Indiana governor changes stance on teacher pay action

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Indiana’s governor opened the door Monday to potentially boosting school funding and teacher pay after weeks of refuting any plans on such action until next year.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb didn’t give any details of what he would propose during his annual State of the State speech next week, while a top legislative Democrat promised his party would push for more school funding in the wake of a November rally that drew several thousand teachers to the Statehouse.

Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders have since repeatedly defended the 2.5% per-year increase included in the two-year state budget approved last spring and maintained that further steps regarding the state’s lagging teacher pay would need to wait until the next state budget is written in 2021.

Holcomb has said he would wait for recommendations later this year from a teacher pay commission he appointed in February but told reporters Monday that might change with state tax revenues growing faster than expected.

“Stay tuned, you’ll hear more from me at the State of the State address,” Holcomb said.

The top House Republican, Speaker Brian Bosma, downplayed the possible impact of Holcomb’s proposal following the governor’s remarks on the day the GOP-dominated Legislature began its 2020 session that will conclude in early March. Holcomb’s State of the State is set for Jan. 14.

Teacher union leaders and Democratic legislators maintain the state has money to give more to schools now — pointing to about $300 million in unexpected tax revenue that the state collected last budget year and nearly $250 million, or 4%, that’s come in beyond projections since July 1.

House Democratic leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said Monday that Republican-backed “policies are responsible for creating a crisis in public education.”

That includes average Indiana teacher salaries dropping 15% since 2000 when adjusted for inflation and about a third of new Indiana teachers leaving their jobs within five years, according to state officials and education advocacy groups.

“Republicans tout the amount in their budget for education but avoid the uncomfortable and tragic truth,” GiaQuinta said. “The budget shortchanges traditional public schools, while diverting millions of dollars to failed for profit and out of state charter and virtual charter schools along with private voucher programs.”

Holcomb wants legislators to direct nearly $300 million of the state’s additional revenue toward paying cash rather than borrowing money for several planned construction projects, such as a new veterinary hospital at Purdue University and building plans at Ball State University, the University of Southern Indiana and Ivy Tech Community College in Columbus.

House Republicans are supporting the governor’s request, although they are substituting $62 million for Indiana University building projects rather than Holcomb’s plan of directing $50 million toward replacing a nearly century-old structure at the Indiana State Fairgrounds — a project panned by Democrats as showing greater priority for a swine barn than teacher pay or other neglected needs.

Bosma said the project spending plan would save the state an estimated $137 million in future interest payments and would be a better use of tax revenue the state’s not sure it will continue collecting long term.

Bosma said he spoke with Holcomb about his teacher pay proposal Monday but declined to explain it.

“I don’t think it is going to impact our proposal on how to use the surplus at this point,” Bosma said. “I think it is talking about the future.”

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