Indiana legislators adjourn with $28B budget

The Indiana General Assembly adjourned for the year late Friday, bringing an end to a roller-coaster legislative session that produced politically-charged legislation that will help shape elections next year and for the next decade.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels could get a boost from his session victories should he decide to run for president in 2012. He can tout major agenda accomplishments this year on bills that bring a spotlight on Indiana, including a sweeping education overhaul that will create the nation's broadest private school voucher plan.

"This [agenda] will propel Indiana to the head of almost every achievement list," said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. "There's little doubt that achievement will make Mitch Daniels look like a very attractive presidential candidate, and I'm thrilled by that."

For House and Senate members, the session's major controversial bills—including one Daniels plans to sign into law that would make Indiana the first state to defund Planned Parenthood—will be an issue in the 2012 elections. Democrats say their base is especially energized after the GOP tried to push labor and education bills that were opposed by many union workers and teachers, spurring large Statehouse rallies denouncing the GOP agenda.

"I think they'll be a lasting political consequence," said Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Austin. "Working class Hoosiers realized who stood up for them."

Bosma said Republicans advanced their agenda to move the state forward, not to try and win over future votes.

And one of the most important bills passed this session creates new political maps drawn by the GOP. Those districts will literally help determine the outcome of elections for the next decade.

Lawmakers wrapped up their work before Friday's midnight deadline, with the last big vote coming on a two-year state budget bill that will give slight funding increases to schools without raising taxes. The Senate voted 37-13 and House voted 59-39 for the budget that takes effect July 1.

The budget includes an automatic taxpayer refund Daniels had pushed. Under the bill, if state reserves exceed 10 percent of budgeted spending, half the extra money would be used for pension funds and half would be given back to taxpayers.

The budget would increase funding for public schools by 0.5 percent in 2012 and 1 percent in 2013 and increases funding for full day kindergarten programs by $47 million over the two-year budget. It also includes some money that can be awarded to outstanding teachers through the state's new merit pay system that Daniels is expected to sign into law soon. And it includes $4,000 "Mitch Daniels Early Graduation Scholarships" for high school students who graduate a year early and go on to higher education.

House Democrats suggested a suspension of taxes on gasoline for June, July and August, but that provision wasn't included in the budget deal Republican negotiators hashed out.

Democrats said Republicans missed opportunities to help the working class and wanted more money for schools.

"We are spreading incredibly scarce resources … too thin," said Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend.

But Republicans wanted at least $1 billion in reserves, saying it was wise not to spend every dollar the state is expected to take in over the next two years.

The budget also clarifies a way lawmakers can be fined if they boycott proceedings, a direct response to a five-week walkout by House Democrats.

The tense partisan atmosphere during the boycott seemed far removed Friday night. Legislators shook hands and gave each other hugs after they ended a session marked by political battles not seen for years. Bosma said the session brought historic challenges and historic achievements.

"That's not to say we didn't have our rough patches, because we did," he said.

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