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2021 Legislative Review

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>>SARA WITTMEYER: Hello and welcome to NOON EDITION on WFIU. I'm your host, Sara Wittmeyer, and today I'm cohosting with WFIU, WTIU's Joe Wren. Bob Zaltsberg is out today. Today, we're talking about the 2021 legislative session just wrapped up this week. Got a great guest - great list of guests today. Senator Mark Messmer, the Senate majority floor leader, joins us, as well as Senator Greg Taylor, the minority floor leader, and Brandon Smith, the statehouse bureau chief for Indiana Public Broadcasting. We are doing our show remotely today over Zoom, so you can't call in with questions, but you can follow us on Twitter at @noonedition and send us questions there. You can also send us questions for the show at So, Brandon, we're just going to start off by talking about the budget. It was a long session in a budget year. The budget got a $3 billion boost from the federal government, so it really passed without much objection. Can you kind of run through just what are some of the major highlights in the spending priorities? 

>>BRANDON SMITH: Yeah, I mean, this is when - lawmakers, every couple of years, when they pass a new budget, talk about it being a historic budget, but this was truly a historic budget. I don't think we'll see this kind of money spent in a budget for a long time in Indiana, and it's for a couple of reasons. You just mentioned the $3 billion that Indiana is getting from the American Rescue Plan, the latest COVID-19 relief package passed by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats this time. That's some of the historic spending that's going on, but that's not all of it because, just about a week before session ended, lawmakers also got an updated revenue forecast. That's normal. That's what always happens every budget cycle. They get a new revenue forecast a week or two before they wrap up the session and finish writing the budget to get as good a picture as possible to know what the revenues for the state are going to be like for the next two years so they can finalize that budget. And this was an eye-popping forecast. It projected $2 billion more for the state to spend over the next two years. And the bulk of that is going to K-12 education, and that shouldn't be a surprise. Indiana spends half of its $37 billion budget on K-12 education. If you throw in higher education, it becomes something like 60% of the budget. And what that new investment in education - I think it's $1.9 billion more in this new budget in K-12 education - what that does is a variety of things. On the one hand - and something that got a lot of Democrats - all but three Democrats in the General Assembly voted for this state budget, which is practically unheard of for that much bipartisan support - although we'll hear from Senator Taylor, who was one of those no votes, I believe - but in K-12 education, Republicans, for the first time this session, finally addressed some of the recommendations that Governor Holcomb's teacher compensation commission issued late last year, and that - they put those in the budget. One of them is that it spends at least $600 million more on traditional K-12 public education, and that will help raise teacher salaries because the state sends local districts the money and those local districts make the decisions about teacher pay. But it also says to those local districts, you have to spend at least 45% of the per-pupil funding the state is sending you on educators' salaries. And then it says you should set $40,000 as your minimum teacher's salary. Now, it's not a requirement, but if schools don't follow that, they have to send a report back to the state as to why they're not following it. And I think the the latest report from that teacher compensation commission on the 45% number said that about 100 school districts out of close to 300 statewide didn't meet that 45% threshold, so it'll be interesting to see how that goes, but this is a huge amount of money that should get teachers the pay raises they are looking for. The other thing that that money did in terms of education was allow Republicans to expand the school voucher program as much as House Republicans initially proposed, and that would increase eligibility for that voucher program up to 300% of a federal poverty standard, essentially meaning that, if you are a family of four making about $145,000 a year, you could now be eligible to get this private school voucher from the state. It also allowed them to create somewhat controversial new educational scholarship awards that the House Republicans proposed, Senate Republicans were initially a little more hesitant about the sort of policy that they're creating there. It's for special education students. It's a small program to start out with - sort of a pilot program of sorts. But all of this money sort of allowed them to do that without taking anything away from traditional public K-12 public schools. So there's a lot of other things that the budget spends money on, including using that federal money as well as one-time state dollars, investments in infrastructure, mental health, economic recovery and regional development, next level flights, body cameras for both state and local police. But education, of course, always the top priority for the state budget, and it continued to be in this historic one. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: Yeah, and we're going to dive in detail to a lot more of those things over the next hour. Senator Messmer, I do want to go to you, but before you give your reaction to the state budget and the priorities and how you feel about it, we did get a question about just - Brandon talked about this - about the increased projection in state tax revenues. So before you talk about the budget, can you explain what the reason is for the increase projections in state tax revenue? 

