Lawmakers set for special session on budget-WEB ONLY

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Indiana lawmakers will convene for a special, budget-writing legislative session today that stands to cost taxpayers at least $12,000 a day in a state that has seen its revenue plunge in the past year.

The decisions they ponder will involve how billions of taxpayer dollars are to be spent, but there are few signs that Republicans and Democrats will find a quick and easy compromise before the current two-year budget cycle expires on June 30.

“We are basically back to square one,” Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne) said yesterday.

The Democrat-led House and Republican-ruled Senate could not agree on a two-year spending plan by the regular session deadline of April 29, forcing the special session.

Most of state government could shut down unless a new budget is enacted by June 30 or lawmakers pass legislation authorizing current spending to continue past then, according to the Legislative Services Agency, the General Assembly’s nonpartisan research arm.

Legislative leaders had hoped that a revised revenue forecast, a complete budget proposal from Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and a special bipartisan legislative committee would set the stage for a quick compromise on a spending plan.

But House Democrats, upset over that process and Daniels’ budget proposal, broke away from the special committee and plan to present their own budget bill today. It will cover only one year instead of the traditional two that Republicans insist on.

The sides also are at odds over spending levels and how money is to be doled out to school districts.

Rep. Jeff Espich (R-Uniondale) said an outline of the House Democrats’ plan and their decision to go their own way at the start of the special session did not bode well for enacting a budget by June 30.

“Long is for sure – how long is the question,” Espich said of the special session. “I hope it doesn’t go to it, but I think there is an even chance it goes beyond the mid-year.”

House Democrats plan to present their budget bill after the special session starts at 1 p.m. They say it will cover only one year because of the volatile economy and uncertainties about how much revenue Indiana will take in over a two-year period from July through June 2011.

A revenue forecast released in late May predicted Indiana will collect $1.1 billion less through June 2011 than April estimates had predicted.

“Two years is way out there,” said House Speaker Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend). “Even a year is somewhat guesswork.”

House Democrats said their plan would increase overall state spending on schools by an average of 2 percent in the next school year, and every district would get as much money or more than they got this year.

Daniels’ plan also would increase school spending by a statewide average of 2 percent, but most of that money is federal stimulus dollars. Democrats have criticized that approach because the stimulus money would run out in two years, and although some growing suburban districts would get overall increases, many poor rural and urban schools with declining enrollments would face cuts.

The Daniels administration and Republican legislative leaders say the governor’s proposal would increase per-pupil spending in all districts through a combination of state and federal dollars, while most state agencies would see cuts.

They say the House Democrat plan would spend far too much overall in one year at levels that could not be sustained in a second year barring a huge jump in state revenues.

House Democrats plan to hold a Ways and Means Committee hearing on their budget plan tomorrow, with a possible committee vote on Monday.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) said Senate Republicans will begin working on their own plan, using Daniels’ proposal as a starting point.

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