Why Democrats are finding more success in the Indiana Statehouse this year
- As superminorities in the Indiana House and Senate, Democrats can move bills only if Republicans allow them.
- The last two years have been particularly challenging for Democratic lawmakers.
- Democrats are finding more success this year, but everyone has different theories on why.
South Bend Fire Chief Carl Buchanon is all but certain it’s too late for him.
Over his 37 years in the department, he’s been exposed to cancer-causing chemicals found in firefighting foam and gear known as PFAS. Multiple former South Bend firefighters have died of cancer, and firefighters are 14% more likely to die of cancer than the general public.
What Buchanon doesn’t know is how many of the chemicals are flowing through his veins. A bill under consideration by Indiana lawmakers would direct the state to begin testing firefighters.
“Maybe it’ll help me,” Buchanan said during committee testimony on the bill, “but I’m more concerned with it helping those that are after me.”
House Bill 1219 also amounts to a legislative victory for Democrats, who haven’t been able to say that too often in recent years.
The Indiana General Assembly is overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans. Not only do they hold the votes, they also decide whether a Democratic bill can even be heard by lawmakers in the first place. And, historically, Indiana supermajorities of both political stripes have tended to exercise that discretion more often than not.
This year, though, Democrats moved 27 bills in the first half of session.
That’s more than the last two years — combined.
Rep. Maureen Bauer, D-South Bend, filed legislation to address PFAS last year and the year before, but neither of those bills moved. This year’s House Bill 1219 — which moved through the House and has picked up powerful Republican co-sponsors in the Senate— was her first success.
“With one party rule in the House, the Senate and the governor, I think it can be easy to only hear one party’s policies or ideas,” said Bauer, who also moved two other bills this year. “But when we come down here I represent Democrats and Republicans alike. I’m reminded of that often.”
To be clear, it’s not that Democrats are passing an outsized number of bills. The Democratic-led bills still in play make up less than 8% of the bills that advanced in either chamber during the first leg of session, despite Democrats holding a quarter of all legislative seats. That doesn’t include bills in which Democrats are a secondary author.
Nor is partisanship dead. Democrats have pushed back against a flood of bills they say would hurt transgender Hoosiers, and no Democrat voted for the House budget which aims to expand school choice vouchers.
The ideological divide on social issues has arguably never been greater in the halls of the Statehouse.
So, why are Republicans allowing Democrats to move more bills this year?
Everyone has their own theory. Maybe Democrats are simply introducing bills with bipartisan interest. Or maybe it’s a concerted effort to stave off the bitterness now common in Congress and other statehouses. Or maybe House Speaker Todd Huston and President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray have grown comfortable as they’ve collected more years of power.
Or there’s Huston’s explanation: The state has moved on from the pandemic when how people governed and communicated was different.
A return to normalcy
Huston, R-Fishers, was not surprised to learn that Democrats moved more bills this year. He characterized the increase as a return to “normal” times following disruptions driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021, House lawmakers gathered in a larger, makeshift space in the Indiana Government Center South building to enable social distancing. They only met once per week at the beginning to reduce contact. The Senate, too, spread out over the two floors of the Senate chamber.
And just like others around the world, lawmakers weren’t fraternizing as much as they typically would. Taken together, that meant less communication and relationship-building between the caucuses.
Only 17 Democratic bills made it past a floor vote that year, compared to 27 this year, despite both sessions being longer budget years.
Perhaps nothing illustrated the tension back in 2021 more than when a verbal fight broke out in the House’s temporary chamber after Republican lawmakers booed Black Democratic lawmakers who called a bill discriminatory during floor debate.
At one point, two lawmakers had to be physically separated just outside of the chamber. All 14 Black lawmakers in the Statehouse were Democrats.
By 2022, lawmakers had stopped sitting six feet apart, but Huston said the relationships between lawmakers hadn’t returned to normal yet. There was an ideological divide on how to handle yet another COVID-19 surge, as some lawmakers wore masks and others declined to get vaccinated. That year, only eight Democrat-led bills survived the first half of session in either chamber.
“I’ve heard overwhelmingly how much better communication has been on both sides of the aisle, within committees,” Huston said. “This year we’re back to having the normal types of relationships we can have where people can spend time outside the chamber talking to each other in their offices and around the Statehouse.”
The numbers bear out Huston’s theory. The number of Democratic bills advancing so far this session mostly match those in pre-COVID times. In 2019, 37 bills moved during the first half of the session.
Of course, there are other theories.
