As Indiana lawmakers kicked off their annual legislative session Tuesday, GOP leaders said they hope to focus on the passage of a statewide infrastructure improvement plan—and a likely tax increase of some type to pay for it.
But as the Senate gaveled in Tuesday—to be followed by the House on Wednesday—a coalition of not-for-profit and business community voices began urging the Republican majorities to add another priority: expanding a statewide preschool program for poor children.
"Just like investments in infrastructure are important to the long-term health of the state, investment in the success of our citizens is equally important—if not more important," said Ann Murtlow, president and CEO of United Way of Central Indiana.
An expansion of the state's roughly $10 million, five-county pilot program was a key issue in the governor's race through the summer and fall. GOP leaders, including Republican Governor-elect Eric Holcomb, have said they support expanding the program to more children.
But Republicans have since signaled that there may not be enough political will to pass a significant expansion. A recent state revenue forecast indicated the state recently collected $300 million less than expected, though state revenues are projected to jump significantly over the next two years.
"It's going to be lean times no matter what," House Speaker Brian Bosma said last month, adding that an expansion of the preschool program was "not easy to achieve, given the tight circumstances."
Indiana is one of just a handful of states that does not offer a significant pre-kindergarten program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
United Way is asking lawmakers to set aside $50 million for an expanded program, arguing that there is a wealth of research showing it could save on remedial education costs in the long run.
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce is part of the coalition along with United Way, but chamber president and CEO Kevin Brinegar said Tuesday that he would be satisfied with a more modest expansion.
"We're trying to be flexible and listen to the legislators and look at the numbers, but I would say doubling the program would be what we were looking for at a bare minimum," he said.
Indiana is sitting on about $2 billion in reserves. Revenues are projected to grow 2 percent over the next two years, which could bring in an estimated $1 billion in new money. Still, GOP leaders warn that a recession could be around the corner.
Meanwhile, a road-funding package and raising the money to pay for it remain the stated priority for the GOP majorities.
That means residents could find themselves paying more for cigarettes, gasoline or vehicle registrations to build out and repair the state's roads, highways and bridges.
House Republicans say they will detail their full legislative agenda during a news conference Wednesday morning. Holcomb says he will present his plan on Thursday.
While the Senate formally opened for business on Tuesday, GOP Senate leader David Long will wait until after the House and Holcomb announce their plans to unveil his own priorities, said spokesman Skip Brown.