Members of the Republican supermajority were in a congratulatory mood Wednesday night after the Indiana General Assembly finished its session five days ahead of deadline. House Speaker Brian Bosma told reporters all 10 of his must-pass items went through.
We had a list, too, published in January, and by our reckoning lawmakers fell short on all five of what we believe were the most important issues they needed to address.
Did Indiana lawmakers deliver on promises to increase education funding? Yes. The additional $539 million in tuition support over the biennium will ease the financial strain on some schools but doesn't translate to guaranteed raises for teachers.
And don't confuse statewide average increases with what schools will finally receive. The funding simulation shows East Allen County Schools in line for 3.5% and 4.1% increases over the next two years. But Steuben County's Hamilton Community Schools, struggling after a failed referendum last November, is in line for decreases in state support of 2.4% and 2% over the biennium, based on estimated enrollments.
And those are simply estimates. School officials look at per-pupil funding for a more accurate measure of dollars available. For Fort Wayne Community Schools, that's 2.2% next year and 1.1% the following year – much less than the 2.3% and 2% statewide average per pupil.
The total increase in education funding also conceals allocations favoring charter and voucher schools over traditional public schools. Indiana taxpayers are likely to spend an additional $25 million over the next two years by giving larger vouchers to families just above the income limit for free or reduced price lunch. An additional $2.5 million in tax credits also was made available to donors supporting private and parochial school scholarships.
Overall, voucher schools are expected to see a 9.3% increase in 2020 and a 5.6% increase in 2021.
Hamilton Schools Superintendent Tony Cassel said the General Assembly's decision to support voucher and charter schools has had an impact there and across the state. He acknowledged raises are unlikely for his 26 teachers, whose only recent pay increase was a one-time stipend.
“I'm glad there was an increase in funding, but at some point the legislature is going to have to take a look at where the money is going,” Cassel said. “It's a continual attack on public education. When you look at the percentage going to charters and vouchers and – that's been the agenda.”
Department of Child Services
Under new Director Terry Stigdon, the Indiana Department of Child Services has been having some success implementing recommendations of a study group that reported last June on problems. Many of those solutions involve policy and management changes. But after years of underfunding, money is still a big factor as well. For the coming biennium, Stigdon asked for an additional $286 million annually.
In sharp contrast to the wait-and-see approach state leaders took while the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group was reviewing the department's operations in the first half of 2018, lawmakers decided lower overall case numbers and the internal reforms under way for less than a year will allow the department to make do with $256 million during 2020 and $246 million in 2021.
As The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly reported, the state could still tap backup funds if that assessment turns out to be wrong.
Stigdon is making progress on workload and salary problems that led to high turnover among burned-out caseworkers and frontline managers. But will she be able to alleviate drastic underfunding of private home-based services the department contracts with? Those services work with families to help abused and neglected children stay in their homes when possible, or, when children must be removed, prepare parents to reunite with their children.
Chris Daley, executive director of the Indiana Association of Resources and Child Advocacy, said Thursday his group is hopeful the new allocations will allow Stigdon to address such deficiencies.
“We have not seen a rate increase since 2006,” said Dee Szyndrowski, CEO of SCAN, one of the local agencies doing this vital work. With inflation, that actually means a 15% decrease in the Fort Wayne group's funding during the past 12 years. SCAN tries to make up the difference with local fundraisers, Szyndrowski said, but the challenge continues to grow.
We will learn only later whether the legislature's cuts in Stigdon's budget request were wise.
Tobacco and vaping proposals
Business leaders and health care advocates spent much of last year teeing up a pair of proposals that would have made Indiana a healthier place to live and work. One was to raise the state's tax on cigarettes by $2 a pack. The other would have raised the smoking age from 18 to 21. These measures, which would have cost the state nothing, could have helped save thousands of Hoosiers from premature death related to tobacco use, eased the public and private costs of health care and provided funding for a range of other underserved health needs.
When it became clear the supermajority would not take a serious swing at either proposal, attention settled on efforts to tax vaping products. That would have been a step forward: For many young Hoosiers, e-cigarettes are a gateway to lifelong nicotine addiction. But no one could agree. Should the tax be 20%? Or 5%? And should it be applied at the retail or wholesale level? Though they were running ahead of schedule, lawmakers somehow managed to run out of time, and thevaping-tax proposal evaporated like a cloud of toxic tobacco smoke.
One day last month a Senate committee passed a strong, clear bill empowering judges to enhance sentences for crimes against people or property motivated by bias. The next day, after a caucus session conducted in secret, of course, Senate Republicans embraced a gutted version of the bill that avoided enumerating the biases it expected the courts to address.
In the House, the supermajority sidelined that bill in favor of one that referred to an old list of protected groups – one that omitted any reference to women and transgender persons. Gov. Eric Holcomb, who had consistently called for an inclusive list, suddenly decided a watered-down bill was good enough to sign after all.
Perhaps the measure will still encourage judges to impose more severe sentences on those whose crimes tear at the fabric of our society. But with little public debate, Indiana's lawmakers and governor maneuvered behind the scenes to muffle a resounding statement against violence committed in the name of hatred. Most of those involved in this legislative charade got by without even having to explain themselves.
'No one knows,” as Charlie Rich used to sing, “what goes on behind closed doors.”
The just-ended session allowed plenty of time for debating and approving hundreds of complex bills, but somehow there was not enough time for the one facing a deadline. Of six bills addressing redistricting reform, one narrowly passed the Senate but was never called for a hearing in the House Elections and Apportionment Committee. That leaves next year's short session to tackle the complex task of revising the process for drawing legislative and congressional districts. Odds for creating an independent commission before maps are redrawn in 2021 are somewhere between nil and none.
Republican Sen. Greg Walker, chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, told reform supporters in February he had to be mindful of “what this body can digest” in advancing redistricting bills.
When it comes to relinquishing the authority to choose their own voters, that appears to be nothing. Another session; another miss on attempts to end gerrymandering.