Reading skills, wetland, higher education laws going into effect July 1

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Holcomb and legislators celebrate happy hour law
From left to right: Sen. Justin Busch, Reps. Jake Teshka and Ethan Manning, and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb celebrate legislation legalizing happy hours at the Whistle Stop Inn in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 14, 2024. (Photo provided/Leslie Bonilla Muniz, Indiana Capital Chronicle)

By MIA HILKOWITZ

From reading skills to happy hour, all or parts of nearly 150 laws will take effect July 1 in Indiana. Other key topics include wetlands, higher education oversight and more.

Senate Enrolled Acts 1 and 6 address one of the most heavily debated topics of the 2024 legislative session: reading skills and proficiency among Indiana youth. Many legislators promised to tackle the issue after the IREAD results revealed nearly one in five Indiana third graders struggle to read, which Education Secretary Katie Jenner labeled a “crisis.” 

SEA 1 — authored by Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger — requires schools to hold back third graders who fail the state reading proficiency exam. The law provides exemptions for English language learners, students who have individualized education plans or excel in the math portion of the state’s assessment.

The law also requires schools to start administering proficiency testing in second grade and offer additional tutoring, resources and summer courses to students at risk of failing the IREAD exam.

A companion law, SEA 6, also requires the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) to identify students in fourth through eighth grade who are not reading proficiently. The IDOE will also need to develop guidelines for schools to support these students.

However, some policy makers expressed concern about the law — specifically the policy requiring schools to hold back students — arguing it could negatively affect students’ social and emotional development

Happy Hour

HEA 1086 is bringing “happy hour” drink sales back to Indiana, reversing a nearly 40-year ban on selling drinks at reduced prices during certain hours. 

The state legislature passed this ban in  1985 to try to reduce drunk driving. 

Starting July 1, bars and restaurants can sell drinks at a reduced price for up to four hours a day and 15 hours a week. However, the law prohibits them from selling reduced drinks between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. 

Holcomb signed the bill into law at a local watering hole, praising lawmakers in the warm, crowded pub.

“But this is really about the consumer and the small business person who is grinding it out every single day,” Holcomb said.

“July 1, happy days are here again,” he quipped from behind the bar, amid clapping.

Legislative oversight of higher education and faculty tenure 

Another controversial law from this past session set to take effect July 1 is SEA 202, which increases the legislature’s oversight of public colleges and universities. 

The new law requires university boards of trustees to create policies that would prohibit faculty members from receiving tenure or promotions if they are deemed unlikely to “foster a culture of free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity within the institutions” or unlikely to expose students to different “political and ideological frameworks.” However, it does not specify what constitutes these cultures or frameworks. The law also requires boards of trustees to review its tenured professors every five years to see if they meet these requirements. 

Proponents of the bill argue the law will increase “intellectual diversity” among the state’s higher education institutions. Sen. Spencer Deery, R-West Lafayette, who authored the law, said during a February education committee meeting the legislature needs to address “the increasing number of students who just don’t feel like higher ed is a place for them.”

“I also believe it will improve the quality of education they receive, because we all benefit – no matter your political beliefs — from being challenged and exposed to new scholarly ideas,” Deery said. 

However, the law has faced high levels of scrutiny and opposition from faculty, administrators and students statewide. Indiana University President Pamela Whitten criticized the then-bill in February, and the IU-Bloomington and Purdue University-West Lafayette chapters of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have opposed the legislation. 

IU Bloomington-AAUP President Bob Eno said in a statement to the Indiana Capital Chronicle that while the organization has not taken any additional action since SEA 202 was signed into law, its executive committee will track how IU handles the mandated processes. 

“Since the impact on faculty will be especially great, our focus over the coming months will be on ensuring that the Trustees and administration follow through on the pledge to work closely with faculty in devising those procedures,” Eno said. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana sued Purdue University on behalf of two professors from the institution’s Fort Wayne campus in May to challenge the law. The professors and ACLU argue SEA 202 violates their first amendment rights. 

Wetland protections 

HEA 1383, authored by Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Brazil, reduces protections for some of the state’s wetlands by reclassifying many Class III wetlands — the most protected group — as Class II. This was the first bill Gov. Holcomb signed during the 2024 legislative session.

The law’s passage comes two years after Holcomb signed another law that rolled back protections for the state’s smaller wetlands and a year after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling removed federal protections for most of Indiana’s wetlands. 

Sponsors of the law described it as a compromise between protecting wetlands and keeping the costs of buying a home and operating a business or farm low. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) supported the bill after meeting with representatives from the Indiana Builders Association (IBA) last year.

However, the law garnered criticism and pushback from environmental groups, who argue the reclassification further contributes to wetland loss in the state and poses significant flooding, water supply and ecosystem concerns. 

Sam Carpenter, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC), said the process to approve the law was rushed, and that environmental groups didn’t have an opportunity to express their concerns with the authors of the bill and developers. And while some developers and the IDEM might describe the law as a “compromise,” Carpenter doesn’t agree. 

“[The IBA] had meetings with IDEM over the summer, leading up to the legislative session. They, in their public testimony and committee hearings on the bill, raised the threat of completely removing all wetland protection, as had been done in North Carolina recently,” Carpenter said. “When they describe it as a compromise, what they are saying is ‘well at least we’re not losing wetlands protection programs altogether.’” 

Susie McGovern, a water science and sustainability specialist for HEC, said Indiana has some of the worst water quality in the country. 

“These wetlands are essential for boosting water quality,” she said. “I think we’re only going to see further reductions in water quality unless we start, you know, protecting our wetlands.” 

Both Carpenter and McGovern noted few wetlands in Indiana are protected following the rollback of protections since 2021. 

“We’ve lost so much protection,” Carpenter said. “So little of our wetlands are protected and this is going to take another chunk of that away.” 

The following laws will also go into effect on July 1:

  • HEA 1426, authored by former Rep. Rita Fleming, D-Jeffersonville, requires Medicaid to cover the cost of long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARC) stocked in hospitals. It also requires providers to ensure patients with Medicaid are offered LARC options after childbirth. Notably, the legislation was amended while in committee to exclude intrauterine devices (IUDs). 
  • SEA 185 prohibits K-12 students from using wireless communication devices — including cell phones, tablets, computers and gaming devices — during instructional time. Under the new law, students can only use their phones if permitted by a teacher for educational purposes, in the case of an emergency or if a device is included in a student’s individualized education program. Schools will also be required to publish wireless communication device policies on their websites. 
  • SEA 146 allows individuals older than 18 but less than 21-years-old to ring up the sale of and serve alcoholic beverages while employed at restaurants or hotels. The law also outlines civil penalties for employers who fail to register the number of minors working at their establishment.