GOP pushes budget plan, contentious issues

The firm control that Republicans have over the Indiana Legislature has them forging ahead on a school funding overhaul that shifts millions of dollars to growing suburban schools, along with contentious issues favored by social conservatives and powerful business groups.

Lawmakers have reached the midway point of the General Assembly's four-month session, during which they've seemed resolved to approve a proposal to allow the replacement of Democratic superintendent of public schools as the state Board of Education's leader. They've also moved to loosen state casino laws despite Gov. Mike Pence's opposition to a gambling expansion but saw a push to end the state's decades-old ban on Sunday carry-out alcohol sales fall apart.

Pence says the legislative session is off to a successful start — even as he hints the House-passed state budget plan might spend too much. But there's still plenty of time for things to change.

The only absolute necessity for lawmakers is to approve a new two-year state budget before the session's scheduled end in late April.

More than half the money included in the $31 billion spending plan from House Republicans goes toward K-12 education. That proposal, now in the hands of the Senate, includes 2.3-percent increases for both years, which is more than Pence proposed and could result in a projected state surplus that's slightly below the governor's nearly $2 billion target.

Democrats have blasted the House Republican school-funding proposal, saying it will bring "devastating" funding cuts to more than a third of the state's nearly 300 school districts. Under the plan, school districts largely in urban and rural areas that are losing students could receive millions of dollars less, while some affluent suburban districts would see increases of 10 percent or more.

Republican leaders say their plan is based on money following student enrollment instead of funding districts based on previous years.

"Funding buildings versus funding children is the main philosophical difference," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville.

House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City has argued that the districts that could see funding cuts are largely those with the most at-risk students, such as those who live in poverty, have disabilities or are learning English.

"There are hundreds of thousands of kids throughout Indiana that are going to continue to see fewer teachers, growing classroom pressures and environments where it's harder to learn," he said.

The debate over school funding comes amid accusations that Republicans are targeting Superintendent Glenda Ritz for political reasons. She has been the lone Democrat holding a Statehouse office since her 2012 upset of Republican schools chief Tony Bennett.

Ritz's tenure has been marked with numerous disputes with members of the Republican-appointed Board of Education. Republican legislative leaders say the board has become dysfunctional, and both the House and Senate have approved bills ending the superintendent's automatic position as board chairman and allowing any board member to be elected its leader.

Protests from Ritz supporters on social media, at a Statehouse rally and numerous town hall meetings with legislators haven't swayed GOP leaders.

The large majorities Republicans hold in the Legislature — 40-10 in the Senate and 79-21 in the House — have allowed them to advance bills that would lessen Ritz's board authority despite opposition from some Republican lawmakers.

Lawmakers in the coming weeks will also take up a contentious proposal that supporters say would allow those with religious objections to refuse services for same-sex weddings, which federal courts legalized in Indiana last year.

The bill cleared the Senate on party lines despite arguments from some business leaders that the proposal could hurt the state's reputation. Opposition could heat up in the coming weeks with involvement from Freedom Indiana, the coalition that led last year's successful campaign against legislation to add a gay marriage ban to the state constitution.

A proposal to repeal the decades-old state law that sets wages for public construction projects is now in Senate hands after winning approval in the House, where 13 Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it.

Supporters argue the repeal could save state and local governments millions of dollars by allowing more contractors to pay wages below union scale. Opponents argue the change would open the door for low-paying, out-of-state contractors.

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