They say legislators are supposed to represent the people who elect them, but what, exactly, does that mean? Do they represent the people who voted for them? The people who live in their districts?
Or do they look out for the businesses and organizations that made their election possible through campaign contributions? Judging by the actions of the Indiana General Assembly, it may be the latter.
- Senate Bill 389, approved by the Senate and now being considered by the House, would eliminate state protection for 80% of Indiana’ wetlands. Most Hoosiers don’t want to see wetlands drained, but as the Indianapolis Star reported, the Indiana Builders Association, which is pushing the bill, has given about $390,000 to political campaigns since 2017.
- The Senate and House rushed to approve SB 1, which gives broad protection against COVID-19 lawsuits to businesses and organizations, including hospitals and nursing homes, and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law? Hoosiers weren’t demanding this, but it was a priority for powerful business and health industry care groups.
- The Senate and House voted to override Holcomb’s veto of Senate Enrolled Act 148, which outlawed local landlord-tenant laws and made for faster and easier eviction of renters. It’s probably no coincidence that the Indiana Multi Family Housing PAC, which represents rental housing owners, gave $200,000 in 2020 campaign contributions, most of it to lawmakers.
That brings us to education. The House has approved, and the Senate is considering, a radical expansion of Indiana’s private school voucher program, which is already one of the most generous in the nation.
The bill would extend eligibility for publicly funded tuition vouchers to families that make three times the cutoff for reduced-price school meals. For a family of four, that’s $140,000 a year. Middle- and upper-income families would get a “full” voucher, up to more than $5,000 per child. The legislation would also create a new education savings account program to provide certain students with money for private school tuition, tutoring and other educational services.
A state agency pegs the bill’s cost at $144 million over two years. That’s nearly 40% of the total funding increase proposed for K-12 education. The voucher program, which serves at 3.5% of Hoosier students, would get nearly as much new money as the public schools that serve 90% of students.
Who’s for the voucher expansion? For one, Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group linked to former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that has long pushed for school vouchers in Indiana.
The group gave over a half million dollars to Indiana Republicans in 2020, most of it candidates for legislative seats, according to campaign finance reports. The contributions included $135,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee and $30,000 to House Speaker Todd Huston. No wonder House Republicans made voucher expansion one of their top legislative priorities.
A funny thing about advocacy groups with “Hoosiers” in their name: their big money rarely comes from Hoosiers. Between December 2019 and December 2020, Hoosiers for Quality Education got $325,000 from Alice Walton and $100,000 from Jim Walton, two Walmart heirs from Arkansas. It also received $50,000 from Red Apple Development, a Florida developer of charter school facilities.
Teachers, school boards, school administrators and other supporters of public education are speaking out against the voucher expansion, urging senators to apply the brakes. They’ll need to make a lot of noise to compete with that kind of money.