During the past decade it would be hard to find debates that raged as loud and long as those over abortion rights, gun rights and marriage rights in Indiana. But those culture wars don’t seem to loom as large in the decade ahead.
Though outspokenly pro-life and committed to defense of the 2nd Amendment, the Republicans who lead both the Indiana House and Indiana Senate tend to steer clear of advancing bills that further restrict abortion rights or widen those of gun owners, often citing the inevitability of such legislative efforts being struck down after an expensive battle in the courts. And the courts ruled so conclusively in favor of marriage equality that the issue is rarely mentioned, let alone legislated anymore.
But as Indiana hits the pause button on those debates, others will continue and a new one has begun.
As 2020 began, no one had heard of COVID-19. Now the coronavirus seems destined to reorder the state’s agenda for years to come.
Its political effects seem most likely in the governor’s race. Elected after a sudden rise through Republican ranks in 2016, Eric Holcomb had been lieutenant governor for only a few months and even after taking office as governor seemed a bit overshadowed by his better-known predecessors, Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence. But as the coronavirus took hold in March, more than three years into his term, his daily briefings on the state’s attempts to control it arguably made Holcomb a presence in Hoosier households as strong as either of his predecessors.
His shelter-in-place order, closing all but essential businesses statewide, met with scattered criticism from social conservatives who questioned the constitutionality of its effect on freedom of religion, and eventually drew a protest outside the governor’s residence. His decision to begin reopening the state came ahead of those of governors in neighboring states and was met with criticism as well, particularly from political opponents. Polling on Holcomb’s handling of the issue was positive – far more so than the Trump administration’s – but while his reelection seems likely, his popularity seems inextricably linked to the path of the virus in a steadily reopening Indiana, which is seeing a summer resurgence.
This turned out to be a year seemingly tailor-made for Holcomb’s Democratic opponent, Woody Myers, a physician who once served as state health commissioner in a previous Republican administration and later in New York City. Myers brought credibility not only as a physician in a public health crisis but also as a member of the Black community suffering disproportionately from its effects. But from the outset, his fundraising was dwarfed by Holcomb’s – more than 8-to-1 according to the last round of campaign finance reports — and despite his medical expertise, his low-profile campaign has muted any message on the pandemic that Myers has tried to deliver.
The troubled relationship between Indiana’s police departments and its Black communities was an issue long before the death of George Floyd. The fatal shooting of a Black man by police in South Bend in 2019 dogged the presidential campaign of then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg until the day he dropped out of the race in 2020. Indianapolis police have found themselves defending a succession of fatal shootings of Black men over the decades, most recently after a car chase up Michigan Road and into the residential neighborhood where 21-year-old Dreasjon Reed died and where community protests followed.
But after Floyd’s death in Minneapolis a few weeks later, cities and towns in Indiana, as in other states across the nation, saw protests on a scale never seen before. Peaceful demonstrations continued for more than a week in Downtown Indianapolis; two were followed by overnight riots that left office buildings, restaurants and retailers boarded up for weeks. The protests crossed racial and generational lines and were seen in smaller and even rural communities around Indiana.
The effects on public policy remain unclear. Soon after Floyd’s death, the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus called on Holcomb to issue an executive order banning the kind of chokehold restraint that caused it and called on municipalities to require the use of body cameras by patrol officers. The caucus also announced a 2021 legislative agenda aimed at reforms in the criminal justice system and eliminating implicit racial bias.
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Holcomb said he was committed to an agenda aimed at eliminating inequality and racial disparity but was not as specific in his plans. In a speech delivered in August, he announced plans to require Indiana State Police troopers to wear body cameras by spring 2021, to create a new position reporting directly to the governor with the title of chief equity, inclusion and opportunity officer, and to require the state to track and monitor diversity within its agencies.
As the first African-American to be nominated for governor in Indiana, outrage over Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis also presented Myers with an issue to distinguish his campaign from those of other also-rans – but that too has yet to happen.