Yes, 2021 was impacted by COVID-19, but it also was Huston’s first session as speaker. In the Senate, Bray was in just his third session as the leader.
Mike Murphy, a former Republican lawmaker who spent most of his tenure as part of the minority party, emphasized that how many minority party bills get passed depends on the attitudes of leadership.
“Speaker Huston and President Pro Tem Bray have got their sea legs, so to speak, and got more comfortable as leaders of these two supermajorities,” Murphy said. “Their caucus members have tremendous confidence in them, which gives them the ability to be a little more magnanimous when dealing with the minority party’s ideas.”
To Murphy’s point: Huston and Bray both said they tell committee chairs to take testimony on the best bills, regardless of who wrote them.
Multiple people interviewed by State Affairs agreed that Indiana legislative leaders do not want to see their chambers devolve into the bitterness gripping Congress and other statehouses. And a majority of Americans want government officials to work with those across the aisle, multiple polls have shown, even if that’s not necessarily how people vote.
“I take some pride in the fact that while we’re a supermajority, we still want the other side of the party at the table,” Bray told State Affairs, “and candidly they intend to be there and add value.”
Andy Downs, emeritus associate professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne, has a more simple suggestion: Democrats are carrying bills that have bipartisan interest this year.
“Democrats have managed to identify issues that cut across normal partisan divides,” Downs said, “and in doing so have managed to find less resistance.”
Some could be lifesaving. Aside from the PFAS legislation, Democrats championed a bill focused on decreasing fatal car crashes.
Another bill Bauer authored seeks to close loopholes in Indiana’s child seduction law so the criminal charge applies to youth sports coaches who are not employed by schools. It passed the House and already received a hearing and committee vote on the Senate side, too.
“I think it’s hard to ignore something like that as a chair,” Bauer said. “At a time when it might seem like we don’t have common ground, we can see an area where we can come together and pass bills out unanimously.”
Ironically, having a supermajority actually better enables Republican leaders to support Democratic bills, according to insiders and experts. If the margins were closer, Republicans wouldn’t be motivated to help any Democrats, particularly if it could help a Democrat hang on to a seat.
This year, even Democrats from some of the state’s most competitive districts, such as Rep. Victoria Garcia Wilburn, moved legislation.
Garcia Wilburn, a freshman who won a competitive Hamilton County district by just 1 percentage point in 2022, pushed a bill through the House that seeks to improve police officers’ mental health and prevent suicide.
Likewise, Rep. Mitch Gore, a Democrat from the southeast side of Indianapolis, was able to advance a gun bill, a surprising feat for any Democrat, let alone one in a more competitive district.
“There’s no how-to book to get a bill passed out there,” House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta said. “We try to be pragmatic problem solvers, and on top of that, I think our members do a really good job of forming relationships with chairs.”
Holcomb and Democrats are on the same page
The other strange phenomenon that could be helping Democrats is that Gov. Eric Holcomb included items in his 2023 legislative agenda that were historically championed by Democrats. One example: Holcomb wants to do away with textbook fees for families of K-12 students.
He also wants to expand the 21st Century Scholars program by automatically enrolling eligible students, an idea Democrats have endorsed for years. The program covers the cost of tuition for students from low-income families at many Indiana colleges and universities.
When some parents begin wondering how their high school students will afford college, it’s already too late because the program requires families to apply while the kids are in eighth grade.
State Rep. Earl Harris, Jr., D-East Chicago, has been pursuing a legislative fix for at least a couple years. In his pitches to other lawmakers, Harris has talked about how the bill would enable families to overcome a costly barrier to send their children to college.
But, he notes, the state of Indiana also would benefit from a workforce that is increasingly educated. The latter point is of particular interest to a Republican supermajority seeking to address a workforce shortage across several industries in Indiana.
"You mention workforce," Harris told State Affairs, "and pretty much everyone's ears are going to perk up."
This year his bill is finding important allies, including the Republican chairs of the House and Senate education committees.
It is also fortunate, he said, that Holcomb’s legislative agenda sought to expand automatic enrollment in the program. The two discussed his bill when the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus met with the governor on Feb. 14.
Typically lawmakers from the same party as the governor carry his priority bills. But no Republican filed legislation related to automatic enrollment this year, so if Republican chairs wanted to advance that part of Holcomb’s agenda, they needed to turn to a Democrat.
“Sometimes,” Harris said, “it’s just great timing.”
Contact Kaitlin Lange on Twitter @kaitlin_lange or email her at [email protected].
Contact Ryan Martin on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or at [email protected].
