INDIANAPOLIS – In just 48 days, Indiana lawmakers hope to curb the smoking epidemic, shore up the state's unemployment fund and make some modest changes in education.
But the biggest issue – raising teacher pay – will have to wait until 2021.
The session opens Jan. 6 and must end by midnight March 14. But the desired end-date is March 11 due to NCAA basketball coming to town.
Republicans are holding firm that a short session isn't an appropriate time to open up the state's two-year budget.
But Democrats say that's exactly what they are doing by planning to change the existing budget to pay for a handful of building projects with cash instead of bonding. This is akin to buying a house with cash instead of taking out a mortgage.
Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, proposed funneling some of the excess dollars in the state's reserve fund – $200 million of $300 million identified by Republicans – to an existing Teacher Appreciation Grant program.
“The governor and Statehouse Republicans have made it clear that they will not address inadequate teacher salaries this upcoming legislative session, claiming there are no options to do so in a non-budget year. Based on the governor's request to cash fund projects that are bonded in the current budget, my assumption is that the budget will have to be re-opened,” Melton said.
“I have found at least one option to put more money in teachers' pockets by June 30 without negatively affecting the current budget plan, without touching the surplus and without raising taxes on Hoosiers,” he said.
But Republicans say it is fiscally irresponsible to use one-time money for a raise.
“We had additional surplus dollars because of the economy doing well,” said Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers. “Our intention is to invest those dollars into projects now, which saves us a ton of money in the long run.”
He and other leaders say it frees up money for teachers in the future.
One thing everyone agrees on is not penalizing schools and teachers for a big drop in standardized test scores because of a new test. Without the change, schools could see their A-to-F accountability grade drop and teacher evaluations could be impacted negatively.
Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the hold-harmless provision will be passed immediately when legislators return to make it effective as quickly as possible.
“The results are not exactly what we hoped for, but knew it was a more rigorous test,” he said.
One final education issue that could be addressed is a 15-hour-requirement legislators added to teachers' license renewals. Teachers now must work with businesses locally to learn about career skills in most need. Those hours are within the existing 90 hours of continuing education every five years but means those are hours teachers can't use to improve specific teaching skills.
Gov. Eric Holcomb wants to make it optional while other Republicans haven't gone that far. It appears the least that will happen is modifying whether all teachers are required to participate – for instance, kindergarten teachers.
For years, lawmakers have balked when pushed by health advocates to move the age to legally buy cigarettes from 18 to 21.
But after a year of vaping-related respiratory illnesses and deaths – as well as a spike in youth usage – Republicans have embraced the move.
“It's the right thing to do,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said. Veterans organizations and the military support the idea, which he said helped change his mind.
Meanwhile, Congress is poised to push states to ban the sale to those under 21 if they want to retain public health funds.
State Democrats point out additional ways to discourage vaping especially. Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, said the state could limit the availability of flavors and make it harder for people to put their own mix of vaping liquid into a device. This could come from banning open systems, for instance.
But the biggest way to discourage vaping among youth is to tax it, she said. Right now the state sales tax is applied but there is no additional tax that traditional cigarettes have.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said the taxing issue will have to wait until 2021 – largely because there is a more significant debate on what new tax revenue would be used for.
“That debate on how to spend it will be a robust discussion,” he said. But not this year.
Indiana's unemployment trust fund – which pays workers who lost their job through no fault of their own – has been steadily growing for a few years. It has about $860 million – only a few short years after Indiana had to borrow billions from the federal government to get through the recession.
The fund, which is paid for by Indiana businesses, is expected to reach $1 billion by the end of 2020. But the federal government has reworked a formula showing what it thinks states need on hand to weather the next economic downturn.
That means Indiana needs nearly $1.6 billion on hand to be considered solvent, said Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington.
Legislators briefly considered a large tax increase this year on businesses. But they decided to wait.
Leonard says Republican leaders and corporate stakeholders have settled on a kind-of status quo solution.
Indiana calculates unemployment insurance pool bills on two elements. The first part of the assessment factors in the amount of money in the reserve. The level in the insurance pool kicks the assessments into one of nine predetermined tax schedules categorized alphabetically. The earlier the letter, the less tax.
Indiana has been on Schedule E for several years, but current law would have that expire in 2020. It is projected that Indiana would drop to a lower schedule, bringing in less money annually.
Dropping to Schedule D would actually mean a savings for businesses. Leonard said the plan is to artificially lock Indiana into Schedule E for five years – to keep growing the fund, but with no increase on businesses.
The number of schedules is going to be reduced from nine to five. The state will technically be put on Schedule C – the middle level – but the rate will be the same as now at E.
“I think it's good for business and employers,” he said. “Businesses tell me all the time, 'Tell me what I will have to pay and I will build it into my business model.'”
And he said the federal government has indicated support as long as the fund is moving in the right direction.