Vaccine mandates, guns, taxes and educational pedagogy are just a few of the subjects of bills to draw attention in the second week of the state legislative session.
It's a short session of the House and Senate, with Tuesday the last day to file bills. The short sessions, which occur during election years, are less like the budget-year marathons and more like the running of the bulls in Pamplona – fast and brutal with metaphorical blood being spilled.
Yet, the consequences of laws enacted in short sessions – including allowing citizens to own handguns without a permit – will have a profound effect on Hoosiers for years to come.
House Bill 1001, which would force employers to accept any medical or religious reason given to exempt workers from vaccine mandates, has already passed through the Employment, Labor and Pensions Committee on a 7-4 vote. Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, sided with the Democrats in voting against the bill. HB 1001 is expected to pass quickly through the GOP-controlled super-majority House next week. Fifty-six of 71 members of the GOP caucus signed on to the bill when it received its first reading on Jan. 4.
House Bill 1001 doesn't ban an employer from requiring a vaccine for COVID-19. But the exemption provision effectively makes it pointless, reports The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly. An amendment in the bill allows fired employees who refused to vaccinate to claim unemployment compensation.
The bill's author, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said it finds a balance between employer and employee rights. But the bill isn't getting traction from business advocacy groups, GOP allies over past issues such as right-to-work laws.
In a December post on its website, the Southwest Indiana Chamber anticipated problems “due to the potentially significant cost of testing, the interference in the employer/employee relationship, and the possible confusion that will be created between state law and any federal law/rule that may go into effect after deliberations in court.”
In another case of friends seeing differently, the GOP and law enforcement associations are at odds over a bill seeking to abolish gun licensing. HB 1077, which would abolish Indiana gun-licensing requirements, passed out of the House public policy committee on a 9-3 vote along party lines. It now moves to the full House.
It's the same script as last year for Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, who authored a bill then that passed through the House but stalled in the Senate. In a triumphant blog post, the National Rifle Association thanked Smaltz, Lehman, and Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, for “their continued efforts to advance Second Amendment rights in Indiana.”
State law enforcement is troubled by the measure.
“I don't understand why we want to strip away one of the most effective tools that law enforcement has to prevent avoidable, gun-related events in our communities,” said Lafayette Chief Patrick Flannelly, representing the Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police. Flannelly is a supporter of the Second Amendment.
He has cause to be concerned. About 30% of the 10,600 rejected applications to the Indiana State Police for a handgun carry permit were refused because the applicant had a felony conviction, the Indianapolis Star reports.
Indiana's beefy $5 billion surplus, which includes federal stimulus money, has whetted the appetites of House Republicans who would like to pass sweeping income tax cuts going into spring primaries. Senate GOP members are taking a cautious approach, preferring to wait for next year's budget session.
Over the next four years, the House proposal would cut Indiana's individual income tax rate of 3.23% – already the lowest rate of any neighboring state – to 3%. The reduction would cost the state $500 million a year when fully implemented in 2026, the Associated Press reports. Planned cuts for businesses, including eliminating a tax paid on equipment, would trim tax bills by as much as $850 million a year.
House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne is a critic of the bill. Money from the state's surplus could help parents pay for child-care expenses or lower health care costs. A child tax credit would also improve the fairness of state taxes, he said.
“This legislative body has passed tax breaks for businesses, RV sales, you name it, but very rarely do we see a real investment in Indiana workers,” GiaQuinta said. “It's about time to do the same for those low- and middle-income families found in each of our communities.”
House Speaker Todd Huston says he will continue to push the Senate.
To make up for lost revenue from the GOP's proposal, the state would have to rely on Indiana's 7% sales tax, the second-highest rate in the United States. Retail sales tax is the state's largest revenue generator.
Although fiddling with education has left Indiana short of teachers and with a consistently poor performance in educational rankings, Republican legislators continue to create perfunctory statutes that do less and less for the children they wish to protect.
Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, is the author of Senate Bill 167, which would, among other provisions, allow lawsuits against educators who teach certain controversial subjects, as reported by the JG's Niki Kelly. Proponents didn't blurt out “critical race theory,” a dense legal theory debated among legal scholars and cultural critics. At best, this is a discussion about anti-racism education.
“We're creating new language in Indiana code to make it crystal clear these are discriminatory concepts that don't belong in Indiana schools,” Baldwin said.
The bill's transparency requirements make sense – such as posting activities and material on the school's website – but more than a few school districts, including the state's largest in Fort Wayne Community Schools, already have such information available online or through apps such as Schoology and Power School.
As for legislation creating curriculum advisory committees, parents already have the power to replace school board members. With vouchers, parents can also choose charter or parochial schools.
Talking about this country's racial history has never been, nor will it ever be, easy. No one asked Black parents in Virginia in the '60s and '70s if they were comfortable when the state's history curriculum claimed slaves were “generally” happy. One textbook's slavery section included an illustration set on a ship with a white aristocrat in a top hat shaking the hand of a well-dressed Black man, while his wife and children look on. There's luggage, too.
This bill isn't so much about protecting a child capable of critical thinking as it is providing coverage for nationalist mythologies.
“In totality, we need to consider the fact that this bill could have a freezing effect on educators teaching race and racism,” said Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children, a nonprofit education advocacy group.
This bill would be great satire if it weren't another truly frightening step this law-writing body has taken to turn education and educators into automatons. No wonder teachers are running from the profession. There's nothing heroic about continually being gored by politicians chasing votes.
Fred McKissack is editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.