INDIANAPOLIS | For the first time since 2007, a Northwest Indiana lawmaker will play a significant role in deciding how the state spends some $30 billion over the next two years.
State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and co-sponsor of House Bill 1001, Indiana's 2014-15 budget, with state Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, the Appropriations chairman.
During the next four weeks, they will review the House-approved spending plan, consider and approve changes recommended by senators and decide whether to include an income tax rate cut desperately sought by Republican Gov. Mike Pence.
At first glance, Tallian said she's discovered the House budget and its funding increases for education and roads above the 1 percent recommended by Pence is not a partisan document.
"This, philosophically, is a budget that we can agree with," Tallian said. "It recognizes the fact that we're sort of coming out a recession and that the (revenue) forecast right now looks pretty good, and that we can start to fill back in some of the programs that have been cut or eliminated over the past four years."
Tallian said she likes that the budget preserves Indiana's $2 billion reserve fund. She said she would prefer to see more of that extra money used to undo big cuts to education enacted in 2010-11 by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels when state revenue cratered during the Great Recession.
She believes the budget will need to be adjusted to account for major changes to Indiana's criminal code proposed in House Bill 1006 that are intended to reserve prison for the worst offenders and provide treatment to low-level criminals.
"We're going to have to start shifting some money around from what used to go to the Department of Correction and now is going to have to go to probation, to community correction programs and substance abuse programs," Tallian said.
The two-term senator also hopes the budget can be amended to include an expansion of Medicaid for Hoosiers earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $14,856 for an individual or $30,657 for a family of four, in accordance with the Affordable Care Act.
She said so long as the federal government is going to pay 100 percent of the Medicaid costs of new enrollees through 2016, those health care dollars should be spent at Indiana hospitals.
Tallian said it doesn't make sense for Hoosiers to pay federal taxes supporting health care for residents of other states when their fellow Indiana citizens get nothing.
As for Pence's proposed income tax cut, Tallian is skeptical that reducing state revenue by $800 million over the next two years is the best course for Indiana.
"The amount that he's requested is not doable in my opinion," Tallian said. "We're still on the edge, kind of, and we need to make sure we've shored up what we have and what we've cut, rather than just giving it back."
Kenley also sounded doubtful the governor's tax cut will make it in the final budget, though he said he's keeping an open mind.
"Obviously we want to fund schools, we want to fund roads, we want to fund higher education," Kenley said. "Even a conservative Republican will say these are the kind of investments in the future that you have to make -- so we've got to reach that right balance."
Prior to Tallian, state Sen. Sen Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, was the most recent region lawmaker to serve as a key budget player in the House or Senate.