As this session of the General Assembly nears completion, state legislators have been working diligently to advance significant proposals through the process. Lawmakers are working long hours to get major initiatives through both chambers as crucial committee deadlines loom. Joint House-Senate conference committees will begin soon. When the two chambers disagree on a bill’s content, leadership appoints two members from each chamber and each political party to negotiate compromise language that must be approved by both houses before the legislation can advance to the governor for final review. This brief summary focuses on some of this week’s legislative action.

State budget

The $31 billion budget proposal laid out in House Bill (HB) 1001 has been under review by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The committee has conducted numerous information-gathering meetings to receive input from major stakeholders such as state university presidents, state agency commissioners, and representatives of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. HB 1001 was approved by the House by a vote of 68-29. The proposal is expected to go through numerous changes in the Senate that will more than likely thrust it into a conference committee.

State road funding

Another priority this session is the development of a long-term funding plan for the state’s infrastructure needs, estimated to cost $1.2 billion annually. Members of the Senate Committee on Tax and Fiscal Policy and the Committee on Homeland Security and Transportation recently held a joint meeting to receive testimony on the road funding bill, HB 1002, which gained House approval by a vote of 61-36. The measure currently includes a 10-cent per gallon gas tax increase, a $15 increase on registration fees, and $150 for electric vehicles. Furthermore, HB 1002 calls for feasibility studies on imposing tolls on current and new roadways in the state. Final committee action on the bill is pending.

Freezing recent corporate tax cuts, bonding and reducing the surplus are other options under consideration in efforts to produce tax-free funding for roads. Senate Bill (SB) 262 would allow the state to leverage its credit rating to levy bonds, creating up to $500 million for road improvements. The bill gained Senate approval by a vote of 41-9 and awaits further action by the House Ways and Means Committee.

Expansion of state pre-kindergarten pilot program

Two bills that took different approaches to expanding the state’s successful five-county pre-kindergarten pilot program for low income children have become one. Members of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee took final action on HB 1004, the pre-kindergarten proposal approved by the House. Members stripped the bill’s original content and inserted SB 276, the pre-kindergarten bill approved by the Senate that has not received a House hearing. Deleted from HB 1004 is a controversial provision that would have provided another pathway for private school vouchers. Also, HB 1004 included $22 million for expansion of the program. Now that HB 1004 mirrors SB 276, it includes considerably less funding. In addition, the bill would allow for a statewide expansion of the program through the inclusion of a debatable technology-based, in-home early education component. The bill would also prioritize children in foster care enrolling in the program.

Needle exchange programs

Lawmakers are working on numerous approaches to combat the rapid spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, and effectively fight the opioid/heroin epidemic occurring throughout the state. Legislation to allow counties or municipalities to approve the operation of a syringe exchange program, without first having to seek state approval, is moving to the full Senate. The Senate Health and Provider Services Committee approved HB 1438 this week after extensive testimony was received in support of the legislation including the Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams who spoke in favor of the bill. In addition, HB 1438 would allow a program to be renewed for not longer than two years, and require the program to keep a sufficient quantity of an overdose intervention drug in stock to administer when needed.

Providing healthy food options

A grant program that would generate more healthy food options for Hoosiers is included in SB 277.  Commonly referred to as “food deserts,” Hoosiers living in these areas, both rural and urban, have little or no access to fresh, healthy food. Grants would be used by businesses and not-for-profits to create healthy and fresh food options in underserved areas. Although SB 277 currently includes no funding, the bill’s authors are working with their House colleagues to seek funding options. Supporters of the bill rallied at the Statehouse this week to encourage lawmakers to find some initial funding to kick-start the program. The USDA reports that 500 neighborhoods across the state are considered food deserts. The bill awaits a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Bill to appoint state school superintendent resurrected

SB 179 would have required the Superintendent of Public Instruction to become an appointed position by the Governor, instead of being an elected position chosen by voters. Supported by the Governor, the bill died in the Senate by a surprise vote of 23-26. Similar House legislation, HB 1005, was approved by a vote of 68-29. Since HB 1005 contains substantially similar language, under Senate rules, the bill should not receive a Senate hearing and the issue should be dead for this session. However, in a politically-motivated move, next week the Republican-controlled Senate Rules Committee will hear HB 1005 and consider amendments to the bill.

Redistricting reform

Popular legislation calling for redistricting reform died in both chambers. HB 1014 called for an independent redistricting commission to draw election maps, and then provide the General Assembly final authority on the proposed districts. The legislation was recommended by a summer study committee that held numerous hearings on the issue. After holding a hearing on the proposal where many testified in support of the bill, the Republican Committee Chair chose not to take a vote on the bill, thus killing the measure. Similar legislation in the Senate did not receive a hearing. This week, House Democrats attempted to amend an elections bill to include language to establish an independent redistricting committee. The amendment was not accepted by the Republican-controlled House.

Important upcoming dates

April 3 – Deadline for standing committees to meet

April 5-6 – Deadlines for bills to be heard by the opposite chamber

April 10 – Conference committees begin

April 29 – General Assembly must conclude business on or before this date

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Personal contact with constituents has a direct impact on legislation considered by the General Assembly and what ultimately becomes state law. Please contact me to express your concerns regarding pending legislation or if I can be of assistance.