Indiana Legislative Update: COVID-19 Drives Legislative Priorities

More than just in the way the Legislature is conducting business (mostly masked and socially distanced), COVID-19 is also the driver behind several pieces of legislation that moved this week. One priority announced even before Session started was the desire to provide civil immunity to businesses, schools, and other organizations from COVID-19 tort cases. On Thursday, the Senate bill working to do this passed the Senate with a vote of 72-21 after having passed the Senate on January 28th with a 40-8 vote.

SB1 provides general immunity to claims of actions that occurred on premises owned by a business/organization, served by a business (eg: a plumber working at a house), or at an activity/event sponsored by the organization. It also provides some limited liability for IN manufacturers that retooled facilities to make PPE. There are exceptions for willful and wonton misconduct and gross negligence and provides the immunity until 2024. Because the bill was amended in the House, the Senate will now choose whether to Concur with the changes made in the House and send the bill to the Governor for his consideration or Dissent on those changes, which would send the bill to Conference Committee to reach a final version to send to the Governor.

Another issue driven by COVID comes as the House debated details of HB1123 which would allow the General Assembly to call itself back into an emergency session should a Governor declare a state of emergency in the future. The bill is sponsored by House floor leader, Rep Matt Lehman (R-Berne), and comes in response to the powers realized by Governor Holcomb to shut down businesses, issue mask mandates, place limits on churches and even direct Hoosiers to not leave their homes. However, some lawmakers claimed the bill doesn’t go far enough, “One person determined the fate of 6.7M people. I’ve had 11 months to think about this because I’ve disagreed with him from Day 1,” said Rep Jim Lucas (R-Seymour). 

Republicans did fend off attempts by Democrats to weaken a section of the bill that prohibits the governor from restricting churches during an emergency “during an emergency, or at any other time. That is one thing we will not have a debate on,” said Rep Matt Lehman (R-Berne). It was a strange week, with Democrat lawmakers heard to be saying, “I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time defending Governor Holcomb this week.”  HB1123 passed 69-27 and moves to the Senate next week. 

Deadlines are quickly approaching as Tuesday is the last day a House bill can be heard in Committee and Thursday for Senate bills. If a bill is not heard in Committee before those deadlines, the bill is considered dead for the Session (though the subject matter may find a home in another bill later). Here are the highlights from the week.

