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Lawmakers press Pence aide on school dollars

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Budget director Chris Atkins found himself Wednesday in the strange position of having to defend education cuts made by his former boss, while pitching House lawmakers on a modest education proposal from his new boss, Gov. Mike Pence.

Atkins told members of the House Ways and Means Committee that the planned 1-percent annual increase in education funding would be the most Indiana has spent on schools in 10 years. But Democrats, who have asked the new administration to restore $300 million in education cuts, noted the Legislature routinely approved much more than the 1 percent, only to see Gov. Mitch Daniels slash it from the budget.

"As we make promises, it seems like lately the Legislature — which is given the constitutional task of creating the budget and moving forward — it seems like it's become more of a suggestion, than a budget for the state," said Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Crothersville, a school superintendent in southern Indiana.

The Pence budget calls for roughly $6.4 billion in education spending in each of the next two years, with another $64 million for high-performing schools beginning the summer of 2014, at the start of the 2015 budget year.

Atkins worked in Daniels' budget shop before joining Pence's gubernatorial campaign and, eventually, his administration.

"We did have a very bad recession, and the previous administration and general assemblies tried to protect education where they could, that's reflected in the fact that we now spend 64 percent of the budget on education," Atkins said.

Yet Pence's suggested, but nominal, increase in spending is one of the lowest in years, doesn't keep track with inflation and is hardly the most cash ever budgeted for schools. Lawmakers approved $6.55 billion for schools in 2011 and $6.6 billion last year. Daniels cut from there and elsewhere on his way to building roughly $2 billion in cash reserves.

Education funding is at the crux of this year's budget negotiations. Both Democrat and Republican House leaders are calling for more cash for schools, and the Pence team will be fighting mightily for the $500 million it would need to cut the personal income tax by 10 percent.

Pence spent much of his first State of the State address delivering the same pitch to lawmakers that he has used for months — that a tax cut is the best stimulus for Indiana's economy. He also sought to assuage lawmakers with the promise that education was still adequately funded.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma has challenged that assertion, arguing since October that the Pence tax cut might not hold amid a desire to restore education spending.

John Ketzenberger, president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, said it should not surprise anyone that any budget battle focuses on education.

"If you look at how much the state spends on education ... you can make a good argument that the business of the state is educating the next generation of Hoosiers," Ketzenberger said.

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