On this issue more than others, change might be more likely at other levels of government. In June, the Democrat-controlled U.S. House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds, establish a database to track police misconduct nationally and prohibit no-knock warrants in some cases, along with other provisions. The Republican-controlled Senate advanced its own Justice Act, which is much narrower in its provisions. At the local level, some cities around the nation have begun debating an overhaul – in some cases even a defunding – of their police departments, but Indianapolis and others in Indiana are moving more slowly. In July, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department signed a $9.2 million contract to equip officers with body cameras over the next five years.
Even before 2020, debate was under way over how Indiana runs its elections. Legislation was proposed – though never advanced – to lengthen the hours that polling places are open on Election Day. Indiana’s 12-hour window, closing at 6 p.m., is among the tightest in the nation.
When restrictions on absentee voting were lifted for the 2020 primary, Indiana effectively had its first experience with vote-by-mail. But other states have been doing it for years, and in five states, it’s the only way to vote. Critics, particularly one in the White House, charge that vote-by-mail leads to voter fraud. Its advocates note that there’s no evidence to back up the charge.
The state’s Republican leadership have signaled that they have no plans to push for lifting restrictions for the general election as they did for the primary, saying that while the coronavirus remains in Indiana, it no longer warrants the stay-at-home order that would interfere with in-person voting. One thing is certain: Indiana will learn much more about the way it runs its elections after November 3. Not because of which candidates win or which lose – but because it’s not until then that we can even begin to know whether every ballot cast was actually counted and whether everyone eligible to vote actually had the opportunity to do so safely.
All elections are important – but the first election of a new decade is especially important. That’s because those who win election to the Indiana House and Senate in those years will wield an influence that extends for many more. They are the ones who, based on the new census results, get to draw the lines that will determine how voters are grouped in electing their representatives in the U.S. Congress, the Indiana House and the Indiana Senate.
In 2010, already in control of the Indiana Senate, Republicans won control of the House, and thus control over the redrawing of the legislative district lines now in place. Over the past decade, their control of both chambers has increased to a supermajority status, meaning their numbers are so dominant that Democrats have no control over the legislative process – even if they walk out.
Critics say Indiana’s approach to redistricting has given the majority party more control of the legislature than it actually won at the polls; while controlling three-quarters of the seats in the House and the Senate, Republicans vote totals statewide reflect a significantly smaller majority. Criticism sometimes centers on Monroe County, the state’s 12th largest and a Democratic stronghold that is represented in the Indiana House by four Republicans and only one Democrat — all because of the way its district lines have been drawn to take in Republican-leaning populations of adjoining counties.
The most common alternative proposed is to have an independent commission handle redistricting, as is the case in six states; legislation to allow that approach in Indiana has been proposed, sometimes with bipartisan support, but never advanced.
Defenders of the status quo in redistricting note that far more states – 36 – handle it as Indiana does. In 1990 and 2000, that approach worked more to the benefit of Democrats, who then controlled the Indiana House. But it would take a realignment of historic proportions for them to take control in 2020.
As 2020 began, the issue that seemed most likely to guide campaigns in Indiana was that over its treatment of its public school teachers – specifically, what it pays them. A “Red for Ed’’ rally attracted one of the largest demonstrations ever to the Indiana Statehouse in November 2019; a crowd estimated around 10,000, most of them K-12 teachers wearing red T-shirts, cheered as their union leaders issued a list of demands, most notably for a statewide raise that would bring Indiana teachers’ salaries more in line with those in neighboring states.
Data from the 2017-18 school year showed that would be a lot of ground to cover. Indiana’s average teacher salary of $50,614 compared to $52,338 in Kentucky, $58,202 in Ohio, $62,287 in Michigan and $64,993 in Illinois – a disparity which has caused some to move across the state line for more money, creating a continuing shortage of teachers in Indiana. A study by two education-reform groups who have advised Republican legislative leaders in the past found that Indiana would have to dedicate $658 million specifically to teacher salaries just to bring its average salary to the regional median of $59,445.
Funneling money directly into teacher salaries was a sticking point during deliberations on the current state budget enacted in 2019. Crafted by the Republican leadership, the budget increased general spending on education by 2.5 percent in both 2020 and 2021 and freed up additional money that school districts were encouraged but not required to spend to increase teacher salaries. The budget was approved along party lines, with the Democratic minority arguing the money should be going directly to teachers – a push they are continuing in the 2020 campaign. Public school teachers are heavily represented among the Democratic challengers to Republican incumbents in the November 3 election.