  • One of the two things the Legislature has to accomplish this year is passing the biennial budget. Thursday evening, the Ways & Means Committee passed HB1001 on to the floor after several amendments and a final vote along party lines. This is just one step along the process, and more changes will come. One particularly exciting change the Committee made was to allocate $150M to a new program designed to promote regional cooperation & investment (Regional Cities 2.0, if you will), the Next Level Regional Recovery Fund. It also includes $30M for small business recovery grants (per HB1004).  Overall, the budget spends $18 billion in the first year and $18.2B in the 2nd year and includes a 50.5 cent increase in the cigarette tax. The biggest expenditure is for K-12 funding with significant increases overall, but with more of that dedicated to private and charter schools than the Governor’s budget proposal
  • HB1007, a bill to establish the “IN It for Health” grant program, unanimously passed both the House Public Health Committee and the Ways and Means Committee. It creates a program for organizations across Indiana to step forward to work on issues they believe they can tackle in their own communities. The programs should work to move Indiana out of the bottom level rankings for several health metrics including smoking, obesity, diabetes, etc. These initiatives will be vital to not only help us recover from the pandemic, but improve the overall health of our citizens for many positive results beyond saving lives and money.
  • The SWIN Chamber joined supporters for HB1009, which phases in an increase in the allowable income for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) up to 50% of federal poverty level. The bill is good for Hoosier workers and rewards efforts to improve skills or accept greater job responsibilities (and subsequent wage increases) while avoiding the income cliff that could result from dropping TANF benefits so suddenly. Advocates recognize this as one way to help break generational poverty and move Hoosiers toward self-sufficiency.  Rep Chuck Goodrich (R-Noblesville) states, “I am honored to have this bill as a part of the House Republican agenda this year.  I truly believe in the concept of moving people out of generational poverty.”  It passed out of Committee 10-0 and moves to Ways and Means.
  • Recognizing the opportunity to improve individual health outcomes and reduce Indiana’s above-average maternal and infant mortality rates, the SWIN Chamber had already come out in support of HB1358 to provide pregnancy accommodations in the workplace. The House Employment, Labor & Pensions Committee instead chose to move HB1309 on Tuesday with a 12-1 vote. While we don’t believe HB1309 moves the issue as far along as we would like, we appreciate this step forward and support efforts like these to create a healthier workforce and provide clarity for employers. Also, this week, the Governor announced that these accommodations would be made available to all State employees (he can do this without legislation).
  • HB1397 was designed with the intention of making college prep and CTE credits more accessible. The bill asks the state to create a course catalog for all the work-based learning and Career & Technical Education (CTE) programs available. It also allows schools to replace an existing class with a STEM class that has the same content and rigor to meet Core 40 requirements. The goal is to provide more hands-on learning recognizing that in many cases a hands-on class teaches the same requirements (eg: carpentry class teaches geometry). Lawmakers were moved by stakeholder testimony, “I believe every young person has unique and amazing God-given potential.  Your speech is, I think, very important and what you do is important.  You remind us why we are here.”  The bill passed with enthusiastic, bipartisan support of the House Education Committee 13-0.
  • HB1418 provides updates to the IN Economic Development Corp. It combines the roles of Secretary of Commerce and President of IEDC (eliminates the President role), streamlines some organizations, and defines “final offer” as the executed agreement between IEDC and a business prospect and clarifies what information is public and available on the IEDC portal. The bill passed the House 92-3 and moves to the Senate.
  • Sen Chris Garten (R-Charlestown) called SB5 “pro local government,” and Sen Ron Alting (R-Lafayette) added, “We have an executive function being performed by a local health department.  This is not a repudiation of local health officials in any way, but we cannot have someone who has authority unchecked.” The bill establishes an appeals process for local health enforcement actions and drew Democrat Senators to the support of the decisions made the last year disagreeing, “This is not pro local government.  I think it seeks to undermine local govt and their authorities.  These emergencies are not arbitrary pronouncements.  They are determined in conjunction and with government advisors and public officials with expertise in the situation and at the highest levels.”  Senator Garten closed with, “Robust conversation leads to good policy.  This language has been vetted through some local health officers who said, ‘If I have had a bad day the amount of unchecked-authority I have is scary.  And no one person should have that much authority unchecked.  When someone has that much power, there must be a check-and-balance in place.  The pandemic – the litmus test of the pandemic – has revealed some weaknesses.”  The bill passed 40-8 and moves to the House.
  • SB214 establishes a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program to encourage the development of affordable/workforce housing. The bill originally offered a tax credit for the developer, but fiscal concerns led to the amendment that deleted the credit and established the PILOT to allow local governments and developers to find agreement on the tax revenue that will be collected for the project. The PILOT provides stability to both parties and would hopefully encourage the development of affordable housing. The bill passed out of Senate Tax and Fiscal 11-0 and was reassigned and approved in Senate Rules as amended. 
  • The Senate Utilities Committee heard 3 broadband bills Thursday morning and passed them all for further consideration. They each take a different approach and generally work well together to address some of the issues our region (& most other areas of the state) has seen as we try to expand broadband. SB352 is focused on increasing transparency and accountability to the Next Level Broadband Grants, including speeding up the time for construction to start after a grant is distributed and greater sharing of information in the grant process. SB359 would allow local governments to use the Barrett Law provisions (usually bonding with bonds backed from a specific funding source) to make broadband investments. And, finally SB377 creates 2 additional funding mechanisms in the Next Level Grant program that would support efforts to grow broadband to areas just beyond providers’ existing service limits and also to assist lower-income homeowners who have connectivity at the street, but are unable to afford the connection. The Committee had strong discussion on the subject, often getting into the fairly technical details about service levels and competitive factors, and acknowledged that there still much work to be done in the grantmaking process and through increased allocation of funding.
  • SB386 continues to move through the process to establish a means for Vectren to “securitize” (bond) the existing capital value of the AB Brown power plant assets when it is decommissioned in 2023.  The bill was amended on 2nd reading to strengthen the guardrails in place to ensure the savings from securitization are passed along to the ratepayer.
