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Senators spar over looser teenage labor laws; plus: pensions, land buys and more

Indiana senators sit through lengthy discussion on a bill loosening employment restrictions for teenagers on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (Photo by Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

(INDIANA CAPITAL CHRONICLE) — Senate Democrats maintained fierce opposition on Tuesday to legislation loosening Indiana’s child labor laws, while their Republican colleagues took the opportunity to shore up their conservative credentials.

The Senate also approved proposals dealing with education, pensions, land purchases, public access laws and birth control, just in time for a Tuesday deadline. Senators altered all of those bills, so they head back to the House for consent to the changes. 

Sen. Brian Buchanan, R-Lebanon, dubbed House Bill 1093, which he sponsored, a “teenage workforce bill” aligning Indiana’s more stringent laws with federal requirements.

It would relax a variety of limits on the hours children aged 14-16 can work, including for gigs “dangerous to life or limb.” It would also exempt 16- and 17-year-olds working in agriculture from a ban on minors working in “hazardous” jobs.

The legislation also would introduce labor law carveouts for children working as actors, newspaper carriers, evergreen wreath producers, or for companies their parents at least partially own. Another carveout caters to children excused from compulsory school attendance, and largely applies to kids in Amish communities.

Sen. Andrea Hunley, D-Indianapolis, called the changes “irresponsible and dystopian” before chiding lawmakers for not strengthening punishments for problematic employers.

“We shouldn’t be solving our workforce problem on the backs of children,” she added, suggesting that Indiana instead add to its work-based learning initiatives.

Republicans rebuffed those criticisms, emphasizing the value of work for young Hoosiers.

Sen. Michael Crider, R-Greenfield, said he started working as a newspaper carrier at 10, and has held two jobs at a time for most of his working life since.

“What I learned is: sleep is overrated. You can do what you decide you want to do,” Crider said. He said he earned good grades and played sports while working.

Sen. Mike Gaskill, R-Pendleton, said he was “disappointed in the rhetoric” espoused by opponents.

“Work is good. We’re not doing this to solve the employer’s problem. We’re doing this to give kids opportunities,” he said.

“Please do not for a second think that this is about the evil employers trying to manipulate and take advantage of kids,” he added.

The legislation passed on a 39-9 vote, along party lines.

Priority measures move

Also in the Senate chamber, lawmakers voted Tuesday to advance House Bill 1001, a Republican priority measure, in a 42-6 vote. The work-based learning proposal builds off a massive 2023 bill that put in motion statewide career-centered education and training programs.

The new legislation seeks to expand education scholarship accounts (ESAs) to siblings of those who already qualify. Currently, ESAs are only available for students who require special education services.

As of November, the Indiana Treasurer of State reported that 431 students were participating in the ESA program — up from 143 students in 2023. State expenditures for those students is about $5 million, in addition to $500,000 used by the state office to administer the program. A legislative fiscal note predicts the number of ESA students will likely increase over the next few years, but did not provide a cost estimate for additional student participation.

Also included in the bill are changes to applications for career scholarships accounts (CSAs), which allow students to complete hands-on training like apprenticeships, rather than traditional college degrees. GOP lawmakers said they want to make the application process easier.

House Bill 1001 additionally creates a “Training Grant Program and Fund” to provide career training grants to non-college bound students, but Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, noted state dollars would not “potentially” be appropriated until the 2025 budget session.

A debated previous provision to allow high school graduates to use money from the 21st Century Scholars program and Frank O’Bannon grants for work-based training was deleted in the Senate, however.

Republican lawmakers said another priority measure, House Bill 1003, will create a “more efficient” and balanced administrative appeals process by making Indiana’s Office of Administrative Law the “ultimate authority” on disputes between agencies and members of the public. 

Currently, those rulings are not final and still have to go back to the agency for approval, placing them in limbo. The bill also eliminates judicial deference to agencies on their interpretations of statutes.

Democrats, however, worried the bill would weaken certain government rulings, such as those from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. It passed 40-7.

A plan for government workers, retired and still serving

A proposal offering Indiana’s public retirees a long-term plan to guarantee additional benefits lost support from both Republicans and Democrats — but easily cleared the Senate.

Some lawmakers were disappointed it no longer includes financial help this year.

A Senate committee last week stripped an immediate 13th check for all retirees out of House Bill 1004 and replaced it with a future mechanism offering public employees retired before July 1, 2025 annual 13th checks. Those retired after that date would get 1% cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).

