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Indiana House panel head expects few budget changes

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The chairman of the Indiana House Ways and Means Committee said Tuesday he expected it would make only modest changes to the budget proposal from Gov. Mitch Daniels.

The committee on Tuesday formally received the governor's spending plan, which would cut higher education spending by 3 percent and eliminate some Medicaid services to help balance the state budget without raising taxes over the next two years.

Committee Chairman Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, said afterward he expected some amendments, but he expected overall spending to be similar to what Daniels proposed.

"We're supportive of what the governor's done in 95 percent of the cases," Espich said. "We're going to pass a budget that has a similar amount of reserves, that doesn't raise taxes."

Under the governor's plan released last week, the state would spend about $27.8 billion over two years and have about $725 million in reserves at the end of fiscal year 2013. Spending on public schools would remain at current levels, but school funding cuts of about $450 million made over the current budget cycle would not be restored.

Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee said they were troubled by the cuts proposed for Medicaid services such as hearing aids and dental care and by the lack of increases for public schools.

Chris Ruhl, director of the state Office of Management and Budget, said protecting school funding was a priority in the spending plan.

"We think flat line is appropriate given the circumstances we're in," he said. "We don't know what's going to come in the future positively or negatively."

Rep. William Crawford, the committee's top Democrat, said he worried public school funding would also be hurt by Daniels' proposals for expansion of charter schools and vouchers to help parents send their children to private schools.

"Flat lining is really cutting," said Crawford, D-Indianapolis. "The schools have increased costs — utility costs, insurance costs, some uncontrollable costs — that they have to pay more."

The Ways and Means Committee has scheduled hearings until Feb. 3 on spending plans for various state agencies, after which it will spend the budget bill to the full Republican-controlled House for consideration.

Democrats were frustrated last year in seeking details on spending cuts by the Daniels administration, and Rep. Peggy Welch, D-Bloomington, said they would continue asking those questions of state officials during budget hearings.

"We kept asking, 'How did you cut and what did you cut?' and there were no direct answers," Welch said. "They should be prepared and know that we are going to be asking those questions."

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