INDIANAPOLIS -- Things have moved quickly during the special session of the Indiana General Assembly.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a state budget proposal that will be presented to the Indiana Senate. I expect their work to be finished by the middle of next week, which will set the stage for negotiations leading up to the June 30 deadline.
In the final hours of the House discussion, it was no surprise that the final vote in the House was 52-48. It became clear that we would not receive a unanimous vote. Many members expressed their support or criticism of the plan. In my opinion, the proposal is reasonable and effective in our efforts to sustain schools, universities, state agencies and, most importantly, Hoosiers.
Both chambers will need to work together. As legislators, we must remember that we came to the Statehouse to pass a budget that will benefit and improve the lives of individuals and families. The House version contains a number of appropriations that will be necessary to carry us through these tough times. As we continue to move toward our deadline, there are certain things that I want to ensure will be a part of the budget to gain my final support.
The budget must provide adequate funding for schools. The House Democratic plan provides a 2 percent increase in state support for K-12, as well as a "hold harmless" provision that makes sure schools do not see a reduction in current funding levels. This will give schools a layer of protection against rising costs in areas like utilities and insurance.
The plan will provide necessary funding for professional development that keeps our teachers up on the most current trends. It allows for controlled expansion in our growing charter schools while maximizing our use of the federal stimulus dollars.
The budget must support higher education. The House Democratic plan increases state support for colleges and universities by 2 percent. Tuition and sufficient funding of state scholarship assistance for students is critical. Now is not the time to cut funding to entities that provide Hoosier students the training and education they need to help them find and retain better-paying jobs.
We have been reminded that any reduction in funding will mean less money for scholarships, an increase in enrollment will create a greater demand for scholarships, and more students will require more faculty. In turn, we cannot afford to fail those who are trying to better themselves. Our future counts on this investment. College must be affordable.
The budget must provide jobs for Hoosiers. With nearly 315,000 Hoosiers out of work and looking for a job, the state must create its own stimulus package beyond what is coming from the federal government. Along with capital projects for higher education, the House Democratic plan contains $450 million in funding for new local infrastructure improvements, such as roads and bridges. It's a plan that can create new jobs and improve our communities.
The budget must recognize its obligation to Hoosiers of all ages. In addition to the added funding for college-bound students, the House plan creates the position of ombudsman to oversee the state's Department of Child Services. It protects funding for in-home care for seniors and the disabled (the CHOICE program), and adds future funding for public broadcasting and the Soldiers and Sailors Children's Home.
The budget must be realistic. The House Democratic plan is a one-year budget that I believe is a sensible approach. Every household is re-evaluating their expenditures. As revenues dwindle, people are prioritizing their expenditures and waiting to see how the financial climate looks in the months ahead. This is exactly what our one-year budget proposes. We cannot predict the future but we can continue to monitor and alter our course. In the 2010 session, we can come back with a better idea of how the federal stimulus package has helped our state's economy. We will have updated information that will enable us to make more informed decisions based on the facts.
The budget must live within its means. The House Democratic budget leaves a surplus of more than $1.2 billion, exceeding one of the governor's requirements. It does not cause a tax increase. While our critics say otherwise, we do plan to leave a healthy reserve.
Considering the above aspects, a responsible state budget should focus on all of these factors. They should be part of any final budget agreement, and I hope they will be major factors in the negotiations that take place between now and June 30.
Throughout the special session, you can reach me by calling the toll-free Statehouse telephone number at 1-800-382-9842, writing to me in care of the Indiana House of Representatives, 200 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, Ind., 46204, or submitting your comments to my website at www.in.gov/H44.
While visiting my website, you also can sign up to receive regular e-mail updates from the legislature.