>>MARK MESSMER: Sure. The primary - well, really, all revenue sources were up. Sales tax revenues to the state have been extremely strong, you know, throughout the pandemic. And one of the things we switched, you know, a few years ago was, you know, online sales - you know, Amazon - you know, that was our, you know, test case. But, you know, the online sales tax receipts, the income tax receipts, you know, were ahead of pace and really, you know, across, you know, every segment of our income stream was was up. And in reality, probably the December forecast was, you know, a little conservatively low, you know, from July through the end of the year. All - you know, all of our month to month, you know, income projections were exceeding, you know, our targets. And so, you know, the justification for - you know, for going a little more in December was - it was there. But I guess the economists, you know, needed another six months to make sure that the trends were real. And then when we got the April forecast, they - you know, they revised the two-year cycle up $2 dollars, which Greg and I can both remember from 2009 - our first years in the general assembly, I was in the house and he was in the senate - that April forecast ended up a billion dollar - billion dollars down instead of two billion up. So that's a - it's a much, you know, different problem and a much better problem to deal with than having the income projections go the other direction. So - but really, you know, all sectors were strong and sales tax is our single biggest, you know, item and it's continued to trend, you know, up, you know, throughout - you know, since the May-June dip that we had at the beginning of the pandemic and when - you know, the temporary slowdown - I mean, from July on, things have trended pretty strong. So pleased to see that. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: OK, yeah. I do want to get your reaction to the budget. As Brandon was saying, certainly the bulk of it is going towards education. But were you - are you pleased with the final biannual budget? 

>>MARK MESSMER: I was extremely pleased. I mean, there's always, you know, an item or two that, you know, we all would like to have seen landed in there. I was hoping to get a little bit more money, you know, for DNR and, you know, some folks in the tech park world. But, I mean, those were, you know, small items that didn't make it. But as a whole - and Brandon summarized it pretty well. You know, $1.9 billion into K through 12 education - that's a $1 billion increase in tuition support. We had about 300 million that we had, you know, done in our first version of the budget in earlier - you know, earlier in April and put another 600 million, you know, into it, you know, after the April 15 provisions. One-hundred-and-fifty-million dollars to fund learning loss for students impacted by the pandemic, $300 million additional into special, you know, education. That's huge. The tuition support that we're giving - and he, you know, phrased it, you know, pretty correctly. You know, you better be able to explain why you can't hit a $40,000 minimum. And if you take the tuition support dollars that we're giving to schools and the 45% percent requirement that 45% of it go to teacher salaries, that's enough to fund an average pay of $60,000 per teacher, and that is huge. And really, I mean, you know, everything that the governor's, you know, panel recommended we were able to to fund. You know, when we looked at the funding that it would take to get that done in this budget, you know, in the fall, I was not sure we'd have that kind of money available but, you know, thank goodness we did. Another $5 million to increase for non-English speaking students. You know, flipping it to higher education, $4.2 billion going to support our higher education institutions in the state. You know, some of the stuff that's, you know, a little bit down in the weeds, but things that will really make a difference to, you know, people just across the state - maintains the support for the choice in-home services programs, fully funds Medicaid, which took another $279 million increase this session, $40 million additional money to provide direct service provider wages of $15 an hour. They've been asking for that for years. This year, we were finally able to do that. Ten million dollars in both years of the - in the biennium to raise home health care rates, $2 million in both years of the biennium to assist for assisted living pay rate increases, and then $500 million into what they're calling, you know, the ready grants that IDC will administer to help. You know, and it doesn't have to necessarily be like we did with the regional cities. It can be counties or regional development authorities grouping together to apply for economic development grants within their regions. Sixty million dollars for small business grants, primarily targeted to, you know, the restaurant and tourism industry that has taken a pretty good, you know, hit, you know, throughout the pandemic and, you know, going to be a slow climb out for them. But, I mean, just this budget - and Senator Bray summarized it well and I think it's the phrase we were all looking for - this budget is transformational. I mean, it - and it may be a once in a - in our lifetime opportunity, but we were able to significantly increase funding for education and pay down long-term debt. I mean - and that will be in - the $600 million that we put into the post-'96 teacher pension fund - that'll save about $90 to $100 million a year and pay that - and get that trust fund, you know, structurally balanced, you know, probably five years sooner than it would have had we not infused that cash into the program. So just the short-term goals that we were able to achieve and the long term stabilization that we're able to do by paying down debt, by refilling the unemployment trust fund, by looking at, you know, paying cash for a I69's completion - things that'll just continue to save us money and help in every budget cycle, you know, over the next 10 years probably. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: Before I turn the floor over here to Senator Taylor, just a quick follow-up, because we did get a question about whether now is the right time to be paying down debt as we are in this great recession. 

