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Final state budget negotiations get underway

April 17, 2015

Legislative fiscal leaders launched final budget negotiations Friday with a somber tone, a reflection of this week’s downward revision in the state’s revenue projections.

“There will have to be spending reductions” in the $31.5 billion proposals approved by both the House and Senate, said House Ways & Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville. Both legislative plans “become structurally out of balance” given the new forecast, he said.

And Senate Appropriations Chair Luke Kenley called Thursday’s forecast – which reduced the cash available for spending by $213 million over the next two years – a “bit of a wake up call for all of us.”

But those remarks didn’t stop some special interest groups from asking lawmakers to either spend more money or resist cutting their appropriations.

Lobbyists for retired public employees and teachers said the General Assembly should fund a 13th check – essentially an extra monthly payment each year – as part of their pensions. Lawmakers have been doing that for years but left it out of this year’s budget plans.

That will mean a reduction in benefits for retirees, said Larry Buell, a member of the board of the Retired Indiana Public Employees Association.

“That could be a quite a catastrophe” for some of those former employees, Buell said. “Some of these people really have a hard time making ends meet.”

Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, urged lawmakers to reinstate funding for the Indiana Education Roundtable, which brings business and education leaders together to provide an advisory role to the State Board of Education.

The House budget included nearly $1.5 million for the group but the Senate eliminated the roundtable completely. Brinegar said the group provided an opportunity for people typically on opposing sides of educational issues to tackle tough problems together.

Various education leaders told lawmakers Friday that they need more money for charter schools or higher per-student funding for their suburban districts or more for help for urban schools losing enrollment.

The House and Senate each put roughly $460 million more into K-12 education spending, which pays for traditional public schools, charter schools and private school vouchers. But they divided up that money differently, with the House putting more into growing, suburban districts at the expense of urban and rural schools with declining enrollments.

State Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, told GOP fiscal leaders they should work to ensure that “every school will be a winner when it comes to finances.”

Republican Gov. Mike Pence weighed in as well, issuing a statement that calls for education to be “our top priority” for any new spending.

“If we are to have 100,000 more students in B or better schools by 2020, we must fund excellence in education at every level for all of Indiana’s kids and provide more equitable funding for every child in every school,” Pence said of a promise he made during his State of the State Address.

Pence’s budget plan actually put less money into schools than did those passed by the House and Senate. He also directed more money into charter schools, which are public schools that operate outside the traditional district system.

“As this session comes to a close, I am confident we have the resources to fully fund not only my education priorities but also those of the House and Senate,” Pence said in his statement.

But with education eating up more than half the state’s budget, that leaves difficult decisions about other programs in the state.

Lawmakers must pass a budget by midnight April 29 or face a special session to finish the work.

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