By Erica Irish
INDIANAPOLIS — Lawmakers are one step closer to finalizing the next two-year state budget Monday, with leaders in both chambers optimistic the bill will receive a final vote before the end of the week.
Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said the public can expect to see a report from the budget conference committee, generated from a bipartisan group from both chambers, by noon Tuesday.
Though Bray said the report, which will outline compromises negotiated between House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans, contains “nothing dramatic,” he did admit the public can expect some changes to highly charged issues like K-12 funding and teacher pay.
“It’s not going to be what the Senate Republicans introduced, and it’s not going to be what House Republicans introduced,” Bray said, but he added on K-12 funding: “We’re pretty optimistic. We’ve worked hard to keep it as a high priority.”
This comes days after a forecast published by the State Budget Agency revealed an estimated $100 billion shortfall that legislators will have to account for when revising the two-year state budget, outlined in House Bill 1001.
The SBA’s latest revenue forecast predicted the state will receive $34 million less in revenue for the next two fiscal years, in addition to a $60 million funding increase needed to cover Medicaid programs.
But Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, said the funding gap, when examined in the context of the current budget plan, should not be of concern to the public and that majority leadership should consider using the state’s reserves to better fund programs proposed by House and Senate Democrats, especially a teacher pay hike.
“That is a .1 percent difference, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s nothing,” Tallian said about the shortfall. “We’re going to have room to spend a little more money on teacher pay and on the foundation for schools.”
The House version of the budget, released at the beginning of the legislative session, set back $1.9 billion in reserves. The updated Senate budget proposal topped the original total by $300 million, accounting for $2.2 billion in its reserves.
Rep. Gregory Porter, D-Indianapolis, shared Tallian’s perspective.
“I’ve been around for a while, and they’re always saying there’s no money,” Porter said. “If there’s no money, why do we keep giving out corporate income tax breaks? Stop it.”
Tallian and Porter are two of four leaders on the bipartisan conference committee organized to negotiate final changes to the budget between each chamber. The committee brings together perspectives from all chamber parties, including Tallian, Porter, Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, and Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen. However, if Democrats balk at an agreement that Republicans reach, legislature rules allow them to be removed and replaced with members of the majority party.
While the conference committee held its first public meeting last week for less than an hour of public testimony, legislators did not comment on specific proposed changes. And in private, leadership on the committee said private meetings that include all conferees have been rare.
Porter, for example, said that while he and his staff have had ample opportunities to meet with Huston, the number of meetings between all four conferees has been limited compared to years past.
“I’m used to us having a dialogue,” Porter said. “And I get it, it’s hard to have a 30-minute dialogue on a $34 billion budget.”
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, told the House Monday that he expects the budget to be finalized by Wednesday, allowing the legislature to adjourn ahead of its April 29 deadline.
Passing a two-year state budget is the only item of business this session that is required by the Indiana State Constitution.
FOOTNOTE: Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.