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WATCH NOW: Overwhelmingly bipartisan budget approval brings end to Indiana legislative session
General Assembly

WATCH NOW: Overwhelmingly bipartisan budget approval brings end to Indiana legislative session

One of the most remarkable annual sessions of the Indiana General Assembly is over — for now.

State lawmakers approved Indiana’s new, two-year spending plan Thursday with unprecedented bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, and left the Statehouse until fall when they’ll reconvene to complete the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s legislative districts that was postponed due to COVID-19 delays at the U.S. Census Bureau.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic was responsible for much of the uniqueness of this year’s legislative session, including lawmakers wearing face masks most of the time, speaking from behind Plexiglas barriers, limited public access and participation in committees, and the House even relocating from its usual chamber to a large conference room in the Indiana Government Center South building to allow for social distancing.

But those COVID-19 precautions meant, unlike other states, the Indiana General Assembly was not forced to shut down for days or weeks at a time due to coronavirus infections. Though it did take the week of Jan. 18 off after law enforcement warned lawmakers of potential violence that never materialized tied to the end of Republican President Donald Trump’s term in office, similar to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“It’s been a tough year. Everything about it has been strange and challenging,” said House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers.

Yet Huston took solace in all 29 House Democrats scuttling the minority party’s usual practice of reflexively voting against the state budget and this year joining all but two House Republicans voting in favor of House Enrolled Act 1001. The objectors were state Reps. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis, and Curt Nisly, R-Milford.

Three Democrats, state Sens. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, and Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, opposed the spending plan in the Republican-controlled Senate. It voted 46-3 to advance the measure to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb to be signed into law.

Altogether, the budget spends some $38 billion during the two-year period that begins July 1, or approximately $2 billion more than the spending plans considered by the House and Senate earlier in the four-month legislative session.

The additional money comes from federal aid provided directly to Indiana through Democratic President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, along with increased state tax revenue, particularly sales taxes, linked to Hoosiers spending their American Rescue Plan stimulus checks.

“Thank God for the American Rescue Plan and thank God for Joe Biden,” said state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary. “If it wasn’t for the American Rescue Plan we wouldn’t be able to make the investments that we’re making today.”

Statehouse Republicans declined to specifically credit the COVID-19 relief legislation approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress in March without a single GOP member voting yes. They said the past decade of prudent, responsible spending decisions by the Republican-controlled General Assembly put Indiana in a position to craft a budget that will help the state grow quickly out of the pandemic.

“We do a lot. We are balanced. We are strong. We are ready for the next budget. If there is an economic bubble because of what the economy does nationwide, we are prepared, we are ready,” said state Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

Under the plan, Indiana elementary and high schools will receive a $1.03 billion, or 9.1%, increase in student tuition support compared to the current state budget, pushing school funding over $8 billion a year for the first time in state history.

Senate President Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, said the historic funding increase comes with a directive that all Indiana schools set a $40,000 a year minimum pay rate for teachers, at least 45% of tuition support dollars be spent on teacher salaries, and any salary savings from experienced teachers retiring must continue to go toward teacher pay.

The budget plan also provides $150 million in student recovery grants to address learning loss caused by COVID-19 school closures; increases state support for low-income and special education students, along with English language learners; boosts by 30% funding for school-based social/emotional health programs; and continues the appropriation of $37.5 million a year for Teacher Appreciation Grants.

In addition, it expands eligibility for the nation’s largest school voucher program to Indiana households earning up to 300% of free and reduced lunch eligibility, or $147,075 for a family of four, and creates a new education savings account program for special education students that allows their parents to claim nearly all the money that usually would go toward their education at an Indiana school and use it for any educational program they choose.

“Kids win in this budget,” said state Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “This is absolutely the biggest it’s ever been for K-12.”

In Northwest Indiana, the plan provides $400 million to reconstruct the Westville Correctional Facility in LaPorte County, approximately $15 million for a new state police post in Lowell, and $1.2 million for the second phase of a study sought by Melton looking at how to turn Gary’s Buffington Harbor into an intermodal shipping facility, given its links to nearby water, air, rail and highway connections.

The budget also creates a $550 million capital reserve account that can be used to construct a new state archives building, new state park inns at Potato Creek and Prophetstown, cyber security infrastructure, and a new deaf and blind school campus, while setting aside another $900 million for unspecified future state infrastructure projects.

It appropriates $250 million in federal aid for broadband internet expansion, $160 million for water infrastructure grants, $70 million to improve the Law Enforcement Training Academy, $60 million for trails, $50 million for a new swine barn at the Indiana State Fair, $25 million for land conservation, $20 million to complete the modernization of Department of Revenue tax software, and $10 million to help communities purchase police body cameras, among other line items.

For Hoosier communities and workers the budget allocates $500 million to support regional economic development initiatives, provides $100 million in additional funding for mental health services, $75 million for high-wage, high-demand career training programs, $60 million for the Hoosier Hospitality Small Business Restart Grant Program, and awards $1,600 each in hazard pay to state police, capitol police and Department of Correction officers and employees.

The budget also pays off $302 million in state building and highway debt, prepays $600 million in teacher pension obligations, cash funds instead of borrowing for the $231 million state share of the South Shore Line’s West Lake and Double-Track projects, and deposits $500 million in federal aid into Indiana’s nearly drained Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

“It’s going to do a great job for the state of Indiana,” said state Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond.

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