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2021 Legislative Session Amid The COVID-19 Pandemic

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>>BOB ZALTSBERG: This is noon edition of WFIU. I'm your host of Bob Zaltsberg cohosting with WFIU news bureau chief Sarah Wittmeyer. This week we're talking about the 2021 legislative session. We have three guests joining us today. Brandon Smith is the Indiana Public Broadcasting Statehouse reporter. Shelli Yoder is the senator from Indiana, Indiana state senator from District 40, and Shelli as a Democrat. And Jeff Ellington is a Republican. He is the Indiana state representative from District sixty two. You can follow us on Twitter at noon edition and send us questions there, or you can also send us questions for the show at News at Indiana Public Media News at Indiana Public Media dot org. So I wanted to start the show today with Brandon Smith because Brandon has covered the State House for quite some time. And he's been there to see what's happened so far this session. And I'm sure he's got some opinions on where - what direction this session is going to go. So, Brandon, take it away. 

>>BRANDON SMITH: My only opinion at this point is that it's really hard to predict, and that's because this session is so different in many ways from any that I've covered. This is my 11th session covering Indiana State House. And obviously covid-19 has changed the way we conduct business in a lot of walks of life and the legislature is not immune from that. So, for instance, the Indiana House that Representative Ellington serves in will not be meeting in the Indiana House chamber as a group of this session. They have set up a temporary makeshift House chamber across the plaza in Government Center South to allow for more social distancing. Committee hearings are different in a lot of ways. In the House, we've seen folks able to actually testify in the same room as lawmakers. But in the Senate, for instance, and which Senator Yoder serves in a lot of these committee hearings, the senators are in a separate room from the people who want to testify, connected via videos and audio streams. So that's been certainly a change to the way we conduct business, and that has made it more difficult too. Legislative leaders have talked for weeks now leading up to the start of session, that the realities, the physical realities of trying to have a legislative session amid covid-19 and do it safely is going to mean that we might not be able to get as many bills passed through the General Assembly this session, as we come to expect, particularly from the long budget sessions that last until the end of April. And so they've been warning lawmakers to really focus on the priorities that you want to get accomplished because we might not have as much time. And then they've also preached flexibility. There are hard sort of deadlines and in the legislative rules for when they need to have bills passed out of the House and the Senate the first time and then the second time and when they adjourn. But they've also said that they might have to be a little flexible with those rules, depending on how things go. We haven't seen any covid cases that we know of, fortunately yet during the legislative session. So that's good. We don't know if or how long that will last. And then, of course, we have this past week where not a single legislative bit of activity occurred, but for a completely different reason, which is that on the advice of the state police, legislative leaders canceled session and any committee hearings for the week because of the FBI warnings around possible armed protests around the country at state capitols related to President Biden's inauguration. Fortunately, in Indiana, we didn't see anything. Literally, no one showed up. Sunday when there were supposed to be a rally. No one showed up Wednesday around the inauguration. But because of the sort of extra caution that everyone took this week, we didn't have any legislative activity. So that might delay things a little bit or might make some for a time crunch later in session. But it's really hard to predict this, like this session like I would a normal year, because in so many ways it really is different. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right, so we have two legislators with us, Jeff Ellington and Shelli Yoder, and the one one thing that is common to both of them is they both served on the Monroe County Council. We seem to be having some problems getting Jeff connected with us. We're working on that problem. So I'm going to start with Shelli. And Shelli, you're in your first term as a senator. So what are what are some of your priorities? And you can react to anything that Brandon said as well. 

>>SHELLI YODER: Well, thank you. I appreciate being invited on today. I think it's definitely what Brandon said. It's an unusual year, but I can go as far as to say it's all I know. So it's not as strange for me as maybe many others serving in the legislature. But I would say I am so honored to be representing Monroe County and the people of my district in the state Senate. I would say my priorities this year would be definitely responding to the great needs of hoosiers when it comes to covid-19. I want to make sure that our state budget reflects some real priorities, two of those being a paid family leave program as well as a workfare program that we're working across the aisle to get that across the finish line this year and also want to make sure that we're responding to the great needs of our schoolteachers. We promised them a pay increase last year. They took a severe cut in that budget over a decade ago. And we've not made that hole. And we need to make that right in order to keep our great teachers in the profession and attract more great teachers to our public education system. So those are my priorities. Thanks for having me today. I'm hoping Jeff can hop on here. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: We have him. We think we have Jeff now. So Jeff Ellington, thanks for joining us. We we were just talking with Shelli Yoder. We are we are ready to listen to Brandon Smith talk about how unusual this session is. I'm sure you can join in on that question. But so the question I asked, Shelli, was about, you know, what, you know, as a first year senator, she said she didn't have much to compare it to. But for you, I mean, how unusual is this session? And then secondly, what are your priorities for the for the session? 

