The Journal Gazette
Friday, February 12, 2021 1:00 am

General Assembly

House budget expands vouchers

Republican plan differs from governor's on key points

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – House Republicans unveiled a budget Thursday that would give less money to traditional public schools than Gov. Eric Holcomb's proposal, while also funding several one-time grant programs to energize the economy.

The governor proposed $377 million in tuition support – which is then distributed to school districts using a complex formula. The total equates to 2% growth in the first year and 1% in the second year of the biennial budget.

The House Republican budget has $378 million in new tuition support – 1.25% in the first year and 2.5% in the second year.

But their total includes an expansion of the voucher program that will send an additional $65 million to private schools over the biennium. That program would increase by 23% the first year and 20% in the second year.

Holcomb did not include a voucher expansion and, in his State of the State address, expressed concern about expanding choice at the expense of public schools.

House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said parents – now more than ever – “want to make choices for their kids. They want to have options.”

Brown said the proposal is “just another step in a long dance” before the House Ways and Means Committee passed House Bill 1001 by a vote of 16-8 along party lines. It now goes to the full House.

Also related to school funding, the House GOP budget would increase a charter school grant, give more funding to virtual schools, increase funding for non-English-speaking programs and flatline teacher appreciation grants.

The bill includes no specific money or provisions to raise teacher pay despite a state report recommending state and local actions to bring Indiana teacher compensation in line with other Midwest states. Brown said teacher pay is a decision for local districts.

Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee offered several amendments on teacher pay, including an incentive to local districts meeting a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers. But Republicans shot them down.

“You seem to rejoice in the fact that the money doesn't get to the teacher and I complain about it,” said Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis. “We have to find a way to increase teacher pay.”

Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said the meaningful funding increases in the current state budget “need to be sustained and elevated over the next two years to maintain momentum on improving teacher pay and addressing Indiana's ranking of 39th in the nation for per pupil spending.”

He said the current version of the budget bill sets aside money for school choice programs and will divert needed dollars from public education and the more than 1 million Hoosier students they educate.

Overall, the proposed budget would end with more than $2 billion in reserves in both years.

Another big departure from Holcomb's budget is the House's push to spend one-time dollars made possible through federal aid and state cuts. The governor designated $300 million to pay off debt and $400 million to reduce pension obligations – both this fiscal year.

The House Republican budget devotes only $110 million to debt payoff and none to pension reduction.

“We just made a different priority rather than pensions,” Brown said. “We invest in business and economic activity in the state.”

Instead, the House GOP budget would provide $150 million in one-time learning loss grants; $30 million in small business aid; and $70 million for a renovation of the Indiana Law Enforcement Training Academy – all this year.

There is more one-time spending in the new budget cycle starting in July – including $250 million in broadband expansion; $150 million to spur regional recovery projects; $50 million in health grants; and $10 million to equip local officers with body cameras.

Brown also included a cigarette tax increase and implementation of new e-liquids tax in the proposed budget. But instead of a $2 hike sought by health advocates – or even $1 passed by a House health committee – it is a 50.5-cent increase, making the state cigarette tax $1.50 a pack. In addition, there would be a 10% retail tax on vaping products.

He said the minimal cigarette tax increase is what the House Republican caucus could agree on, and the additional revenue of $150 million a year will go to Medicaid expenses and health grants.

At a glance

Here are some highlights of the House Republican budget passed out of committee Thursday:

• A two-year $36.3 billion budget with reserves of more than $2 billion in each year

• $438 million in new K-12 dollars over the biennium, with about $378 million of that being in tuition support to schools

• $150 million learning recovery grants

• $150 million regional recovery initiative grants

• $30 million small business aid

• $70 million upgrade of Indiana Law Enforcement Training Academy

• $250 million broadband expansion

• $5 million Indiana Gun Crimes Task Force

• Restoration of cuts to higher education funding and 2% increase in the second year

• Increase in cigarette tax and creation of vaping tax

• $100 million in capital reserve account

• $50 million for new state fairgrounds swine barn

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