Indiana lawmakers return for session of spending decisions
By TOM DAVIES Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers returned Monday to the Statehouse for the start of this year's legislative session with a large budget surplus and a long list of big-ticket spending wishes to sort through.
The drafting of a new two-year state budget will be the primary focus of the Republican-dominated Legislature during its session expected to last until late April, but debates on topics such as hot-button social issues and a push for marijuana legalization could force their way to the forefront.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has proposed the largest funding boost for K-12 schools in more than a decade and a major spending increase for public health programs. Some top GOP legislators, however, are worried about the costs of those plans amid an expected slowdown in the growth of state tax collections.
A look at some top issues for the legislative session:
The state's surging tax collections and the infusion of federal COVID-19 relief funding prompted last year's distribution of $325-per-taxpayer rebates and approval of a seven-year gradual cut in the state's individual income tax rate. That has still left the state with $2.3 billion, or about 12%, more expected tax revenue coming in for the current budget year than its planned spending.
Holcomb last week proposed a 6% K-12 funding boost for the next school year and is seeking $120 million to eliminate textbook fees for public school students. Other top proposals include nearly $350 million over the next two years toward a major funding increase for public health programs and $500 million for a new round of regional economic development grants.
Conservative lawmakers failed last year in an effort aimed at limiting classroom discussions on racial and political topics in the face of significant teacher opposition. They are poised this session to offer a bill similar to a Florida law adopted last year that critics dubbed "Don't Say Gay," which bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
Indiana House education committee Chairman Robert Behning said he didn't know how much support the bill would receive but that he believed parents should lead such discussions with their children.
"Let's teach kids the basics and let's not try to get beyond that," Behning said.
After the classroom topics debate and the state abortion ban pushed into law by Republicans last summer, House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta on Monday called for the GOP majority to avoid "the extreme, needless culture wars we've spent so much time on over the last few years." Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill said the Legislature should avoid debating "polarizing issues" such as the Florida law.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray recently showed little enthusiasm for legislators taking up the classroom topics issue again, saying it was "pretty vigorously" debated ahead of many local school board elections last fall.
"It's a great avenue for Hoosiers to take a look at that issue and make decisions more locally than we can here in the General Assembly," Bray said.
Top Republicans say they don't expect action on abortion issues while awaiting a state Supreme Court ruling on whether the abortion ban adopted in August will go into effect.
A county judge ruled in September that the ban violates the Indiana Constitution's protections of individual rights. The Supreme Court has allowed abortions to continue in the state while it considers the lawsuit filed by abortion clinic operators, with the court scheduled to hear arguments in that case on Jan. 19.
"It wouldn't be wise at all for us to take a crack at any changes right now until we know what that ruling is going to be," Bray said.
Advocates for relaxing Indiana's laws against marijuana use will be making a renewed push to get past long-standing opposition from Holcomb and Republican legislative leaders to such changes. Democrats and other supporters argue that legalization could benefit those wanting to use it for medical purposes, create new jobs and boost state tax revenue.
But Holcomb and top Republican lawmakers say they are reluctant to do so while marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even though recreational marijuana use is now allowed in neighboring Michigan and Illinois and about 20 other states. Ohio is among the states allowing medical use of marijuana.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said the additional tax revenue from legalization isn't enough to change his mind.
"When you ask about impacts on employment, on education, on social services, I've yet to have anyone say it's been a positive," Huston said. "So, I personally remain skeptical."
Holcomb is scheduled to give the annual State of the State speech before lawmakers Tuesday, during which he will outline his legislative requests.
The half-hour speech is set to begin at 7 p.m. EST and will be broadcast by several television stations across the state.