From tax credits to higher speed limits, lawmakers spent time hearing bills that had no chance

But big changes could come next session.

By: - February 8, 2024 7:00 am

Expect big bills in 2025. (Niki Kelly/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

In between racing to shepherd hundreds of proposals through the legislative process ahead of bill-killing deadlines, lawmakers found time to hear hours of testimony on numerous controversial or novel ideas never intended to advance.

The proposals are now teed up for next year, setting up a monumental 2025 session.

As for this year: “It’s a short session, obviously, and there’s some things that we can’t tackle, including things that have large fiscal (impacts),” said Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville. “But you can take advantage of these conversations and get a vetting of a bill.”

Indiana’s short, non-budget sessions can run from early January to mid-March, while long, budget sessions can extend through the end of April.

Democracy Day: How does a bill become a law?

To survive, bills must be heard three times in both the House of Representatives and the Senate: first in committee, second on the floor for amendments, and third on the floor for passage.

Typically, the chambers swap bills halfway through session so that the House considers Senate bills and vice versa. A late start this session put the halfway point less than 30 calendar days in.

Despite being short on time, lawmakers who lead committees collectively dedicated hours to hearing bills they didn’t intend to put up for votes — eventually killing those proposals.

Studying up for the budget bill

One key architect of Indiana’s multi-billion-dollar budget said he held hearings on sweeping but doomed proposals to get started on the biennial spending plan.

“It was just strictly to get ideas to start working on now for next year’s budget,” said Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Mishawaka. He chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

He heard rushed testimony last month on a bill that would’ve overhauled Indiana’s private school vouchers with a grant program allowing all Hoosier families — regardless of income — to receive state funding for their child’s education.

Sen. Ryan Mishler speaks at a State Budget Committee meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Sandwiched between several hours of testimony on a controversial bill targeting Indianapolis public transit and a pre-session caucus meeting, Mishler allowed witnesses who’d traveled the furthest to testify for about 25 minutes even as leadership told him to cut the hearing short.

At his committee’s next meeting, Mishler took about 50 minutes to discuss a bill he described as a “100% homestead exemption.”

“We keep nibbling away at these every year, so I just thought I’d throw (it) out there,” he told colleagues. The legislation would’ve partially — but not fully — subsidized the massive change using the money lawmakers currently direct toward paying down pension liabilities.

Mishler told the Capital Chronicle “it’s not out of the ordinary” to start vetting bills early.

“If you just start doing the budget next session, you won’t get it done. So I always start talking about ideas the year prior,” he said. “Maybe I don’t do bills like I did here, but … we’re working on issues now.”

Hearing the ‘for and against’

Other committee chairs used meeting time to let stakeholders present their viewpoints or provide additional context. They may label bills as “hearing only” on their agendas.

Rep. Brad Barrett, R-Richmond, dedicated 90 minutes of a Wednesday afternoon to testimony related to hospital assessment fees. The state uses them to leverage Medicaid dollars from the federal government.

Rep. Brad Barrett, R-Richmond, during a Jan. 24, 2024 meeting of the Public Health Committee. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Hospitals, through their powerful association, are pushing to reconfigure the fee in a way that cuts out administrative costs from the Family and Social Services Administration. Insurers and the agency pushed back, arguing that Medicaid funding through federal streams is already complex and changes must be carefully considered.

“I created a special time for it because I thought it was an important issue but just the timing of the policy change wasn’t perfect with the Medicaid forecast (and) the short session,” Barrett, who chairs the public health committee, said.

He said lawmakers often may delay taking action on new bills because they don’t feel educated enough on a topic’s nuances.

“You can’t have that excuse anymore when you have a public hearing,” Barrett said, “so that was my strategy to get everybody on the same page.”

Sen. Brian Buchanan, R-Lebanon, similarly said complex bills on important topics require “public vetting.” He chairs the Senate’s Commerce and Technology Committee.