Header image: House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, and House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, talk during an event on March 7, 2023. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)
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The debt ceiling, a lack of integrity and the possible fallout
In the coming days, the United States again confronts our statutory debt ceiling. This is a 1917 law (increased every year or so) establishing a cap on federal government debt. The law itself runs up against the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was intended to reassure bondholders that we pay our Civil War debts. That means the debt ceiling may be unconstitutional, giving the Biden administration the option of simply printing money to cover the debt.
The debt ceiling law is politically convenient because it offers an opportunity for members of both parties to engage in a bit of political theater. It is important to remain focused on the real issue of debt rather than the political shenanigans. I expect some sort of compromise, but that is more hope than actual analysis.
Neither the Republicans nor Democrats have performed satisfactorily on this ballooning public debt. The GOP showed zero concern about debt when a Republican president was in office. Not a single Hoosier Senator or member of Congress voted against the Trump administration’s Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) or the CARES Act. These bills fall in first and third place in terms of recent contributions to the debt.
The Democrats, who voted almost unanimously against the TCJA, voted unanimously for the American Rescue Plan, which came in second place for debt loading. There’s not a clean hand in Congress on the current debt. Insofar as I can tell, the sole Republican speaking honestly about the GOP’s profligate history is Mike Pence.
As I wrote at the time, each of these large spending bills had some merits, and there remain reasonable arguments for each. The problem is that so many now in office want to remake themselves as thoughtful budget hawks, but when it mattered, they were nothing of the sort. It is the lack of integrity that highlights the real problem. No one can be honest about the root of the problem.
In 1946, right after winning World War II, our debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 119%. Today it sits at 121%, down from 127% two years ago. But, there is no peace dividend. Our spending problems are not about our military spending, which is today at near historical lows as a share of GDP.
The big-budget items driving our deficit are spending for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and federal government and military retirements. And yes, I know Social Security and Medicare are supposed to be separate budget items. They are not.
If we cut all foreign aid (including Ukraine defense), housing subsidies, environmental remediation, research, discretionary education spending, immigrants, parks, and clean air or water, we wouldn’t make a dent in our debt. Altogether, these spending items wouldn’t even cover the interest payments on our debt.
In order to reduce our debt in the coming decades, we are going to have to do two very unpopular things: raise taxes and cut spending. We are going to have to do more of both than almost anyone really imagines.
On the revenue side, we are going to have to sunset the TCJA and raise marginal income tax rates on middle- and high-income households. By middle, I mean everyone who pays an income tax. Also, we probably must extend the Social Security taxes (FICA) across all earned income types.
On the spending side, we are going to have to extend retirement age, probably to 70 years or so for younger workers. We won’t have to means-test benefits, because we will have higher taxes on more affluent households. But, we will reduce retirement benefits for younger workers, and end the practice of increasing Social Security for older adults who work. We are also going to have to reduce the rate of inflation adjustments for Social Security recipients.
If all of that sounds distasteful to you, too bad. What I have just outlined is probably the easiest resolution to our current debt problem. But, what if we choose a different path?
We could cut defense spending. I’d vote to eliminate the entire Marine Corps. If we did that, it would only take another 117 years to eliminate today’s debt, though that wouldn’t come close to balancing the current budget. So, we’ll have to cut something else. If we cut our foreign aid, we could pay off the current debt, not counting interest, in 600 years. Alternatively, we could reduce overall Social Security costs by 10%, through later eligibility, and extend FICA taxes to a further 10% of earnings, and retire the debt in 60 years.
It is probably wise to ignore the political talking points about our debt and focus on the arithmetic. Still, many might wonder what if we ignore all this and blow off our debts, and default. After all, many Americans declare bankruptcy. Well, that step would be somewhere between a crisis and a full-blown economic catastrophe.
The United States borrows money like every other government does. We have treasury bills notes, bonds, inflation-indexed securities, floating rate notes, domestic series bonds and the like. Altogether this is about $31.5 trillion in borrowing. About 13 cents on every federal tax dollar collected goes to paying interest on these debts (or about twice the annual cost of the entire Marine Corps).
The reason the U.S. can borrow all this money is simply that everyone believes we will pay it back. Our creditworthiness ensures a reasonably low rate of borrowing and keeps our currency as the world’s reserve currency. So what happens if we default?
Well, there will be a flight away from U.S. securities. This will lead to financial markets devaluing our bonds, leading to higher borrowing rates on futures. Since our bonds turn over all the time, that would mean an almost immediate increase in the share of taxes we have to spend to service the debt.
