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Weekly Statehouse Update: Cigarette Tax, Controversial School Choice Bills Testimony

Brandon Smith
IPB News

A House committee passed a cigarette tax increase. The Senate approved an expansion of telehealth services. And legislation advanced to require nursing homes to allow certain visitors, even during lockdowns.

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

Cigarette Tax Increase

Legislation approved by the House Public Health Committee would double the state’s cigarette tax, from $1 to $2 per pack. It would be the first increase in that tax since 2007. The bill also creates a new tax on e-liquids, used in vaping.

Telehealth Expansion

A measure that unanimously cleared the Senate this week would permanently expand telehealth services that Gov. Eric Holcomb temporarily allowed during the pandemic. The bill’s author, Sen. Ed Charbonneau (R-Valparaiso), called the measure “transformational.” 

At least one health system saw a 6,000 percent increase in telehealth visits last year with just the temporary expansion.

Essential Family Caregiver Program

A Senate committee passed a bill to require nursing homes to allow designated family caregivers to visit residents, even during lockdowns (like those seen during the pandemic). Those family members would still have to follow any screening, testing and PPE procedures nursing homes require.

Additional Small Business Aid

Small businesses in Indiana are one step closer to having access to additional financial aid from the state. House Bill 1004, passed by the Indiana House Tuesday, will provide funds to help small businesses that have been hit hard during the pandemic.

The proposed legislation will allow certain businesses to receive up to $50,000 in aid through the program that will be run by the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC). 

Unemployment Fraud

Legislation to crack down on unemployment benefits fraud passed a House vote yesterday and now heads to the Senate. Even with amendments, some groups say it still has the potential to harm those who make honest mistakes.

The bill would disqualify and penalize people who lie or withhold information in their applications for unemployment benefits. Legislators say it's intended to help the Department of Workforce Development efficiently weed out fraudulent claims. 

Governor’s Emergency Powers

Changes made Thursday to a House bill would give the legislature more power to weigh in on emergency declarations made by a governor.

Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Eric Holcomb has encouraged local health departments to issue orders stricter than his, if they think it’s necessary. But the proposed bill would prevent that. Instead, only local legislative bodies – county commissioners or city councils – could issue such orders. It also says state and local governments couldn’t restrict religious services at all during public emergencies – like Holcomb did during the pandemic.

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

Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on COVID-19 and other statewide issues.

Controversial Indiana School Choice Bills

A group of school choice bills are prompting lengthy and emotional debates about school funding at the Indiana Statehouse, with dozens of individuals and organizations testifying on the legislation at committee hearings Wednesday.

The legislation, HB 1005, SB 412, and SB 413, aim to expand school choice options for families in Indiana. The bills would mean increasing income eligibility for school choice vouchers, and create a new funding program for some students not enrolled in public schools to receive state tuition support dollars to pay for education costs.

Virtual School Funding Fix

Lawmakers in both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly have approved legislation to provide full funding for schools operating virtually during the pandemic after the Senate approved its version of the bill Tuesday. 

The House approved its version of the bill last week, but only one will become law. 

They both ensure full funding for schools using remote learning because of COVID-19, circumventing a 2019 lawlimiting funding for students learning virtually

Protesters Bill

Legislation debated in a Senate committee Tuesday would turn almost anyone who participates in a protest that turns violent into criminals.

Sen. Mike Young’s (R-Indianapolis) legislation is aimed at last summer’s Black Lives Matters protests in Indianapolis.

Among the bill’s provisions is making violating curfew a Class B misdemeanor, which could be up to 180 days in jail. It also says that if anyone at a riot is killed, all of the rioters could be charged with felony murder. And if a protest turns violent, anyone at the protest can be charged with a Class B misdemeanor unless they immediately leave or alert police – whether or not they were involved in the violence.

Major Police Reform Bill

The Indiana House unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that will hold police more accountable and significantly improve their training.

The measure was crafted over the last year following protests around the country against police misconduct and for racial inequity.

The measure makes it easier for the state to de-certify police who commit misconduct, even if the officer isn’t criminally charged. Indiana Black Legislative Caucus Chair Robin Shackleford (D-Indianapolis) said de-certification means they can’t work as police anymore.

State-Regulated Wetlands Repeal

A controversial billthat would dissolve protections for the state’s wetlands passed in the Senate on Monday.

Federally regulated wetlands would still be protected under the bill. However, because of changes to the Waters of the United States rule two years ago, now the majority of wetlands in Indiana aren’t protected by that law.

Solar Farm Property Taxes

One of the challenges for solar companies that want to invest in Indiana is different counties charge different tax rates. A new billwould provide some guidelines.

The issue is some counties have been charging solar farms very low property taxes — and others very high taxes in an attempt to keep solar farms out of their communities.

The bill will set two relative caps. One to make a property tax rate comparable to other industrial utility projects and two to take into account where it’s located — specifically it would look at the median assessed value in that region of the state.

Libertarian Ballot Access Bill Likely Dead

An effort to make it harder for Libertarian U.S. Senate and governor candidates to make it onto the ballot is likely dead this session.

The legislation would have required Libertarian candidates for Senate and governor to get 4,500 voter signatures to make it on the ballot (500 each from the state's nine congressional districts) – the same as Democratic and Republican candidates. That's a process that costs a lot of time and, more importantly, money.

Incentivizing Climate-Friendly Practices

It could get easier for landowners who do climate-friendly practices to get some extra cash under a new state Senate bill. The bill would create a state program to help landowners sell carbon credits to businesses like Microsoft and Amazon that want to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

When a landowner plants a stand of trees or puts cover crops on farmland, it can trap the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Sustainable agricultural practices can also reduce erosion, which improves the water quality in nearby streams and lakes.

The state would act as a kind of clearinghouse for landowners — helping distribute funding and finding reputable people for landowners to do business with so that they get a fair deal.

Electric Utility Reliability

A House billaims to ensure reliable electricity for Indiana as utilities move toward renewable energy sources. It addresses a goal set by the 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force

The bill is based off of a similar law in Michigan. Every year electric utilities would have to show how they plan to provide reliable energy to their customers for the next three years.

If the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission doesn’t feel a utility can meet peak demand times, the utility would have to come up with a plan to bridge that gap — which could include building a new power plant or solar farm.

Early Coal Plant Retirement

Lawmakers want to study a way to reduce costs for utility customers when coal plants retire early.

While the rapid transition to renewable energy may save utility customers money in the long run, it can lead to higher energy bills in the short term. That’s because customers are still paying off retired coal plants while also funding new energy sources.

A state Senate billwould study how to reduce those costs through securitization. Much like refinancing a home, it allows customers to pay off coal plants over a longer period of time at a lower rate — lowering energy bills.

Brandon Smith is excited to be working for public radio in Indiana. He has previously worked in public radio as a reporter and anchor in mid-Missouri for KBIA Radio out of Columbia. Prior to that, he worked for WSPY Radio in Plano, Illinois as a show host, reporter, producer and anchor. His first job in radio was in another state capitol, in Jefferson City, Missouri, as a reporter for three radio stations around Missouri. Brandon graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Journalism in 2010, with minors in political science and history. He was born and raised in Chicago.