Buchanan heard about 30 minutes of testimony on a bill re-shaping how minors interact with social media: compelling social media providers to verify a prospective user’s age at sign-up and to introduce features lessening the chances children will experience bullying or come across obscene material.

But both he and author Sen. Spencer Deery, R-Lafayette, agreed the legislation wasn’t yet “ready.”

Sen. Brian Buchanan, R-Lebanon, speaks in committee on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, took about 80 minutes to hear two doomed bills across two meetings of his Roads and Transportation Committee.

During one, numerous truck and package delivery drivers, as well as industry representatives, testified on a bill requiring human operators in auto-driving tractor-trailers.

“We are not voting this today; my intention was to hear the bill, (to) hear the thoughts for and against,” Pressel told the committee at the time. He expressed disappointment that several people who’d messaged in opposition hadn’t shown up to testify.

Pressel told the Capital Chronicle he’d followed a similar principle in hearing a second bill that would’ve raised most highway speed limits to 75 miles per hour for non-trucks.

“I don’t see the need to raise the speed limit … but sometimes I may not be the only one objecting,” said Pressel, who observed that committee chairs can act as gatekeepers when they choose which bills to hear.

“I think it’s good for the author to see who opposes it, who supports it. … I think that’s how you work good policy, is to see what others say about it (and) just create that dialogue,” Pressel added.

Mediating fights and making favors

Lawmakers also heard legislation in efforts to settle policy tussles and help their colleagues.

Pressel, for example, opened an early-morning meeting with about 25 minutes of discussion on an amendment originating out of a long-running fight between billboard advertisers and residents of historic neighborhoods located in the heart of Indianapolis.

Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, warns billboard opposition against testifying on an amendment he later withdrew, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

He allowed limited testimony from industry representatives and city officials before withdrawing the amendment and encouraging the two sides to settle the spat locally — or face the consequences next session. However, some residents made the time to attend without knowing the amendment wasn’t moving forward.

“The General Assembly doesn’t need to legislate on everything and decide every dispute,” Pressel told the Capital Chronicle. “But sometimes you need to bring people together.”

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, chair of his chamber’s Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee, heard about 30 minutes of discussion on a bill considering fetuses as dependent children for an income tax deduction.

“I just obliged to hear the bill,” Holdman said, adding that when Sen. Andy Zay, R-Huntington, asked to have the proposal heard, he’d been upfront about not moving it.

Zay, who is running for Congress, and other supporters of the measure have said it would directly benefit expectant parents. Opponents asserted implementation would involve government overreach as skeptics wondered how to combat fraud.

Sen. Travis Holdman, a Republican from Markle, listens during a tax-focused interim committee meeting on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Holdman indicated he doesn’t plan to advance the idea in the future. But he said he’d been hearing — more than usual — tax bills destined to die this session.

“If we’ve got time, that’s part of my job, is managing the calendar,” he said.

Holdman also leads a two-year task force reviewing the state’s tax system and has said he won’t move many tax changes through his committee until the task force’s work has concluded.

The General Assembly maintains a lengthy list of interim committees, which are typically used to appraise and develop ideas in between sessions. That work increasingly appears to be leaking into sessions themselves.

House Speaker Todd Huston called the maneuver “not uncommon” and said the decision depends on specific committee chairs and issues.

I think we do that in the interim, too,” he said of public vetting.

Some interim committees end with lengthy, detailed lists of proposals — but many end after a single meeting with no recommendations.

When we looked at some of those interim study committees, we’ve had several that have done a lot of work, but (are) not coming out with draft legislation. I don’t know that I have an answer for that,” Bray, the Senate Republican leader, told reporters this month. “I think it may be just a circumstance of the particular issue they’re looking at. But there’s nothing else (leadership is) doing behind the scenes that is trying to prevent that.”

Capital Chronicle senior reporter Whitney Downard contributed reporting.

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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie covers state government for the Indiana Capital Chronicle with emphases on elections, infrastructure and transportation. She previously covered city-county government for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She has also reported on local, national and international news for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and more. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

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