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Weekly Statehouse Update: Emergency Powers Veto Threat, Senate Drops Cigarette Tax Hike

Justin Hicks
IPB News

Gov. Eric Holcomb issues a veto threat. Senate Republicans drop a cigarette tax hike. And local health officials would be blocked from issuing stricter orders than the state.

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

Governor Emergency Powers

Holcomb said he would veto a bill, HB 1123, that allows lawmakers to call themselves into special session during a statewide emergency. Legislators say it’s a way for them to have more input. But Holcomb says it’s unconstitutional. The legislature will likely override the veto. 

And legislative leaders say the issue may be headed for court.

Cigarette Tax Increase

The Senate GOP budget will not include any increase in the state’s cigarette tax. Health advocates have long called for a hike to help people quit smoking. And the House Republican budget proposal had a 50 cent per pack raise. But Senate Republican leader Rodric Bray says his caucus just won’t support any increase.

State Budget Testimony

Hoosiers got likely their last chance this session to testify on the new, two-year, $36 billion state budget Thursday.

Most of those who testified before a Senate panel on HB 1001 advocated for increased funding for various programs. That included more money for domestic violence programs, a bigger cigarette tax increase and increased funding for food banks.

Local Health Orders

And legislation approved by a House committee would block local health officials from imposing restrictions during a public emergency that go any further than state orders. Instead, under SB 5, only local legislative bodies – county commissioners or city councils – could do so. That may come into play soon if the bill becomes law: counties are imposing their own mask mandates as the governor drops the statewide mandate.

Marion, Monroe, and St. Joseph counties have all decided to keep their COVID-19 restrictions.

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.

Shielding Worship Spaces From Health Orders

Neither the governor nor local officials could ever restrict worship services during a public emergency under a bill approved by a House panel Wednesday.

Sen. Eric Koch’s (R-Bedford) legislation – SB263 – separates out religious organizations and their worship services when it comes to public emergency orders.

If, for instance, a church operates a food pantry or a day care, government officials could impose restrictions on those activities – just not any more restrictive than other, essential services.

Pregnant Worker Protections

Legislation is inching forward that tells employers they must respond to pregnant workers when they submit written requests for accommodations, but doesn’t require them to grant them. Advocates for pregnant women actively oppose HB 1309 that is headed to the Senate floor following a 6-4 vote in the committee. 

Proponents of accommodations want to see legislation passed that goes beyond existing protections in federal discrimination and disability laws. Several bills this session that would’ve done that died without a hearing.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana Manufacturer’s Association weighed in on the draft of the only remaining pregnancy accommodations bill, with Republicans. It was crafted around their concerns with bills in previous years that would have required employers to provide accommodations.

Abortion Reversal Bill

Parents giving consent for their child for an abortion would have to get that consent notarized under legislation approved by a Senate panel Wednesday. 

Under the same measure, HB 1577, Indiana doctors would be forced to tell patients about an abortion reversal protocol that leading medical organizations say might not work and could be dangerous.

The bill is headed to the full Senate.

Wind Energy Compromise

Lawmakers may have reached a compromise in a controversial bill regarding where renewable energy projects can be built in Indiana. A new amendment in House Bill 1381 allows counties that have restrictive wind farm ordinances to keep them, but also encourages them to allow wind farms in special districts.

Environmental Lawsuit Attorneys Fees

Environmental groups and some lawmakers worry a bill, HB 1436, could pressure regulators to approve pollution permits they would otherwise deny. The Hoosier Environmental Council said an amendment has dramatically improved the bill, but it could still have unintended consequences.

Under the original bill, several Indiana agencies would have to pay the attorney’s fees of a party that wins a lawsuit against the state in a court case overseen by an administrative law judge. But an amendment made it so that would only be the case if an agency acts “frivolously” or “in bad faith.”

Underground CO2 Storage Amendment

An amendment to a Senate bill would protect an industrial company from getting sued if its plans to put carbon emissions underground goes awry. The hydrogen production facility in Terre Haute is part of a state pilot program to test out carbon capture and storage technology.

The amendment to SB 373 would prevent Wabash Valley Resources LLC from getting sued for any perceived risk if the plume of carbon dioxide it injects underground moves to neighboring properties where it's not supposed to go. Landowners could still claim damages if they could prove it caused physical harm to them or their property or prevented them from using their property.

Retiring Coal Plants

A bill, SB 386, that would create a pilot program to study a financing tool for retiring coal plants early is headed to Governor Holcomb’s desk. It passed the House on Monday. 

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.

Tim O'Brien Becomes Newest State Lawmaker

Republican precinct committeepeople chose Indiana’s newest state lawmaker Monday.

Evansville realtor Tim O’Brien was elected in a private caucus to replace former Rep. Holli Sullivan (R-Evansville), who left the legislature earlier this month to become secretary of state.

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.