It was supposed to be a celebratory moment. The Republican fiscal and legislative leaders lined up in the House, with a grinning Gov. Eric Holcomb joining them.
They had a budget that not only was balanced but kept about $2 billion in reserves and gave increases to K-12 education. It’s an achievement worth celebrating when many states are struggling with debt and budget cuts.
Two things, though, struck me as off.
The first was the optics. All white men. Not a single minority or woman with a meaningful role in deciding how $34.6 billion was allocated. I don’t doubt the lawmakers with top roles in the budget process spent hours listening to the requests from both organizations and other legislators, including women and minorities. But being at the power table matters, and having the deciding opinion matters.
There are more women and minorities than ever before in the Legislature: 35 women and 14 minorities, out of 150 lawmakers. All bring a viewpoint and experiences that should be reflected in the budget, a spending plan that shouldn’t be as white as the paper it’s printed on.
The second thing that struck me was that the budget was emblematic of the whole session, promising more than it sometimes delivered in the fine print.
This session was largely about four issues: hate crimes, K-12 funding, teacher pay and gambling. Gamblers did just great, raking in new casinos, live table games at racinos and the ability to bet on sports from your mobile phone.
But the other areas are less clear. Yes, a hate crimes bill was signed into law but it didn’t include the explicit victims list the governor had asked for. Spelling out “gay” and “transgendered” was too much, so it is instead implied. That may be enough to get Indiana off the list of states with no hate crimes law, but the Legislature could have passed a law that left no doubt.
The same is true with teacher pay. Yes, there is more money for merit bonuses. But there is nothing that increases base pay, already the slowest growing in the nation. The Legislature that doesn’t hesitate to tell schools what classes must be taught and what tests must be taken decided teacher pay remains a local decision.
As always, there are winners and losers in K-12 funding. While schools saw about 2.5% increases each year of the biennium, those are averages. Traditional public schools are getting only about a 2% increase each year—and some districts not even that. Charter schools, though, are getting more than 10% each year; virtual schools, which have shown poor results but devour real dollars, are getting 5.25% the first fiscal year and more than 9% in the next. And vouchers, that use public dollars to pay for private schools, are getting more than 9% the first year and 5.6% the next.
In some ways, the session is as notable for things that didn’t happen as things that did. They didn’t, thank goodness, adopt legislation that would have made loan sharking legal so long as it was done in a payday loan office.
They didn’t pass legislation that would have codified in state law that it’s OK to shoot teachers with pellets during active shooter drills so long as they consent. The bad news, though, is that it failed over the good part of the bill that would have required anyone with a gun in school to undergo firearms training.
While the state increased funds that districts can tap to make their schools more secure, right-wing pushback killed attempts to improve mental health services in schools to help youths who may be suicidal—or, worse, homicidal.
Jen Hallowell, who lobbied for improving mental health services in this state where teen suicides have tripled in the last decade, was disheartened. A watered-down bill that created “student and parent support” grants passed, but not anything specifically that cited and tracked mental health.
With school shootings every parents’ fear, identifying mental health problems has been identified as a key component. “You can focus on the doors and locks and buzzers and buttons all you want,” Hallowell said, “but you’re not addressing the core cause.”
In the end, there were good things that happened, and things that are good because they didn’t happen. But there also is too much money unspent and too many needs unmet. Just ask Sen. Jean Breaux, the Indianapolis Democrat who was denied a mere $20,000 for a program helping low-income pregnant women.
Lawmakers didn’t fail as much as they left the Statehouse with work undone.
Mary Beth Schneider is an editor at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalists.