Senate approves 2-year budget
14 Apr 2021 — Journal Gazette
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Niki Kelly

INDIANAPOLIS : The Indiana Senate approved a two-year state budget by a 39-10 vote Tuesday after two hours of sometimes intense debate : mostly over education funding.

A final compromise version with the House will come next week. All area senators supported the legislation.

The most strident speech against the budget came from longtime Republican Evansville Sen. Vaneta Becker. She called out the lack of effort on increasing teacher pay and the growing cost of K-12 school choice programs.

Becker said the state is losing teachers right and left because salaries are lagging the nation but, "I know most people in here don't care about that."

She also noted that an expansion of the state voucher program now makes a family of four making up to 95,000 a year eligible for a state-paid private school education. She compared that to the income limits on other state assistance programs, including 56,000 for a pregnant woman in a family of four.

"Ninety-five thousand dollars is nowhere near low-income," Becker said.

The voucher program started as a small 15 million investment and now has spent more than 1 billion over a decade, she said.

Ironically, Becker voted for the bill, she said, because anything coming from the House will be worse.

Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen : who crafted the two-year spending plan : said he tried to find middle ground on issues like school choice. In fact, he slashed spending compared with the House version.

"There is only so much money to go around," he said.

The 36 billion budget leaves about 2.1 billion in state reserves.

About half of the budget goes to spending on K-12 education, which gives $408 million in new money to the tuition support formula. That is an average 1.2% increase for local schools the first year and a 4.2% increase the second year. That includes hikes in the special education and complexity grants, which helps poor children and those with disabilities.

Chris Himsel, superintendent for Northwest Allen County Schools, said from a big picture standpoint, the Senate budget is positive because it provides more equitable funding increases across the board for everyone : from vouchers to charter schools and traditional public schools.

"The other part that I like about the Senate version is a recognition that our special education funding had been stagnant for several years," he said. "We just kept falling behind. That increase is felt and is significant. It's a step in the right direction."

Kathy Friend, chief financial officer for Fort Wayne Community Schools, also applauded that move : noting the district has a $6.1 million gap in expenses for special education students versus money provided by the state. The district uses other funds to make that up.

And she noted that years of bringing awareness on the complexity factor : which acknowledges that some poor students are more challenging to educate : is starting to work.

"I feel like we were heard this year," Friend said. "Sometimes it takes time to work through the issues."

She said FWCS' increases of 1.8% and 2.5% in per pupil funding "coming off of COVID ... is a nice increase that will really help us out."

Two other parts in the budget provide some aid to Fort Wayne. The first gives $4.85 million in new funds for Purdue University to expand academic programs at Purdue Fort Wayne.

The second says that up to $3 million in funding provided for more direct flights can go to Fort Wayne International Airport for a gate expansion project.

The Senate budget also appropriates about 1 billion in federal stimulus money including 250 million to broadband expansion; 150 million for regional recovery efforts; 100 million for water infrastructure; 50 million for health grants; and 100 million for mental health.

One-time investments of state excess dollars include paying down 400 million in pension obligations and 110 million in reducing debt.

The bill also implements a vaping tax but does not include a cigarette tax. For closed systems that are sold pre-packaged the tax will be 10 cents per milliliter at the wholesale level. For open systems : such as those mixed and sold at vaping shops : there will be a 10% retail tax.

This story is provided free courtesy of The Fort Wayne Newspapers.
"Senate approves 2-year budget" Journal Gazette 14 Apr 2021: A1