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2021 legislative session: What to know, bills to watch

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The state legislature returned to session Jan. 4 with much to figure out over the next few months.

Legislators will debate appropriate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they’ll be responsible for drawing the boundaries for legislative districts since 2020 was a census year. Plus, state lawmakers will have to present a two-year budget to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Here’s what to pay attention to.

Important dates

Jan. 8 — Deadline to file bills in the Senate
Jan. 11 — Deadline to file bills in the House of Representatives
Feb. 22 — Deadline for third reading of House bills in the House of Representatives
Feb. 23 — Deadline for the Senate to receive House bills
Feb. 23 — Deadline for third reading of Senate bills in the Senate
April 19 — Deadline for third reading of Senate bills in the House of Representatives
April 20 — Deadline for third reading of House bills in the Senate
April 29 — Last day to adjourn

A COVID-19 outbreak among lawmakers or staff could make a special session later in the year necessary if legislators aren’t able to accomplish everything that needs to be finished by the April 29 deadline.

Challenging control of IMPD

Two Republican senators filed a bill to take control of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department away from the mayor and city-county council and instead give it to a five-member state board.

Citing a record 245 homicides in 2020, Sens. Jack Sandlin, Indianapolis, and Scott Baldwin’s, Noblesville, proposed board would consist of Indianapolis’ mayor and four people appointed by the governor. The board’s responsibilities would range from acting as a merit board for IMPD to appointing the chief.

“It is important that outside voices are heard on how we handle matters in our capital city,” Baldwin said in a press release. “Visitors from all over the country and the world come to Indianapolis, and we want to see it reflect well on the rest of our state.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Joe Hogsett responded in a statement: “There have been a number of bills proposed ahead of the 2021 state legislative session. While it’s still early in the process, we look forward to reviewing them and working with the General Assembly on important issues facing Marion County.”

Democratic Rep. Robin Shackleford, Indianapolis, said she hopes the bill doesn’t get a hearing or at least doesn’t make it out of committee.

“My hope is that these legislators who truly want to help decrease homicides in Indianapolis recognize that the answer should not be increased government oversight,” she said. “We should be focusing on how the state can help locals and not take away their power.”

A possible veto override

Holcomb vetoed only one bill last year: Senate Enrolled Act 148, which included a last-second amendment that would have prevented local governments from regulating landlord-tenant relations. It also would have nullified existing renter protections such as those recently implemented in Indianapolis.

Housing advocates are worried Republican legislators will override Holcomb’s veto, which would only require a majority vote in the House and Senate.

Housing advocates are also worried about how the law might impact homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Holcomb cited the pandemic — then in its early days — as one of the reasons he voted the bill, saying it was “not the right time for such language to become law.”

“Housing is a foundational pillar in our community that will save lives,” Derris Ross, founder of the Indianapolis Tenants Rights Union, said during a virtual press conference Jan. 5 hosted by the Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition.

The coalition is encouraging people to contact their legislators and ask them to not override the veto.

Penalties for rioting conviction

Republican Sens. James Tomes, Wadesville, and Michael Crider, Greenfield, authored a bill that would make anyone convicted of rioting ineligible for a job with the state or local government, and they wouldn’t be able to receive certain state and local benefits such as food assistance and unemployment.

The bill would also increase penalties for rioting, obstruction of traffic, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct.

The bill also defines the term “defunding law enforcement” and would prohibit local government from defunding its law enforcement agency.

IndyGo ready for another fight

IndyGo officials are ready for a second fight with Republicans at the Statehouse, namely Sen. Aaron Freeman, Indianapolis, over a 2014 state law that requires the transit corporation to collect millions in private donations to help pay for expansion projects.

IndyGo received nonprofit status for the Indianapolis Public Transportation Foundation in June 2019 and has raised $96,002 in corporate, foundation, individual, and in-kind donations. The law, which authorized an increase in the city’s income tax to fund more buses and projects such as the Red Line, requires IndyGo to raise 10% of the revenue generated by the additional tax — or about $6 million per year.

Freeman authored an amendment in the last legislative session that would have punished IndyGo for not meeting the requirement and put the future Blue and Purple rapid-transit lines in jeopardy. The bill didn’t pass, but Freeman has indicated he’ll keep pushing the issue.

IndyGo officials say the requirement is unrealistic, especially since the foundation ramped up fundraising just as the pandemic hit.

There is also an issue with interpretation. Freeman says IndyGo has to raise the money through private donations, but IndyGo says it should be able to count money that comes from grants and advertising.

“We believe in our interpretation that we’re meeting the spirit of the law,” IndyGo President and CEO Inez Evans said.

Redistricting

Indiana lawmakers usually receive the census data they need for redistricting by March, but it’s not clear when data will be available since the count was delayed in 2020 and outgoing President Donald Trump is still trying to get the court to exclude people who don’t have legal immigration status.

Legislators are responsible for drawing the boundaries for Indiana’s nine congressional districts, 50 Senate districts and 100 House districts.

At least eight states have a redistricting commission that is primarily responsible for drawing a plan for congressional districts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but Indiana is not one of those states.

Republicans dominate the redistricting process in Indiana since the GOP has strong majorities in the House and Senate. Holcomb has the authority to veto any map the legislature comes up with.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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