Senate Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said Tuesday that the Senate GOP looks to address big issues, including restricting businesses’ ability to mandate employee vaccines and limiting the teaching of critical race theory — though he previously said he didn’t know of any Indiana school teaching it. Whitney Downard | CNHI file photo
Senate Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said Tuesday that the Senate GOP looks to address big issues, including restricting businesses’ ability to mandate employee vaccines and limiting the teaching of critical race theory — though he previously said he didn’t know of any Indiana school teaching it. Whitney Downard | CNHI file photo
INDIANAPOLIS — Lawmakers formally started the 2022 legislative session Tuesday, announcing their priorities for the upcoming weeks and shirking COVID-19 safety protocols with no masks or social distancing.

House Speaker Todd Huston said House Republicans would release their agenda Thursday but emphasized their continued commitment to tax cuts. Gov. Eric Holcomb said Monday he remained cautious about enacting tax cuts in a nonbudget year.

“I feel strongly that with upwards of potentially $5 billion in reserves ... that we can do a tax cut responsibly,” said Huston, R-Fishers.

Senate Republicans have previously hesitated to commit to a tax cut, warning that future bills and inflation could undo all of the economic benefits from the last year.

Instead, in a Tuesday news release, Senate Republicans echoed much of what Holcomb’s agenda included: making more Hoosiers eligible for a $125 spring refund, ending the public health emergency and stabilizing school funding for quarantined students.

“These are things that need to get done, and they’re important,” said Senate Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville. “There are bigger items that we’re going to address this legislative session … they’re more controversial, more complicated to work through, and so they didn’t land on our priority list.”

More controversial issues include restricting businesses’ ability to impose vaccine mandates on employees and limiting the teaching of critical race theory. Bray previously said he wasn’t aware of any Indiana school teaching the college-level academic concept, which dictionary.com defines as a conceptual framework that looks at historical laws and social structures’ effects on today’s perpetuation of racial inequality.

Bray said the Senate would focus on passing a bill to end the Indiana state of emergency but retain three provisions begun under it. Those three are enhanced federal funding for SNAP and Medicaid, and having the public health commissioner authorize childhood COVID-19 vaccinations.

“When you add the vaccine mandate language, it becomes a much heavier bill,” Bray said. “We’ll take a look at what the House sends over, and we’re going to have a spirited debate about it.”

Huston said the House hadn’t discussed splitting the bill into two separate pieces. The bill, House Bill 1001, appears in committee for the third time Thursday for amendments and a committee vote.

Neither leader said he had a contingency plan for a COVID-19 outbreak, despite high case numbers and low masking-wearing in both of their caucuses.

Bray said members were welcome to mask but that vaccines made last year’s COVID protocols unnecessary. In 2021, members sat in the public gallery to ensure social distancing and kept committee meetings limited to curb infections.

“It’s really a matter of personal responsibility to make sure you’re taking care of yourself,” Bray said.

He said he didn’t know how many members had opted to get the COVID-19 vaccination.

House Democrats also released their agenda, targeting Hoosier debt and programs for parents.

“Indiana prospers when our people are healthy, well-educated, with access to good jobs and the chance to fulfill their dreams,” Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta said. “But prosperity hinges on investment, and Indiana’s chronic lack of investment in Hoosiers has led to dismal outcomes and declining growth.”

Instead, the Fort Wayne Democrat proposed using some of the $5.1 billion projected budget surplus — he called it an embarrassment of riches — to increase wages and combat rising costs in child care, health care and education. He said that 47% of Hoosiers reported outstanding medical debt, and the average Indiana student graduated with $27,000 in loans.

“For hardworking Hoosiers, the burdens of health care, student loan debt and child care are harming the livings of many residents and holding our state back,” GiaQuinta said. “We can spend the next few months discussing divisive social issues and caving to the fringes of the political spectrum, or we can work together in order to find solutions to the very real issues that Hoosiers are facing every single day.”

Huston seemed to oppose to any spending in the form of new government programs, insisting that getting money “back to Hoosiers and letting them spend it” would be a better use of excess funds but didn’t dismiss GiaQuinta’s child tax credit suggestion.

“We’ll consider all of the options. I’m not closing down anything that give people back their money.”
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