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School money, gambling decisions near for Indiana lawmakers

April 21, 2019

Just how much additional money will go toward Indiana schools is a top unanswered question as the General Assembly nears the end of this year's legislative session.

Lawmakers could wrap up the session as early as Wednesday but negotiations on the new two-year state budget and other issues could delay completion of its business until as late as April 29.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders touted improving teacher pay as a top priority this year, but Democrats and education advocacy groups have said Republican proposals for less than 3% increases in base school funding are inadequate.

House and Senate members are also seeking agreements on funding public subsidies for renovating the Indiana Pacers arena in Indianapolis and a bill allowing new casinos in Gary and Terre Haute, along with legalizing sports betting.

A look at some top issues still up for debate:

STATE SPENDING

The only business that the GOP-dominated Legislature must complete before its adjournment is reaching a state budget agreement.

Republican budget plans have proposed increases between 2% and 2.7% in base funding over the next two years for K-12 schools, while education advocacy groups estimate a 9% funding increase is needed to boost average teacher pay to the midpoint of Indiana's neighboring states.

Hundreds of teachers have attended Statehouse rallies calling for greater funding increases, while Republican state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said GOP Statehouse leaders had given a "false promise" of significant teacher pay raises. Republicans budget writers say they're giving school districts more flexibility for increasing teacher pay and have rejected proposals from Democrats for additional education money by cutting private school voucher growth, tapping the state's $1.8 billion in cash reserves or suspending corporate tax cuts.

School funding will get close attention from all legislators, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ryan Mishler of Bremen. "They all want to make sure their schools did OK. I think that's probably at the top of our list of what we discuss over the next couple of days."

Another big-ticket item is Holcomb's request for $572 million over the next two years toward allowing the state's troubled Department of Child Services to keep hundreds of new caseworkers. Several local officials are trying to reverse the proposed cut of a $3 million annual state subsidy for Amtrak's Hoosier State passenger line between Indianapolis and Chicago.

GAMBLING GAMBIT

A wide-ranging proposal would allow the owner of the two Gary casino boats on Lake Michigan to build a new casino along heavily traveled Interstate 80-94 in the city, after paying a one-time $50 million state fee. It also sets up a competitive process for casino operators to be picked for opening a casino in Terre Haute.

The question of whether Indiana will allow sports betting by mobile devices is still up for debate— as the House voted to limit such wagering to casino sites and the Senate backed online bets. Some lawmakers who oppose mobile device wagering call it a significant expansion of gambling that could lead to traditional casino games moving online.

Many details remain unsettled over the bill, including whether lawmakers will move up the state's 2021 date for permitting table games with live dealers at the horse track casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville.

STADIUM SUBSIDIES

A deal for the Indiana Pacers to stay at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for 25 more years hinges on legislators approving a plan for the bulk of $295 million in public subsidies toward an arena renovation and expansion project. No new taxes will be imposed under the proposal, but the state and local income and sales tax revenue generated by several nearby downtown Indianapolis hotels would be diverted from the state, city and local schools.

Another part of the bill would set up a similar tax-subsidy district toward construction of a planned $150 million stadium by the Indy Eleven soccer team in Indianapolis. The team's owner has proposed a development including restaurants, shops, offices and apartments surrounding the stadium, with tax revenue generated by the project going toward helping pay for the stadium.

SCHOOL SAFETY

Following school attacks last year in Noblesville and Richmond , Republicans are advancing a bill that would allow Indiana school districts to seek state money toward providing gun training for teachers and sets up requirements for a 40-hour training course.

Democrats have objected to what they see as encouraging more guns in schools. State law already allows school districts to authorize non-police staffers to be armed on school grounds, but only a few do so.

Another provision would allow police agencies to use projectiles during active-shooter training for school staffers as long as they have written permission from the employees.

Republican lawmakers backed off banning the practice that drew attention after police instructors shot some teachers with plastic pellets at a northern Indiana elementary school this year to make it more realistic. Teacher groups and GOP state school Superintendent Jennifer McCormick have denounced the projectile use as inappropriate.

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