The Journal Gazette
Friday, January 08, 2021 1:00 am

General assembly

GOP wants state to 'bounce back'

Lawmakers aim to use pandemic savings on key grants

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – House Republicans released their legislative priorities Thursday – focusing on one-time grants for health, school remediation and small business aid.

The caucus also wants to expand the state's broad school voucher program by lowering the income eligibility standards.

As for public school funding, House Speaker Todd Huston said they are “working toward” a base increase for K-12 schools, but it wasn't on the agenda.

“Our legislative agenda is about making sure that Indiana bounces back better than ever before,” he said.

House Democratic Leader Rep. Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said the focus should be on public education and increasing pay for teachers, not expanding vouchers.

“It's really about priorities,” he said. “I would rather invest in our public school educators and students.”

He said the voucher program was originally meant to give other options to students trapped in failing schools. Now it is simply paying for children to attend a private school who were going to go there anyway.

On Wednesday, the Senate Republicans released their agenda, too. Some of the items are the same as the House's – a school funding fix for the current school year and protections for businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits.

“My caucus members and I are prioritizing a handful of items that we believe are at the top of the minds of Hoosiers as we continue to evaluate the impact COVID-19 has had on our state,” Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said.

The House agenda is full of one-time programs. That's because at the beginning of the pandemic, cuts were made to agency budgets that saved more money than expected. The economy also started to rebound, and the state surplus is higher than expected.

Huston said that allows for some one-time expenditures, such as a grant program for local organizations to address various health issues such as obesity and tobacco use.

Also, he acknowledged that some students have fallen behind educationally due to a disrupted year with remote learning. A one-time remediation program is meant to address learning loss.

Other one-time grant programs will help small businesses in the hospitality industry stay afloat; expand rural broadband; and provide grants to local government who want to equip police officers with body cameras.

Huston didn't know how much money would be set aside for each program; that will be part of ongoing budget discussions.

Senate Republicans also want to codify the use of telehealth services in the state and improve local government accountability.

The latter is the topic of Senate Bill 5, which would give businesses and others a process to appeal enforcement actions by local health departments during public health emergencies. A small number of businesses have been fined or shut down last year for not following local health mandates.

Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, said the vast majority of appointed health boards performed admirably but constituents deserve an appeals process. The bill would allow anyone cited under an emergency health order to appeal to the local elected board that appoints the health board – such as the county commissioners.

“This is not a shot at local health departments,” he said. And the elected board could decline to hear the appeal.

At a glance

The Indiana House Republican agenda includes the following:

• Establish a new grant program to target Indiana's most critical health challenges (HB1007)

• Expand rural broadband to help close the digital divide for Hoosier students, workers and employers (HB1001)

• Extend and strengthen existing grant programs and give priority to the hospitality industry (HB1004)

• Fully fund all K-12 public school students for the 2020-21 school year

• Invest in law enforcement training facilities and programs, and create a one-time grant to help pay for body cameras (HB1001)

• Require full employment record sharing between police departments to identify bad actors (HB1006)

• Provide additional flexibility to the Indiana Law Enforcement Training Board to address significant officer misconduct (HB1006)

• Require de-escalation training for new recruits and current officers (HB1006)

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