>>JEFF ELLINGTON: Well, I can just say - yeah, I can hear you a while ago, so I just had to reconnect just to make sure. But for me, it's sort of like each session this last six years, I always hear that it's going to be a fast session. You know, just pick a few of your bills, one or two, you know? Don't expect to get them all heard or passed. I hear that every year. So I'm used to that, at least on the House side, because there's hundred of us. But for me, what I've been focusing on is making sure that I do have a couple important bills. I filed, I think, eight. But out of those eight, there's two fairly important. You know, the main thing for us in the House is to make sure we do a budget and we get it out on time. It's a good balanced budget that shows good reserves, that keeps our credit ratings flush - with a good credit rating. Make Indiana stable. And as you can see, by having a good balance in our budget to be able to do emergency situations, especially Covid-19, you've seen that that's been really an asset. While other communities are eyeing to cut every part of the budget, at least Indiana - a few bills coming up here soon - will be increasing budgets. Now, I don't know if we'll be able to do all that way, but at least we're not looking to cut everything across the board, I don't think, at least I'm not. So it's been a pleasure being up here and listening to my constituents and most all of my bills deals with some sort of constituent contact where there has been an issue or problem. And in the past, I've tried to fix those and been fairly successful, even those bills that have been really controversial, depending on which side of the aisle you sit on. So we've been lucky to get things passed. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Jeff, could you expand a little bit on the idea - I know we had a lot of reserves in the state that had been built up. And how has that helped us? You know, what specific ways has that helped us sort of bridge the gap here as covid has ravaged a lot of businesses and just a lot of people in the state? 

>>JEFF ELLINGTON: Well, in previous years, you know, we had to add a lot of dollars to Department Child Services to make and hire more staff for those individuals who needed help. We had a lot of participants in those programs. And the state - you know, as any state, it's hard to get a flow chart to move in dollars when you need it. Luckily, I was able to pull down some dollars to hire more staff. We were able to give schools some dollars for technology, for virtual education of our children through K through 12. And I think that was very important. We also gave some flexibility, you know, to some of the local school budgets, which we were able to free up some state dollars to shift over and first for some conditional infrastructure. So you just never know what might pop up. You know, we've given out some dollars at least to the governor's programs on helping in assisting small businesses. Now they've got a program out that's dealing with, like even restaurants and entertainment type industries, the arts, to help them with their payroll stuff. Some of those dollars are federal flow through, but then we've got some state dollars that's been interjected into that. So I think it's just good to have a little extra cash. I mean, people say, you know? It's the people's money, but, you know, it's best to have that because when you have a better credit rating, you're able to borrow money right down to your local levels, even your libraries and solid waste districts. And their rates are geared generally for what the state's credit rating is at, and then it helps save save dollars in interest payments in the future. So it just helps out a lot. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right. So you're listening to Morning Edition today on WFIU. We're talking about the 2021 legislative session. If you have questions, you can send them by email to news that Indiana Public Media dot org or you can find us on Twitter at noon edition and send us your questions there. So I know the governor gave his State of the State address this week and I wanted to get some reaction. That was Jeff Ellington, who's a Republican. So Jeff, we'll just start with you. Some reaction to what the governor had to say this week and how well do you think the state is doing? And then we'll go to Shelli. 

