The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, January 07, 2020 1:00 am

General Assembly

Governor, GOP close on goal list

Differ on phone use, driving

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Republicans outlined their legislative goals Monday that largely match GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb's agenda except for one key difference.

The announcements came on the first day of the 2020 legislative session.

Holcomb is pushing a law that would require hands-free use of mobile devices when driving, but neither the House nor Senate Republican caucuses added that to their list.

“I have no prediction on that,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said. He noted some safety-minded members think it's a great idea while other members with more libertarian leanings are less enthusiastic.

He called himself a swing vote.

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray also said his caucus is split, noting some think it's an infringement on personal freedom.

“We're going to have a long talk about that and take it very seriously,” he said.

But Republicans agree on a number of other items – the first being the spending of almost $300 million in surplus money for one-time higher education construction projects.

Bosma said the move of paying for the projects with cash up front instead of bonding over the next decade will save about $130 million in the future or free up about $22 million a year in ongoing dollars.

The bill filed in the House to do so noticeably left out a swine barn renovation at the Indiana Fairgrounds that was originally on the list of projects. The swine barn had become somewhat of a battle cry from teachers upset that state officials were prioritizing a new fair pavilion over teacher pay.

Holcomb said early Monday at a prayer event that he might also have a proposal in next week's State of the State address to dip into new ongoing tax revenues expected after a revised revenue forecast.

But that was news to Bosma and Bray. Bray said he hasn't talked to the governor, and Bosma and other House leaders went to the governor's office quickly to get clarification.

“The governor is looking for all options to address teacher pay,” Bosma said. But he termed it a future proposal that won't impact the current two-year state budget.

The next budget will be debated in 2021.

House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said that's too long to wait.

“We should show strong leadership and increase teacher pay to help the educators in our districts who just started teaching but feel overwhelmed, overworked and underpaid – so much so that they are seriously considering leaving the profession,” he said.

Holcomb and GOP leaders also agree on legislation to hold schools and teachers harmless from drops in standardized test scores administered last year. The state moved to a new computer-adaptive test and saw the number of students passing the test plummet.

The hold harmless will last for two years and means schools receiving A-F accountability grades won't see their grades dip or face consequences from the state.

Teachers also will not have their bonuses and salaries impacted.

Senate Bill 2 passed its first committee Monday afternoon and is being pushed quickly through the process.

GiaQuinta called it a short-term fix to a long-term problem in the state, noting Indiana spent $133 million on standardized tests the last two years with little to show for it.

“The majority's proposals on education are not victories, they are merely the starting point of a longer conversation that needs to happen regarding the structure of Indiana's standardized testing system and ensuring that it works for our teachers, students and schools,” he said.

Another issue that everyone agrees on is increasing the age to buy tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21.

The federal government slipped the change into a spending bill that immediately went into effect Jan. 1, but it has caused some confusion for state retailers because Indiana law now differs.

Bosma said the state still needs to pass the age increase to make it consistent with the federal government and also because the state does a large amount of education and enforcement on the issue.

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