If the U.S. defaults on our debts, the stock market will decline precipitously. It would strengthen China and Russia, while weakening the U.S., perhaps sliding our economy into recession along with most of our allies. The worst forecast I have seen suggests that an extended default would result in a Great Recession-level shock to the global economy.
I think this is an unlikely scenario, only because the domestic political backlash would be so severe we will come to some compromise. But, I’m a notoriously bad political forecaster. Rather than risking default, we’d be wise to heed the rare wisdom of then-President Donald Trump’s advice on the debt ceiling: “That’s a sacred element of our country. They can’t use the debt ceiling to negotiate.”
Michael J. Hicks, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. He can be reached on Twitter @hicksCBER.
Header Image: Debt ceiling (Credit: Douglas Rissing / Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Thousands of Hoosiers will soon lose Medicaid access, but the cost of the program is still increasing
Hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers are poised to lose Medicaid insurance access over the next year due to the end of a COVID-19 pandemic-era federal policy that prevented states from kicking people off Medicaid.
Despite that, state costs for the health program serving more than 2.2 million low-income Hoosiers, including more than 60% of Indiana’s children, are only expected to continue to grow over the next two years. That puts pressure on the system and the state’s budget.
Indiana spends billions of dollars on Medicaid each year, making it the second largest expense to the state’s general fund following K-12 education.
In the last decade, Medicaid assistance has doubled, growing at a faster pace than the state’s general fund budget as a whole. It now makes up nearly 18% of the general fund budget, which means less money for other priorities such as education, paying down state debt or infrastructure.
“If you ask me what I lay awake at night thinking about,” Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said at the end of the legislative session, “it’s Medicaid spending.”
The increased pot of money needed for Medicaid makes it challenging for advocates of either expanded access or increased Medicaid reimbursement rates to make their case. It also means some Hoosiers, such as those who rely on Medicaid for autism services, fear cuts may be coming.
Why so many Hoosiers will likely lose access to Medicaid
Over the next year, the state estimates that a net 400,000 Hoosiers, or nearly one-fifth of the number currently on Medicaid, will lose their Medicaid insurance access.
During the pandemic, the federal government prevented states from disenrolling people from Medicaid even if they were no longer eligible, in exchange for more federal dollars. That caused the number of people on Medicaid in Indiana to increase by more than 800,000 enrollees over the three-year period.
The Biden administration prohibition ended at the end of March, which means that for the next year, the state of Indiana will start double-checking whether those receiving Medicaid still qualify, in a process known as unwinding.
Advocates are worried some people will be kicked off by accident, or won’t realize they lost insurance until it’s too late and they’re hit with a doctor’s bill. The Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) is sending people at risk of losing access a notice, but Adam Mueller, executive director of the Indiana Justice Project, and other advocates say it’s possible people either won’t get the notice or won’t understand its importance.
“Our biggest concern is that folks who should still be eligible for Medicaid or HIP [Healthy Indiana Plan] or any of the programs could lose coverage for procedural or administrative reasons,” Mueller said. “Even where there’s not a giant unwinding going on, people slip through the cracks.”
To that point, a recent report from the state found that of the roughly 52,000 people who lost coverage in the first month, more than 88% of them lost their Medicaid simply due to procedural reasons such as failing to respond to FSSA, not because the state found them ineligible. That could signal a problem in how Indiana is unwinding, said Joan Alker, executive director and co-founder of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University.
“When you see a lot of procedural losses, there’s probably a lot of people, particularly children, who remain eligible, but they’re getting terminated anyways,” Alker said. “Is the state making clear that the children and the parents may have different outcomes, that like the parent is losing [Medicaid access, but] the child is still eligible?”
Advocates also fear that those who do lose access because they are no longer eligible won’t know where to find low-cost insurance options and will go uninsured instead.
So why are the costs still ballooning?
With a net decrease in Medicaid enrollees on its way, it seems counterintuitive that the costs for the program to the state would increase, so why is Indiana’s Medicaid general fund spending poised to increase by almost 40% from the previous budget?
It’s partially because the process of double-checking Medicaid eligibility will take 12 months, which means Indiana will continue to feel the effects of the pandemic requirement until May of next year. Meanwhile, the extra funding from the federal government, which typically covered the extra costs of continuous enrollment to the states, will be phased out by the end of 2023.
“There’s been some inaccurate rhetoric and claims flying around that states have been forced to carry this population, that it’s been very burdensome on them,” Alker said. “That wasn’t true because the federal government was giving them extra money.”
