Above: Rep. Jeff Thompson, the key House architect of the budget, works in the House Chamber. (Monroe Bush for the Indiana Capital Chronicle).
Indiana Republicans passed their $43.3 billion budget proposal without any Democrat support, with the minority party denouncing the millions earmarked to expand school vouchers.
Nearly half of the budget, 48%, goes to K-12 education, which will get a boost of nearly $2 billion over its current appropriation – of which one-third will go to vouchers.
Democrats denounced the budget for taking funding away from traditional public schools. Under the new proposal, families making up to 400% of the federal poverty level, roughly $220,000, qualify for vouchers.
“We’ve gotten rid of the whole idea that this is based on poverty or even based on bad schools,” Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said. “In my view, we’ve turned the voucher program into an entitlement. A vast, new entitlement for people who are doing pretty darn well in life.”
Republicans said it was a matter of school choice and giving more power to parents who wish to control their children’s education.
“Ninety percent of parents are saying that the best (option) is a traditional public school,” Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, said. “But it’s important, I believe, that we put parents in charge.”
The budget advanced on a 66-29 vote and advances to the Senate for further consideration.
Dems decry education provisions
Thompson, the primary architect of the measure, said that it created opportunity for Hoosiers and saved taxpayers money in the long run.
“We’re making strategic, one-time investments that are going to affect our citizens for decades and decades to come,” Thompson said. “It sets Hoosiers on a great path going forward with a lot of great opportunities.”
The budget funds a $1,400 operations “floor” for public and charter schools per student, which increases to $1,500 in the second year. Additionally, eligibility for vouchers increases from 300% of the federal poverty level to 400%.
“The budget is unreasonable because the stated promise to provide real, great (increases to the) school funding formula for traditional schools, from our perspective, was not honored,” Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said. “Traditional public schools will receive an average … of about 6% in the first year of the biennium but vouchers receive about a 70% increase.”
Concerns about Kinsey defunding
House action on Wednesday barred the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, which researches sexual health, from receiving state funding in the budget.
House Speaker Todd Huston declined to comment on the specific allegation that Indiana University shields sexual predators currently but signaled his distaste for the allegations.
“I think that the introduction, the presentation of that amendment was extraordinarily disappointing,” Huston, R-Fishers, said. “But I think the majority of our caucus just wanted to ensure that no (public) dollars were going to the Kinsey Institute.”
Huston said that discussions were ongoing and didn’t rule out the possibility of restoring funding.
Senate Pro Tem Rodric Bray said that he hadn’t had time to review the amendment’s language.
“I probably need to (spend more time on that) before I can really articulate whether it’s something that we’ll be supportive of or whether we’ll pull back,” Bray said.
House Democrats were much harsher in their condemnation.
“Not long ago, the GOP was driven by ideals of free markets, minimal government and ‘traditional family values.’ Now it has become the party of culture wars,” Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne said in a statement. “A Republican elected official even implied that anyone who has ever voted for a state budget – because of its funding for Indiana University’s research – is complicit in the sexual abuse of children.”
GiaQuinta, whose father also served in the General Assembly, called the Republican party of today ‘unrecognizable’ when compared to previous generations.
“This behavior doesn’t belong on the floor of the House or in the mainstream of our society,” he concluded.
Senate takes cautious approach to House budget
But the Republican caucus’ leaders appeared to disagree about the approach to tax cuts and tying them to revenue outcomes.
The two chambers reached an agreement last session to cut Indiana’s income tax rate from 3.23% to 2.9% over seven years only if revenue growth continues and an additional $1 billion was appropriated to pay down pension debt.
Huston said he trusted the Senate Republicans, he said that cutting revenue through tax cuts was the only way to reduce spending and stop government growth.
“I’m not sure (the revenue growth) guardrails were ever really practical… I think they’re just unnecessary,” Huston said.
“We want to do so in a responsible and thoughtful way and I, frankly, think that those guardrails probably won’t stop,” Bray said. “If we see (the economy) dip, we’ll be able to have some flexibility.”
Sen. Ryan Mishler, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said senators were disappointed by the House’s $250 million additional contribution to the pre-1996 Teacher Retirement Fund, the state’s only unfunded pension obligation. Previous discussions had that number at $1 billion.
“I think that should be a non-starter, and it needs to stay at what we agreed to,” Mishler, R-Bremen, said.
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