In what the Indiana House Speaker said is likely to be an “extraordinarily difficult” budget session, Indiana’s legislative leaders plan to focus their efforts during this year’s legislative session on budget-impacting legislation, such as funding for the embattled Department of Child Services and increasing teacher pay.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, Senate President pro tempore Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, and Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, discussed their priorities for the 2019 session during the BGD Legislative Conference on Wednesday. Bray and GiaQuinta are new to their leadership roles this year, replacing retiring Senate President pro tem David Long, a Fort Wayne Republican, and Austin Democrat Terry Goodin.
Noting the state’s lead budget writer, Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, is still recovering after a serious motorcycle accident earlier this year, Bosma said the process of drafting Indiana’s next biennial budget – which will be the focus of the coming long session – will be “more difficult than a lot of people realize.” The state will be dealing with a pool of about $350 million in new money – which could possibly get up to $375 million – but the speaker said Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb plans to ask for about $286 million of that to be allocated to DCS in fiscal years 2020 and 2021.
The agency itself requested $965 million from the general fund for both fiscal years 2020 and 2021, a marked increase from the initial annual appropriation of $629 million in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. However, DCS received significantly more than that appropriation after the state moved money from reserves and made supplemental appropriations to begin to resolve widespread issues within the department, as identified by a 116-page report by the Alabama-based Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group.
The DCS appropriation will leave the state with about $70 million, Bosma said, but other have-tos, including a $50 million commitment to Medicaid and $30 million in pension obligations, will force the Legislature to be creative with this year’s agency appropriations. Part of that creativity will include “right-sizing” budgets for state agencies that traditionally don’t use their entire appropriates, he said.
Bray, who said one of his legislative priorities will be to pass a “responsible” budget, said when it comes to DCS, he wants to discern what issues can be resolved with a legislative fix and what issues can be attributed to internal DCS culture. Noting the high rate of turnover among caseworkers, as well as the relative inexperience of those caseworkers and the attorneys assigned to oversee DCS court proceedings, the Senate leader said one issue that needs to be addressed is determining how to convince DCS employees to stay with the agency for longer periods of time.
Lanane likewise said the constant turnover is contributing to the agency’s woes, but also said insufficient funding is another contributing factor. While Lanane said resolving the funding issue is a matter of determining where to find the “eggs” to put in the DCS “basket,” Bray said he does not believe the Legislature can solve serious issues in any governmental agency only by “throwing more money” at those agencies. The key, Bray said, is learning to invest available money for DCS “intelligently.”
Similar to the turnover issues plaguing DCS, Lanane said Indiana’s public schools are also losing employees, due in significant part to teacher pay. The Senate minority leader said the first five years of a teacher’s career are the most critical in determining whether the teacher will stay with that career path, and Indiana could entice more young teachers to stick with it if pay was increased.
Lanane said Indiana’s public teacher pay is running behind that of adjoining states, citing to statistics that show Indiana’s teacher salaries rank 37th in the nation. Bray, however, said that when cost of living is factored in, Indiana’s ranking rises into the top 20 states.
While GiaQuinta agreed that increasing teacher pay should be a priority, he also said it was “a little insulting” to suggest that the only issue Indiana’s teachers care about is their income. More broadly, GiaQuinta said he thinks the Legislature has not shown enough respect to Indiana’s teachers through its policy decisions and its failure to sufficiently invite teachers to join in those policy discussions.
Speaking to reporters after the panel discussion, Bosma said he wants to put more money into teachers’ pockets by implementing short- and long-term solutions. He pointed to the possibility of expanding the teacher tax credit, placing parameters on the two main pools of school funding – education and operations – and urging schools to switch their focus from administrative expansion to teacher pay. He also said the state needs to develop a system whereby a career as a public school teacher is incentivized.
But noting this year’s budget constraints, Bosma said accomplishing his goal of creating teacher raises could be a matter of reallocating existing funds.
Among the other priorities legislative leaders discussed was the passage of a bias crimes bill, a measure that has failed to make it through the Legislature in the past several sessions. Lanane said he believes this year will be the year the General Assembly comes to an agreement on hate crimes legislation, but the fight will be over the process of coming to that agreement.
A sticking point in the past has been the inclusion of a list of protected classes in hate crimes legislation. Holcomb has said he plans to support a hate crimes bill this year, including protections based on gender identity. Bosma, however, suggested Wednesday that the legislation could be drafted with no list at all.
School safety was also a shared priority among the leaders, with Bray saying legislation is in the works that would allow for a referendum to finance school safety measures. Both he and GiaQuinta suggested that such measures could include social workers or therapists in Indiana’s schools to identify and work with at-risk students.
Further, GiaQuinta and Lanane pointed to the possibility of expanding pre-K education and continued efforts toward redistricting reform, while GiaQuinta also said his caucus would be looking into sports gaming.