>>JEFF ELLINGTON: Well, you know, financially, stability wise, I think the state is really the envy of especially Illinois and other states around us on our budget priorities and our stability and our programs. The governor has done a great job with with abiding by the rules that were set by legislatures many years ago, especially the Emergency Powers Act. But, you know, there are some changes that, you know, me specifically and other legislators are trying to interject - is make sure that he has a better roadmap for whoever is going to be there in the future. I want all businesses treated equally, especially those that can prove that they are being can be stay open by using just standard safety procedures of the day, which changes with each incident. And I'm not looking not just only at the governor's authority in the rules that are set by the legislature, but also units of government, mayors and county commissioners right down to the individual health departments. So there will be no loop around if the governor or whoever might be in the future doesn't want to do a state mandate. And he relies on local authorities to have that authority, which could be just as strict or stricter than the governor's restrictions. And we just want to make sure that everybody is treated equally and we have some consistency in that and those rules set many years ago - they wasn't consistent and they need to be ' repaired. So we can send our workforce back to work safely, our kids back to school safely and get back on with our lives and our economy. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right. The executive powers of the government, of the governor, something that we can talk more about certainly - want to bring Senator Shelli Yoder and talk about just your overview of what the governor had to say this weekend and the state of the state. 

>>SHELLI YODER: Thank you, Bob. I want to just of comment. I'll get to what Jeff brought up in a minute, but to respond to your question, I appreciated the way that the governor is going to continue to push for those pregnancy protections in the workplace. I also really appreciated how he is going to prioritize paying our teachers better in this state and make us make Indiana the gold standard when it comes to teacher pay with our public education system. And so I appreciated that. And I look to hold myself and others in the legislature accountable to that. I also noted that the governor said that any - even Jeff said that - other states look to us and. The governor made - I wish I could have the exact quote. But he said something about it's important to have a place, a state where the workplace is stable when you can count on. And I would concur with that. And I think along with that, we need to have a paid family leave program in the state of Indiana. We need to have protections for workers and employers that they can keep the talent that they have. They've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in in preparing their workforce and training their workforce. And then when you have something like a global pandemic where employers are being stretched and they have to lay people off and our unemployment program is really being taxed, it would be great. It would have been great that we had this, but it would be great to have a work share programs or employers can keep that talent that they have and be able to also find and create a plan that they can utilize unemployment but keep the workers that they have. I think that would be a benefit to the state of Indiana. I also want to speak to what Jeff was saying about looking at - or I think I need some clarity, because not every county had protections put in place and listened seriously to the CDC, whether it was wearing masks, whether it was observing, social distancing, physical distancing, some of those practices, and when we begin to undermine our departments of health, that they're being driven by science and data and evidence that that is of real concern, I think they are in place to provide that kind of guidance for a community. And we should be saying thank you, that they do look at science and making those recommendations to our county commissioners and to our local mayors. So I am concerned about that legislation because I certainly don't want to undermine the scientists, the medical professionals in evidence that's there guiding our departments of health. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Sara Wittmeyer, before you ask your question, I do want Brandon to weigh in on the executive powers issue and what what are your observations about how that's going to go? 

>>BRANDON SMITH: Well, looking at the specific legislation that's in the House it doesn't say anything about businesses or treating businesses the same or health orders or anything like that, what the House legislation that specifically gets the idea of the governor's executive powers says is that it basically gives the legislature more opportunities to block the governor from doing what the governor does. So, for instance, under the bill, as it is currently written, if it had been in place during the covid-19 pandemic over the last nearly year now, the legislature would have had to meet in special session at least three or four times. In order for the governor to renew the public health emergency and the public health emergency that the governor declared first in March and then renewed every month since, that triggers the executive powers that he used to issue the stay at home order in March to issue gathering restrictions that have been in place now for a few months that have helped contribute to the decline in the number of cases that things like that, all of those executive orders that the governor has issued during the pandemic, the power to do that. The authority to do that is triggered by the declaration of the public emergency, in this case, a public health emergency. And what the House legislation would do was say, well, if he wants to - and I say he because we've only ever had male governors. But if the governor issues this public emergency declaration, if they want - and the state law says you can only do that for 30 days. If you want to renew it once, the legislature either has to already be in session or they have to be called into a special session. And by the way, state law says only the governor is allowed to call a special session. Then it can go for another 60 days if you want to renew it again, another special session or you're in session 60 days, another special session, another special session. So, again, at least three or four times the legislature would have had to been called into a special session during this pandemic. And we haven't seen exactly what the governor thinks of these specific legislation. But asked generally about the idea a few weeks ago, he said, you know, covid-19 doesn't wait for a meeting, doesn't wait 30 days to talk about it. And he was wary of something that would have constrained his ability to take the actions that he's taken over the last 10 months. We'll see what comes out of the house. It might change, but there is a lot of desire among, I would say, particularly Republicans, but lawmakers in general to sort of give them more of a voice to weigh in on a long lasting public emergency. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: Brandon, can you talk about then - is it in the same bill that it would put some sort of limit on what counties can do? What is that issue? 

