INDIANAPOLIS – If legislating were a sport, how much would you wager on a successful close to the 2019 session?
Chances are high that legislators will wrap up early – Wednesday or possibly Thursday – but first they have to finalize the state budget, a multifaceted gambling bill and a few smaller items.
And, of course, success is in the eye of the beholder.
“I think we are making some really serious progress on getting high profile bills done,” said Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville. “We are working around-the-clock.”
With the GOP leading both chambers, Indiana will absolutely have a new two-year budget. But will it provide the kind of boost to teacher pay that educators and legislators alike have been seeking?
“We're stretching ourselves to do everything we can. We will have a very solid education funding plan when it's all said and done, with several different elements,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma. “(Education is) getting the vast majority of the increase in the state's budget.”
The most recent version of the two-year plan had $535 million in new dollars for public education tuition support, which equals about a 2.7% increase the first year and 2.2% the second year.
But teachers descended on the Statehouse last week to say it's not enough – and some are ready to walk. Bray said “we are trying as best we can to make sure we fund K through 12 to the highest extent possible.”
But he noted that increased expenses for abused and neglected children, as well as health care for the poor, is eating up a lot of the new revenue that could have otherwise boosted education.
“There are other challenges we have to deal with,” Bray said.
House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said the GOP continues to give additional dollars to charter schools and vouchers – at a much higher rate than traditional public schools.
“They are growing at a faster rate per-pupil – 9 to 10% – compared to 2% for traditional public schools,” he said.
Democrats would prefer some guarantee of sorts that new dollars would go to teacher salaries but Republicans believe that is the purview of local school boards that negotiate teacher contracts.
Overall Bray said the week started with about 12 to 15 big budget issues to work out and now they are down to just a few. One is where the money comes from to pay for some priorities – the state's general fund or backup accounts meant for other things.
Lawmakers are embarking on the biggest public policy shift on gaming since riverboat casinos were first authorized. And that means the bill is complex.
“It's obviously a big change from the early 1990s,” GiaQuinta said. “Any time you move one thing it affects another – it's a whole domino effect.”
He expects it to take a lot of time in the final days because every change made in the gaming landscape helps one entity and hurts another – making the sweet spot hard to find.
“The gaming people are all screaming about the bill,” said Bosma, who has recused himself from presiding over or voting on the bill due to a conflict of interest.
Generally the legislation will allow one of the two Gary riverboat casino licenses to move inland along a major highway for a fee. That fee has ranged from $50 million to $100 million and might be paid over several years. But two nearby casinos in Hammond and East Chicago are frustrated that Gary will get to take advantage of a better location while they invested on the water.
The other Gary license would either revert back to the state or be used to create a brand new casino in Terre Haute.
That new location would likely hurt business at nearby casinos in Evansville and French Lick.
A third major component authorizes sports wagering at Indiana casinos. The big issue to still be determined on this topic is whether to allow bets to be placed on mobile devices or only in person at a casino. The Senate allowed it but the House did not.
Bray said negotiators are “almost there” on the bill and “just about have that finished.”
That's a good thing because Bosma said the gaming bill won't hold up the rest of the session. Once the budget is done everything else must be or is expendable.
There are a few other bills causing consternation in the final week.
The first is a bill to help funnel money to the Indiana Pacers and improvements to the Fieldhouse, as well as a possible new soccer stadium in Indianapolis.
“It's about Indianapolis but is good for the whole state,” GiaQuinta said.
Another big issue is related to mental health assessment and services for students. It's part of a larger discussion on school safety and a key recommendation from a working group following an Indiana school shooting last year.
House Bill 1004 passed the House with strong language surveying students on behavior and providing options for treatment. But a number of conservative groups became vocal in the Senate – pushing for parental notification and rights.
The Senate added language allowing parents to sue school districts that provide mental health services or sex education against parental wishes.
“We are trying to find the sweet spot for that language that can let the schools function and do what they need to do but also protect the rights of parents,” Bray said.
Bosma prefers the initial language and they are trying to work it back in but also don't want to jeopardize progress.
There are also a few firearms bills floating around. One would require all teachers authorized to carry guns in schools to undergo specialized training. Another would change Indiana's carry license and reduce some fees. There is also a provision allowing Hoosiers to carry when attending church service on a property that also houses a school.