Leader GiaQuinta outlines caucus priorities for 2021 Legislative Session
INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana House Democratic Caucus Leader Phil GiaQuinta (D-Fort Wayne) outlined the key legislative priorities of the caucus during his speech on the House floor this afternoon, marking the first day of the 2021 Legislative Session for the Indiana General Assembly.
Below is a copy of GiaQuinta’s remarks as prepared; he delivered the speech shortly after session began today at 1:30 p.m.
A BLUEPRINT FOR A BETTER INDIANA
Good afternoon, Mr. Speaker and ladies and gentlemen of the House and happy New Year!
I appreciate the opportunity to address you, my friends and colleagues in order to share my thoughts concerning the important work that lies ahead of us during this most unique of sessions. I will keep my remarks brief and limit the sharing of oxygen with you.
It is surreal to be addressing this body from the front of a makeshift chamber, here in Government Center South rather than in our beloved Statehouse; a change in venue that symbolizes the dramatic difference a year has made in the lives of our friends and constituents across Indiana. Many of you arrived here from areas where the virus is surging. You have lost friends or relatives and those close to you may be suffering as we embark upon our legislative responsibilities.
So I begin by conveying my concern for each of you and your families and express my hope that each of you remain healthy over the course of the coming session.
This session is already historic and will continue to be as we struggle with new procedures as we address the issues and challenges facing our citizens during this pandemic.
We will work together to reduce the face to face interaction between us to keep you all safe but that will require finding creative ways to build the relationships that lead to consensus on tough issues. I know each of you and how you feel about one another despite party affiliations.
Let’s set an example for the rest of the State by turning this historic health crisis into an opportunity for the entire legislature to work together like never before to put the needs of Hoosiers in a show of bipartisanship which is too often ignored.
One thing we should not do is allow the change in venue and procedures to become an excuse to rush legislation or to become less transparent. We must strive all the more for openness and efficiency in our work.
We know that our neighbors across the state are experiencing real hardship. Even those who may have caught the virus and suffered light or no symptoms may be suffering from the economic impact of the disease. They are counting on us to work together and put partisan politics aside. This is a chance for us to shine by doing what is right in order to make our state a better place in which to work, raise a family and enjoy everyday living.
I do not mean to understate the effort this will require. But it is nothing compared to the hardship I hear about from all corners of our state. Never, in my time serving in the House of Representatives have I seen Hoosiers in such need while facing such uncertainty.
I see more Hoosiers than ever desperately relying upon their unemployment benefits….more Hoosiers at risk of losing their homes…..more Hoosier businesses at risk of closing permanently, and more Hoosiers than ever falling behind on their bills.
Our citizens are frustrated by a perceived back and forth approach to this health virus where restrictions are put in place only to be lifted while the pandemic surged leading to yet another round of restrictions. Can we blame our constituents for their lack of confidence in government when the state’s response to this health crisis has run hot and cold often without explanation?
The truth is that the pandemic has exposed some of our state’s weaknesses by uncovering some ugly failures; namely a decade of underinvesting in our state's social service infrastructure. These policies have magnified the crushing economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic in our state.
Despite these challenges, there are reasons to be optimistic. The most recent revenue forecast shows that the proverbial fiscal sky isn't falling. This should allow us to finally consider funding the needs I will address in a few minutes.
And more importantly, COVID-19 vaccines are currently being distributed, bringing optimism for the long awaited end to this nightmare. But the vaccine distribution is far slower and more disorganized than we had hoped. We need to push for any assistance we can get to increase the doses available to Hoosier families and for funding to educate citizens on the importance of taking the vaccine.
With that said, I speak for my caucus, when I say that House Democrats will respond to the challenges posed by a COVID-session with optimism and ingenuity. The House Democratic Caucus and I are committed to tackling the ever growing challenges facing Hoosiers and at the same time communicating our plan for an Indiana that is more vibrant, secure and admired. The ideas I propose today envision a state that leads among its Midwestern neighbors. A state focused on being the very best state in which to live, work and watch children learn and play.
