Indiana lawmakers say education is first priority in new session

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Jan. 6, 2015) - Indiana lawmakers are back at the Statehouse this week for the start of the new session.

Tuesday both the House and Senate met briefly in what were mainly ceremonial gatherings. An annual prayer service was held at noon before lawmakers convened.

“I think there are high hopes for strong bipartisanship,” Rep. Terri Austin (D-Anderson) said. “People are tired of the culture wars and divisive issues.”

Republicans, who have a majority in both chambers, said education funding will dominate the next four months.

“This needs to be an education session,” Gov. Mike Pence said Tuesday.

The governor will present his administration’s budget proposal to the legislature’s budget committee Thursday. In a short preview to reporters, Pence said it will include pay incentives for teachers and additional funding for charter schools. Pence also wants lawmakers to lift the cap for voucher schools.

“As governor of the state of Indiana, I want a tight budget particularly after the experience we’ve had of revenues falling short of forecast,” he said.

The latest forecast is the newest challenge to lawmakers. Republicans want to increase overall funding for public education.

“It’s probably the right time for the dust to settle on major tax cuts at this point,” House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said, adding he wants education funding in the current biennium to exceed the prior.

“It remains my goal notwithstanding the forecast,” he said. “I think it gives us the room to do so, but there’s a lot of priorities out there. It’s a balancing act.”

Rep. Woody Burton (R-Whiteland) said discussion may eventually turn toward the state’s surplus.

“I anticipate we’re going to loosen up some of that money,” he said. “Now we’re not going to cut the flood gates open and throw it away and go broke. But by the same token, where we can we’re going to do it, and I think education is going to be one of the top priorities.”

Republicans also want to change the way public schools are funded. It could mean less revenue for urban school districts like Indianapolis and more for suburban schools.

“For years there’s been lawsuits over school funding being unfair and uneven,” Burton said. “And I think we need to address that and fix that over time where it’s more fair and equal.”

Democrats want public, charter and voucher schools funded separately in the upcoming budget.

Rep. Terri Austin (D-Anderson) said lawmakers should look to other countries for guidance.

“They do not take money from their poorest or neediest students and give it to students where their communities may already be affluent,” she said. “So we’ve got some tough decision.”

Pence said the funding formula is part of a “very important debate substantially,” adding more details will be released as part of his budget proposal.

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