Governor says he could boost Indiana child agency funding again

Indiana's governor signed a new two-year budget Monday and pledged to work to restore some of the money lawmakers trimmed from his proposal to boost funding for the state's child welfare agency if the amount ends up being insufficient.

Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the budget during a Statehouse ceremony, five days after lawmakers approved it to end this year's legislative session.

One provision adopted by the GOP-dominated Legislature trimmed $70 million from Holcomb's request for an additional $572 million over the next two years toward allowing the state's troubled Department of Child Services to keep hundreds of new caseworkers.

Holcomb sought that money to match a boost of $286 million, or about 40 percent, that his administration transferred to the agency last year amid complaints about it being unable to handle a jump in the number of abused or neglected children cases blamed on more drug-addicted parents.

Legislative budget writers say the lower funding level is possible because caseloads in the agency are improving.

Agency reports to legislators show that its number of open cases grew by 23% over two years to reach nearly 29,000 in 2017. That declined by 17.5%, to about 23,700, at the end of January.

Holcomb said during a news conference after Monday's signing ceremony that he believed the agency received what it needed in the budget but that he would be watching its performance.

"We have made progress," Holcomb said. "If we get into a fix, I will do what I did last time and we will make sure that DCS is fully funded should those numbers take a turn."

The state budget plan approved last week in votes along party lines projects that the state will end up with about $2 billion in cash reserves, which would amount to at least 11.5 percent of state spending.

Republicans maintain the reserves protect the state in case of an economic recession and encourage continued business growth, while Democrats argue those figures are unnecessarily high and were reached by ignoring important needs—such as fully funding the child welfare agency.

"Balanced budgets are required, but artificially bloated reserves that come at the expense of so many important programs, organizations and people are contrary to the state's primary goal of meeting the needs of its citizens," said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson.

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