Budget earmarks top $500 million

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Spending on specific local projects climbed to $536 million in Indiana’s newest two-year budget, which Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law Thursday. Such earmarks, routed through the State Budget Agency, have risen steeply in recent budget cycles — up from just $18 million in 2015.

The SBA is always allocated money for leases, like for airports and stadiums. But it also handles money allotted to an increasingly wide range of outside projects and organizations.

The latest budget funds a sporting facility, economic development initiatives, an expansive nature park, orthopedic workforce retention efforts and more.

Asked about this year’s earmarks, House Speaker Todd Huston told the Capital Chronicle, “I’m not sure there’s any more than usual. There were just some unique one-time investments that could be made to support economic development and different projects. Again, one-time opportunities.”

Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, acknowledged an increase in “one-time spending,” ascribing it to larger-than-expected revenue increases in 2021 and 2022. Thompson chairs the House’s powerful budget-writing committee; Senate counterpart Ryan Mishler, R-Mishawaka, didn’t return a request for comment.

Thompson said the projects that won earmarks were “the most workable at this stage in time,” and were chosen to “hel

those communities out and help them advance.”

Sports leaders hope to compete for more events

Among the largest earmarks is an $89 million line item for an amateur sports facility on the IUPUI campus in downtown Indianapolis. Those involved said it’s a bid to keep the state’s capital competitive in the event-hosting business — and an offering to residents.

“That’s really important for us as we look forward to the next 25 years of: how do we continue to stay competitive in the sports landscape?” Indiana Sports Corp. President Patrick Talty told the Capital Chronicle. “Investments such as these make Indiana a positive place for that sports competition.”

The facility could function like the massive natatorium already on the campus, Talty said. It’s the country’s largest indoor pool and has hosted numerous Olympic trials, and it’s open to both university and public use.

This space could host events, and could serve as practice facilities for larger competitions, he said. The pre-pandemic study that identified the need for such a place recommended a capacity of several thousand seats.

Talty said he’d like the facility up in the next 3-5 years, but that what actually goes into the structure will determine the timeline.

“We would definitely like it before a decade … We’d love to go after some events to try to put in there,” he said.

Economic development to the north

The budget also sets aside $30 million for the Northeast Indiana Strategic Development Commission. That is in addition to the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative, better known as READI, that northeast Indiana could share in.

Lawmakers created the commission in 2021 to boost three elements with which the region and state have struggled, Chair Ron Turpin said: population, education and income.

“READI is really bricks and mortar, you know, getting buildings built,” Turpin said. “It doesn’t foster as much strategic collaborations to address the three challenges.”

The commission fundraised the creation of a strategic plan itself, looping about 20 investors into the project, he said. The five-year plan suggests multiple strategies: relocation incentives, family-friendly amenities, business succession planning, up-skilling, help for first-time homebuyers and more.

Now, it’s time to implement.

Turpin thanked lawmakers for “giving us the opportunity to prove out what we’re saying could happen.” He hoped that approach could serve as a beta for the rest of the state.

The budget also earmarks $30 million for an expansion of the Indiana Enterprise Center in St. Joseph County. The massive 7,200-acre industrial development already hosts numerous companies.

The Northern Indiana Regional Development Authority, which is behind the project, declined to comment.

Neglected land to massive nature park

Money is going to Southern Indiana as well, with $37.5 million set aside for the 400-acre Origin Park on the Ohio River.

“If I were to walk you through down here, especially in the early days, all you would have seen were junkyards and landfills. Basically, everybody had turned their back,” said Vern Eswine, president of The Marketing Company. The company runs communications for the River Heritage Conservancy, the group behind the park.

“We’re trying to reclaim land that has been forgotten and make it useful for the public,” Eswine said.

Park leaders hope to bring in residents and tourists, boosting the area’s economy, quality of place, and talent attraction and retainment efforts.

Plans include forests and meadows, walking paths, an event center and more. A lawn with space for picnics and sledding competitions alike is set to go over a sealed former construction landfill, according to the website. A boat launch has already opened, with trails opening soon, Eswine said.

But the appropriation will go toward a $75 million Outdoor Adventure Center, featuring climbing walls, zip lines, food, and more — and space for Olympic qualifiers and international competitions. Park leaders say the center is a key feature: the park’s revenue generator.

“This strategic investment made by the State of Indiana will allow us to create a revenue stream that will keep the park conservancy functioning for decades to come, and for the park to operate on a world-class level to deliver unparalleled experiences to millions of Hoosiers and out-of-state visitors that will pass through its gates annually,” conservancy board chair Kent Lanum said in a statement.

Maintaining the “Orthopedic Capital of the World”

Among the most specialized earmarks is a $30 million appropriation to help Indiana’s powerhouse orthopedic industry attract and retain workers.

Warsaw, Indiana — and the surrounding area — houses the world’s highest concentration of orthopedic design and manufacturing, and alone represents half of the global orthopedic market for total joint replacements. That’s according to OrthoWorx, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the industry.

“One of the main things that we have continued to make sure that our elected officials understand is this industry has been around for about 125 years, and it’s been very, very successful,” Orthoworx President and CEO Bob Vitoux said.

The $30 million goes directly to OrthoWorx.

But to continue that success, he said, “we need to advance some of our amenities and our offerings in our community to attract further talent. That’s what the line item is meant to help us achieve.”

That could include education, housing, child care, according to Vitoux, although he acknowledged plans were preliminary.

Other earmarks include maintenance, airports

State property is getting the single-largest appropriation routed through SBA: $150 million for deferred maintenance.

“The Department of Administration monitors the status of repair (needed replacement and rehabilitation) of state capital assets.  This funding will be used for high priority items (HVAC, roofing, plumbing, etc.) to maintain safe and efficient operations,” Office of Management and Budget Director Cris Johnston said in an email.

He noted that the state’s transportation department won’t get a chunk because it has its own funding and process for highway maintenance.

Lawmakers also set aside $26 million for “airport improvements.” Aviation Indiana’s Bart Geisler said he hoped the money would go toward projects that the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t typically fund, like fuel farms, terminals, hangars and more.

Other earmarks include $75 million for residential housing infrastructure assistance, $5 million apiece for the Northwest Indiana Law Enforcement Academy and a judicial building, $1.9 million for conservation of the Busseron Creek, $1 million for a study of erosion by Lake Michigan, and $400,000 for the Multi Agency Academic Cooperative’s firefighter regional training.

Over the past five budget cycles, lawmakers have also consistently allotted funds for water infrastructure help — $40 million this year — and the Indiana Motorsports Commission at $14 million.

But those were often the bulk of the earmarks.

Lawmakers put about $57 million into specific local projects in 2021’s budget, although they also set aside $550 million for a general “capital reserve account.” That account, though, focused on state-owned building projects.

The 2019 budget contained about $208 million in earmarks, the 2017 budget $44 million and the 2015 budget about $18 million.

Thompson, the Ways and Means Committee chair, said future budgets might not look like this cycle’s. Recent revenue forecasts predict slower growth in the coming years, he said.

“At that point, there won’t be the dollars to have as many one-time projects,” he told the Capital Chronicle. “Can’t say there won’t still be some, but probably not to the degree as in this budget. It’s somewhat unique to have that amount of one-time potential spending; that likely won’t be there in the future.”

Still, Thompson said, he was “pleased with the process” this year.

“Indiana is going in the right direction,” he added. “It’s definitely going in the right direction.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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