>>MARK MESSMER: Well, we've also - within this budget, we've structurally put in some some very significant reserves just to - you know, I think we're going to have about 2.5 billion in reserves - 2.5, 2.6 billion after the first year of the biennium, and we're projecting about a $2.8 billion reserve amount after the second year of the biennium. So we were able to refill this year's surplus. I think we'll end this year at about 2.3 billion. So we're leaving a cushion in case there is a downturn because you never know. Next year could - a recession could crop up that we don't - didn't expect. But we're leaving enough cushion, you know, within our, you know, budget surpluses to allow for a potential dip down the road as well. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: OK. And Senator Greg Taylor, what are your thoughts about the budget and priorities and spending? 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Well, you got lucky today to have a contrast in policy. First of all, let me say this. Everything that Senator Messmer said about the budget, the pension pay down, the money for teacher - hopefully that will go to teacher salary increases, the 45% percent - yes, they are in the budget. But we also saw a significant amount of things that give me a lot of trouble. I was able to obtain some assistance with some projects to help with food deserts here in Indianapolis. That's a good thing. I want to say thank you to Senator Messmer and the leadership, Ryan Mishler, appropriations chair for including that in the budget. But it was not the best we could do. And here's the reason why. When vouchers came to fruition, we spent about $15 million out of the biennial budget for vouchers, and it was touted as a program that was going to help poor and struggling students who were in underperforming schools to be able to take advantage of the private school opportunity. We are now at - I believe it's going to be somewhere around $268 million - $268 million - this is over 1,600% increase for, now, families of four that make up to $145,000 in their household income. The key to that, to me, is the fact that those children, if the parents made the choice to send them to private school, could afford it. We have one of the lowest costs of living here in the state of Indiana. And they never would have been on the payroll, if you will, of the state. They would've never received assistance. I mean, we sent - me and my wife sent up to eighth grade - well, up to sixth grade for my younger, but up to eighth grade for my older child to a private school. We didn't make $145,000 a year and we were able to budget and make sure we paid full tuition. So that money is coming out of the school funding formula. So if you could imagine, if we had just kept it at the levels that we started, there would be another $200 million available for public schools. That gives me a lot of problems. The second piece - the teacher pension pay down. You asked a great question - and I do - I'm a transactional attorney in my private life, and I know what debt service payments are for AAA-rated debt right now, and it's somewhere in the two percent range. When you can borrow at two percent, you should take advantage of that. I'm not telling you to go out there and leverage everything, but the fact that we're now going to take down and defuse some bombs and payoffs and other things - it takes away from the existing cash. And the question I have is what are we going to do with that $90 million of savings that we're going to create going forward with the teacher pension pay down? Interesting discussion for next budget cycle, but I'm just interested. The last thing, we did some other things that nobody knows about that we're not in the budget that just make me feel terrible for people. We did something in the last couple of days of the legislative session that the people in 2020, through no fault of their own, due to a government shutdown, the pandemic, received unemployment benefits, and we are now going to tax those unemployment benefits that they receive from the federal government like we do from the unemployment benefits that they receive from the state. So those people - which, by the way, that's going to be in a couple of weeks - that receive those unemployment benefits - and the federal government said, we're not going to tax you on income - are now going to be taxed on a portion of their income for those dollars. That should be troubling to all of us. And here's the reason why. At the same time while we're taxing the people of the state of Indiana - small business owners and large business owners who took advantage of the payroll protection planning that the federal government said - and then the federal government came back and said, we're going to forgive those loans. Now, in Indiana, we said, we're not going to count that as Indiana income tax for you. So on one hand, we're taxing the people who work for the company, but the owners of the companies are going to get a direct benefit to their bottom line because we're not going to tax the PPP money again that was forgiven. In other words, it becomes a grant to those companies. And that just troubled me. So I had to vote no on the budget. And it still troubles me that we have people who believe that this was the best that we could do. I just - I'm one of those that don't believe that that's the best we could do. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: Senator Messmer, did you want to respond just briefly before we move on? 

>>MARK MESSMER: Sure. So the state has always taxed unemployment benefits, never has given an exemption to that. And people, you know, knew, when they were drawing on unemployment, you know, from - any time they draw unemployment, they have the option of having it - having their state income tax taken from that unemployment check before they get it and most people across the state prepared for that. And all we - all the state exemption was the federal government gave a - your $10,200 of exemption and gave a waiver for your federal income taxes on that. The state didn't adopt that waiver. I mean, that 10,200, if you're a low income family - there's also low income charts that you're exempt if you're low income, your first 12,000 is exempt anyway. So the worst case that anybody could owe their state income tax on that first 10,200 was 329.46, most of which people would have had, you know, taken out as they were getting their unemployment draws anyway. And, you know, it was just the consistency of the treatment of unemployment that the state has always done. I mean, you know, could the state have exempted that and given - you know, given that money away? You know, they could have, but they never have exempted. And the feds did choose to to waive it from federal unemployment tax - or federal income tax, but the state just maintained their consistent policy that they've had since 1986. 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Well, they - hold on. There's a little asterisk behind that. That's state unemployment benefits that Senator Messmer's talking about. 

