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INDIANAPOLIS — Boosting teacher pay will be a top priority for state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, and the Senate Democratic caucus, during the 2019 Indiana General Assembly.

On Friday, Melton and Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, announced they'll be filing legislation next year to increase state funding for education, contingent upon schools providing annual teacher pay raises of 2.5 percent during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years.

"Our public school teachers are being drastically underpaid for the important work that they do to prepare our children for their future," Melton said. "Teacher salaries in Indiana have not kept up with inflation, meaning their paychecks have remained stagnant since 2009."

"It is long overdue to raise teacher salaries in this state, and I hope that our colleagues in the General Assembly will support this important proposal."

Calumet New Tech High School teacher Daniel Brugioni, who also is president of Gary's Lake Ridge Federation of Teachers, said he's seen how hard it is to attract and retain quality teachers when starting salaries are in the mid-$30,000 range and pay raises are few and far between.

"It's not feasible for them to stay there and try to build a life and make a career out of it," Brugioni said. "It's heartbreaking."

Lanane estimated the two-year cost of the proposed teacher pay hikes is $150 million. He said Indiana has that money; it's only a matter of choosing to spend it.

"It's a budget year coming up, and when you look at your budget it's basically a statement of your priorities," Lanane said.

"So we're saying, as far as Senate Democrats go, that education is a priority and making sure that our teachers are paid fairly is a priority."

Other items on the Senate Democratic agenda include legalizing medicinal marijuana, a fight that state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, has led for years at the Statehouse; guaranteeing that health insurance sold in Indiana covers pre-existing conditions; passing a bias crime statute; and redistricting reform.

"Medical marijuana is a safe and effective treatment option," Lanane said. "Medical marijuana laws in other states are working well. No state that has enacted medical marijuana legislation has later repealed it."

"Hoosiers should have the same choices for treatment as people in 33 other states."

Individual Democratic senators also are beginning to identify their session goals ahead of Tuesday's ceremonial opening of the 2019 legislative session.

For example, state Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, said he will seek to bring elements of the "No More Secrets" campaign against child sexual abuse, which began as an elementary school program in Lake County's North Township, to Indiana's universities.

"I will continue to fight for a uniform policy on Indiana college campuses when it comes to sexual violence and advocate for the rights of all victims," Mrvan said.

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Statehouse Bureau Chief

Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.