INDIANAPOLIS -- As lawmakers approach the June 30 deadline for passing a new state budget, members of the House and Senate continue to search for common ground on many key issues.
Over the past few days, negotiators have heard testimony from various individuals around the state who are concerned about funding for education, health care, public safety and many other programs.
I expect to have a chance to vote on a budget on Monday or Tuesday. However, I am not sure that the final plan will contain everything that I want to see in the budget.
It is a waiting game for most members to see how the details play out in a document that will warrant a majority vote in both chambers, as well as the support of our governor.
As I write this report, House and Senate conferees are focused on three areas that have been concerns since the start of this session: Preserving funding for our schools, providing jobs for Hoosiers and retaining a reasonable surplus.
There are major differences between the House and Senate budgets. The Senate plans have cut funding to our educational institutions, included funding for virtual schools and scaled back capital projects that can create jobs.
During this last week, as I have heard from citizens in my district and listened to the debate at the Statehouse, I have noticed a gap in the general understanding of the funding for education.
Most people agree that a strong educational system is important to help our children become active, productive members of our society. In order to deliver on this promise, we must invest in our academics.
As of 2009, the General Assembly has assumed general fund obligations for all public schools. In a nutshell, the monies that the state spends on schools will cover personnel expenses as well as the operations of programs. The state does not assume responsibility for buildings, athletic facilities, debt service and transportation costs. The money appropriated by our state goes straight to teaching children.
If we cut dollars from state support for schools, we cut the one area that everyone agrees should be our focus. Allowing the money to follow the child makes sense in simple terms. In reality, those dollars are paying for services that are not quickly or easily eliminated.
When a school loses students, they don't lose an entire class. You will lose a few in the primary school, maybe a few more at the middle school level, then another group at the high school level. But you don't lose whole classes or a significant number of pupils in one program to allow for the elimination of a teacher or a program.
The essence of funding schools is complex and hotly debated.
You have heard over and over about the differences between our proposals. The House budget proposes a 2 percent increase in state support for both K-12 and higher education. It protects school systems by ensuring that they do not see a drastic reduction in current funding levels, and it does allow for the controlled growth of charter schools.
The Senate budget cuts K-12 funding for almost half the schools in the state and reduces state support for our colleges and universities by 4 percent. In turn, the Senate budget commits funds to a virtual charter program that is relatively new in our funding formula.
There are good alternatives for learning, but I believe this budget must stick with the basics that are necessary to fund current obligations. With a forecast that shows revenues continuing to decline, we must prioritize our expenditures.
One major reason that the Senate chose to cut state school support was to help the governor keep the state's surpluses above $1 billion. Under the House plan, we do keep the surplus above $1 billion, avoid a tax increase, and make sure that schools do not see less funding than they receive right now.
With Indiana's unemployment rate soaring to 10.6 percent in May, we now have more than 336,000 Hoosiers who are looking for work so they can provide for their families.
The House plan would provide jobs through capital projects at our colleges and universities, as well as a large-scale local road and bridge improvement program that can put people to work now and address serious local infrastructure needs.
The Senate plan does call for some new construction but not to the scale that is needed to put a dent in that 10.6 percent figure. Projects that already were scheduled to be completed do not create new jobs. What is needed is a stimulus package that will support important capital investments and put people back to work with good-paying jobs.
These items must be a part of our negotiations. I supported the House budget because the plan was reasonable. It kept our reserves above $1 billion and it did not increase taxes, despite what others would have you believe.
I am glad the governor has taken time away from the Statehouse to travel this state and our nation to promote his political ideas. In reality, I wish he was taking part in negotiations to help find a resolution, because I do disagree with his assessment that the House plan spends the surplus and contains tax increases.
From the beginning, our negotiators have asked to use a small portion of the surplus to help carry us through this first biennium budget. We do not expect to increase taxes. While our financial picture continues to change, we believe that a one-year budget provides a better way of monitoring our progress.
If there is a willingness to negotiate on both sides, we can reach an agreement. Indiana has traditionally shown that legislators on both sides of the aisle can set aside partisanship and work to protect the people of this state. We are at a point that we have to pass a budget.
In that light, I do not plan to support a proposal (Senate Bill 1) that would allow state government to operate past June 30 without a budget. I feel that the pressure to get along is more important and that the General Assembly should pass a budget bill that will allow our state agencies to function.
Such a resolution would allow lawmakers to avoid the kinds of tough decisions that we promised to make when running for office.
I look forward to your e-mails and phone calls. Throughout the special session, you can reach me by calling the toll-free Statehouse telephone number of 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.