>>MARK MESSMER: State and federal. 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Federal unemployment - well, federal unemployment benefits in the past had been taxed by the state, but those federal unemployment benefits were not considered to be - remember, people did not get laid off, they were furloughed. This is a totally different situation. And if we're going to tax the people, why don't we tax the companies too? They got grants. They got benefits from the pandemic. Why didn't we tax them on income for that? That's my only point. If we're going to do it for one since 1986, why don't we do it for the other companies since 1986? And here's the additional part. We also shored up the unemployment insurance fund that usually is paid by employers to the tune of $900 million that employers typically had to pay into the fund so that their employees who get laid off or are fired or some kind of - out of - under - they're not terminated, they get benefits. Companies got a $900 million boost from the state of Indiana. And to me, it shows the stark difference between supporting the people and supporting companies, and I think you can do both. And so I just - the policy just doesn't sit right with me. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: I'm going to go ahead and jump in just because we're almost halfway through the show already and we've got a lot of ground to cover here. So, Brandon, I want to go to you next just because we keep saying the session adjourned and then there's sort of this asterisk by it that they can reconvene. So can you talk about that - the redistricting process and what options the legislature had? I mean, is this unprecedented that we're sort of on a pause? 

>>BRANDON SMITH: Yeah, it's absolutely unprecedented. And it's something that Speaker Todd Houston and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Gray both said that - this needs to be a one-off. This should not become the new way that Indiana does its sessions. So we just had the census last year, as we do every 10 years. And what follows that is redistricting, where Indiana lawmakers redraw both the state and congressional legislative district lines. The problem is that, in order to do that, they need certain information from the U.S. Census Bureau that's collected through the census. The problem is the pandemic really caused a lot of delays with getting that information. And the Census Bureau has been saying for a while, hey, this is not going to be on time. And the latest, I think, projections are the redistricting data that the state needs could come as late as, like, August or September. Now, the problem is that the session is supposed to end in state law on April 29, but if they weren't going to get the necessary information, that was going to cause two problems. One, you have to sort of separate the state legislative districts and the congressional ones. The state legislative districts - there was nothing in Indiana law that said, well, if you don't draw them in time, that it - you know, something else happens, but there was with congressional districts. Under - in state law, if the General Assembly didn't redraw those congressional district lines by the end of their legislative session, it gets kicked over to a special commission appointed by, primarily, the governor, and lawmakers didn't want that to happen because this was, obviously, out of everyone's control. So the fix that they came up with was that, instead of adjourning what's called sine die - it's a Latin phrase that denotes the end of the legislative session - instead of adjourning sine die like normal when they were done with their work, they adjourned as if it were just another day and the session - through a bill that they passed and was signed into law this week by the governor, the session was extended until November 15 - basically about as late as you can go without the next legislative session technically starting up. And what that will allow them to do is not just come back later this year whenever they get the necessary redistricting information, but the other thing that extending the session instead of coming back for a special session allows you to do is the committees can meet, they can have hearings around the state, they can handle the actual bills much - in a much easier process. A lot of the procedural issues that would come up with having to call in a special session and then handing bills down and waiving rules - a lot of those are taken care of by just not ending the session. Now, they can also technically come back between now and November to do anything else they want, but Speaker Houston and Senator Bray have both stressed that it would take - I think Speaker Houston used the word very five times - it was very, very, very, very, very unusual or emergency situation. So it's most likely that they will redraw those district lines in August or September when the Census Bureau gets them the information, and that's why this session was extended. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: OK. A couple interesting things you said there, one of which that this would've gone to a committee appointed by the government - by the governor. And it sort of seemed like the general tone between Republicans and the governor this session was a bit strained. I mean, this is one example. And then also we have the lawsuit that the governor just filed this week. Do you think there's some tension there? And I'll let Senator Messmer weigh in, maybe after Brandon does here. 

>>BRANDON SMITH: If you listen to the governor and the Republican leadership of the general assembly, they all stress that the working relationship remains not just intact but healthy. Speaker Houston in particular repeatedly went out of his way to praise Governor Holcomb's leadership and decision-making during the pandemic, particularly because that's what - the lawsuit you just referenced deals with emergency powers, right? So during the pandemic, the governor, using the emergency powers that are in state law, issued dozens of executive orders. Many of them were relatively popular. Some of them, in fact, lawmakers put into state law permanently during this legislative session - particularly on - I think about telehealth expansion. But some of them were very not popular. And so where you have legislative leadership stressing that the working relationship between them and the governor remains strong and healthy, I know that what we call rank and file legislators - so those not in the highest positions of leadership - quite frankly, were really unhappy with some of the governor's decision-making. And so there was this effort to sort of push back against that and give lawmakers more of a voice in future emergencies - more of a stronger seat at the table. And the way they chose to do that was by putting into state law a way for them to call themselves into a special session during a public emergency. The issue is that Governor Holcomb - and not just Governor Holcomb, but some constitutional experts - say that the Indiana constitution doesn't allow that. It only gives that governor they - only gives that power, they say, to the governor. Now, lawmakers say it's silent on the legislature calling itself into a special session, so that the constitution will allow it. That question might have to be decided by a court, as we saw in this lawsuit, although there are other procedural issues that might prevent that question from being answered. But it depends on who you ask. But the governor and legislative leaders say there isn't tension between the second and third floors of the state House, that the relationship remains strong, they just have a fundamental disagreement about this particular bill. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: Senator Messmer, I'm going to let you respond directly to that, because you were one of the sponsors on one of the bills that would place some limitations on executive orders. 

