appointments available to those 50 and older now eligible, and a new federal vaccination initiative which makes all Indiana teachers immediately eligible for the vaccine.  This program is available to all PreK-12 school employees.

The Indiana General Assembly recently reached the halfway point in the 2021 legislative session, with the Senate and House now considering legislation passed in the opposite chamber. The Senate initially filed 410 bills with 167 (41%) moving to the House. Of the 602 bills introduced in the House, 149 (25%) survived the journey to the Senate. Committee Chairs are deciding this week which bills they will hear, further culling the crop of new legislation presented this pandemic impacted legislative session.  During this second half of session, lawmakers will turn their focus to review and pass Indiana’s 166-page $36.4B biennial state budget, HB1001, and continue to refine bills on their way to passage.

And because I love basketball as much as most of you, it was announced today that an agreement has been reached to allow fan attendance of up to 8,000 spectators at the upcoming Big Ten men’s tournament in Indianapolis, scheduled March 10-14 at Lucas Oil Stadium; and up to 2,500 fans permitted to attend the women’s tournament scheduled March 9-13 at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. Perhaps it is safe to enjoy some cautious optimism.

Because this is the “cross over” week, it was relatively slow. There are a few bills we’re watching that have started moving in the “2nd house” – here are the highlights.

  • Rep Shane Lindauer (R-Jasper) presented HB1004 before Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.  The bill establishes the Hoosier hospitality small business grant program, which will provide funding to accelerate economic recovery due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Discussion began with first-term Sen Qadorra (D-Indianapolis), who was the former controller and CFO of the City of Indianapolis, making inquiry as to whether bill author Rep Lindauer would be willing to allow language inclusive of independent venue owners being added to the bill and Rep Lindauer replying he is “not ruling anything out.”  Several supporters spoke on behalf of the bill, including Patrick Tamm of the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association, “I am often the Grim Reaper of economic data,” listing off dire statistics which reveal that 20% of restaurants in Indiana have permanently closed in the past year with 2/3of those remaining reporting daily conversations about avoiding bankruptcy.  However, he states, “We continue to have reason for optimism” largely due to a successful rollout of the vaccines in Indiana and news of a $25B federal grant package on the horizon. LIVE NATION, a live mega-venue reminded lawmakers that “until the entertainment industry can put heads in beds and seats in restaurants” the hospitality industry will not recover.  Lawmakers responded that they were “intrigued and concerned” at the plight of the businesses testifying and discussion ensued exploring the basics of the bill, “Do we drop the guardrails or keep the guardrails?” asked Appropriations Chair Sen Ryan Mishler (R-Bremen).  The still evolving, definitely in flux bill received unanimous support and passed out of Committee 12-0. 
  • HB1007, a bill which requires the Indiana State Department of Health to prepare a plan to improve the health of residents of the State of Indiana and establishes a grant program to support public health initiatives survived lively debate on Wednesday as Senate Health & Provider Services members scrutinized the bill and peppered bill author and stakeholders with various pointed questions. Among them, concerns about the language of the bill being “overly broad,” and that existing programs with poor success rates might be funded across the State.  Before coming to the Senate, the House allocated $50M in grant money to future applicants in the budget.  Indiana falls in the bottom of several health rankings in the Country, including being ranked 43rd for physical activity, 41st for smoking rates, and 40th for obesity. “Indiana has long struggled with chronic public health issues, which has resulted in increased public and private spending on health care costs and reduced economic growth,” said Rep Ann Vermilion (R-Marion), “HB1007 helps jump start this process, providing funding to programs that seek to make a measurable impact in improving Hoosier’s health.”  After considerable testimony, the bill, which Committee Chair Sen Ed Charbonneau (R-Valparaiso) determined had sufficient “conceptual support” was held for next week, pending answers from the bill author. 
  • SB2 emerged from House Ways and Means Committee this week with bipartisan support 20-0. On Thursday, Representatives considered 2nd Reading amendments on the House floor from Reps Tonya Pfaff (D-Terre Haute) and Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis) regarding research about learning loss and requesting the IDOE to determine what is adequate funding and reassess the complexity index.  “The complexity index was a backup to help bring more dollars to those students in need in rural and urban communities,” said Rep Greg Porter.  House Education Chair Rep Robert Behning (R-Indianapolis) rose in support of these goals, and pledged support to work together with Representatives Pfaff and Porter on these issues stating, “There is national research being done – some we don’t need to recreate – some that is imperative for our kids.  I, too, support these ideas – and I would go a step further to see how to identify complex students better.”  However, he also urged his colleagues to not delay passage of the bill stating, “This is a very important bill to our K-12 schools and we want to get this to them as quickly as possible.”  With those reassurances, the two floor amendments proposed were withdrawn and the bill was ordered engrossed. 
  • The goal of SB54 is to improve the rate of filing of the FAFSA application by high school seniors in Indiana.  The mood of the room grew tense at times as lawmakers responded to some stakeholders who spoke in opposition to the bill, “Our role is to educate and inform, but is it our role to track parents down?” Rep Ed Clere (R-New Albany) responded sharply, pointing out that schools engage parents regularly throughout the school year for field trips, for example, complaining, “You do not object to other occasions that the school must seek parental approval, but you see the sign off that relates directly to the student’s future success as a burden. The Chairman has expressed frustration on the accountability on what happens to students after graduation.  I am deeply disappointed.”  Sen Leising defended SB54 as “not punitive,” with no intentions of keeping students from graduation, only having a goal of helping kids become aware that they can afford to go to college.  She acknowledged the concerns that school administrations felt this was an “added burden,” but encouraged them to “take pride” in helping another child reach the goal of a higher education.  “What is good for your family, is good for my family and that is good for all families.”  The bill is held for further consideration.

