Republican leaders in the House and Senate said from the outset of the 2022 legislative session that they didn’t see eye to eye on some of the highest-profile issues—and the Senate proved that this week when it stripped key provisions from several House bills.
Lawmakers gutted or watered-down the top GOP-backed House bills related to tax cuts, employer vaccine mandates and school curriculum transparency during each bill’s first hearing in a Senate committee this week. The Senate also made significant changes to a House proposal that would have added tightened restrictions to mail-in voting.
But Republican leaders say the differences are just part of the legislative process and don’t necessarily mean they won’t find a compromise on the proposals. House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said the sides are having internal discussions to try to find a common ground on the proposals.
“It’s not uncommon that the two chambers have differences of opinions, and we’ll work through it. … I feel good about that,” Huston said.
With weeks remaining in the legislation session, the final outcomes probably won’t be worked out until the waning hours of the session. Lawmakers have until March 14 to work out their differences to send bills to the governor’s desk.
“Pay attention to where we finish, not where we start,” Bray said. “This robust conversation is really helpful, and the idea that there’s different perspectives or different philosophies on how to tackle a problem.”
Tax cuts no more, for now
Within the first minutes of the Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee meeting on Tuesday, Senate lawmakers gutted House Republicans’ broad plan for $1 billion in tax cuts.
An amendment removed all the tax-cut language from House Bill 1002 and left only one section that would streamline and broaden the people eligible for the automatic taxpayer refund that will be issued to Hoosiers in May.
The House’s version of the bill would have cut four taxes–individual income, business personal property, sales and the utility receipts taxes. The bill included reducing the state income tax rate from 3.23% to 3% and eliminating the minimum property tax that businesses pay on new equipment.
Prominent Senate GOP leaders had long-expressed caution about reducing future state revenue, saying the economy remains uncertain. Senate Tax Committee Chair Travis Holdman, R-Markle, also has reservations about impact the business tax cut would have on local tax revenue.
But Holdman did not rule out some tax cut ultimately getting back into the bill as discussions to find a compromise continue. He said he had about a dozen different proposals on his desk, but declined to elaborate further on what those entailed.
Where lawmakers can compromise and who will budge on what remains unclear. Huston remains confident there will be a tax cut this session because the state is sitting on a forecasted surplus of $5 billion.
“We’re going to cut people’s taxes,” Huston said. “Let’s give people back their money. I think [senators will] see the light by the end, by the time we adjourn.”
But Bray said he doesn’t have an answer yet as to whether there will be a tax cut, adding that he would rather look at it when the next two-year budget is drafted in 2023.
The House is “pushing hard for it,” Bray said. “When we do a budget next year, we will probably look at it. It’d be a real, real nice opportunity to do exactly that.”
Watered-down vaccine mandates bill
Lawmakers in the Senate removed and modified several provisions to tame controversial House Bill 1001, which would restrict employers’ ability to impose COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
A notable change removed language that would have forced employers to accept any religious exemption without further question.
The Senate’s version of the bill would allow employers to continue to accept religious exemptions to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, based on Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, with latitude for employers to take actions to keep the workplace safe.
Medical exemptions would still have to be accepted, but only with a signed note from a doctor, physician’s assistant or advanced practice registered nurse who says that the vaccine is medically contraindicated for the employee. And exemptions could be granted for “natural immunity” for employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 within the last three months.
The changes prompted outside groups to flip their positions on the legislation. Business interests who previously said the bill went too far in restricting employers’ ability to impose mandates are now in favor of the Senate’s version. Vaccine-objectors oppose the changes, saying the bill would not do enough to protect employees whose exemptions are already getting rejected.
Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, the bill’s Senate sponsor, had said he thought the bill was in a “pretty good spot” following the amendment that he worked on in conjunction with the bill’s author, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne.
Still, Lehman said he still has some concerns about the bill. Huston told reporters on Thursday that he thought Lehman and Messmer were “getting closer to some common ground” on HB 1001.
Bray also said he thinks the two chambers will come to an agreement.
“We were trying to put the Senate’s stamp on it, obviously with what we think is the right piece of policy,” Bray said.
School curriculum bill rolled back
In response to growing criticism from educators, Senate Republicans also watered-down a controversial House bill aimed at increasing school curriculum transparency and restricting the teaching of so-called divisive concepts.
An amendment offered by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, removed much of the strongly-debated provisions in House Bill 1134.
A provision requiring classroom materials to be posted online and vetted by parent review committees was removed. Instead, the bill ensures parents have access to a school’s learning management system and can review any other learning materials used in their child’s classroom upon request. Parents could also request a school board adopt a parent committee to review the curriculum, although the board would not be required to create it.
Senators also deleted provisions of the original bill that would have restricted teaching about racism and politics.
The amended bill instead says schools would be barred from teaching that one group is inherently superior or inferior to another, that one group should be treated adversely or preferentially, and that individuals, by virtue of their traits, “are inherently responsible” for the past actions of others who share their traits.
Language about lawsuits for violations of the bill were removed as well.
The Senate previously had its own curriculum legislation but abandoned it without a committee vote after the bill’s author, Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, faced national backlash for a comment that schools could teach Nazism impartially.
The Senate Education Committee postponed a vote on HB 1134 until next week.
Huston again said conversations are ongoing to work out differences on the bill. He said Rogers and the bill’s author, Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, continue to review changes to the bill. He said parental rights and transparency are a big issue to his caucus.
“Sen. Rogers made some some, you know, things that I think make it easier on teachers, and I think that’s a positive and we’ll work through the rest of stuff,” Huston said.
Mail-in voting rules walked back
The Senate Elections Committee also rolled back provisions in a House bill that would have tightened restrictions on mail-in voting.
The House proposal would have required voters who requested mail-in ballots to swear under possible penalty of perjury that they wouldn’t be able to vote in person at any time during the 28 days of early voting before Election Day. Lawmakers on the Senate committee removed that provision from the bill.
Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, who offered the amendment, had said he did not see proof that tightening the restrictions would increase the security or accountability of mail-in voting.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.