By Dani Palmer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
Local legislators didn’t see eye-to-eye on every issue, but they definitely agreed that this year’s legislative session was less bitter than last year’s, when Indiana became the 23rd right-to-work state.
The Indiana General Assembly approved a two-year, $30 billion budget Saturday afternoon that included a modest increase in school funding and new money for roads and highways — both cut under former Gov. Mitch Daniels during the recession — along with a 5 percent income tax cut that will be phased in beginning in 2015.
“The tone of the session was more cooperative and civil this year, but we didn’t tackle as many contentious issues,” said state Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.
Issues he would have liked to seen addressed, such as employment and the skills gap, were lacking. While there’ll be new jobs with the money used for roads and highways, he said, legislators “could’ve done a lot more.”
And the 5 percent tax cut will not only affect the average taxpayer minimally, but not even be felt for another two years, he added.
State Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, said the savings will be the equivalent of a cup of coffee every week — and “not even the fancy coffee.” In other words, about $1.50 a week, Lanane added.
“We missed some big opportunities quite honestly,” Austin said, like in health care, where expanding Medicaid could’ve provided nearly 300,000 private sector jobs in addition to offering more of the 800,000 uninsured Hoosiers a chance to get insured.
The bill died in the House.
“Everybody said jobs would be No. 1,” she said, “and we failed miserably.”
Something she, Lanane and state Rep. Jack Lutz, R-Anderson, were all disappointed by was the rejection of legislation that would have enabled the state’s racinos — Hoosier Park and Shelbyville’s Indiana Grand — to offer live table games and create as many as 800 new jobs between the two locations owned by Centaur.
“To me, it was an easy way to create 800 decent jobs and we just said ‘no, we’re not going to do it,’” Lanane said.
Both Gov. Mike Pence and Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, were against the change. Lanane said it would not have been an expansion of gaming, as opponents stated, but rather just a job creator since table games are already offered in the racinos electronically.
Lutz said local legislators and Rep. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, and Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, worked hard to get those jobs but, “it just didn’t get done.”
“There’s some unaccomplished business there,” he said, adding he jokingly told Austin to take a week off and then be prepared to work on it again.
He was pleased, however, with casino tax breaks and the decision to expand the state’s school voucher program, which is already the nation’s broadest with over 9,000 students. The expansion would open vouchers to those whose siblings already receive them and those who would otherwise enroll in “failing” schools or have special needs.
“It’s going to give students a choice,” Lutz said. “It’s primarily through lower income students.”
Austin said public schools will actually see a net decrease over the next two years in part to the voucher expansion and how the “funding mechanism is designed.”
But, she added, some good moves were made, like restrictions on items used in bath salts and the expungement of nonviolent felony charges after a number of years that could help more Hoosiers find jobs. Lutz added there were differences in opinions, as is natural, but that it was a “unique session” in which “overall, we packed a balanced budget” that is projected to deliver a surplus.
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