>>BRANDON SMITH: I don't know. Quite frankly, there's lots of pieces of legislation. I haven't read them all. So that might be a different bill. But the the legislation dealing with the governor's executive powers that was heard in a House committee a couple of weeks ago or last week, I should say, has said nothing as far as I'm aware, on what counties could do. There is a different piece of legislation in the Senate that deals with actions by a county health department or a local health department in terms of fines that they issue to businesses. And, basically, what it says is if a local health department issues an order that includes an enforcement action against a business like a fine, it there has to be a process in place to appeal that decision to the local legislative body. So if I'm a local business and my health department issues me a fine for some violation, whether it's math wearing related to covid-19 or, you know, health and safety advisory that's been in place a lot longer, I can appeal that to my local city council or my local county council, whichever is the authorizing entity there. So that's related, but slightly different. There might be other pieces of legislation that I'm not familiar with, but that's what I know about. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Jeff, did you have something to add? 

>>JEFF ELLINGTON: Well, I just want to say that my bill, House Bill 1412 - we've already been in discussions with Matt Laman on parts of my bill. Really, there was individuals who was on that summer study group talking about this issue, also at least one or several chairmen of our committees that's read my bill. That said, there's a lot in my bill that they agree with. And they were hoping that they probably would wish they would start with my bill first, but they'd like to see some of my bill be amended into Representative Lehmann's. Mine deals with the two good points. There's one that if a mercy is called special session, is also potentially called that during that special session, that they'll only - the topics will be limited only to the consideration for the purpose of the state of disaster. So you can't go in there and try to, you know, make a new car or whatever. You know, this is - and that's not in anyone else's bill. It also states in my bill that not only the governor but local health officials or other units of government cannot close down a religious facility. And I'm getting a lot of support for that in my part of the bill. So we're thinking about - my bill might get a hearing. We'll basically deal with local units and we'll take out some of the things that Matt Lehmann's bill's dealing with. But there's overwhelming support, at least from my district, that every business needs to be treated equally. If you're letting Wal-Mart open and a small business can open with the same type of restrictions and still comply, why not? There's a lot of small businesses that are losing the ability to reopen, and that's not fair. And I think - especially if you look at downtown Bloomington with restaurants, et cetera, and other organizations or other businesses that could have been open if they would have been able to abide by the same restrictions and prove that they can abide by the same restrictions. I just think that's fairness. So I think we'll have a lot of support, but just trying to - on this short session, I think this is one of the high topics. So we'll hopefully get some of this worked in some place. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Let me ask a follow up to that, Jeff and - so for... 

>>JEFF ELLINGTON: Sorry, advertisements. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: ...Representative Ellington and for Senator Yoder, it seems as if - and Jeff, you know, that you were - have been heavily involved in annexation legislation. I know this year there's legislation about, you know, landlord rights. Some local communities have said that's an overreach of the state legislature. You were a local official, you are a county official, Shelly Yoder is - was a county official until running for state Senate. Do you see a trend in the legislature for creating legislation that's going to restrict what local governments can do? 

>>JEFF ELLINGTON: Well, I think the main issue here is that the legislature gave all these units of government the guidelines, and sometimes you have communities or units that really overstepped what was intended for those guidelines. So you've seen a lot of corrections over the - even the last 60 years of corrections where changes needed to be made. So when we have constituents, whether they be property owners or renters or absentee landlords that still have an investment in our units where we live, everyone needs to be represented and looked at, you know, like, how that's going to affect them from a change - you know, like sidestepping what was intended for annexation and doing - instead of doing one annexation plan, do seven. You know, our - change building codes at a local level, more stringent than state codes, et cetera. I think we're just kind of looking for - at least I'm looking for uniformity. No matter where I live, I want to know how my property is treated or how my workforce is treated or how my manufacturing processes building-wise is treated, you know, to make sure that I'm treated equally across the state in different communities while still relying on those communities and puts on, you know, different aspects of design or looks or, you know, what they - type of businesses they want to attract. You know, not getting into that. But so let's - I think uniformity. So... 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: OK. All right, Shelli Yoder? 

