Holcomb says narrative of Indiana’s growth ‘is one of positive progress’
In an interview with IndyStar, Gov. Eric Holcomb says he’s seen positive growth across the state despite social issue debate in the statehouse.
Mykal McEldowney, Indianapolis Star
Indiana lawmakers return to the Statehouse Monday to begin the 2023 legislative session, during which they’ll craft the state’s next two-year spending plan — balancing new spending on services like education and public health while spurring economic growth with tax breaks and community development initiatives — while facing a potential recession in the coming months.
Over the couple of months, stakeholders from around the state have weighed in with wish lists, budget requests and legislative agendas — teachers unions, local city leaders, chambers of commerce and even Gov. Eric Holcomb. Legislative leaders, though, have yet to unveil their priority bills or propose a spending plan, but they have given some hints as to what issues they’ll be focusing on during the long session.
Here’s what lawmakers have signaled they’ll be focusing on and some of the issues key groups and people would like to see them tackle this year.
Budget is first priority
Indiana writes a new state budget every two years during its long legislative session, which lasts four months. During the off year, the short session, lawmakers meet for just two-and-a-half months and focus on non-spending issues.
The 2023 session is a budget-writing year, meaning lawmakers will have until April 29 to craft a spending plan to guide the state through 2025. Legislative leaders have signaled that increasing K-12 funding will be a top priority — but by how much?
In late November, Statehouse leaders said that the Indiana General Assembly intended to, once again, make record investments in K-12 schools. Holcomb put a number on that goal this week.
When outlining his own agenda for the next two years, Holcomb proposed a 6% increase in K-12 funding in the first year of the budget and another 2% increase in the second year, for nearly $1.2 billion in additional tuition support over the biennium.
Holcomb’s administration said that would be the largest ever increase in tuition support dollars. But with $700 million in requests from other state agencies and a proposal for a massive new investment in public health, it’s unclear if lawmakers will fully fund Holcomb’s K-12 request.
After the state received its December revenue forecast, the Senate’s top budget writer said they’d need to be “very cautious as we move forward.”
Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Mishawaka, also said that lawmakers would do “something” for public health but that it wouldn’t be the roughly $242 million annual request that was originally recommended by Holcomb’s public health commission. The governor on Wednesday scaled that request back to $120 million in the first year and $227 million in the second.
Addressing the worker shortage
Legislative leaders have assured the business community that attracting new jobs and new workers to fill them will be one of the top priorities this session, outside of writing the budget. It’s unclear, though, if they’re on the same page about how to do that.
During a legislative preview hosted by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 21, House Speaker Todd Huston said additional income tax cuts, beyond what is already scheduled, could be on the table if the December revenue forecast was strong. The forecast, though, showed revenues will be tight.
Regardless, he’d have to convince his Senate counterparts, who have been reluctant to make such changes. Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said he doesn’t expect to pass additional income tax cuts this session.
There are several items that they are expected to come together on, though. Statehouse leaders said they’ll be looking to “reimagine” high school to better align with workforce needs and address a shortage of affordable housing.
Affordable housing help is on the list of Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, who announced Tuesday the legislative priorities for the city. It’s unlikely, though, he’ll get the help he’s looking for on that front. In last year’s legislative session, Republican state legislators killed a Democrat-sponsored bill to implement the very tenant protections for which the city is asking.
A proposal with better odds? Holcomb’s wish list also included a number of economic development tools, including a “deal closing fund” and tax credit cap that he says will give the state the flexibility and competitive edge to attract new businesses and jobs. Lawmakers haven’t weighed in on those proposals but they were among the requests of the business community, too.
Reinventing high school
Legislative leaders have not just hinted that an overhaul of the state’s high school education will be on their agenda — Huston said as much during his speech on Organization Day back in November.
Huston said House Republicans would spend time this session working to reimagine the state’s public high school system to make it more relevant for today’s students and workforce needs.
“It’s well past time to replace our 20th century education model with one that aligns the needs of the students with the needs of the 21st century economy,” he said during the Organization Day speech.
At the time, Huston was light on specifics but gave one example: allowing students to replace higher level math coursework with a personal finance class. Only a handful of the hundreds of bills expected to be filed this session have been posted online but one of them would do just that. Sen. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores, filed a bill that would allow students to replace Algebra 2 with personal finance and still meet the requirements of the state’s Core 40 diploma.
Mum on other education issues
The state’s largest teacher union has requested that lawmakers take up or in some cases set aside several other school-related issues this session.
In its legislative agenda, the Indiana State Teachers Association requested that lawmakers “resist the temptation to further interfere with the professional balance that qualified teachers are able to create within their classes and among their students relative to teaching and learning.” The organization does not want to see the General Assembly take up “anti-critical race theory” legislation that would prohibit the discussion of certain ideas around race, gender, politics and other “divisive topics” in classrooms. That legislation was hugely controversial last year and the Republican supermajority ultimately failed to find a consensus point for the bill, killing it in the final weeks of the session.
Another of the ISTA’s proposals appears on the agenda of several other key stakeholders, including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the governor — increasing access to free, high-quality early childhood education.
Holcomb’s agenda calls for an expansion of the state’s On My Way Pre-K program, raising the income-threshold to make eligible an additional 5,000 families. In past years, though, expansion of the program has been a tough sell for some lawmakers.
While legislative leaders have signaled that they intend to focus on workforce issues and writing the state’s next two-year budget after a contentious special session that banned nearly all abortion in the state and a 2022 regular session dominated by “culture war” bills, such as those focused on prohibiting so-called “critical race theory” from classrooms, banning transgender girls from playing girls school sports and eliminating handgun licenses, it doesn’t appear that all rank-and-file members are on the same page.
Already, a bill has been filed to revive a contentious issue from last session. Sen. James Tomes, R-Wadesville, is seeking to eliminate protection for schools from the state’s law prohibiting the distribution of “material harmful to minors.”
Tomes has tried to pass similar legislation in the past, arguing that it protects children from being exposed to sexually explicit and pornographic material. Opponents to the measure argue its akin to book-banning, could be subjectively used to rid school libraries of LGBTQ-friendly titles and looks to make criminals out of school librarians.
At least one Indiana lawmaker is also expected to file a bill that would prohibit the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary schools, similar to the bill known in Florida as “Don’t Say Gay.” It was a controversial measure in that state and is expected to draw significant opposition should it be proposed in Indiana.