Broadband access, COVID relief: Local lawmakers outline priorities ahead of 2021 legislative session

Special Report

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — In the middle of a global pandemic, how are state lawmakers preparing for another legislative session?

Representative Tonya Pfaff said the goal behind her proposed legislation is to help people; those within the 43rd District, which she represents, and those beyond those district lines.

“I just want to help people,” Pfaff said.

Pfaff and Senator Jon Ford have less than a month to prepare their proposed legislation for the 2021 legislative session, which kicks off in Indianapolis on January 4.

2021 is a budget year, and both Pfaff and Ford mentioned specific issues they hope can find a prominent place in the state’s budget.

“Broadband and public health are going to be at the forefront of my budget concerns,” Pfaff said, “Trying to get people access to healthier living and broadband. It is not a privilege to have broadband, it is a necessity.”

Ford specifically referenced the Federal CARES Act and his goal to help make access to federal funding easier for small businesses.

“The Feds have really had a lot of programs put a lot of strings that have made it very difficult for small businesses to understand and to use,” Ford said, “So we’re trying to cut some of those strings at the state level.”

Sen. Ford shares thoughts on CARES Act accessibility for local communities:

While the pandemic has created new needs within the state, it has also heightened ongoing concerns, such as mental health support for young people.

A bill crafted by Ford aims to offer that support by placing the National Suicide Prevention and Human Trafficking hotline numbers on the back of middle and high school student IDs at any school that requires students to wear them.

Ford said this option is simple, cost effective, and has had success in other states.

“Any time you can make it easier for kids to access that hotline without going to authority figures, it’s been proven to help,” Ford said.

Ford is also re-introducing a bill related to mental health and crisis response teams in local communities. Ford said the goal of the bill is to create a place where families, and specifically children, can get help without having to get emergency services involved.

“They’re not going to an ER for help,” Ford said, “There’s actual services and a hotline they can call and we can wrap these kids around some good, quality mental health care.”

First responders and their family members are the focus of another bill Ford is working on, as he aims to have COVID-19 listed as a line of duty death.

“Right now, COVID is not listed as a line of duty death item,” Ford explained, “I’ll be carrying legislation for that, that’ll have some fiscal impact, but it’s one of those things we have to do.”

Ford is also working on a piece of legislation regarding misdemeanor reimbursements for counties; currently, Ford said counties are reimbursed for felonies.

Sen. Ford discusses bill regarding misdemeanor reimbursements:

Ford said this bill aims to help offenders early on with properly funded programs, rather than letting their issues “snowball” and lead them down a path to becoming repeat offenders replacing misdemeanor crimes with felonies.

Pfaff, a long-time Vigo County educator, continues to prioritize education funding and support.

“There’s been a lot of talk about 85% (funding) if you’re virtual, 100% if you’re in person,” Pfaff noted, “But with the pandemic, that’s just not possible, so one of the big pushes is going to be to just make sure that schools continue to be 100% funded.”

2020 being a census year means 2021 will be a congressional redistricting year. The process of redistricting, or changing legislative district boundaries, is up to state lawmakers, and Pfaff is hoping to keep the process fair.

“My push is to make (redistricting) as non-partisan as possible, to make the districts a little more competitive for people who want to run for office,” Pfaff said.

Pfaff said another focus of hers is jumpstarting the outdoor sport industry by introducing legislation that will allow Hoosiers to have a lifetime hunting or fishing license.

From outdoor recreation to election matters, Pfaff has a new role as the ranking Democrat on Elections Committee, where she plans to push several election-related bills.

One of these bills focuses on absentee voting, which got a lot of national attention during the 2020 primaries and general election.

Pfaff will also reintroduce a bill related to polling hours on Election Day.

“We’re one of only two states where our polls close at 6 o’clock,” Pfaff said, “If you’re a working person, a working parent, sometimes it’s very hard on Election Day to get there by 6 o’clock. So I would like to make it longer that day, maybe 7 or 8 (o’clock).”

Pfaff said she will also continue her work toward same-day voter registration, which she said will allow for more Hoosiers to have their voices heard at the polls.

The session itself will have several COVID-19 related protocols in place, including social distancing of lawmakers and different positioning within House and Senate chambers. Masks are not currently required at the Statehouse.

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