>>MARK MESSMER: Well, I would think - I'd say Brandon's summary is correct. I mean, there's obviously disagreement on - that was - specific bill was house bill 1123, and we had a senate bill, 407, that was another version of that earlier in session. And I think it's just a - in reality, what the bill sets up in statute was how the process played out through, you know, the April, May, June - you know, the early part of the pandemic. I mean, the collaborative process that ended up in house rule 1123 was what happened, you know, on the ground with, you know, with meetings with the governor and would really involve, you know, house and senate majority and minority members on the panel that would collaborate with the governor, you know, in a statewide emergency, you know, should that, you know, happen again sometime in the future. So we'll see how that - we'll see how it plays out, you know, through the legal challenges. And, you know, I'm reasonably sure - and Senator Glick had a resolution filed this year and we'll bring it back next year and probably the year after, you know, to allow a constitutional change, you know, to take the ambiguity away on having the ability to bring ourselves back in in such a scenario. But if the courts rule against those provisions of house rule 1123, you know, I mean, you know, we'll comply with whatever the ruling is. We think that - I mean, the constitution says the governor, you know, may call the general assembly back in a special session. It's not specific about - it's silent on the general assembly's ability to do it. And that same constitution also says the general assembly shall set their calendars for when they meet. So, you know, there's experts on both sides of the issue who will argue for and against the constitutionality of house rule 1123, and we'll see where it plays out. And at the end of the day, if we have to make a constitutional change to do it, we feel like there's strong public support to back that effort. 

>>MARK MESSMER: This is Joe Wren here from the newsroom chiming in just for a second. I wanted to address this to Senator Taylor. Back in January, Democratic caucus agenda consisted of about four main points. One of those was raising the minimum wage for Hoosiers to learn a - earn a living wage. Can you address that and what happened? 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Well, yeah, I think that question is a good question. Nothing happened except for something that we've been fighting for as Democrats for - my goodness, for over 10 years, which was increasing the minimum wage to $15 for health care workers that go into people's homes and should have some sense of security that they're doing something that'll be able to feed their family. It still bothers me that we have not subjected the state to a minimum wage law. We did it - now, here's the consternation, though. The governor signed an executive order doing that very thing for contractors with the state. So we can - the governor has decided that it would be in the best interests of those people who do business with the state of Indiana to pay a minimum wage higher than - what - 7.25 I think it is right now. So, yeah, it just went nowhere. Senator Melton tried to amend that into the budget, and it was actually voted down along party lines. So that's troubling. But, you know, the other thing about the question - (unintelligible) what - you know, actions speak louder than words. I'll just leave it to that. You know, I've - the state of Indiana is going to be fighting the state of Indiana in a lawsuit. That's a first for me. So if we're getting along and everything's hunky dory, why would you sue that very individual? I don't understand it. So... 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: So today we're talking with our guests about the legislative session. You can tweet us your questions to be asked on air at @noonedition or you can email them to Brandon, I have to ask you about the wetlands bill. We've gotten a lot of questions about it - what the real intention of this bill is and who it would benefit. Can you talk a little bit about that one? I know the governor just signed it yesterday. 

>>BRANDON SMITH: Yeah, the governor just signed it, drawing some some ire of a wide variety of groups, including, quite frankly, the chamber of commerce, which is generally in lockstep with the governor and Republicans on most issues, but not all issues, certainly. So the senate enrolled act 389, which the governor just signed into law yesterday, removes protections for a class of smaller wetlands and it gets rid of some protections for another class of wetlands that the state considers what they call somewhat rare or ecologically important. The department of - the state's department of environmental management estimates that more of 80 - more than 80%, though, of the state's wetlands fall into those two categories that are impacted by this bill. Now, supporters of 389 have said that the existing wetland protections in Indiana were too strict - stricter than they are in most of the country, and that causes home prices to go up. And importantly, we heard this a lot in committee, it creates conflicts between the state's environmental regulators and farmers. We heard this particularly when this bill was first authored. Chris Gartin, I believe, one of its proponents, maybe even the author - you'll have to forgive me, that's not normally a bill I cover - but hundreds of groups, though - more than 100, I should say, different groups sent a letter to the governor earlier this week asking him to veto the bill. They say that wetlands are important and that these regulations will lead to the destruction of some of them. And they talk about both their role in retaining water, especially during floods, as well as recharging the water supply, particularly in urban areas, could be threatened by this bill. Now, there's also going to be a study committee or a study group created by this bill that will look at the wetlands across Indiana and state policy when it comes to those issues, so you could see potentially future changes or tweaks to these protections in the future. But, for now, this one - this was an issue that was a lot of focus during the legislative session, a fair amount of controversy on both sides, and one that a lot of people hoped that the governor would veto, but he ultimately ended up signing. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: OK. And this is a follow-up question that we got, and I think this relates to the executive orders, and maybe Senator Messmer you can help with this one. The question is, does the bill that allows religious organizations to meet during health emergencies - does it - is that giving religious organizations special treatment? 