>>SHELLI YODER: Well, this idea of uniformity - that's so interesting that communities should abide - have this - look - not look the same, but - I guess I'll just use that phrase, look the same - that businesses should look the same - that there's some uniformity about that. But when we talk about issues of access to housing, when we talk about issues of good public schools, when we have to talk about issues of having - you know, those kinds of issues of people and what - access to health care, again, that that is somehow different. I would just push back and say there - I feel, looking through both the House bills and the Senate bills, there are so many that seem to be overreaching. Just speaking to that question of annexation - yes, many argued that, when this came - when the mayor of Bloomington - when Jon Hamilton put forth his annexation plan, it was expansive and it came as a surprise. We started those conversations. The community started engaging in those conversations and pieces started to sort of fall off. OK, that's off of the table of consideration. Now, let's look at this section of the annexation. It engaged the community in which parts of these possible plots that we were looking at for annexation, whether or not they would be included. And then the state legislature stepped in and said, no, Bloomington, you will need to put a halt to all annexation. And that forbids the community in having a say on what their community will look like. Those conversations are important. And the overreaching which sort of puts a kibosh on those conversations I think is dangerous and not helpful to - well, to civic engagement if you want to really sort of boil it down. But I also want to say that the impact of this overreaching and annexation has some pretty significant impact when it comes to our, you know, access to good drinking water. In the state of Indiana, the - our access to good drinking water has declined significantly. And one of the issues is broken septic systems that are leaking feces into our waterways. And one way that we can do that is making sure that those that are on - close to the periphery of city limits or city sewage, getting them hooked up - if we could find ways to do that, that would be positive. And annexation on those peripheral communities or even in doughnut communities within the city limits, that would be a benefit when it comes to making sure we're protecting our drinking water. So I would - I'd just push back a little bit and I'm curious about that - you know, we hear a lot about socialism, but that idea of uniformity seems like a curious way to reason it out. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Sara? 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: I'm - so I want to talk about the budget for a couple of minutes here, and Brandon, maybe you can start by just talking about the different priorities among Democrats, Republicans and even the governor's priorities seem a little different than necessarily the Republicans. 

>>BRANDON SMITH: Yeah. So I think Representative Ellington talked about this a little earlier. It's been a pleasant surprise as we've seen - well we've only seen one budget proposal so far, and that's the governors. That's the way this timeline works. We'll get the House Republican budget sometime in February and then the Senate Republican budget likely in March as it moves through the legislative process. But it's been a pleasant surprise so far in that obviously, with COVID-19, everyone was worried that state finances were going to take a nosedive and we were going to be talking about a new two-year state budget that had to make really deep cuts to a lot of different places. And it looks like that will almost certainly not be the case for a variety of reasons. State revenues have recovered faster in some ways than a lot of people thought. The federal COVID relief has helped the state use money, for instance, to pay state employees who've been working on the public health crisis the last 10 months. And so that's money that was already in the state budget for their salaries that now could be used to fill the holes that were created during the economic downturn that has undoubtedly happened during COVID-19. There's also been - the state made cuts to state agencies and public - or and higher education during early on in the pandemic because they were prepared for this downturn and for state finances to dry up in a lot of ways. They are going to be able to start filling back those budgets in the new one, so that's a positive sign. We're also talking about increasing - everybody will support increases in K-12 education spending. The governor's first proposal was 377 million over the biennium. It's likely that House Republicans will probably find more money for that and, you know, we'll see what the Senate does as well. Everybody supports that. Where exactly those dollars go, however, may be a source of some contention. House Republicans have talked about expanding the school voucher program, eligibility for that. That's money that would go - the way the money works in Indiana is it's all in one pot for K-12 education, and so traditional public schools get the vast, vast, vast majority of it because about 90% of students go to traditional public schools. But some of that money is - then goes to parents who use it to pay for private education for their children. If you expand eligibility to that, the way it works is less money will go to traditional K-12 schools as more money goes to private school vouchers. Governor Holcomb said something interesting in his state of the state address, which I haven't heard a Republican governor in Indiana say, which is parents, of course, deserve options - to have options about where they send their child to be educated. Everybody, I think, should agree with that. But then he said, quote, but at the same time, those options shouldn't come at the expense of the public school system. That's something that public school - traditional public school advocates have sort of focused on as potentially a source of friction between the governor and legislative Republicans. We'll see if that plays out. It may not, but it was certainly something that raised some eyebrows this week. Beyond that, the governor's proposed budget plans to spend down state reserves a little bit. We have - at the end of this current fiscal year, which is up at the end of June, we anticipate having the same - basically the same state budget reserves levels that we did before the pandemic, which is a credit to how the state has recovered and how the state has been able to manage its finances with the reserves that already existed. And the governor recognizes that we don't need 14% of our budget in state reserves, so he wants to spend $702 million to pay down some state debt. While that has been a popular thing for Republicans to do over the last few years as we've had strong budget reserves, I think, for instance, House Republicans are a little unsure that that much money should go to paying down debt, even if it does save you some money in the future. They're looking at, for instance, small business support. They're looking at help for learning loss, which students have experienced across Indiana. And using some of those reserve dollars for those causes on a one-time basis as opposed to just paying off debt. So that would be another - I wouldn't call it a source of friction, but certainly a place where Republican leaders and the governor might diverge. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: Before Shelli and Jeff weigh in on their priorities, Brandon, I do just want to ask you, what's in the governor's budget proposal for COVID relief for businesses and for just individual Hoosiers? 