Republican leaders signaled after the Red for Ed rally that any increase in teacher salaries would have to wait until the next budget year, 2021, but expressed an openness to the idea. That was months before the coronavirus-triggered shutdown of businesses statewide and subsequent downturn in state revenues. As state agencies began cutting expenses to make up the difference, Holcomb said funding for education would remain intact at the levels approved in the 2019 budget but made no promises about the next one. Moreover, while generally inclined to follow leadership, the Republican caucus has its share of skeptics when it comes to a statewide salary increase for teachers, with some saying the decisions should come at the local level and others questioning the money that the state already is spending on its schools.
Globally, environmental debate tends to focus on climate change and what it portends for our planet in centuries to come. In the Indiana General Assembly, environmental debate more often focuses on a phenomenon of previous centuries – the coal mines still operating in southern and western Indiana and the state-regulated utilities that are still coal-fired.
There aren’t as many as there used to be. A decade ago, 26 coal-burning power units were active in Indiana; by 2016, the number had been reduced by half. Over the next decade, the number is projected to shrink to only a few. Nationally, coal consumption is at its lowest point in 40 years, and coal companies continue to file for bankruptcy, including St. Louis-based giant Peabody, which continues to operate the Bear Run coal mine in Sullivan County, the heart of Indiana’s remaining coal country. Virtually all of Indiana’s major utilities have announced plans to retire coal-burning units in favor of natural gas or renewable sources such as wind or solar.
But coal still accounts for most of Indiana’s electricity generation. That was the rationale for legislation advanced in 2020 by Ed Soliday, chairman of the House Utilities Committee, providing that utilities “may not retire, sell, transfer, or terminate a lease” on an electricity-generating plant without permission from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. Criticized as attempting to prop up a dying industry, Soliday countered that the bill – eventually passed and signed into law — was only a way to ensure that Indiana has enough alternative energy sources to take over for coal.
One set of issues that raged through the previous decade seems destined to carry into the next: Obamacare and its gradual dismantling under the Trump administration — and at the state level, the performance of Republican-led attempts to address issues of health care through the Healthy Indiana Program and other legislative measures.
Noting that Indiana ranks near the bottom for its expenditures on public health, Democrats argue that state-level policy on health care must include controls on the cost of prescription drugs, particularly for the elderly, along with increased in-home health services and direct assistance for catastrophic health events. More generally, they urge public policy that aims to increase the economic and social standing of all communities, providing broader access to health care across the board.
Republicans identified health care as a key issue going into the 2020 legislative session, and their efforts centered on House Bill 1004, which controlled surprise billing for out-of-network and other costs. While criticizing the effort as too narrowly focused, Democrats supported the measure in passing it out of the House. But when it was returned from the Senate with amendments that they said narrowed its impact even further, most opposed it; the bill nonetheless passed and was signed into law.
There’s a reason that the writing of the state’s biennial budget occurs during the every-other-year “long” legislative session: It’s always a long and complicated process. It will be even more so in 2021.
The coronavirus outbreak triggered a recession and a resulting downturn in state revenues from income and sales taxes as well as lucrative wagering taxes from the state’s 13 casinos – along with a sharply increased payout of unemployment benefits. The state carried a $2.4 billion budget surplus into 2020, $1 billion of which was needed to make up the difference just to get to midyear. To get through the next, state agencies were ordered to cut their budgets by 15 percent, its colleges and universities by 7 percent. But the Holcomb administration announced that K-12 education – accounting for more than 50 percent of the budget — would be spared, remaining at the funding levels approved in 2019.
What that signals for funding levels in the 2022-23 budget to be debated next year, particularly when it comes to increased teacher pay, is a debate already taking shape in this year’s legislative campaigns. Republicans generally maintain that a budget surplus is crucial to weathering unexpected downturns like this one. Democrats counter that Indiana’s surplus has been maintained at too high a level while crucial needs, particularly in education, are going unmet.
Learn more: Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute