Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said he wants the state to impose a hands-free-driving law in 2020.
The proposal, which would prohibit the use of handheld mobile phones while operating a motor vehicle, is part of the Republican governor’s 2020 legislative agenda.
Holcomb revealed the agenda Tuesday at the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce luncheon. It includes increasing the smoking and vaping age from 18 to 21; making an unpopular teacher licensing requirement optional; holding teachers and schools harmless for poor standardized test results; finding ways to reduce health care costs and prevent surprise billing; and using a portion of the state’s surplus dollars to pay for capital projects with cash instead of debt.
The hands-free initiative would require passing legislation in the 2020 General Assembly that starts Jan. 6.
“When you’re driving down the road, you can probably count more than not folks who are distracted,” Holcomb said. “I just cringe when I look at someone not look up for four or five seconds.”
A law that took effect in 2011 prohibits drivers in Indiana from typing, transmitting, or reading emails or text messages on mobile devices, but Holcomb’s administration says that law is tough to enforce. That law also doesn’t cover all of the other things drivers can be doing on their phones, like messaging on Facebook, Twitter or other social media apps.
The proposed hands-free-driving law would close that loophole. Indiana would join 20 other states that already have similar legislation.
Drivers would still be able to make phone calls via bluetooth or use a GPS through phones. The proposal would only address whether a driver is holding the device.
“Distraction is distraction, and technology allows you to be connected without looking at your phone,” Holcomb said.
Several of the other focus areas in Holcomb’s agenda already align with priorities that leaders from the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly have already been discussing.
House Speaker Brian Bosma has already said he will push to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products and e-cigarettes to 21.
The significant increase in vaping, especially among Indiana’s youth, has sparked interest in raising the age to buy the products. Bills that would have moved the age to 21 in the past have failed to pass through the General Assembly.
Holcomb said raising the age is “long overdue.”
“Well, I’ve always said it’s never too late to do the right thing,” Holcomb said.
His agenda also calls for increasing the penalties for those selling tobacco and vaping products to underaged individuals.
“The folks who are knowingly selling to underaged users, we’re going to come after you,” Holcomb said.
Even though it’s not on his agenda, Holcomb said he’s paying attention to federal efforts to ban the flavors used in vaping, and he’s looking at potentially backing an increase in the cigarette tax in 2021.
“We don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” Holcomb said.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray has said addressing rising health care costs is a priority for his caucus, specifically focusing on creating an all-claims database to offer health care cost transparency and addressing surprise billing.
Holcomb said Tuesday he wants the state to create such a database and pass legislation to require health care providers to share cost estimates with patients two to five days before the procedure occurs, if requested by the patient. Holcomb’s agenda also calls for legislation that would stop surprise bills when a patient unknowingly receives care from out-of-network providers at an in-network hospital.
Educators will likely be happy with two of Holcomb’s priorities—holding teachers harmless for ILEARN test results and removing the re-licensing requirement that mandates teachers receive training that could include a 15-hour externship at a local business or training in career navigation or local economic needs.
Republican legislative leaders have already said they want to exempt teachers and schools from any penalties related to results from ILEARN, and they have expressed a willingness to revisit the professional development licensing requirement, but they have not yet signaled support for a complete repeal.
Holcomb’s agenda does not call for increasing teacher pay next year, but it does say he will continue to support his Teacher Compensation Commission, which is tasked with studying the issue and providing a report by spring 2020.
Democratic legislative leaders said they are disappointed with Holcomb’s education priorities.
“He has vowed to continue kicking the can down the road on the issue of teacher salaries and have them wait until 2021 for any sort of answers, good or bad,” Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said in a written statement. “He boasts of teacher pay raises ignoring that those raises were often due to local referendums, increasing taxes on Hoosiers because the governor didn’t act.”
On the surplus spending, Holcomb is making one change from what he initially announced in July when 2019 year-end figures showed a budget surplus of $410 million.
Holcomb is still suggesting the state spend nearly $300 million of the surplus on various projects instead of taking on debt. Among them: $50 million for a new swine barn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds; $73 million for the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine teaching hospital; $60 million for the Ball State University STEM and Health Professions facilities; and $30 million for the Ivy Tech Columbus main building replacement.
But instead of spending $78 million to finish upgrading U.S. 31 to interstate standards from Indianapolis to South Bend, Holcomb wants to use $48 million for the University of Southern Indiana Health Professions classroom renovation and the rest to pay off some existing debt obligations.
Holcomb’s administration initially estimated that paying for these projects with cash instead of bonds would save about $100 million. The change would bring the savings up to $125 million. The U.S. 31 project will still be completed using existing transportation program funds.
Other priorities on his agenda that would need legislative approval include:
• Requiring school corporations to have a relationship with a mental health provider by fiscal year 2022 in order to be eligible for the state’s school safety grants.
• Guaranteeing insurance reimbursement for all EMS calls. Currently, EMS providers are often only reimbursed if they transport a patient to a hospital.
• Requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers and new mothers, like more frequent job breaks.