INDIANAPOLIS — Republicans who dominate Indiana’s Legislature have several debates to settle among themselves after the first half of this year’s session, including how much they’ll expand the state’s private school voucher program and what limits they’ll put on emergency powers the governor has used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawmakers face another two months of jostling over the new two-year state budget, a proposal to increase Indiana’s cigarette tax and calls for greater police accountability.
Final decisions aren’t expected on many issues until near the Legislature’s planned adjournment in late April, although the badly outnumbered Democrats argue that Republicans are ignoring problems like the state’s lagging teacher pay in favor of a narrow business-friendly agenda.
A look at some of the top issues:
The budget plan endorsed by House Republicans would boost the base funding for K-12 schools by 1.25% during the plan’s first year and 2.5% in the second year.
That would mean about $378 million more for total school funding over the two years — although 38% of that money, or $144 million, would go toward the voucher expansion and a new program allowing parents to directly spend state money on their child’s education expenses
Republicans tout their plan as giving parents more control over how to educate their children. The proposal would raise income eligibility toward a maximum voucher amount for a family of four from the current roughly $48,000 a year to about $145,000 in 2022, in part by eliminating the current partial voucher levels based on income.
Rep. Tim Brown, the top House Republican budget writer, said the overall plan invests in helping businesses recover from the pandemic slowdown while preserving about $2 billion in cash reserves to protect the state from future downturns.
“Indiana is the best state in the Midwest for jobs and people working and that shows in the strength of how we budget in state government,” Brown said.
Democrats argue traditional public schools are being shortchanged and Republicans aren’t doing anything to improve teacher pay after a commission appointed by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb found it could cost more than $600 million a year to increase Indiana’s average teacher salary ranking from ninth-highest to third-highest in the Midwest. Democrats maintain that a focus on the state’s surplus and credit rating means not addressing critical needs.
“Are we going to continue to be overweight, with high blood pressure, with low college graduation rates? Is that what we’re going to do? Going to continue to pay our teachers $10,000 less than they should be making?” said Democratic Rep. Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis. “This budget is absolutely devoid of any vision.”
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said he believes GOP senators support a school voucher expansion, but it could face Senate changes as “we’re not going to be awash with new revenue.”
The House and Senate have passed considerably different proposals aimed at giving legislators more say over emergency orders issued by the governor and local health officials.
Those debates follow months of criticism from some conservatives of Holcomb’s statewide mask mandate and orders restricting businesses and religious services as government intrusion on personal freedom during the pandemic that has killed more than 12,000 people in the state.
The proposals seek ways to force the governor to call lawmakers into a special session if extended emergency orders continue after the legislative session has ended for the year. Holcomb has questioned whether that is allowed under the state constitution.
Despite complaints about Holcomb’s executive orders, legislative leaders praise his leadership during the pandemic and have taken no action toward overturning any of Holcomb’s current public health orders.
Republicans, however, have already pushed through a new law that gives businesses broad protections from lawsuits by people blaming them for contracting COVID-19 even as supporters don’t point to any such lawsuits in the state.
The House unanimously approved a bill aimed at increasing police accountability that includes provisions for mandatory de-escalation training, misdemeanor penalties for officers who turn off body cameras with intent to conceal, and bans on chokeholds in certain circumstances. The Indiana Black Legislative Caucus has supported the proposal that follows protests against racial injustice and police brutality spurred by last year’s death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
That unity was disrupted a couple weeks later when Black lawmakers were shouted down and booed by some Republicans when they criticized an unrelated bill as discriminatory and racist. Some verbal confrontations followed in hallways, and Black caucus leaders called for reprimands against some legislators and for all lawmakers to undergo mandatory anti-bias training.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, advanced bills cracking down on protests such as those that turned violent over several nights in Indianapolis last May. One bill toughens penalties for those arrested in connection with an unlawful assembly or riot.
Democratic Senate leader Greg Taylor, the first Black person to lead an Indiana legislative caucus, argued the measure goes too far and would harm free speech rights.
“Do you think it’s ironic that some of us are standing here only because people marched?” Taylor said during the Senate debate. “Some people called it rioting. (Protesters) got beat up, hoses sprayed on them, dogs sicced on them for me to be standing here. Were those riots?”
CIGARETTE TAX HIKE
House Republican supported increasing the state’s current 99.5 cents-per-pack cigarette tax to $1.50 and imposing a new 10% retail tax on electronic cigarette liquids.
The cigarette tax has remained the same for more than a decade even as health advocates and major business groups have backed increasing the tax to $3 a pack to help drive down the state’s 21.1% smoking rate for adults. That was the fourth-highest in the country for 2018, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Republican senators have turned aside attempts in recent years to increase cigarette taxes. Bray, the Senate’s GOP leader, was noncommittal this past week on whether the tax hike could gain Senate approval this year.