Important Dates:

  • Monday, March 8th
    • Senate Family & Children Services Committee
      • HB1101 Daycare Licensure Exemption in Declared Emergency
    • House Utilities, Energy & Telecommunications
      • SB352 Broadband Development (Houchin)
      • SB377 Broadband Development (Zay)
  • Tuesday, March 9th
  • Wednesday, March 10th
    • Senate Health & Provider Services
      • HB1225 Opioid Treatment Programs
    • Senate Education & Career Development
      • HB1266 Education Building & Transportation Authorities
  • Thursday, March 11th
    • House Ways & Means
      • SB336 Business Personal Property Tax Exemption
  • Tuesday, March 16th

COVID-19 Information and Updates:

  • Since last weeks’ update, the state has reported 6,401 new positive cases (664,446 total), 192 new deaths (12,231 total), 76,331 new individuals tested (3,133,323 total), and 276,604 new tests administered (8,133,596 total). There are an additional 432 probable Covid-19 deaths (X-Ray, CT, symptoms & exam consistent w/Covid-19, but no positive test received).  All of this information is on the ISDH dashboard at www.coronavirus.in.gov.
  • The positivity rate for ALL tests administered is 9.8% from the beginning of testing and 3.4% for the 7-days ending on 02/25. The positivity rate for unique individuals is 21.2% since the beginning of testing and is 9.3% for the 7 days ending 02/25 (rates trail by 7 days to account for lagging reports).
  • The color-coded county metrics (combines: new cases per 100,000 people in the last week and 7-day positivity rates) updated Wednesday has Vanderburgh, Gibson, and Pike Counties in blue (low community spread) with Posey, Warrick, Spencer, and Dubois in yellow (moderate community spread). For the first time in many months, there are no orange or red counties on the map. You can find these metrics and how they are calculated by choosing the “County Metrics” tab above the map of Indiana on the state dashboard.
  • The state also publishes county-level 7-day positivity rates for all tests given. Currently, SW Indiana rates as of 02/23 are: Gibson 2.9%, Posey 4.9%, Vanderburgh 4.3%, Warrick 5.1%, and Spencer 4%. You can find the county-level information by choosing the “Positivity” tab above the map of Indiana on the state dashboard.
  • The Vaccination Dashboard shows that through 3/4, 1,061,173 Hoosiers have received their first dose of the vaccine and another 633,123 (9.2% of all Hoosiers) are considered “fully vaccinated” for COVID-19. More than half of Hoosiers over the age of 60 have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
  • There are 300+  testing sites across the state. You are encouraged to get tested if you have any symptoms or are have had contact with someone who has tested positive.
  • You can see the Governor’s Executive Orders here