  • HB1005 was one of the most high-profile bills moving this week as it increases the income eligibility limits for families to receive School Choice Scholarships (vouchers) and also establishes Educational Scholarship Accounts (ESA’s) for parents of special education children, those serving active-duty military/national guard, and foster children (~190,000 total Hoosier children). These ESA’s would provide “cash” in an electronic portal in the Indiana Treasurer’s office for these parents to use funds to support the educational needs of their children. Parents do not have to use the funds to attend private school – they can also homeschool and would receive funds that would otherwise go to public school. The bill also increased the income limits for families to receive the Choice Scholarships increasing the number of eligible households.  There is great debate about the accountability of the funds once they are allocated to the parents and concern this will divert more money from traditional public schools. The Chamber will continue to watch how these programs get finalized over the rest of the Session and how they are implemented in our region to ensure that all funds dedicated to education are invested wisely in ways that help our schools meet the needs of our employers and our community.
  • HB1025 would allow local municipalities with Enterprise Zones to “take over” the required approval of the Zone from the state (all EZ’s are set to expire in 2024) and reconsider them every 5 years. Doing so would mean they forego the state incentives associated with EZ’s, but keep the local property tax deductions. This bill passed the full House on Monday 93-2 and moves to the Senate for consideration.  
  • HB1266 sets up a mechanism to establish educational building and transportation authorities that might work across school district lines and allow for public-private partnerships to reduce costs for K-12 schools in these areas and enable more funding to go to the classroom. When not entirely welcomed by stakeholders, lawmakers countered sharply, “If done in a structured and thoughtful manner, I can’t see how these efficiencies deployed can’t reduce costs.  We are just trying to start a conversation about efficiencies that could be realized.  We are not forcing anyone to do anything, but possibly opening up new opportunities that could get more dollars to the classroom.” The bill passed House Education Committee 12-0 and moves to the House.
  • Like SB3 that has already passed the Senate and awaits House action, HB1286 is an attempt to incorporate into statute what we have learned through the expanded use of telehealth.  Both bills work to broaden the list of providers eligible to utilize telehealth, ensure that patient privacy is protected, and to enable more Hoosiers to get easier access to care and ultimately improve the health of our communities.  House Public Health Committee passed the bill 11-0 and will be considered by the House next week. 
  • HB1348 would establish uniformity, transparency, and consistency for the assessed value and tax rates for wind and solar installations. Several organizations expressed support for the proposal as one that would benefit developers of the installations, the property owners where they are sited, and the communities that benefit from the taxes. The bill passed out of Ways and Means Committee 23-1 and moves to the House floor.
  • The House Utilities Committee heard HB1381 for the 2nd time this week, amended it and voted it out to the full House by a vote of 12-1. Opponents include constituents and local elected officials who have put strict standards in place that have often prevented the siting of wind or solar power. “The wind does not always blow, the sun does not always shine, and solar panels and wind turbines end up in landfills.”  Supporters include many renewable energy developers, property owners, and others that want to have stability and a common set of rules across the state defining setbacks/buffers from neighbors, noise levels, clean up requirements, etc. Chair Ed Soliday (R-Valparaiso) said, “The bill is here not because I am more or less green. The reason we are here is because there is a significant market for renewable energy and the State of Indiana is going to buy it somewhere.”
  • HB1396 does many things impacting alcohol sales, including allowing the holder of a food hall vendor’s permit and retailer’s permit and also hold a permit for a small brewery, a farm winery, or an artisan distillery, to sell carryout alcoholic beverages at the retailer’s permit premises.  An amendment was made to the bill to redefine “beer” and struck language that excluded aluminum cans.  Clarifying language was added to the winery portion which makes permissible anything that by federal law may be canned.  While self-distribution is the biggest part of the bill, details of the new permit called a “craft festival organizer permit” was discussed.  The amended bill passed 10-0.  
  • This week House Commerce Committee Chair Rep Bob Morris (R-Fort Wayne) surprised his fellow committee members with an amendment to HB1519, which previously was a bill to limit a government’s power to define hours of operation for businesses. The old language was stripped and unrelated anti-social media censorship language was inserted into the bill. The amendment, which received no testimony or discussion, was met with confusion, and yet lawmakers still voted 6-6 to move the bill….with an absent lawmaker Rep Davisson (R-Salem) unavailable to break the tie. Recognizing the lack of order, House leadership reassigned the bill to the Rules Committee, which is a fairly certain indicator the bill is now dead.
  • HB1520, one of the more complicated bills this session, creates metrics to ensure that utilities are providing Hoosiers reliable, adequate service.  Heard in Utilities Committee last week, the amended bill passed 13-0 and ultimately passed 93-0 on the House floor.  The bill moves to the Senate next week. 
  • Financial aid is one lever to help improve higher education and skill level attainment; SB54 is an attempt to ensure more Hoosier students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Indiana is 34th out 50 states in FAFSA completion and 8th out of the 11 Midwest states. The bill does provide some options for schools to waive the requirement for students who have uncooperative/unresponsive parents. The bill passed the Senate 27-20 and goes to the House for consideration.
  • Senate Pensions & Labor Committee passed SB220 this week to provide a 2% increase each year for 3 years to Worker’s Compensation benefits, which have not been increased since 2016. Opponents to the bill included the IN Manufacturers Association who argued that any increase needs to be done in conjunction with reimbursement costs. This point has been the hold up for several years, yet there has been no movement in resolving costs associated with things like Ambulatory Service Centers, etc. that are driving the higher healthcare costs. The bill passed 9-1 and moves to the full Senate.
  • Last year, the legislature established the All Payers Claim Database (APCD) by identifying the data they wanted to collect and set the RFP to set it up. This year, HB1402, follows on to provide greater definition about the responsibilities of the Administrator and the Advisory Board that will oversee it. The bill also confirms that the APCD must provide a forward facing portal that is free to consumers to be a resource to understand consumers, price, and quality with the ability to compare across several factors including geography, demographics, etc. The bill passed the House 91-1.

