Political News

Deadline looming for Indiana lawmakers to strike budget deal

Posted April 16

— Indiana lawmakers set a Friday deadline to reach an agreement on the state's next two-year budget, as well as the Republican majority's top priority — raising taxes to pay for improvements to the state's crumbling infrastructure.

But with just days left in this year's legislative session, the House and Senate still appear far apart on some key tax provisions. That's put some other pieces of Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb's agenda in limbo.

Lawmakers also want to curtail the sale of cold beer by convenience stores, an unexpected issue that cropped up after Ricker's gas stations used a legal loophole to make beer sales previously reserved only for liquor stores and restaurants.

It's possible the factions won't come together this week. In that case, they could continue negotiating until the official April 29 deadline for the yearly legislative session, given that all sides want a deal. But lawmakers had hoped to adjourn early.

"Once we get agreement on roads, the budget and liquor, we're getting out of here," said House Speaker Brian Bosma. "It's my hope that will be before next Friday, but I'm leaving my calendar open."

Here's a look at what's to come this week:

BUDGET AND TAXES

Republicans have generally agreed to hike the state's per-gallon tax on gas and diesel by at least a dime. They also want to charge new tire and vehicle registration fees.

But House Republicans also want to fund infrastructure by using all current sales taxes on fuel purchases, which are charged in addition to the state's existing per-gallon fuel tax. And that's a major sticking point.

Senate Republicans and Holcomb oppose the idea because it would take money out of the state's general fund, which currently pays for other programs.

To compensate for that shift, House Republicans have proposed raising the state's $1 per-pack cigarette tax, which Holcomb and Senate Republicans also oppose.

In addition, lawmakers likely will need to impose tolling, in order to raise the $1 billion in additional yearly funding state officials estimate they need to maintain and improve roads and bridges. A provision in the roads bill would allow the governor to seek federal authority to toll. But Holcomb has signaled that he isn't itching to do that quite yet.

Last month he suggested that was something the state should consider in seven or eight years — about the time he would be term-limited from running again.

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PRE-K FUNDING

Holcomb came out of the gate asking for a $10 million a year increase in funding for a pilot program that pays for poor kids to go to preschool in five counties. But Senate Republicans balked.

What's unclear is if the chamber's chief budget writer, Sen. Luke Kenley, will budge from his initial offer of just a $3 million increase, with an additional $1 million set aside for an online preschool program that offers 15 minutes of lessons a day.

Holcomb, who has operated primarily behind the scenes this session, offered an olive branch. He shifted his request from doubling the funding for the program to finding ways to double the number of students served by it, which could come with a smaller price tag.

Experts say there is ample data showing prekindergarten helps kids perform better once they enroll in K-12 school, especially disadvantaged kids. However, Kenley has raised philosophical concerns about a government-sponsored program that sends kids to preschool, suggesting that children ought to be home with parents at that age.

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APPOINTED SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT

Another of Holcomb's major agenda items is a bill to make Indiana's elected schools superintendent a position appointed by the governor.

The bill has had a bumpy ride and was initially voted down by the Senate. Though it was later resurrected, the measure is now in limbo in the House. Speaker Brian Bosma has suggested that he's not in a rush to take it up.

That could mean Bosma's holding it to gain leverage in other negotiations, a tactic he's been known to use in the past.

The push to take choice away from voters arose, at least partially, from bitter battles between former Republican Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president, and former state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat.

The two clashed frequently over Republican backed policies, like using public dollars to pay for private school tuition, or using student test performance to help determine teacher pay.

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