General Assembly goes late in effort to wrap us session

The Indiana General Assembly worked late into the night Friday to hammer out final details on a two-year, $30 billion budget containing new tax cuts, a modest expansion of school vouchers, new oversight of the $2.8 billion Rockport coal gasification project and a series of other measures as the 2013 session neared its end.

State lawmakers scrambled throughout the day to reach compromises and make final adjustments to the proposals that have been batted about out since the session convened Jan. 7. They were set to end their work late Friday or early Saturday morning.

The biggest item on their to-do list was the two-year budget. The spending proposal included a modest increase in school funding, new money for roads and highways and roughly $350 million in new tax cuts. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has also pointed out that the budget continues an incremental cut in the corporate income tax approved in 2011.

The budget marked a partial victory for Republican Gov. Mike Pence in his drive to cut the personal income tax rate by 10 percent over the next two years and a marginal win for the leaders of Indiana's localities who have stood on the other side pushing for more money for road repairs. Pence won a 5 percent income tax cut, which will be phased in starting in 2015, and lawmakers restored some of the transportation money cut under former Gov. Mitch Daniels during the recession.

Democrats said Republicans were shortchanging education by increasing school funding by 2 percent in the budget's first year and 1 percent in the second after big cuts were made during the recession. The budget adds about $200 million more than what Pence sought for schools. It also would pay off more than $80 million in loans taken by charter schools, possibly including schools whose charters were revoked by Ball State University earlier this year.

House Democratic leader Scott Pelath, of Michigan City, said the biggest tax savings would go to the wealthy and businesses through a plan to eliminate the inheritance tax and continuing corporate tax cuts, while the middle class will see little benefit.

"Maybe two years down the road an extra buck a week in their pocket. That is pathetic," Pelath said. "These tax cuts they talk about are a sham. The income tax cut only happens two years from now."

Pelath said increases for schools over the next two years won't make up for funding reductions made by Daniels.

Lawmakers were also set to expand the state's school voucher program, which is already the nation's broadest. The program would be opened to students whose siblings already receive vouchers, would otherwise enroll in "failing" schools or have special needs. More than 9,000 students currently receive the vouchers, which provide public money so they can at tend private school.

Lawmakers also weighed a proposal to halt implementation of national Common Core education standards while state budget officials and a legislative panel look at concerns the education rules might strip autonomy from the state.

They also were expected to approve a new school-grading model following controversy over one crafted by former School Superintendent Tony Bennett before he lost re-election last year. The new model would be drafted by the state Board of Education, minimizing Democratic School Superintendent Glenda Ritz's role.

A proposal that would make it illegal to secretly take videos or photographs that could make a business look bad, dubbed the "ag gag" bill by opponents, died Friday afternoon. The House sponsor withdrew the bill after a lengthy debate during which several opponents criticized it for exposing industrial whistleblowers or even unhappy restaurant customers to possible criminal charges.

Lawmakers were also close to approving a new review by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission of the proposed Rockport plant, if the Indiana Supreme Court determines the state's 30-year contract to purchase gas from the plant is void.

An effort to speed implementation of a deal requiring to start collecting sales taxes for online purchases in July instead of next year as previously approved was withdrawn Friday after facing dim prospects in the Senate. And efforts to add table games at Indiana's two horse tracks and allow riverboat casinos to move on land both appeared headed for defeat in the Senate.

Republican Sen. Phil Boots of Crawfordsville had sought those provisions and said Friday he was disappointed he couldn't get an agreement from House Republicans who regarded them as an expansion of gambling.

The 2013 session was largely devoid of the strife that has marked legislators' work the last two years, when clashes over right-to-work legislation sparked Democratic walkouts.

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