Important Dates:

  • Tuesday, February 16th
    • Deadline for House bills to be approved by Committee
    • House Courts and Criminal Code
      • HB1028 Marijuana (strip & insert with new language: THC levels re: Operating While Intoxicated)
    • House Roads and Transportation
      • HB1190 Overweight Truck Permits
    • Senate Tax & Fiscal Policy
      • SB213 Certified Technology Parks
      • SB215 Redevelopment Projects
    • House Ways & Means
  • Thursday, February 18th
    • Deadline for Senate bills to be approved by Committee
  • Monday, February 22nd
    • Deadline for House bills to pass 3rd (Final) reading in the House
  • Tuesday, February 23rd
    • Deadline for Senate bills to pass 3rd (Final) reading in the Senate

COVID-19 Information and Updates:

  • Since last weeks’ update, the state has reported 9,835 new positive cases (645,006 total), 324 new deaths (11,604 total), 40,874 new individuals tested (3,029,943 total), and 243,997 new tests administered (7,425,081 total). There are an additional 423 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 10.3% from the beginning of testing and 6.1% for the 7-days ending on 02/04. The positivity rate for unique individuals is 21.3% since the beginning of testing and is 14% for the 7 days ending 02/04 (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 and all surrounding Counties in orange (moderate to high community spread). There is now only one red County (high community spread) in the State (Switzerland) and for the first time in months one County, Starke, is blue (low community spread). 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 02/04 are: Gibson 8.8%, Posey 9.6%, Vanderburgh 7.5%, Warrick 9.1%, and Spencer 11%.  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 as of 2/11, 759,992 Hoosiers have received their first dose of the vaccine and another 279,995 (~4% of all Hoosiers) are considered “fully vaccinated” for COVID-19. More than half of Hoosiers over the age of 70 have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
  • There are nearly 280  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