State budget moves to conference committee, negotiations will continue

Budget negotiations between the Senate and House continue, helmed by chamber budget architects Sen. Ryan Mishler, left, and Rep. Jeff Thompson. Photo by Monroe Bush for the Indiana Capital Chronicle.
Whitney Downard
Indiana Capital Chronicle

INDIANAPOLIS — Senators voted to approve their proposed version of the budget on Tuesday but it is headed to conference committee for key lawmakers to continue negotiations. The measure advanced on a 40-10 vote with both parties splitting their votes.

The $43.3 billion budget doesn’t include any expansion of vouchers, which House Speaker Todd Huston has personally pushed for, nor does it finalize funding for mental health and public health commitments.

It would end the biennium with $3.2 billion in reserves — which is markedly higher than the House proposal at $1.1 billion.

Senate differs from the House

Sen. Ryan Mishler, the chief budget architect for the Senate chamber, noted in his introduction that the Senate and House versions had several key differences, such as phasing out career and technical education (CTE) grants and charter school grants in favor of funding formula modifications for K12 schools.

In contrast to the House, senators also included a separate line item for textbooks and curricular fees. The House rolled that funding into the overall formula, to the dismay of educators.

Additionally, as promised in negotiations last year to phase in income tax cuts favored by House Republicans, the Senate budget includes a $1 billion payment toward the pre-1996 teacher retirement fund, the state’s largest outstanding debt obligation that is on track to be paid off by 2029.

Democrat concerns

But Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, indicated that his caucus still had problems with this draft, though they preferred the Senate version over the House version. Melton said the expansion of school vouchers proposed by the House, which would subsidize families making up to $220,000, “would have left us paying for wealthy kids to go to private schools.”

“We simply don’t go far enough to make critical investments to support the health and welfare of the citizens of our state,” he said. “I know we can go further and make bolder investments to support public health and public schools.”

Melton said his Monday amendment, which would have raised the cigarette tax by $1.50, could fully fund both mental health and public health priorities. However, he chose to withdraw the amendment citing ongoing budget negotiations.

Additionally, Melton repeated his concerns about “unvetted” language to phase out charter school grants in favor of letting those schools get a portion of property tax growth.

All but one Senate Democrat – Sen. David Niezgodski, of South Bend – voted in favor of the budget.

One Republican, who no longer caucuses with his party, Indianapolis’ Sen. Mike Young, voted down the budget, leaving the final vote 40-10.

“I’m very aware of everybody’s concerns. I can’t even begin to tell you how many text messages I have right now,” Mishler said, promising negotiations would continue.

On Wednesday, lawmakers will receive the next two-year revenue forecast, detailing projected income for the coming biennium. This will inform the final draft of the budget, which is expected to come out next week.

The session must conclude by April 29.

* * *

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to giving Hoosiers a comprehensive look inside state government, policy and elections. The site combines daily coverage with in-depth scrutiny, political awareness and insightful commentary.

You can read the original version of the story here.