Weekly Statehouse Update: School Choice Expansion, 'Defund The Police' Ban Rejected

Feb 19, 2021

The Indiana Statehouse. (Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

School voucher expansion clears the House. The Senate passes a bill to more harshly penalize rioters. And a measure banning “defund the police” is soundly rejected. 

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

School Choice Expansion

Controversial legislation that would create Indiana's first educational savings account program and expand the eligibility of state-funded private school vouchers to families with double the state's median income passed out of the House Tuesday.

Under the expansion, families making double the state’s median income would now be eligible for those vouchers. And voucher expansion would take up about a third of House Republicans’ proposed increase in K-12 school funding in the next state budget.

Protesters Bill

A bill passed by the Senate raises the penalty for rioting – which is when a protest becomes violent – to a felony if there’s more than $750 of damage caused (or if someone is seriously injured). And violating a curfew would now be a class B misdemeanor, which can be punished with up to one thousand dollars in fines and 180 days in jail.

‘Defund The Police’ Ban

But the Senate thoroughly rejected a measure that would have tied the hands of local governments from reducing their public safety budgets. The bill was a reaction to the “defund the police” movement. Only nine senators voted in favor; 37 opposed it.

Tensions Flare As Some Republicans Boo, Heckle Black Democrats

Tensions flared in the Indiana House Thursday after Republicans shouted down Democratic lawmakers who voiced concerns about discrimination in a bill.

Two Black Democratic lawmakers expressed concerns on the House floor about what they viewed as discriminatory issues with it and a group of Republicans booed and heckled them.

But an ensuing argument in the hallway outside the chamber escalated. Indiana Black Legislative Caucus Chair Robin Shackleford (D-Indianapolis) said Rep. Sean Eberhart (R-Shelbyville) had to be physically restrained from going after Rep. Vanessa Summers (D-Indianapolis).

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

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Senate COVID-19 Liability Protection Signed Into Law

Indiana joined several other states in the country to protect businesses and other institutions from most COVID-19 lawsuits. While one small business advocacy group breathed a sigh of relief as Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the measure Thursday, some Hoosiers are concerned.

Senate Bill 1 requires an individual wanting to file a lawsuit to show evidence of gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct. The legislation will shield certain groups from most COVID-19 lawsuits.

Several groups advocated heavily for the legislation including health care providers, schools and businesses. All urged protections from what they called financially harmful legal action.

Abortion Reversal Bill

Indiana doctors would be forced to tell patients their medication-induced abortions can be reversed under legislation approved by a House committee Monday.

The broader scientific community says that claim is unproven and unethical.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) said claims about abortion reversal treatment are not based on science.

Governor Disaster Emergency Declaration Restrictions

The governor’s authority to declare disaster emergencies would be severely restricted under legislation unanimously approved by a Senate committee Tuesday.

The measure – one of several this legislative session – is a reaction to executive orders issued by Gov. Eric Holcomb during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Sue Glick’s (R-LaGrange) bill would only allow the governor to declare a widespread emergency, affecting at least 10 counties, for 45 days without the General Assembly getting to weigh in.

Public Handgun Licenses Bill

Indiana’s license requirement to carry a handgun in public would now be eliminated in March 2022, instead of July 2021, under a bill passed by a House committee Monday.

The committee pushed back the bill’s timeline in a bid to placate law enforcement agencies.

Law enforcement leaders – including State Police Superintendent Doug Carter – told lawmakers last week that the license system was the only way for frontline police to quickly know whether a person is authorized to carry a handgun in public.

Bill author Rep. Ben Smaltz (R-Auburn) said pushing back the elimination of the license will give law enforcement more time to develop a new system that tells police who shouldn’t be carrying a handgun.

Pregnant Worker Bill

Legislation to allow pregnant women to ask employers for accommodations at work was passed in the House on Wednesday, but critics say it’s too weak and doesn’t actually change anything.

There are several bills in the General Assembly addressing pregnant worker accommodations. Multiple advocacy groups held rallies for bills requiring accommodations, but this was the only one to be heard in a committee. The bill’s author says it’s not everything she wants either, but calls it a foundation.

Several CTE Programs Could Be Cut In Budget

High school courses in areas like culinary arts and cosmetology could lose state funding if a budget proposal from Republican lawmakers passes. Educators worry thousands of students would miss career opportunities without the state support.

Indiana funds high school career and technical education (CTE) classes based on the demand for workers with certain skills, based on labor market information from analytics company Burning Glass, and how much they typically get paid, based on federal wage estimates.

The proposed budget would increase funding for “high value” classes like welding and industrial automation while eliminating funding from almost two dozen “less than moderate value” classes like culinary arts, cosmetology, fashion and more.

Governor, Election Commision Powers

Indiana’s governor and Election Commission would be blocked from ever again changing how and when an election is conducted under a bill passed by a Senate committee Monday.

The measure is a reaction to the 2020 Indiana primary election, conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Indiana Election Commission pushed back that primary, from May to June, and expanded vote-by-mail to anyone who wanted it.

Prosecutor Override Bill 

Some Indiana Senate Republicans want the state to take over prosecution of crimes that a local prosecutor won’t charge.

Despite the bill author’s protests, the measure is widely viewed as a reaction to the Marion County prosecutor’s decision not to charge people for simple marijuana possession.

The legislation would allow the Indiana attorney general to investigate whether a local prosecutor is “noncompliant” – meaning they categorically won’t prosecute certain crimes. 

Early Coal Retirement Bill

Indiana state senators passed a bill on Monday that would create a pilot program to study a financing tool for retiring coal plants early.

Much like refinancing a home, securitization allows customers to pay off the remaining costs of coal plants over a longer period of time at a lower rate — which is supposed to lower their energy bills and make the transition to renewable energy easier. But some lawmakers worry the Senate bill, as written, won’t accomplish those goals. 

There’s no language in the bill that guarantees rates will go down for utility customers in the pilot program. Some lawmakers and consumer advocates worry that utility customers with Centerpoint Energy — which has volunteered to participate in the pilot — will be charged twice for the cost of its retiring A.B. Brown coal plant.

Warning Shots Ban

Police in Indiana would be barred from firing warning shots under legislation approved by a Senate committee Tuesday.

Sen. Scott Baldwin (R-Noblesville) is a former police officer and author of the bill. He said warning shots by law enforcement should be a “very last resort.”

“Any time a round leaves the muzzle of a firearm, everyone around us is in danger,” Baldwin said.

Lemonade Stands

Indiana lawmakers want to make sure local governments don’t ban children from operating lemonade stands. And there's a bill unanimously approved by the House and on its way to the Senate that does just that.

Rep. Jim Pressel (R-Rolling Prairie) acknowledged he doesn’t know of any Indiana city or town that shut down a child’s lemonade stand.

But he said, looking at the law, there’s nothing to stop them from doing that. And he wants to make sure it won’t happen to any Hoosier kids.