State Republicans foiling plans of Indy Democrats

The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — The blue wave that solidified Democrats’ hold on the Indianapolis city government in last year's local election isn’t sitting well with Republicans who dominate the Indiana Statehouse.

Republicans are using the closing days of the legislative session to push ahead proposals that would block new Indianapolis regulations on rental properties, strip some funding from the city’s bus system and impose tougher a tougher anti-panhandling law.

Republicans maintain they are stepping in on issues where city officials have overreached or failed to act when needed. Democratic Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett has been restrained in his criticism of those proposals, but legislative Democrats argue Republicans are trampling on the decisions of local officials.

The Republican proposals all emerged for the first time last week as amendments to bills on other topics, giving opponents little notice to respond.

A proposal on rental property regulations was added to a bill by a House committee just hours before the Indianapolis City-County Council voted in favor of an ordinance that included allowing fines against landlords who retaliate against tenants over complaints and requiring landlords to give tenants information on their legal rights and responsibilities.

The Republican-backed proposal would prohibit any local regulations of and “aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship,” including the screening process for tenants or requiring notification of tenants’ rights. The version approved by the House on Monday would limit tenants to receiving one month’s rent if a court finds that person was a victim of landlord retaliation, while landlords could be awarded attorney fees and damages if they win in court.

The proposal was explained in a committee by Brian Spaulding, vice president of the Indiana Apartment Association, which state records show gave nearly $300,000 in state political contributions in 2018, nearly all to Republicans.

Spaulding argued that landlords shouldn’t face a patchwork of local regulations.

“We believe comprehensive statewide rules are necessary just like the laws we have for buying, selling, mortgaging and foreclosing property,” he said.

Republicans describe the proposal as putting tenant protections into state law for the first time, while avoiding negative impact that rental property owners would face from the Indianapolis regulations.

“I think it is properly characterized as a group of folks ran over here and said we can’t have this craziness,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said.

The city-state disputes come after Hogsett won 71% of the vote in November’s city election, as his fellow Democrats added six seats to build a 20-5 city council majority.

Democratic Rep. Robin Shackleford of Indianapolis said the Republican actions on behalf of business groups and others were stripping away the city’s authority.

“Anytime they get mad at the local level, then you’ll have some of those Republicans coming over to the state and say ... ‘Come over here and help us and figure out how can we get this on our side,’” Shackleford said.

A bill endorsed Tuesday by the state Senate would put the city’s plans for adding more express bus service lines in jeopardy by enforcing a 2014 law requiring the bus system to raise about $6 million a year in private contributions toward paying its operating costs. That provision was part of a deal allowing a local referendum on raising local income taxes to boost the system’s finances, which voters gave nearly 60% approval and led to construction of the first express bus route that started last year.

Republican Sen. Aaron Freeman, who was an Indianapolis council member at the time of the 2015 referendum, described his proposal for withholding 10% of the income tax revenue from the bus system until the private money is raised is about forcing the system’s appointed board to follow the law.

But the Senate debate included a street-level scrutiny of the bus system, as Republican Sen. Mike Young complained about a loss of traffic lanes expected on a main street through his district on the city’s southwest side with construction of more express bus routes, labeling that a “harebrained” idea.

Democrats lamented that a major decision on the Indianapolis bus system was being made by Republicans who are predominantly from rural parts of the state.

“If you wanted to beat the referendum you should’ve beat it when you were on the city council,” Democratic Sen. Greg Taylor of Indianapolis said.

The panhandling proposal would broaden a current state law to prohibit people from requesting money within 50 feet of sites such as ATMs, business and restaurant entrances or the location of a financial transaction, which includes parking meters. That effort would essentially make it a crime to panhandle anywhere in downtown Indianapolis.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana calls the proposal an unconstitutional move that would criminalize poverty.

Bosma said Republicans were trying to address a panhandling situation that he called “out of control.”

“The city council has been unable or unwilling to do so,” Bosma said. “That is their job, but this is our state capital and it is impacting economic development.”

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