>>BRANDON SMITH: I'm - I can't think of anything. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: OK. OK. Shelli, would you like to go next and just talk about what you see as the Democratic priorities with the budget? 

>>SHELLI YODER: Sure, Sara. I wanted to say that by - what Brandon was saying regarding traditional public schools - the idea that we would expand vouchers is over investing that money in our public school system and paying our teachers a professional wage - a living wage is outrageous. And if by traditional you mean public schools that have transparent - that are required to have transparency, that are held to a higher standard, that public dollars are put there and then held accountable for those public dollars - expanding the voucher system, we don't get the same oversight, the same transparency with those public dollars that are spent. I hope that the priority in this next budget does priority - does prioritize increasing teacher pay in public school systems. We owe them that, we promised them that, and this next budget should reflect that. I'd also like to see a focus on - I think I've mentioned it already, but I am hearing from constituents a desire to have a family leave program - established paid family leave for children, for dependent care, especially now that we have just - we're living through a global pandemic and we see the intergenerational aspect of how we are providing care to our parents, our grandparents, as well as to our children. It would be a plus for Indiana to have a paid family leave program. And my bill - it would give up to 12 weeks of paid family leave, and I am seeing support from that - from businesses to workers. So that would be a plus. And I hope that those things can be done in these - in this next budget. The priorities of the Democrats - I mean, certainly we want to make sure that there is an increase in the minimum wage. I mean, the governor has been known to say that he doesn't want Hoosiers to know - to expect a minimum of anything. But we do have expectations of minimum. I mean, what does that mean that we wouldn't have an expectation of a minimum of what we would expect if we got ill and had to seek care from a hospital? If we went to school, that there's no minimum that we should expect from education? We have those minimums already. And it is time that Indiana raised that minimum wage and addressed it. So that is a priority of Democrats in the state Senate, as well as some real protection - some protections for workers and increasing the schedule for workers compensation. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Before we go to Jeff, let me give our numbers again. So if you have a question, you can send them - not numbers, but you can - our email address is news@indianapublicmedia.org. You can also find us on Twitter at @noonedition. So Jeff Ellington, there's a lot to react to. So go ahead. 

