The 2021 legislative session has been a busy and unprecedented session, unlike any before it. Although session has looked different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators have worked tirelessly to pass all types of legislation: good, bad and ugly. As per tradition, it is time to break down the legislation in another edition of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Protections for parents with disabilities
State Senator David Niezgodski (D-South Bend) authored Senate Bill (SB) 259, which recognizes the parental rights of every parent, including those living with disabilities. Under his legislation, no individual can be discriminated against on the basis of one’s disability, in relation to foster care, custody and adoption. This bill goes a long way in ensuring that parents with disabilities are treated equally.
Increase in workers’ compensation benefits
Workers’ compensation benefits aren’t increased automatically, so in order to keep up with inflation and the increased cost of living, we must pass legislation to increase those benefits. Fortunately, the senate passed State Senator Karen Tallian’s (D-Ogden Dunes) SB 220 which increases benefits for injuries and disablements by 2% each year for three years, beginning on July 1, 2021. It also makes conforming amendments. If this bill becomes law, Hoosiers dealing with work-related injuries will see an increase in their supplemented income, helping to ensure they aren’t going bankrupt because they are injured on the job.
Bipartisan support for tax amnesty program
State Senator Eddie Melton (D-Gary) authored Senate Bill (SB) 275 in an effort to aid Hoosiers who are struggling from the economic effects of COVID-19. This bill creates a tax amnesty program for participating counties, waiving penalties and interest on delinquent taxes. This allows struggling homeowners to more easily pay back fees they owe without additional burden, while also assisting municipalities in collecting funds they need to function.
Juvenile justice reform bill passes
One of our priorities this legislative session is criminal justice reform. Senate Bill (SB) 368 authored by State Senator Karen Tallian (D-Ogden Dunes) deals with just that, as it makes important changes to Indiana’s juvenile justice system. Under the bill, certain juvenile offenses will be automatically expunged and, under most circumstances, a juvenile would be prohibited from being housed with adult inmates. The bill also establishes a procedure to determine a juvenile’s competency. Children are not adults and should not be treated the same.
Conversion therapy bill not heard
Despite receiving national news attention, the Senate did not hear Senate Bill (SB) 32. This bill was authored by Senator J.D. Ford (D-Indianapolis) and would have banned conversion therapy and any effort to change the sexual orientation or gender of anyone under 18 years of age. Conversion therapy has been widely discredited by health care organizations and has been proven to be incredibly harmful to LGBTQ+ youth. Children who have undergone conversion therapy are more likely to experience depression and are more likely to attempt suicide. It is a shame this bill was never heard.
Blanket COVID-19 civil immunity bill signed into law
Senate Bill (SB) 1 passed out of the Senate and House, and has already been signed by the governor. This bill grants COVID-19 civil immunity to corporations, including long term living facilities, and prohibits class action lawsuits from being taken against them. Although this bill protects small businesses from fraudulent lawsuits, it also prohibits Hoosiers from taking legal action against long-term care facilities where many have lost their lives. The vague language used in the bill will only serve to prevent residents from pursuing legal action in cases of legitimate negligence.
Ban on the renaming of Indianapolis
In an effort to combat a problem which doesn’t exist, a bill passed out of the senate to block any future attempts to change the name of Indianapolis. This bill was a reaction to recent controversies surrounding the renaming of racist professional sports teams. Hoosiers have spent the last year dealing with economic uncertainty in the midst of a global pandemic. This bill was unnecessary and a waste of precious time, especially considering that there are currently no efforts to rename Indianapolis.
No Increased access to absentee mail-in ballot voting
Despite this past election being the perfect example of why absentee vote-by-mail options are essential, State Senator J.D. Ford’s (D-Indianapolis) Senate Bill (SB) 402 permitting no-excuse absentee ballots was not heard. Instead of making it easier for Hoosiers to vote, Senate Bill (SB) 353 was passed, which would prevent the governor from expanding vote by mail options and add extra requirements to absentee voting eligibility. Voting should be made easier, not more difficult.
Lack of support for our teachers
So far, the senate has failed to grant teachers eligibility to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and made no progress in increasing teachers’ salaries. This session has made it evident that Senate Republicans do not value teachers enough. Instead, the Republican supermajority passed Senate Bill (SB) 251, which requires school employees to reauthorize their union membership annually. This adds extra burdens to school teachers at a time they are already taking on more because of the pandemic. SB 251 will make it more difficult for Hoosier teachers to be represented in their fight for better wages, vaccinations and safer school environments. As Senator Qaddoura (D-Indianapolis) put it, “this is unacceptable in a state that ranks 51st out of 51 (including Washington D.C.) in teacher pay raises since 2002 and where our teachers already make lower salaries than in any neighboring state.”
Public transportation funding threatened
Despite 79% of Marion county precincts and 19 out of 25 city council districts voting to support public transportation expansion, the Senate Republican supermajority approved legislation this session that will reduce funding for Indianapolis’ IndyGo. This bill threatens further expansion and funding for public transportation in the largest city in Indiana at a time when people are struggling more than ever due to the pandemic. Indianapolis residents voted to tax themselves to develop IndyGo and many depend on public transportation to perform daily tasks. Low-income and disabled populations use public transportation to get to grocery stores, jobs, appointments, etc. in larger numbers than other groups and will be disproportionately impacted by this legislation.
Wetlands protections stripped
Senate Bill 389, the anti-wetlands bill, that would eliminate current protections put in in place to safeguard our wetlands passed out of the senate. 85% of Indiana’s wetlands have already disappeared. Stripping protections for wetlands will cause irreversible harm to our environment and state. Hoosiers depend on our wetlands to keep our drinking water clean and prevent flooding, and we hope this bill does not make it out of the legislature.
Minimum wage bill not heard
This pandemic showed us all how vital essential workers are to our state. Unfortunately, many of the essential workers that kept our state running during this pandemic work for incomes at or below the poverty line. All workers, especially essential workers, deserve a living wage that allows them to pay bills and put food on the table without having to work multiple jobs. Unfortunately, State Senator Eddie Melton’s (D-Gary) bill, which would have raised the minimum wage to $10 immediately and then increased it to $15 over the next five years was never heard in committee.
Override of government veto
The Indiana State Senate voted to override the governor’s veto of a Senate Enrolled Act (SEA) 148. This act eliminated local government ordinances relating to landlord-tenant relationships and limited their ability to address local rental housing needs. This bill, which was a direct response to an ordinance passed by Indianapolis’ city council in 2019, not only tramples on the rights of local government but increases Hoosiers’ risk of eviction, at a time many Hoosiers are already vulnerable.
No ban on no-knock warrants and chokeholds
In response to protests this past summer where Hoosiers voiced the need for police reform, Senate Democrats, in alliance with the Black Legislative Caucus, made demanding racial justice a priority this session. Senator Eddie Melton (D-Gary) filed legislation that would ban no-knock warrants and prohibit the use of choke-holds. Neither bill was heard—although the supermajority did have time to approve a bill preventing police from firing warning shots. Hoosiers made their opinion on the necessity for justice reform clear and the Republican supermajority needs to listen to them.