Sen. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, said he liked that the plan addresses the concerns of both long-retired and younger Hoosiers, who typically prefer different benefit bonus types.

“It’s the right step forward. But I’m sure that our retirees are going to be holding our feet to the fire because we do have to provide them something,” Niezgoski said. “I would hope that maybe there’s still another opportunity yet this session; we’ll see.”

Although some lawmakers wanted both the short- and long-term help, others wanted to focus on paying off pension liabilities first.

“Until we pay off $10 billion in debt, I can’t justify giving anybody anything above what their pension requires – a 13th check, a COLA, any of that,” Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, told reporters Tuesday.

The legislation, originally a House GOP priority bill, passed the Senate in a 42-6 vote.

Republican Sens. Eric Bassler, Dan Dernulc, Freeman, Mark Messmer and Mike Young voted in opposition, as did Democrat Sen. Lonnie Randolph.

Limiting certain land buys

Lawmakers unanimously approved legislation protecting farmland and areas near some military or Indiana National Guard facilities from lease or purchase by “foreign adversaries.” That includes people and entities affiliated with six countries: China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela.

“We’re trying hard to keep Indiana safe,” said Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg. She’s House Bill 1183‘s Senate sponsor.

The widespread support from lawmakers came a day after several attempted to edit exceptions into the bill for economic development projects in their communities. Eleven Chinese companies are seeking projects in Indiana, according to Leising, including one kicked out of North Dakota for what state officials characterized as nefarious motivations.

The vote was 48-0.

Public access chief limits advance

Legislation meant to address “disruptive” public meeting attendees – hijacked last week to impose new restrictions on the state’s public access chief – passed the Senate with some pushback but retained bipartisan support, in a 40-8 vote.

House Bill 1338 allows a governor to remove the state’s public access counselor at any time, instead of the current four-year term with a “for cause” dismissal clause. It also requires that the counselor consider only the “plain text” of the state’s public access laws and “valid” court opinions when putting together non-binding advisory opinions.

The legislation’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Scott Baldwin, said he’d received complaints about Counselor Luke Britt’s advisory opinions, mostly regarding school board meetings. He said “some argue” the opinions are “inconsistent” with the counselor’s own handbook.

“This just provides some oversight,” said Baldwin, R-Noblesville.

Baldwin dismissed one Democrat’s fear the changes would be overly limiting, countering, “I don’t believe that we’re restricting the public access counselor any more than the intent of this bill.” 

At issue is a phrase repeated in the statutes setting up open meeting and public records access processes, instructing that they be “liberally construed.” Sen. Rodney Pol, D-Chesterton, suggested Republicans remove that language instead of curtailing the counselor.

“Then we’d be opening it up to courts … I don’t think we wanted to tell courts that they should take anything other than a liberal interpretation of the code because that, in fact, is their job, right?” Baldwin replied.

Pol pushed that change as a compromise, prompting Baldwin to concede that he hadn’t considered striking the language but was “not speaking against that idea.” 

Baldwin also wasn’t able to answer a question from Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, on how a “valid” opinion is defined and who defines the term.

Hotly debated contraceptive bill moves

Senators spoke passionately on a proposal meant to help women on Medicaid access long-acting, reversible contraceptives – specifically the subdermal implant. Hospitals would be required to stock the implants, and to offer them to Hoosiers after childbirth.

A House committee removed intrauterine devices (IUDs) from House Bill 1426 after a dispute about whether they’re abortifacients. Both hormonal and copper IUDs block sperm from fertilizing an egg, thus preventing pregnancy, according to the Yale School of Medicine’s clinical practice arm.

Sen. Shelli Yoder, D-Bloomington, said the bill became a “pawn to push the false claims of some.” Yoder said she was disappointed in messaging to Hoosier women that “something is better than nothing.” 

She has been one of the most outspoken critics of the amendment that removed IUDs, in direct contrast to House Democrats, who back whatever version of the bill can get support from the Republican supermajorities in both chambers and eventually become law.

“If this Legislature throws a few scraps – instead of the full spectrum of care – we’re supposed to say ‘Thank you,’ sit down and be quiet. I am not going to do that,” Yoder continued. “And I’m tired of women … not being treated as deserving of all science and all medical care.”

Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, forcefully rejected that argument, but said she’d still vote in opposition because of the possible impact on Medicaid as the state struggles to patch a $1 billion budget hole.

The Legislation passed on a narrow 30-18 vote, with lawmakers of both parties voting for and against it.