>>JEFF ELLINGTON: Well, again, the main focus, of course, is we have to do the state budget. If you do anything else but - that has to be the top priority and always is - just making sure we get it in on the stipulated time. You know, that'll be a good, fiscally responsible budget. I talked about keeping our triple-A credit rating to having some nice reserve balances here in case of emergencies. We're looking at establishing a new grant program that will help in the critical health challenges we've had, you know, of COVID, and that's house bill 1007. We'll also try to provide, you know, civil liability protections against COVID for businesses and schools and health care entities and, like, others in that relative confined space we have in House Bill 1002. We'll invest in K-12 - You know, we've got the bill that's going to make sure that the virtual education is paid at a rate of 100% to 85% for those local school districts. And we've also - putting some money aside - extra dollars into law enforcement to boost our accountability to make sure that there's transparency in the policing we have. Talking about help paying for body cameras. I think you know, the budget 1001. And sharing the employment records, I think it's 1006. And also we're going to make an investment in one of our state police training academy buildings - infrastructures that's used by all the policing agencies across the street - across the state, and that'll be an additional investment we can also make. But for me - for district 62, other than the budget and those other key priorities, number one for me is making sure that I get funding back up to par for West Gate Authority, which is within three miles of Crane's base. You know, those are high paying jobs and we have a contract annually for two - that was at $1.2 million, and the funding level underneath the draw down of the taxes, because there's three different combined tech parks there, was 1.5 million a year, and now that's 300,000. And, you know, with the expectation that Crane's going to be adding, you know, 500 jobs a year for the next 10 years through attrition, retirement and new services there that's provided for military and the governor's initiative to increase military assets here as far as jobs and technology through Indiana, I think that this is only right, I believe - should be one of his top priorities also, since he's a Navy guy, to help southwest Indiana, which is - would do a great deal. And Bloomington - there's people that live in Bloomington and Terre Haute and Vincennes that travels, you know, 30 - 45 minutes - some an hour to get to their job at Crane. And you're talking some really good, highly skilled, highly trained, highly paid workers that benefits all of Indiana. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: So, Jack and Shelli, there's been a lot of national conversation about police reform. Jeff, the issues that you - or the bills you were talking about - would you characterize that as Indiana's attempt at some level of police reform? 

>>JEFF ELLINGTON: Well, I think one - some of - I'd say sort of. You know, there's also dollars. We've got to make sure that - you know, we're looking at teachers, but really if you compare the salaries of offline - line officers that are out in the middle of night when there's only maybe two or three on the road and you compare them with, say, even teacher's salaries or what their salaries should be - you know, when I retired at 28 years with the fire department, I was like at 52,000 and a 28-year teacher in this district was 72. And - but I know that some districts - you know, the pay rate are good when you're first hired in, but now the older ones are maybe not sitting as good as the new hires are. Some of it could be backwards. So I think, you know, this is just part of it. I think pay is another part to make sure you not only have qualified teachers, but qualified police and fire department employees. And there's other bills just running through. I know Jack Sandland and another senator has something that deals with IMPD. You know, they are two former police officers and they feel that the department's got really politicized and it's hurting their constituents there in Indianapolis area. And I think that's just one of the little problems we've had throughout the state of people looking at maybe cutting those budgets. I've got a bill that will stabilize line officers and their budgets, you know, as long as there's no fluctuation in that local unit's revenue source, which they can opt out, you know, for that reason. So I think it's something everybody's taking another look at since the issues we've seen across the nation. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Senator Yoder? 

>>SHELLI YODER: Well, I just want to speak further on Senator Sandland's bill, which would put the Indianapolis Metro Police Department underneath the state legislature, which is, again, an overreach. Let Indianapolis - let Marion County figure out what their community needs and not have this - I don't want to determine the needs of the Indianapolis Police Department. That falls under the jurisdiction of the city. And I guess I'm - I was surprised, you know, to see that bill - Jeff's bill about the way local communities fund their law enforcement and know that, you know, even in - on the county council in Monroe County, you know, every year, it was just - it was always tricky to figure out how to balance the budget, how to make sure we fund the needs of the sheriff's department, of the jail, and also the other departments in county government. And from year to year to year, you had to be incredibly nimble in looking at - because there's a lot there that we don't have jurisdiction over in terms of budgeting. It's sort of determined by the state. And what we do have - to have more overreach in that area was really going to undermine local governments being able to do what they need to to respond to the needs of their citizens. So that's - I'm excited that - what I - I heard your question, Bob, about different ways that the - this next session can respond - you know, there is a legislation that's going to - put forth to ban chokeholds, no knock warrants, and the body cams as what Jeff Ellington was speaking to. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: OK. 

>>SARA WITTMEYER: We only have a couple of minutes left, but we got a question from David that I want to get to real quick. And this is for you, Shelli, and for Jeff. David wants to know about the legislation that would prevent employers from hiring workers who refuse a mandated vaccine, such as a new COVID vaccine, for reasons such as religious or medical exemptions. He says SB74 in the Indiana Senate would protect workers from being fired, and he's curious if you two support that bill. 

>>JEFF ELLINGTON: Can I go? 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Yeah, Jeff, go ahead. 

