The state budget plan unveiled Thursday by Senate Republicans does not include any expansion of the state’s school voucher program – marking a major split from the House GOP.
House Republicans want to allow families of four that earn up to $220,000 a year to be eligible for vouchers, while removing all other eligibility guidelines.
Senate Republican budget architect Ryan Mishler (R-Mishawaka) said he and members of his caucus have concerns about that increase.
But he said the final budget could include some expansion.
“I mean, I can never sit here and say never, because they’re pretty adamant about it and so we’ll just have to talk about that in the next two weeks,” Mishler said.
Overall K-12 tuition support funding in the Senate GOP plan would increase by $384 million in the first year of the new budget and an additional $389 million in the second.
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The Senate GOP budget begins to divert some local property tax dollars away from traditional public schools to charter schools. It would take a three-year average in property tax revenue for each school district and then shift money to charter schools from any increase above that average. The amount of the shift would be based on charter school enrollment.
The Senate budget proposal pairs that property tax shift with a decrease in the state charter school grant.
Democrats balked at the proposal. Sen. Eddie Melton (D-Gary) called it “a new model that hasn’t been fully vetted and discussed.”
“We know many of our school corporations are in impoverished areas," Melton said. "They’re still struggling with assessed value; they still struggle with a variety of funding issues.”
The Senate budget plan does eliminate textbook and curriculum material fees for all K-12 public and charter school students, following a recommendation from Gov. Eric Holcomb.
House Republicans also sought to eliminate those fees, but required schools to find money in their budgets to do it. The Senate GOP plan provides extra state funding to eliminate the fees.
In higher education, the Senate Republican budget keeps language first added by the House that would block public dollars from going to the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.
New public and mental health funding is still in flux as Senate Republicans unveiled their proposed state budget Thursday.
The governor asked lawmakers to increase funding for local public health departments by $347 million. That followed an expansive, two-year study of the state’s public health system.
But Senate Republicans – like in the House – allocate $225 million for that effort.
On mental health funding, the Senate spends $35 million to boost community mental health centers but doesn’t have any money for the 988 crisis response hotline. Mishler said that was left out because the House and Senate need to figure out how to fund the hotline through some sort of fee or tax.
“I think we agree – we didn’t fully fund it," Mishler said. "We just put some general fund dollars – there’s got to be something else in there.”
Melton said his caucus already has a solution for Republicans.
“We gave them an opportunity to accept our cigarette tax increase of $1.50 per pack,” Melton said.
Melton said raising that tax would fully pay for both the public health and mental health initiatives.
The Senate GOP budget also includes a House priority related to mental health: $10 million to help divert people with mental health challenges from local jails into treatment.
On economic development initiatives, the Senate and House budgets are markedly similar, including significant overlap with the governor's priorities.
That includes $500 million for another round of the READI program, $150 million in a site acquisition fund for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and $600 million for an IEDC deal closing fund.