Indiana lawmakers approve GOP budget, gambling bill
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers approved a new state budget and a wide-ranging gambling bill Wednesday as they wrapped up this year’s legislative session.
The House and Senate party-line votes came as Republicans touted the spending plan as a responsible one that makes strides toward improving the state’s lagging teacher pay while protecting the state in case of an economic downturn by maintaining its $2 billion in cash reserves.
“This budget is fiscally responsible, it doesn’t raise taxes,” said Republican Ways and Means Committee co-chairman Todd Huston of Fishers. “It continues our path to economic growth.”
The Republican spending plan increases base school funding by 2.5% each of the next two years. But Democrats and some education advocacy groups criticized it as not doing enough to help schools while shortchanging needed programs, such as subsidies to adoptive parents and youth suicide prevention programs.
“This budget is too meager, too tight-fisted,” said Democratic Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage.
Gov. Eric Holcomb and other Republicans had talked of the importance of improving teacher salaries since before the legislative session began in January. But their funding proposals never came close to the 9% increase that education advocacy groups estimated was needed to boost Indiana’s average teacher pay to the midpoint of neighboring states.
The governor and legislative leaders were joined at Tuesday’s budget deal announcement in the House chamber by officials from six groups representing school boards and school administrators, but no teacher organizations.
Hundreds of teachers attended Statehouse rallies and local demonstrations calling for greater funding increases. The Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said it appreciated the state’s best school funding boost in 11 years but will continue to fight for more money.
The education advocacy group Stand for Children Indiana said the proposal represented “incremental progress” for improving teacher pay and hoped that would continue with future state budgets.
“While some progress was made to lift up Hoosier teachers, we all need to recognize we have a long way to go if we want every child to be taught by great educators, who are staying and growing in their respective roles for the long term,” the group said.
An analysis provided by Democrats shows the GOP spending plan increases traditional school funding by about 2% a year, while charter schools will see 10% more money and private school voucher funding goes up 9% the first budget year and about 5.5% the second year.
Another provision in the budget deal trims $70 million from Holcomb’s request for an additional $572 million over the next two years toward allowing the state’s troubled Department of Child Services to keep hundreds of new caseworkers. Budget writers say the lower funding level is possible because growth in the agency’s expenses has slowed.
House members voted 59-36 and senators voted 37-12 in favor of the gambling bill hours after negotiators were able to settle differences over shielding cities that might take tax revenue hits over new casinos that would be allowed in Terre Haute and Gary.
The deal would have the city of Gary make payments to the cities of Hammond, East Chicago and Michigan City from its expected growth in casino taxes and have the Terre Haute casino operator make payments to the city of Evansville over three years.
A proposed $40 million tax credit to the new owner of the current two Gary casinos on Lake Michigan was dropped, but Republican House Majority Leader Matt Lehman of Berne said tax changes could save Spectacle Entertainment a similar amount over five years.
The bill’s provisions allow Spectacle to build a new, on-land casino along heavily traveled Interstate 80-94, with it giving up the other license for a to-be-selected operator of the proposed Terre Haute casino.
A Democratic negotiator, Rep. Terri Austin of Anderson, said she supported the tax breaks for Spectacle because the state has never before taken away an operator’s casino license.
“The state is going to take one of those licenses back and say ‘If you want to move you have to give us your second license,’” Austin said. “They are getting 30 cents on the dollar for what they paid.”
Some legislators criticized the deal for lowering a previous version’s requirement of a $100 million fee from Spectacle to build the new Gary casino to $20 million and allowing the tax breaks.
“I’ve never been in a negotiation where we change who pays whom,” said Democratic Rep. Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis. “That is a more than 100% shift — in the opposite direction.”
If signed into law by the governor, the bill would also legalize sports betting in the state possibly starting as early as this fall. The horse track casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville will be allowed to have table games with live dealers starting Jan. 1, 2020 — 18 months earlier than allowed under current law.
Republican Rep. Ben Smaltz of Auburn argued against the bill, saying provisions allowing sports wagering by mobile devices opens the state up to future attempts for letting traditional casino games like blackjack move online.