>>JEFF ELLINGTON: I say - I haven't read the bill yet, but I do know there already are some exemptions. If you're an employee of certain businesses - that they cannot mandate for you to take that. But there probably is some that mandate it, but it's very small percentage-wise. So I'm sort of like in agreement that, if it's not a necessity, not a health issue, I think you should have a choice if you want to. Me, for one, I'm - soon as I can get available to take it, I'm going to take it. You know, I take my flu shot every year and I just know that's good for me, and sometimes it might not be good for a small percentage population, but I think that should be your choice. But it really depends on what workforce you are in, and I think there is some exemptions, but I'll loot at that bill. 

>>SHELLI YODER: I would agree with you, Jeff. I'm going to get that vaccine as quickly as I can when it's made available. And I think there - you know, the way that the legislation is written right now - not this new bill that's been filed, but there are already some exemptions - religious exemptions. And this - the language of the file - the bill that's been filed adds a - just a conscientious objection to a vaccination. I would agree with Jeff, I think there are some there are some careers or if you want to call them businesses that - hospitals having a requirement to be vaccinated I think is currently there. And the bill that we have - the legislation that we have now, I think that it's - this new one that's been filed is really out of fear of something that's new, like COVID. Not wanting to be required by an employer. But the bill that - the legislation that we have now in place in Indiana certainly provides those protections. And if there is a religious objection, an employee can file for that exemption. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Brandon Smith, in the last minute that we have, I'd like for you to talk about what you've witnessed in terms of bipartisanship in the Indiana state house. Is there any - is there a lack of it? I mean, it's definitely supermajorities in both the House and the Senate for the Republicans. Nationally, we've seen a lot of divisions. How well are we situated in Indiana when it comes to people working together? 

>>BRANDON SMITH: Yeah, this is something I love to talk about because I think people who sort of follow politics loosely look at what happens at the federal level and they don't see bipartisanship there and they just assume that it's like that everywhere else. In Indiana this session and just about every session, the general assembly will pass hundreds of pieces of legislation. Hundreds of things will become law. And the vast, vast, vast majority - I've seen numbers 70 - 80% - sometimes even 90% will be overwhelmingly bipartisan. In fact, a majority, I think, pass unanimously every single year. And that's because the issues that Indiana lawmakers are working on and the issues that are hitting home for their constituents and - what are good for Hoosiers. There are obviously - and we've heard some of them today - issues on which - big issues on which Republicans and Democrats of the state house disagree. But it's important to remember that the vast majority of what the general assembly does every single year is done on an overwhelmingly, almost - sometimes even unanimously bipartisan basis. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right. Thanks a lot, Brandon, for summing that up for us. That was Brandon Smith from Indiana Public Broadcasting. We've also had as our guest today, state representative Jeff Ellington and state senator Shelli Yoder. For co-host Sara Wittmeyer, producer Bente Bouthier and engineer John Bailey, I'm Bob Zaltzberg, thanks for listening to Noon Edition. 

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>>UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Noon Edition is a production of WFIU Public Radio. A podcast of this program is available at wfiu.org/noonedition. Production support comes from Smithville - fiber internet, streaming TV, home security and automation in southern Indiana. More information at smithville.com. 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 bloomhf.org. 

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leg session

(Lauren Chapman, IPBS News)

Noon Edition airs on Fridays at noon on WFIU.

Indiana’s legislative session began earlier this month amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to affect lawmakers’ priorities. This week, we’ll talk with local representatives about what Hoosiers can expect out of this legislative session. 

Lawmakers will set the budget for the next two years while responding to the economic toll the pandemic took on Hoosiers – especially small and local businesses.

A state budget likely won’t be finalized until late spring and state leaders anticipate a lot could change for Hoosiers before then, such as how the COVID vaccine will affect the economy and if more federal relief will come.  

Lawmakers also will consider whether to limit Gov. Eric Holcomb’s ability to issue emergency public health orders, and legislation that would protect businesses from employee and customer lawsuits over COVID-19 exposure.

It’s a redistricting year, too. Legislators will draw new state and congressional lines for the next decade. As House Republicans continue to hold a supermajority, Democrats and outside organizations have called for reforming how lines are drawn.

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 news@indianapublicmedia.org.

Note-Note-This week of our guests and hosts will participate remotely to avoid risk of spreading infection. Because of this, we can't take live callers. 

Guests

Brandon Smith, IPBS Statehouse Reporter

Shelli Yoder, Indiana Senate, district 40

Jeff Ellington, Indiana State Rep., district 62

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