2023 legislative session was all about the money, from health care to housing to education
Every long Indiana legislative session revolves around writing the new, two-year state budget. But 2023’s session focused on it more than most. That’s because many of the top priorities this year centered not just on policy, but a dollar amount.
There were a lot of shared priorities between Republicans and Democrats in both chambers this year. And several of those issues had been building for years, or even decades – access to mental health care, affordable housing and, perhaps the biggest, public health.
“And I’ll cut to the chase – it’s going to take dollars,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said.
The governor and legislative leaders generally agreed on what was needed.
“By adequately funding public health,” House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta (D-Fort Wayne) said.
“It’s a historic investment,” House Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers) said.
Beyond the money, there was policy work to be done – specifically, how the money for those priorities would be used.
On mental health, the path forward seemed pretty clear: invest in local community mental health centers and a 9-8-8 crisis response hotline – in SB 1 – and get people with mental illness out of jail and into treatment – in HB 1006.
The consensus around that was exemplified by people like Jodie Moser. She shared emotional testimony with lawmakers about her brother, who was killed by police while experiencing a mental health crisis.
“None of those things should have been a death sentence for my brother … it doesn’t matter if you are Black or white, if you are rich or poor – everyone in this state can benefit from this type of bill,” Moser said.
Consensus was more challenging on the public health side. After two years of study by a commission, lawmakers set out to dramatically expand the services and resources offered by local health departments in SB 4.
Yet some legislators balked, expressing a fear – even if unfounded – voiced by Elkhart County Commissioner Brad Rogers.
“I hear testimony today – I’ve been standing out there, I’ve heard the testimony – that there are no strings attached," Rogers said. "But I’m not sure I believe that yet.”
Still, the bill’s language was repeatedly sharpened to ease such fears and the measure ultimately attracted broad bipartisan support.
The same cannot be said for the legislature’s attacks on transgender Hoosiers.
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Parents, students and educators – such as Evansville science teacher Suzanne Glass-Foster – said the measure would cause harm.
“This bill would stop teachers from responding to students in a loving and caring manner, which might make a student feel like they have done something or said or feel wrong" Glass-Foster said.
“Your 'yes' vote will tell us that we are bad and abusive parents who are too stupid to make medical decisions for our own kids,” Inskeep said.
The state is already defending that new law in court from a challenge by the ACLU.
Still, at the end of session, the focus was back on the budget, HB 1001 – and there was turmoil over the final version. A dramatic expansion of the school voucher program ate into an increase in education funding, causing Senate Republicans to balk.
That led to an extra $312 million for K-12 schools, and Republicans like Sen. Ryan Mishler (R-Mishawaka) declared victory.
“So, I would say the biggest winner in this budget is all students, in some way, shape or form,” Mishler said.
The budget included unprecedented investments in public and mental health care – but the final funding numbers did not match what studies and advocates said was needed.
And Democrats, like Rep. Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis), lamented what they saw as a missed opportunity.
“From my perspective, it falls short of what we need to do for the future,” Porter said.
Even if it didn’t match what many thought should be done, the new $44.5 billion spending plan includes funding that could help shape the future of the state.
And now, the long, hard work begins that will determine whether that money will help make Indiana the state its leaders say they want it to be.
Indiana Public Broadcasting's Violet Comber-Wilen contributed to this story.