This legislative session, House Democrats will aggressively advocate for solutions to important issues. We ask that the Republican majority join us in accepting the following, not as a wish list but as a mandate from our constituents:
1. First, Let's Reduce the Costs of High Quality Health Care
Indiana is fortunate to be blessed with residents with an unmatched work ethic; especially our front line healthcare workers: nurses, doctors, in-home health care professionals; therapists; dental personnel; medical technicians and the office staff who support them along with all essential workers. They have stepped up to fight this pandemic and they deserve our recognition for their work across our great state. Please join me in a round of applause and our continued gratitude for all they did, do and will continue to do day in and day out. Without their continuing hard work and dedication, it is hard to imagine what things might have looked like. Their fight is not over by a long shot but they give us hope that the end is in sight.
Indiana has an unglamorous and lethal record when it comes to health care: Relatively high health care costs for Hoosiers with relatively poor public healthcare outcomes. We're currently waging war against a virus that we know attacks Hoosiers with underlying medical conditions that existed prior to contracting COVID-19. Unfortunately, we know that our citizens are unhealthier than our neighbors. We are ranked low in obesity, smoking and other key public health metrics. If the past year has taught us anything it should be that we must meet this challenge head-on this session. We must do whatever needs to be done to ensure we come out of this pandemic with a resolve to do much better in the area of public health. This is our opportunity.
2. Let's Commit to Improving Traditional Public Schools and Raising Teacher Pay
While it was reassuring to hear Governor Holcomb commit to fully funding our public schools, the fact of the matter is that our local school districts have been asked to do more with less for a nearly a decade starting with a $300 million cut to the education budget in January, 2010. Now this pandemic has squeezed every ounce out of them. Our public schools have been forced to navigate new e-learning systems; purchase protective equipment, and deal with unanticipated staffing issues. Their employees and teachers are stressed to the limits and so are their budgets.
It's past time that we give public school teachers the raise that they deserve. The Teacher Compensation Commission outlined a number of potential solutions (some better than others) but made two things clear: 1. Average salaries for public school teachers are falling further and further behind salaries paid in neighboring states; and 2. It's going to take a substantial investment from our state in order to make Indiana's public school teachers’ salaries even remotely competitive with those states.
3. Criminal Justice Reform
This summer showed us that Indiana has work to do when it comes to providing equal protection for ALL Hoosiers under our justice system. I want to take this opportunity to commend Representatives Shackleford, Steuerwald and other members of the Courts Committee for their commitment to finding common ground on these critical and often emotional issues – especially as they affect Hoosiers of color.
House Democrats will look forward to supporting what we hope are bipartisan and commonsense reforms to our criminal justice system.
4. Let's Support Hoosier Small Businesses & Families
Hoosier small businesses are struggling. We know that Indiana fumbled on an opportunity to show support for Hoosier businesses with our allotment of CARES Act money in 2020, which resulted in uncertainty and ultimately closure of too many neighborhood businesses. With ample resources, we urge the majority to work together with us to find a way to ease the economic burden on the backbone of Indiana's economy, our local small businesses.
5. Let's Enact A Fair Redistricting Process
House Democrats remain steadfast in their belief that voters should pick their legislators…not the other way around. Advances in modern technology have helped to manipulate the redistricting process. House Democrats feel strongly that an independent redistricting commission is the best way to depoliticize the redistricting process and ensure that Hoosiers are accurately represented in the General Assembly.
Today we begin our historic journey. The Indiana House Democratic Caucus and I believe that now is the time to think big and to blaze a bold trail. There could be no better message to send to our constituents than to demonstrate our commitment to invest in Indiana….to invest in Hoosiers and take a leading role in ensuring their speedy economic recovery! Our work in the General Assembly has never been more important than it is today.
With so many Hoosiers continuing to struggle, our state need not continue to fall behind in the areas I have outlined here today. There is so much uncertainty facing our state and its hardworking citizens. We can provide the hope they need and deserve by providing the leadership they deserve. The Indiana House Democratic Caucus is ready to join you in bringing the light of hope to the darkest of years. Let’s stand shoulder to shoulder from 6 feet and get to work.