WATCH NOW: Final state budget plan makes historic investments in education, infrastructure – Shelbynews

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WATCH NOW: Final state budget plan makes historic investments in education, infrastructure

The state of Indiana is about to go on an unprecedented spending spree — boosting funding for education to record-setting levels, cash funding long-sought infrastructure projects, and paying off more than $1 billion in state debt and other obligations.

Indeed, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb sounded at times like former Chicago talk show host Oprah Winfrey on Tuesday as he announced the various massive funding increases included the final version of the new, two-year state budget agreed to by leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

“This budget truly is transformational when it comes to investments we’re going to make in people, first and foremost, obviously our state’s greatest asset,” Holcomb said. “We’re (also) going to be able to fund some mega-transformational infrastructure projects — some of which have been blueprints for years now.”

Altogether, the budget spends some $38 billion during the two-year period that begins July 1. That’s an increase of nearly $2 billion compared to prior versions of House Bill 1001 considered by the House and Senate earlier in this year’s four-month legislative session.

The additional money comes from federal aid provided directly to Indiana through Democratic President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, along with increased state tax revenue, particularly sales taxes, tied to Hoosiers spending their American Rescue Plan stimulus checks.

Ironically, every Republican representing Indiana in Congress, including U.S. Sen. Todd Young and U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, voted against the American Rescue Plan. But that isn’t stopping Statehouse Republicans from spending the windfall.

Under the plan, Indiana elementary and high schools will receive $1.03 billion, or 9.1%, in additional student tuition support compared to the current state budget, pushing school funding over $8 billion a year for the first time in state history.

Senate President Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, said the historic funding increase comes with a directive that all Indiana schools set a $40,000 a year minimum pay rate for teachers, at least 45% of tuition support dollars be spent on teacher salaries, and any salary savings from experienced teachers retiring must continue to go toward teacher pay.

That announcement pleased Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA), a labor union representing Hoosier teachers.

“ISTA looks forward to our role through the collective bargaining process to ensure teachers receive long-needed salary increases. With this budget’s investment, teachers now have a light at the end of the tunnel,” Gambill said.

The budget plan also provides $150 million in student recovery grants to address learning loss caused by COVID-19 school closures; increases state support for low-income and special education students, along with English language learners; boosts by 30% funding for school-based social/emotional health programs; and continues the appropriation of $37.5 million a year for Teacher Appreciation Grants.

“Hoosier students and schools remain a top priority in our state’s next two-year budget proposal,” said state Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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That includes students attending Indiana’s private schools. The budget expands eligibility for the nation’s largest school voucher program to Indiana households earning up to 300% of free and reduced lunch eligibility, or $147,075 for a family of four.

It also creates a new education savings account program for special education students that allows their parents to claim nearly all the money that usually would go toward their education at an Indiana school and use it for any educational program they choose.

“In Indiana’s budget, all Hoosier kids win,” said Katie Jenner, the Holcomb-appointed secretary of education. “This student-centered, future-focused budget prioritizes Indiana’s schools, creating immense opportunities for every Hoosier student, in every Hoosier school, and in every Hoosier community.”

Investments

Besides education, the budget legislation invests billions of dollars in the state’s physical and human capital.

In Northwest Indiana, the plan provides $400 million to reconstruct the Westville Correctional Facility in LaPorte County, approximately $15 million for a new state police post in Lowell, and $1.2 million for the second phase of a study sought by state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, looking at how to turn Gary’s Buffington Harbor into an intermodal shipping facility, given its links to nearby water, air, rail and highway connections.

The budget also creates a $550 million capital reserve account that can be used to construct a new state archives building, new state park inns at Potato Creek and Prophetstown, cyber security infrastructure, and a new deaf and blind school campus, while setting aside another $900 million for unspecified future state infrastructure projects.

It appropriates $250 million in federal aid for broadband internet expansion, $160 million for water infrastructure grants, $70 million to improve the Law Enforcement Training Academy, $60 million for trails, $50 million for a new swine barn at the Indiana State Fair, $25 million for land conservation, $20 million to complete the modernization of Department of Revenue tax software, and $10 million to help communities purchase police body cameras, among other line items.

“This proposal highlights the General Assembly’s work with the governor to appropriate nearly every federal dollar our state received in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mishler said. “I am proud to invest in the future of Indiana, and I believe this budget proposal truly reflects the needs of the Hoosier state over the next two years and beyond.”

On the human capital side of the ledger, the budget allocates $500 million to support regional economic development initiatives, provides $100 million in additional funding for mental health services, $75 million for high-wage, high-demand career training programs, $60 million for the Hoosier Hospitality Small Business Restart Grant Program, and awards $1,600 each in hazard pay to state police, capitol police and Department of Correction officers and employees.

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The budget also pays off $302 million in state building and highway debt, prepays $600 million in teacher pension obligations, cash funds instead of borrowing for the $231 million state share of the South Shore Line’s West Lake and Double-Track projects, and deposits $500 million in federal aid into Indiana’s nearly drained Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said reducing the state’s debts and making other strategic investments now almost certainly will pave the way for new tax cuts and other conservative spending reforms in the future.

The measure is poised to be approved by both the House and Senate on Wednesday, which will bring a close to the regular, annual session of the Indiana General Assembly.

Lawmakers still must return to the Statehouse in the fall to complete the once-a-decade redistricting process that was postponed this year due to COVID-19 delays at the U.S. Census Bureau.

Final state budget proposal for FY2022-23

COVID-19: Hoosiers We’ve Lost

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