Senator Jean Leising provided information Friday afternoon at the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce’s virtual legislative update about the General Assembly’s 2021 session came to an end.
Senator Michael Crider and Representative Sean Eberhart were scheduled to present but unable to attend the event.
First, Chamber Board President Katie Rowland introduced Angela Gill, the Executive Director of the MHP Foundation. Gill explained how COVID looks in Shelby County now compared to a year ago.
“At its peak about 70 percent of our patients at any single time were Covid positive,” Gill said. “It took over everything. And in the past few months, we’re in a very different place. A few weeks ago, we were at no Covid positives.”
She said hospitalizations are up 50 percent at this time but aren’t anything like they were a year ago. MHP has only seen a few Covid patients in the last few weeks, and they’re all younger people who haven’t had the chance to get a vaccine yet.
Between MHP and the Health Department, 30,000 people in Shelby County have been vaccinated. Gill expects the vaccine to be extended to people 12 and older by July, and hopefully babies six months and older will be eligible by the end of the year. She said one can get a vaccine by calling 211 or going to ourshot.in.gov.
“We have eight retired nurses who have come out of retirement to administer this vaccine,” she said. “The research continues. We may have to get booster shots. And there is potential to combine the Covid shot with the flu shot ... Please don’t be afraid. Call us up and come on down. We’d be thrilled to stick that needle in your arm.”
Then Gill introduced Leising. Leising thanked her and the hospital for work on vaccine distribution and Covid care of patients.
“I’ve been a strong advocate in the Senate for the vaccine. As soon as I was eligible, I signed up that morning,” Leising said.
Leising reported that the legislative session officially closed Thursday afternoon.
“I say closure because we didn’t technically adjourn,” she said. “There are two responsibilities the legislature has this year, being 2021. We not only had to do a budget, but we also had to do redistricting.”
Redistricting is based on census data, but the federal government said census data may not be available until September. Because of this, the Indiana General Assembly will continue its session to do redistricting.
Last time Indiana redistricted, Leising lost the northern part of Shelby County and gained most of Henry County. Redistricting is based on population numbers, and her population significantly changed. Her district includes all or parts of seven counties.
“My district may stay as big or get even larger than it is now,” she said.
Leising moved on to talking about the budget. The budget bill was voted on Thursday afternoon. The total budget is $36.3 billion. She provided a breakdown of where the money will go:
She said 50 percent of the budget will go to K-12 education, 11 percent to higher education, 15 percent to Medicaid, 6 percent to public safety, 5 percent the Department of Child Services, 4 percent to capital projects, and 3 percent other health/human services.
“We have got a reserve balance that – after appropriating this money – the reserve balance is a little over $3 billion,” she said. “It’s substantial. Of that total money, the federal government gave us some stimulus money and that approximately $3 billion has been used for one time spending projects.”
Some of these one time projects include hazard pay for state police and the Department of Homeland Security, body cameras and stab protection for police, and broadband grants. Leising added they also backfilled the unemployment trust fund.
The budget allocated a significant amount of money to public schools.
“I would tell you that as far as our public schools, they get 93 percent of education funding,” Leising said. “Charters and vouchers get the remaining 7 percent.”
Leising said she looked specifically at Shelby County schools to see how much of an increase in funding they would receive: Shelbyville Central should get a 7.7 percent increase; Shelby Eastern should see a 7.8 percent increase; and Southwestern should see a 5.3 percent increase. Leising wasn’t able to see Triton Central’s increase because Northwestern Consolidated Schools is in Senator Crider’s district. Leising’s three schools all received an increase above the state average.
“So that’s good news,” she said. “The other thing about that is we’re hoping with this increase in funding that teacher pay is going to be improved. As you’ve all heard in the news, the teacher pay was trending behind the other states in regards to that. What they’re saying is 45 percent of state funding must go toward teacher pay. That might be a little bit of a challenge for our school admin folks, but I’m hoping with the increase dollars they can figure that out.”
Leising added a requirement in the spending bill says if school can’t get starting teacher pay up to $40,000 per year,they must send letter to the Department of Education explaining what’s blocking that goal.
“That would cause some very interesting discussion I think,” she said. “Hopefully, it won’t be too difficult for our schools to achieve that.”
“I’m hoping the teacher profession can be restored to the same integrity it was when I was graduating high school,” she added.
Leising talked about a couple of other popular bills the legislative session discussed.
One such bill that passed was HB 1123. According to Leising, the bill would restrict Indiana’s governor “from overstepping his hand exercising his authority by continuous executive powers he’s used over the last 13-14 months now.”
Governor Eric Holcomb vetoed this bill, but the General Assembly overrode the veto, so what’s in the bill is going to be law.
“I don’t think anybody wants to take away total authority of the governor, but that was the number one complaint I had from constituents,” she said, referencing a survey she’d issued to people in her district.
Leising also talked about Senate Bill 5, which ensured local officials have final say over local health orders, a bill that protected religious freedom, and a bill that issued COVID liability protections to businesses.
“A lot of people were upset at the crackdown of people not being able to go to church during the pandemic,” she said.
“We all have to figure out how to get things back to normal,” she said.
Leising addressed HB 1004.
“It is giving $60 million in grants to help small struggling business owners,” she said. “In the last few days, OCRA issued 80 Hoosier communities federal grant funding for mental health services but also for getting small businesses back on their feet.”
“Shelby County was awarded $250,000 of up to $10,000 per small business with fewer than 50 employees that have been negatively impacted by COVID-19,” she added. “This is a new OCRA grant, not to be confused with one that was previous this spring.”
Six other areas in Leising’s district also benefit from that grant.
“I’ve been worried about some of my smallest businesses in my district,” she said. “Sometimes, we take for granted that those places will always be there.”
Lastly, Leising talked about SB 202, which allows compassionate visitation for people in nursing homes and hospitals during a public health emergency. This was in response to feedback many legislators received regarding not being able to visit their dying loved ones during the pandemic.
Following her discussion, the chat turned into a question and answer session.
An attendee brought up HB 1381 and renewable energy. Leising, who voted against the bill in the Senate Utilities Committee, said it died, but it may be back again next session as Indiana pushes to reach the goal of having 30 percent of its total power be renewable energy.
Another attendee asked about how broadband would be doled out. Leising said there would be an effort to continue distributing it fairly and equitably without overbuilding.
“Overbuilding broadband service to an area that already has it doesn’t make sense to the Federal government to provide money,” she said. “So I think there may be more scrutiny on that as well. I think it’s going to be tough as they dole out this $250 million to make everybody happy.”
Chamber Executive Director Donna Christian thanked Leising for attending the meeting.
“I just want to tell you what a pleasure it is to work with you,” she said. “You are very easy to reach, you always communicate right back. You’ve been great today and we really appreciate that.”
Chamber President Rowland thanked the current chamber members and encouraged new members to join. She thanked the sponsors as well.
Sponsors included Indiana Grand, Rush Shelby Energy, Knauf Insulation, NSC Group, McNeely Law, The Shelby County Development Corporation, First Bank of Shelbyville, Giant FM, Milestone, The Rotary Club, and Plymate.