The Journal Gazette
Thursday, February 18, 2021 1:00 am


Money matters

Legislature can still rethink budgeting priorities

When Gov. Eric Holcomb in January unveiled his plans for the state's next two-year budget, a key lawmaker called the spending plan a good place to start.

“The governor's proposed budget is a great starting point as we continue to invest in key priorities on behalf of Hoosiers,” said Rep. Tim Brown, a Crawfordsville Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

It's since been interesting to learn what those priorities are.

House Republicans released their version of the budget last week in one of the first steps toward finalizing what should go into or come out of the state's coffers, and it calls for items that certainly won't help all Hoosiers. At the top of the list is funding for schools.

Holcomb pitched a plan for $377 million in state tuition support, which is doled out to Indiana schools based on a complex formula. That's about 2% growth in the first year of the biennium; 1% in the second year.

GOP lawmakers' budget includes $378 million in new tuition support – 1.25% the first year, and 2.5% the second. But there's a big catch – their plan would expand an already-costly school voucher program, sending an additional $65 million to private schools over two years. An analysis by the Indiana School Boards Association shows the voucher expansion and a new education savings account program would add about $144 million in costs over the biennium.

Republicans also have backed legislation to raise income eligibility for vouchers, a move that would allow for a family of four making $145,000 a year to use state dollars to pay for nearly all of the cost of sending a child to private school.

Holcomb's plan does not include voucher program expansion, and the Republican governor in his State of the State speech expressed concern about growing the system at the expense of public schools.

“Parents not only deserve to have options about where they send their child to be educated – after all, they pay for it – but at the same time, those options shouldn't come at the expense of the public school system, which educates 90% of Hoosier children,” he said.

The proposed budget is not kind to public schools. While the foundation amount – the set amount each school district receives for every student enrolled – increases by 1.2% in the first fiscal year and 2.5% in fiscal year 2023, the actual amount received by school districts is determined by enrollment. For East Allen County Schools, that's estimated at a minuscule 0.6% increase in the first year; 1.1% for Fort Wayne Community Schools.

As The Journal Gazette's Ashley Sloboda explained in a Feb. 7 story, school districts serving students from low-income families are shortchanged by the legislature's failure to address their needs with what is called “complexity funding.” The proposed budget shows no interest in addressing that.

It also falls short on support for special education funding. Fort Wayne Community Schools currently has a $10 million funding gap between what it is mandated by federal law to provide in special education services and the amount of state and federal funding provided.

“Our special ed funding from the state has increased only 3.6% since 2013-14, on a per-pupil basis,” said Kathy Friend, chief financial officer for the district. Total funding has increased only because the urban district has more special education students enrolled.

The House budget also eliminates career and technical education funding for programs it categorizes as supporting low-demand jobs – cosmetology, for example. The result, of course, is to push students who want to pursue careers in those jobs to costly private programs.

Also, neither the House nor Holcomb's budget specifically addresses increasing teacher pay, despite a recent report from a state panel recommending action to bring Indiana teacher compensation in line with other states in the Midwest.

The House budget does include a long-awaited hike in the state's cigarette tax, but it's less than the $2 per pack sought by public health advocates or even the $1 increase approved by a House committee. Instead, it's a 50.5-cent increase that would raise the cigarette tax to $1.50 per pack in Indiana; money from that – an estimated $150 million a year – would go to Medicaid and health grants.

The budget process is in its infancy and will continue into the spring, when the Senate will take up what's sent from the House and create a new version.

There is time to rethink and improve priorities.

Sign up for our Opinion newsletter

Sent daily