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Indiana Senate

The Senate chamber in the Indiana Statehouse

INDIANAPOLIS — A proposal to significantly reduce the $100 million debt burden of the Gary Community School Corp. overwhelmingly was rejected Wednesday by the Republican-controlled Indiana Senate.

State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, offered an amendment to House Bill 1001 — the two-year state budget — that would have authorized Indiana officials to cancel repayment of all or part of the $30 million in loans provided over the years to Gary schools through the state's Common School Fund.

Melton said eliminating that debt would go a long way toward putting the Gary district on a path to sustainability, notwithstanding its ongoing financial pressures tied to declining enrollment, competitive charter schools and the cost of maintaining older buildings.

"We have a crisis on our hands," Melton said.

The Senate was unpersuaded.

It defeated Melton's proposal on a voice vote, where the shouts of "no" greatly exceeded the few "ayes."

State Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who is working with Melton on Senate Bill 567 for a state-appointed emergency manager to take over the finances of the Gary school corporation, said Melton's loan-forgiveness idea was not yet ripe for action.

"This recommends a solution that is possible to be in the offing at some point in time," Kenley said.

"But I think it would be premature to adopt this today due to the fact that we have so many other things to decide to do, and so many more issues to consider, in terms of what is the right formula to get Gary and the Gary schools back in shape — which I hope we can do."

Melton did succeed in winning Senate approval for the Gary school corporation to sell any of its unoccupied buildings without first making the properties available for a charter school to use.

That was the only Democratic amendment incorporated into the budget legislation, which is set for a roll call vote Thursday to advance the measure to a House-Senate conference committee.

The 41 Republicans in the 50-member chamber repeatedly voted along party lines to reject other Democratic amendments, including several offered by state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes.

The legislative package included proposals to increase the state's minimum wage, halt pending reductions in the corporate income tax rate, enact a penalty enhancement for bias-motivated crimes, cap funding for private school vouchers and establish an independent redistricting commission.

The Senate also denied Democratic efforts to boost spending on pre-kindergarten education, food banks, senior citizen home care programs, the state's child care tax credit, earned income tax credit and soil lead testing in St. Joseph County.

Kenley said some of those amendments didn't belong in the budget legislation and appropriately were defeated.

But others, he said, will be considered as the House and Senate work over the next two weeks to devise a compromise state spending plan that must be re-approved by both chambers to go to the governor for his signature or veto.

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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.