Big flaws in state budget

Monday, July 6, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- In the final hours of June 30, Indiana lawmakers reached an agreement on a new budget and avoided a shutdown of state government.

For better or worse, we do have a plan that will keep the state in operation for another two years.

In my view, the budget that passed neglected rural schools by throwing money at non-essential projects. I voted against House Bill 1001ss because it failed to meet a primary objective I wanted from this session: funding schools while creating an environment that would provide jobs for people at a time when more than 336,000 Hoosiers are out of work.

For weeks, we have talked about the need to compromise. To reach a final agreement on something as complex as a state budget takes lengthy negotiations and a willingness to work together. It must be said that these discussions were difficult, primarily because of the limited funds and a threat of a state shutdown.

We knew going into this special session that our decision had to be made by June 30. Gov. Daniels stated he would not approve the original budget and was prepared to bring us to this moment.

No one at the Statehouse chose to shut down state government. Our priorities were set on education and the operation and maintenance of state services, first and foremost.

Through negotiations, House Democrats supported a 2 percent increase in state support for K-12, with a "hold harmless" provision to make sure schools did not see current levels of support reduced. The Senate majority chose to cut support and refused "hold harmless" protections. In my opinion, flat-lining most schools would have been our best option.

In the end, the Senate's position won out, although the House was able to get another $54 million added to the school funding formula. This win resulted in an increase in overall school spending of 1.1% in 2010 and .3% in 2011. "Overall" is a key word because schools in District 44 will see an overall decrease of $516,767. There are few winners and many losers.

House Democrats were able to increase support for higher education by more than $100 million.

We also inserted an additional $400 million for construction projects at our colleges and universities in the final budget. In all, around $650 million is provided for new projects that will improve facilities for students and put people back to work in good-paying jobs.

A big positive for our college-bound students was an increase in state student assistance. There was a $13.9 million increase in FY10 and an additional $6.6 million in FY11 for the higher education/ Freedom of Choice and 21st Century Scholars awards.

I believe we could have done more for Hoosiers who need jobs. We still needed a state stimulus package that would put people to work on projects that pay good wages and make substantial, lasting improvements to our local roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

However, this budget's greatest sin is its failure to support for our children in public schools.

During negotiations, we were told that we could not provide more support for K-12 education. Under the new funding formula, 100 school corporations receive less state support in the first year and 160 lose support in the second.

Clay County, Cloverdale, Greencastle, North Putnam, South Putnam, and Turkey Run will lose dollars in at least one year. Three of the six will have less revenue in both years.

While this budget is generous toward schools in growing suburban areas, it will be devastating for schools in rural areas of the state. The cuts in state support, particularly in the second year of the budget, could force these schools to eliminate programs and cut teachers. Worst of all, it could increase class sizes and create a significant barrier to helping our children get the education they deserve.

As I reviewed the school runs, 37 legislators who opposed the language realized that the budget was not going to get better but acknowledged that the hefty decreases in funding will create long-term ramifications for our kids.

Even though rural schools were told to tighten the belt, there was still enough money to bail out the Indianapolis Capital Improvement Board, a group that is responsible for the management of Conseco Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium. Over the next three years, the board will be allowed to borrow $24 million to be paid back over 30 years. CIB officials already have admitted this bailout will not be enough and they will be back in future sessions.

There were two other losers in the budget. I am worried at their plight.

The closing of the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Children's Home means that 100 troubled kids will be sent back into foster care or other places. Over the years, the home has proved its success. We have seen the results from closing other institutions for people with special needs. To me, it is heartless and unacceptable to have no compassion for these kids considering we asked to keep the home open one more year in an effort to prove its value.

There is a tax increase in the budget. It reduces the number of people receiving heating assistance in the winter by eliminating the sales tax exemption that has been provided for a number of years. There is no benefit of deleting this provision. This is not the time to reduce resources for people who are trying to rebound from tough times.

I did not want to see state government shut down. Passing a state budget before July 1 means our parks will stay open, police will continue to patrol our roads and your license branch stays open.

On Tuesday, I went around and asked people, "What do you want me to do on this budget?"

Their responses were the same: "I don't want to shut down state government, but it doesn't seem right that our schools will lose so much funding."

The process has been a balancing act. I wanted to see a fair school formula for our schools. I wanted to see additional funding funneled back to rural counties. I wanted to speed up the mailing of our tax bills. I wanted to create better opportunities for people in need of jobs. If an idea I supported did not pass this session, the experience of being a lawmaker gave me a chance to learn what I can do in the sessions to come.

Next session, I will be back, fighting for the same things. It is the right thing to do.

Even though the 2009 session has come to a close, I encourage you to contact me with questions and concerns. A visit to the State House is always in order during the summer months. In the weeks ahead, I will be submitting more details on the passed budget. It is a 461-page document that contains language that will be important to all of you.

Best wishes for good family fun during the Fourth of July weekend. You can reach me by calling the toll-free Statehouse telephone number of 1-800-382-9842, writing to me in care of the Indiana House of Representatives, 200 W. Washington St. , Indianapolis , IN 46204 , or submitting your comments to my web site at www.in.gov/H44. While visiting my web site, you also can sign up to receive regular e-mail updates from the Legislature.