>>MARK MESSMER: Well, Senator Cook was the author of that bill, and he really - he crafted the wording of that bill to follow what constitutional law has really provided across across the country where this issue's been challenged. It doesn't give them carte blanche exemption from the governor's executive order on, you know, the size of a congregation that can meet. It requires that the - a local health board or the state put the same - they're classified as essential businesses, and whatever the standards are that they're put in place for, you know, other businesses have to apply to churches. So if the standard would be 50% occupancy, you know, for a business, that would be the most stringent occupancy standard you could put on a religious congregation to meet for religious services as well. So, I mean, there was concern - and there was - I think there was a different version maybe in the house bill 1123 when it started that gave churches complete exemption from any mandates of restrictions, and Senator Cook and Bill really balanced it out and applied the standard that has been - you know, when it's been challenged in court in other states, you know, that has been held up at the federal Supreme Court level. 

>>JOE WREN: We have a question here. Lawmakers also passed a bipartisan bill aimed at increasing police accountability. Both of you were sponsors. How would you describe the approach Indiana is taking to handling police misconduct? Representative - or Senator Taylor, if you want to go first and, Senator Messmer, if you want to follow up, you may. 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Yeah. Can I just - one - real quick on the essential classification for churches. One of the things that sometimes we think about when we do policy making is we don't think about the other side of the equation. So now that churches, by law, are now considered to be essential, businesses do understand that could cause restrictions that are for what we all know as to be essential businesses like hospitals, medical facilities - things that determine a person's life - to also be restricted by the fact that you now have to count churches as essential businesses. So I think there's a flip side of that coin on that essential business classification. But back to your question - so what was your question again? Because - I'm sorry, that essential business. 

>>JOE WREN: No, you're fine. 

>>MARK MESSMER: House bill 106 - or 1006. 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Ten-O-six - oh, OK. Oh, yes. Sorry. So house bill 1006 was one of the best pieces of legislation that I've been involved with. It took a lot of collaboration between legislators and law enforcement agencies across the state to look at some issues associated with law enforcement hiring, use - training requirements for law enforcement officials across the state on de-escalation, some other things about what I consider to be essential, which is - you know, we've got to understand that we live in the communities that are changing on a daily basis, and we've finally got some legislation in place to make sure that law enforcement starts to reflect the communities that they are policing. And so, for me, it's a great first step. It's not everything we need to do, but it's a great first steps. And I think, in the next few years, we'll see some benefit to that. 

>>BRANDON SMITH: I want to just jump in for just a quick second here, and I don't want to spend too much time on this. I just want to correct a small thing about senate bill 263, which is the religious rights bill that was just talked about. Senator Messmer is absolutely correct in that it says that religious activities are considered essential services. So if Wal-Mart has a 50% capacity limit, so does a religious institution. But that's for non-worship services. So if they run a daycare or if they run a food pantry or the many things that they do - that religious institutions do outside of the actual traditional worship service, those are considered an essential service and treated no more strictly than other essential services. But the bill also said, when it comes to worship services specifically, the government, both state and local, can do nothing to restrict it. So the mask mandates and any sort of gathering limitations or social distancing that were, at times, applied to churches during the pandemic by Governor Holcomb - that could not happen in the future. So it does differentiate between worship services specifically and then any other activities done by the religious institutions. 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Yes. And Brandon, here's the other thing. I mean, the COVID-19 pandemic comes up once every 100 years, but we have isolated emergency orders that come into place. For example, if a church is somehow compromised by a wind storm or a tornado, the - you couldn't restrict that church from going inside a structurally incompetent building. 


>>GREG TAYLOR: Those are the types of... 

