INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers Monday return to the statehouse at the start of this year’s legislative session with a large budget surplus and a long list of big spending requests to sort through.
Drafting a new biennial state budget will be the main focus of the Republican-dominated legislature during its session, which is expected to last through late April, but debates on issues such as hot social issues and a push to legalize marijuana could force its way forward.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has proposed the biggest funding boost for K-12 schools in more than a decade and a significant increase in spending on public health programs. However, some top GOP lawmakers are concerned about the cost of these plans amid an expected slowdown in state tax revenue growth.
A look at some top issues for the legislature:
Soaring state tax revenues and the infusion of federal COVID-19 relief funds resulted in a payout of $325 per taxpayer last year and approving a seven-year phased reduction in the state’s individual income tax rate. That still leaves the state with $2.3 billion, or about 12% more expected tax revenue for the current fiscal year than planned spending.
Holcomb last week proposed a 6% increase in K-12 funding for the next school year and is targeting $120 million to eliminate textbook fees for public school students. Other top proposals include nearly $350 million over the next two years for a significant increase in funding for public health programs and $500 million for a new round of regional economic development grants.
Conservative lawmakers failed last year in attempts to restrict classroom discussion of racial and political issues in the face of considerable resistance from teachers. They are poised to introduce a bill at this session similar to a law passed in Florida last year, which critics have dubbed “don’t say gay.” which bans teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
Indiana House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning said he didn’t know how much support the bill would receive, but he believed parents should have such discussions with their children.
“Let’s teach kids the basics and don’t try to go beyond that,” Behning said.
Democratic leaders have called for a pause in debates on social issues after Republicans pushed through a controversial abortion-banning law last summer. Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill said the Legislature should avoid discussing “divisive issues” like Florida law.
Republican Senate Speaker Pro Tem Rodric Bray recently showed little enthusiasm for lawmakers reviving the classroom issue, saying it was “quite heavily” debated ahead of many local school board elections last fall.
“It’s a great opportunity for Hoosiers to engage with this issue and make decisions more locally than we can here in the General Assembly,” Bray said.
Top Republicans say they don’t expect action on abortion issues as they await a decision from the state Supreme Court on whether the abortion ban was passed in August will come into effect.
A district judge ruled in September that the ban violated the protections of the Indiana Constitution of individual rights. The Supreme Court has allowed abortions to continue in the state while reviewing the lawsuit filed by operators of abortion clinics, with the court scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Jan. 19.
“It would not be wise at all for us to make any changes now until we know what the verdict will be,” Bray said.
Legalization of marijuana
Proponents of relaxing Indiana’s marijuana laws will make a renewed push to overcome longstanding opposition from Holcomb and Republican Legislative leaders to such changes. Democrats and other advocates argue that legalization could benefit those who use it for medical purposes, create new jobs, and increase state tax revenues.
But Holcomb and top Republican lawmakers say they are reluctant to do so as long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, though recreational marijuana use is now legal in neighboring states of Michigan and Illinois and about 20 other states. Ohio is one of the states that allow the medical use of marijuana.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said the additional tax revenue from legalization wasn’t enough to change his mind.
“If you ask about the impact on employment, education and social services, no one has ever told me it’s been positive,” Huston said. “Therefore, I personally remain skeptical.”
Holcomb is expected to deliver the annual state of the state address to lawmakers on Tuesday, in which he will outline his legislative requests.
The half-hour speech is scheduled to begin at 7:00 p.m. EST and will be aired on multiple television stations across the state.