Teacher pay, health care costs to feature in 2020 legislative debate

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With the start of the 2020 legislative session about a month away, party leaders are formulating their plans for the short session, with teacher pay continuing to be a point of contention.

Republican leaders House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tempore Rod Bray, along with House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta and Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, discussed their upcoming policy goals on Wednesday at the annual Bingham Greenebaum Doll Legislative Conference. Though the short session won’t allow as much time to debate the issues – Bosma predicted the Legislature would adjourn by March 11 – the leaders envision the General Assembly tackling multiple high-profile issues, including health care costs, standardized testing, raising the smoking/vaping age and marijuana decriminalization.

Also likely to feature prominently this year is a continuation of the debate over teacher pay and other school funding issues. Republicans have touted the 2019-2020 biennial budget that they say invests a record amount in K-12 funding, but scores of Hoosier teachers descended on the Statehouse last month to advocate for more dollars and other education reforms.

All four leaders agreed that Hoosier teachers remain underpaid compared to other states, but the party-line split about how to resolve that issue was evident during Wednesday’s discussion.

Bosma bemoaned the amount of money that goes into administrative costs, saying administrative spending in local schools has increased by 31% over the last 10 years. His goal, he said, is for 85% of state education funds to go toward teachers.

“We have to stop administrations from sucking all this money up,” the Indianapolis Republican said.

But Lanane, an Anderson Democrat, said he looks at the issue from a “big picture” perspective – Indiana teachers are underpaid. That’s led the state into trouble with keeping teachers, he added.

Challenged by Bosma on how to raise teacher pay, Lanane said that when there’s a problem, the General Assembly finds a way to solve it. He gave the example of the 2018 gas tax increase that was passed to fund infrastructure improvements.

The Senate minority leader said his caucus has provided possible teacher funding solutions, such as raising the cigarette tax, that have been rejected. He also challenged the idea that the state should use one-time money to pay cash for projects that have already been approved to be bonded out.

Bray, a Republican from Martinsville, said such one-time money could be used to pay for projects, giving the example of construction of the Purdue University Veterinary School. But because bonding has already been approved for that project, Lanane said the cash could go toward teachers.

Bray, however, said doing so would be akin to circumventing local school boards and collective bargaining agreements – a move he said no one is asking the Legislature to make.

For his part, GiaQuinta raised concerns about the regulations imposed on local school systems. He said teachers are so bogged down with bureaucratic requirements that they’re not able to teach, adding that the creativity has been taken out of teaching in Indiana.

In a similar vein, both Bosma and Bray said they expect to pass hold-harmless legislation related to the low standardized test scores on the new ILEARN exam. Bosma said he expects such language to pass “instantaneously.”

Though education seemed to be a partisan sticking point, the four leaders agreed that a review of Indiana’s health care costs should be a priority in 2020.

Noting that Indiana consistently ranks in the lower portion of states for hospital costs and general quality of life, the lawmakers said they want to explore legislation that would increase transparency, reduce “surprise billing” and remove barriers to entry that lower competition in the health care market.

Aside from health issues, GiaQuinta said Indiana’s health care hurdles also affect the state’s economic development.

“Businesses, including those up in Fort Wayne, they’re not so much interested now in continuing more tax cuts,” the Fort Wayne Democrat said. “They’re interested in more, ‘How do we retain talent in the state?’”

Outside of education and health care, Lanane’s caucus plans to broach other political flashpoints this year, including redistricting issues ahead of Indiana’s congressional maps being redrawn in 2021, and the possible decriminalization of marijuana.

On marijuana, Lanane said he’s not advocating for marijuana legalization. Instead, he wants possession of a “small amount” of marijuana to be reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction, thus keeping the issue within the purview of the courts.

That legislative plan tracks with a recent announcement from the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, which no longer prosecutes simple marijuana possession.

The upcoming legislative session is an important one for Bosma, who will retire from the General Assembly at the close of the session. Earlier this week, House Republicans selected Rep. Todd Huston of Fishers as Bosma’s successor. Asked about his legacy, Bosma said he was most proud of helping to pass school choice legislation. And more generally, the retiring speaker said he hopes he’ll leave a legacy of civility, professionalism and camaraderie.

Given the short session, the four leaders acknowledged they likely won’t “solve” any complicated issues, including teacher pay questions. But they vowed to continue having important conversations.

“We look forward to a short session, where we’re going to not fix all this – I can assure you it’s much too complex to do that – but really begin to move the state forward,” Bray said.

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