>>BRANDON SMITH: ...Well, I'll just say that there is some question that the bill only applies to during a declared emergency and for temporary emergency orders. Theoretically, existing permanent sort of structural building codes would apply in that scenario. So you could stop a worship service in that, I think, hypothetical situation. 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Well, but you could stop it at the local level. But remember, there's classifications of emergency orders, and it could be for a larger portion of the area. If it's for like four or five counties, it won't apply, Brandon. And that's the - for me, there's - the word essential is just the problem that I have. I mean, I guess - I mean, I go to church and I - it's essential to my life, but describing that as essential like we think of grocery stores where people go to get their food - I don't put those on the same level. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: We've gotten several questions about what our audience is calling legislative overreach, and Anne writes in and says she's very concerned about powers being taken away from communities. And one of the examples that she talks about is about the cities and counties having more stringent restrictions about COVID-19, and I think what she's talking about is how there was a bill passed that now makes it that local health officials can't pass restrictions that are more stringent than the states, it goes to the county government to do that. Brandon, maybe you can answer this on a more broader level, because I know there have been other issues. When we talk in Bloomington, there was the annexation issue and there's been things about panhandling where some local control has been taken away by the legislature. 

>>BRANDON SMITH: This is a tension that exists and has existed for a very long time. The bill that that person is referencing, the senate bill five, which does say that, rather than local health officials issuing temporary emergency rules that go any further than a state rule, that now has to be done by the local elected officials. That - the theory being here that local health officials are appointed, they aren't answerable directly to the public in that way that elected officials are, so it's not unreasonable to ask elected officials to make those decisions. But there's a variety of issues on which the legislature wrestles with whether to allow local control or whether a sort of standard state - a state standard, a broader standard, should exist. And I know Senator Messmer can speak to one of the more tense bills on that issue this year because he carried it in the Senate. 

>>MARK MESSMER: Did you have to bring that up? 

>>BRANDON SMITH: (Laughter) Well, it really illustrates the real tension that exists over that issue. 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Yeah, I always thought the Republican Party was about smaller government. We just expanded government now into making local health decisions. I mean, listen, I understand the whole thing that these local health officials are not elected, but do you really want them making political decisions on the health and safety of locals? You know, listen, we live in a diverse state. Of the 92 counties, I represent one of the most densely-populated counties in the state. Should we treat Marion County like we do Pike County? No. Everybody knows that. But for some reason - and again, it goes back to my point initially - I thought that big government was supposed to be out of this, and now we've made government larger. We've done that for - you know, remember, there were - the governor's veto override of the local restriction for landlord tenant law was overridden by this general assembly. So now, no longer can locals make a decision about their housing needs, it's got to be done at the state level. So there was a lot of that going on, Brandon. We could just - I mean, and I could inundate you with ten bills that passed like that. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: That's probably why we've got so many questions about it. Senator Messmer, I'm going to let you jump in. 

>>MARK MESSMER: Let me chime in. So Senate Enrolled act five - that doesn't take any local control away, it leaves the decision completely at the local level. So it's really to say that that takes away local control is absolutely inaccurate. What it requires is, if a local health department is going to pass a restriction, you know, when there's a statewide emergency, you know, issued like we're under today, if they're going to issue restrictions that are stricter than the state level, the county commission and the health department still writes the restriction, but the - it has to be approved by the local - I mean, in 90 of the 92 counties, it's the commissioners. And the point is we live in a representative republic, and the people expect somebody to be accountable, you know, for decisions that are carried out by local government. And when you have an appointed health department that has the authority today to make, you know, any restriction they want and don't answer to anybody - they don't even answer to the commissioners today unless senate enrolled act five gets signed by the governor. This just allows the commissioners who are elected by the people that they represent to be the final backstop. And if there's an an order - whatever - fine - whatever - put on an individual or business, it gives that person the ability to appeal that action by the local health department to the commissioners as well. So it's just putting into place people who are answerable to the voters as the ultimate decision-makers and it takes not one inch of local control away from that process. And on - and house bill 1831 that Brandon referred to - that really - I mean, that really did break down on a local control versus state regulations, and Senator Taylor was extremely supportive with me on that bill. And local control in general, I'm - you know, I agree with that, you know, as much of the decision making as we can leave at the local level is good. But when you have local policy that starts to impact, you know, the state energy policy, that was the nexus for trying to move that issue forward. And it got down to the - you know, the last day of the rigorous - you know, before we got in the conference committee time, and that bill just just didn't have enough support to get it over the hump and was an issue that I had spent a lot of time keeping it as local of a decision-making process as it could. Senator Taylor worked with me exceptionally well with his caucus. But we just got stalled out and just didn't - you know, didn't have enough numbers to get it done at once session was over. But that issue is not going away. It'll probably come back next year. So... 


>>MARK MESSMER: ...But that fight does play out, you know, every session - you know, state control versus control. 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Sara, can I just say... 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: ...Quickly, we only have a couple of minutes left. 

>>GREG TAYLOR: ..OK. OK. So I like local control, per Senator Messmer, I just wish they would apply that to Marion County. I'll leave it at that. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: OK. And like I said, we only have a couple of minutes left and I want to - I do want to talk about redistricting a bit because that's what's next here. Brandon, how likely is it that the parties are going to work together to do this? 