But even if the pandemic requirement had not been a factor, Indiana’s Medicaid costs would likely have increased due to the growth in those enrolling, and are poised to continue increasing in the future. Michele Holtkamp, a spokeswoman for FSSA, said that’s being driven largely by an increase in the number of seniors in Indiana, who often require more costly care.
Hoosiers aged 65 years and older are making up a growing share of the population, and that trend isn’t expected to slow down in the coming years. By 2030, 1 in 5 Hoosiers will be senior citizens, according to a 2018 report from the Indiana Business Research Center.
“That’s just something we and every other state in the country will have to deal with,” Allison Taylor, interim Medicaid director for FSSA, said during an April Medicaid forecast presentation.
Likewise, the state is spending more on behavioral health costs for children. There’s currently no uniform reimbursement rate for Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, commonly used to help children with autism, which means reimbursement amounts are often significantly higher than in other states, Holtkamp said. In 2022, the state spent $420 million on such services, which she called “not sustainable.”
Indiana has also expanded Medicaid in other ways. For example, a new federal rule will require states to provide 12 months of continuous coverage for children enrolled in Medicaid. That protects children from going off and on Medicaid due to minor changes in their parents’ income or other “red tape losses,” but once again, there is a cost. Indiana also extended postpartum eligibility.
The most recent data available from Kaiser Family Foundation puts Indiana near the middle of the pack when it comes to per-enrollee spending for Medicaid and 39th when comparing how much of the general fund is made up of Medicaid spending. But without more recent data, it’s challenging to know how Indiana compares today to other states.
What’s the solution?
Finding a way to stop costs from increasing is complicated because, typically, activists and lawmakers are pushing for an increase in Medicaid access or reimbursement rates — both of which might help Hoosiers but could drive up costs more. Already, Indiana requires those making over a certain income level to make a monthly contribution to their health care.
Some lawmakers pointed to one solution: fix Hoosiers’ dismal health outcomes in hopes that it will reduce the need for care among those using Medicaid. Valparaiso Republican Sen. Ed Charbonneau, who championed a revamp of the public health system in Senate Bill 4, hopes his bill will help.
“This may be a way to bend the curve just a little bit, because unless we prevent people from getting sick … it’s going to get worse,” Charbonneau said. “We can’t keep it up.”
Beyond that, Indiana could strengthen eligibility requirements or lower Medicaid reimbursement rates, both of which would likely be unpopular.
Starting this year, FSSA is undergoing regular Medicaid reimbursement rate reviews. That means costs to the state could go up or down depending on what rates the agency lands on.
Could those reviews cause problems?
They could. This year, for example, lawmakers are coming up with a uniform reimbursement rate for Applied Behavior Analysis therapy. That means some providers could experience cuts.
Indiana ACT for Families, which aims to protect access to care for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, actively pleaded with lawmakers and the Holcomb administration during the legislative session not to cut funding.
“The outcome of this review has existential repercussions for the children we serve,” the organization wrote in an April letter to lawmakers. “A sudden and steep funding cut would make it extremely difficult for some providers to continue operations and would reduce availability of quality ABA therapy that is critical to the children and families that we serve.
Meanwhile, other Medicaid recipients spent the legislative session pleading with lawmakers to increase reimbursement rates. The Indiana Hospital Association, for example, said Indiana’s current rate only covers about 53% of costs.
Indiana is poised to share the first batch of proposed Medicaid reimbursement rates within the next few weeks, Holtkamp said. The state will look at others, such as hospital reimbursement rates, during the next budget cycle.
Aside from that, Mishawaka Republican Sen. Ryan Mishler, the chief budget architect on the Senate side, has made it clear that he wants to be very picky when it comes to legislation that would increase Medicaid costs.
“We still have a lot of bills out there where members want to keep expanding it and adding more people to the program, and that’s something we have to take a look at is how much do we really want to keep expanding? Because once we do it’s ongoing,” Mishler said during the legislative session. “We just have to figure out the growth of the Medicaid.”
Contact Kaitlin Lange on Twitter @kaitlin_lange or at [email protected].
‘We needed to try something creative’; Here’s why lawmakers are allowing Indy to create a new downtown tax
In the final days of the legislative session, state lawmakers quietly provided the city of Indianapolis with a gift: Mayor Joe Hogsett and the City-County Council gained the power to create a special taxing district in the downtown area. It is a victory for boosters of Mile Square who have been advocating for a similar …
A David and Goliath story: Why it was hard to legislatively cut health care costs
New Indiana laws would limit physician noncompete agreements and implement hospital cost benchmarks.