Indiana lawmakers return ahead of new state budget debate

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers returned to the statehouse Tuesday following Republican election victories who maintained the party’s dominance of the legislature and face a possible list of expensive proposals from GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray and House Speaker Todd Huston were re-elected to head these chambers, and newly elected lawmakers were sworn into office as lawmakers met for their mostly ceremonial organizational day session.

The four-month 2023 session, beginning in early January, will focus on drafting a new state budget, with Democrats calling for a pause in debating contentious social issues after Republican lawmakers pushed through the state’s abortion ban over the summer.

State tax receipts continue to be higher than expected as lawmakers passed the current two-year budget of $37 billion in 2021, and lawmakers will see many requests for additional state spending.

In addition to constantly striving to increase funding for K-12 schools, a commission appointed by Holcomb has recommended a $240 million annual increase to bring funding for county public health departments to the national average. Administration officials have also discussed the higher costs of national inflation on government construction projects and the need for wage increases to retain government employees.

Bray said the increase in public health funding is “worthwhile” but local health departments may not be immediately ready to put the extra money to good use.

“We have to make sure we can get that money distributed to the local health departments and then they can do a lot of good with it,” Bray said. “It’s a big change right off the bat. So we’re going to talk about whether we can do it all at once.”

However, both Huston and Bray said Republican lawmakers support the state budget, including another round of $500 million in regional development grants that state officials issued last year.

Republicans head into the 2023 legislative session commanding the House of Representatives by a margin of 70-30 and the Senate by 40-10 — continuing full control of the supermajority they’ve had since the 2012 election, which allows GOP lawmakers to Passing bills without a Democrat present.

Republicans used that control over the summer to make Indiana the first state to ban abortion since the US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade lifted. The state Supreme Court has allowed abortions to continue in Indiana as it considers a lawsuit by abortion clinic operators who argue that the ban violates the state constitution.

Democratic House Speaker Phil GiaQuinta, of Fort Wayne, said the Republican-led push on issues such as abortion and banning transgender women from participating in girls’ school sports put Indiana in a bad light statewide and put aside such debates for the next year.

“We must give the social problems a break,” said GiaQuinta.

Huston and Bray would not make such assurances on Tuesday, although both said they did not expect further action to limit abortion.

“I think we’re probably going to stop,” Huston said.

The state judges are scheduled to hear the pro-abortion lawsuit in January, which Bray cited as a reason not to revisit the issue in the upcoming session.

“It would not be wise at all for us to make any changes now until we know what the verdict will be,” Bray said.