>>BRANDON SMITH: There will be committee hearings around the state like there were 10 years ago, but Republicans hold a super majority in the general assembly. They will work with Democrats as much as possible, as they do on a lot of issues, but the realities are the realities. Republicans will draw these maps for the most part, as they did 10 years ago when they got majorities in the house and the senate. So it will be the same process as it is for every other piece of legislation. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: All right. And Senator Messman and Senator Taylor, I want to give you each a minute to talk about what you hope for as Indiana redraws its election lines. Senator Taylor, you want to go first? 

>>GREG TAYLOR: Yeah. Sara, I'm just hoping for transparency and some kind of what I want to call responsible map drawing. Listen, the bottom line is that I tried to get just simple standards. I didn't want a commission, I didn't ask for anything else, all I asked for is standards in drawing these maps. We've got a super majority legislature right now that can do pretty much what they want to do. And the accountability to me and for all of us should always be with the people. Unfortunately, in Indiana, we unfortunately pick our constituents, our constituents don't pick us. And I want to leave you with this thought. We're not going to get the census data back 'til September 30. When we draw these maps, my colleagues in the house of representatives and then 25 members of my Senate delegation need to be considerate of the fact that, within two weeks, if we don't have these maps drawn, then those people who don't live in their district a year before the election - that means by November 8 of 2021, they could be drawn out of their district and be ineligible to run for office. I want you to keep that in mind because I don't want that kind of stuff to come up during the session. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: OK. And Senator Messmer, about 30 seconds left. 

>>MARK MESSMER: Sure. Well, thank you, Senator Taylor. I - we do appreciate your comments on that and I'm sure there'll be every effort made, you know, to take that that short window we're going to have into consideration, you know, when boundaries get redrawn. I mean, we've got to get districts that follow the federal guidelines that are within 1% of standard deviations and taken the population shifts into place. You know, at the end of the day, you know, I mean, we'll all work together to try to have districts that are representative of their communities of interest and make logical sense. So - and we want to be transparent, you know, through the whole process with the statewide hearings that'll start taking place later in the summer. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: OK. Well, that is all the time we have for today. Senators Messmer and Taylor, thank you so much for joining us. For our state house reporter Brandon Smith, of course, we'll be looking for your coverage as the redistricting starts. I want to thank our - my co-host today, Joe Wren, and producer Bente Bouthier, engineer John Bailey. I'm Sara Wittmeyer, this has been NOON EDITION. Have a great weekend. 


>>UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: NOON EDITION is a production of WFIU Public Radio. A podcast of this program is available at Production support comes from Smithville - fiber internet, streaming TV, home security and automation in southern Indiana. More information at And from Bloomington Health Foundation - partnering with local organizations and citizens to invest in programs that address our community's health needs. Bloomington Health Foundation - improving health and well-being takes a community. More at 


(Brandon Smith/IPB News)

Noon Edition airs on Fridays at noon on WFIU.

This week, we’re talking about the Indiana 2021 legislative session.

The General Assembly approved the state’s budget last week for the next two years, wrapping up regular business for the session.

But the official end to the session won’t be until later this year. Lawmakers passed a bill extending the official end to Nov. 15, and they can reconvene at any point until then to vote on redistricting.

The state’s $37 billion budget passed with largely bipartisan support, which can be attributed to the increase in the budget following an updated projection last week of state tax revenues. Federal coronavirus relief dollars also gave the budget a $3 billion boost. 

Three Democrats did not vote in favor of the budget, and said they couldn’t support the expansion of private school vouchers and that not enough was done for essential workers.

Two House Republicans voted against the budget without explanation. 

Indiana’s two-year budget from 2019 was $34.6 billion.

Another key issue raised by lawmakers includes a bill which would remove protections from more than half of the state’s wetlands. Supporters of the bill says current protections are too strict and sometimes prevent farmers from working their land.

But environmentalists call the bill short-sighted. They say protecting wetlands helps prevent flooding and improves water quality. More than 100 groups are asking Gov. Eric Holcomb to veto the bill. 

Holcomb sued the Indiana General Assembly this week over legislation passed that would give them more opportunity to intervene in emergency executive orders he might issue in the future.

Indiana lawmakers across the board described this session as difficult due to the unique circumstances imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This week, we will talk with lawmakers about key issues addressed during the session.

You can follow us on Twitter @NoonEdition or join us on the air by calling in at 812-855-0811 or toll-free at 1-877-285-9348. You can also send us questions for the show at

Note-This week of our guests and hosts will participate remotely to avoid risk of spreading infection. 


Sen. Mark Messmer, (R-48), Majority Floor Leader 

Sen. Greg Taylor, (D-33), Minority Leader

Brandon Smith, Statehouse Bureau Chief, IPBS

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