By Steve Bittenbender | The Center Square contributor
(The Center Square) – Indiana lawmakers burned the midnight oil and worked well into the early Friday morning hours to finally approve a budget before ending their session for the year.
The overnight session was necessary after some legislators raised concerns about funding for public schools. Legislative leaders agreed to add $300 million to education funding to address that. That money will come from dollars the first budget conference agreed to pay down the unfunded liability toward a teachers’ pension plan.
Shortly after 1:30 a.m. eastern time, the House voted 70-27 to pass the plan. Less than an hour later, the Senate followed suit in a 39-10 vote to send it to Gov. Eric Holcomb.
Despite the late hour, critics of the $44.5 billion, two-year spending plan took to the Senate floor to criticize it and the small increases some school districts will receive.
“When inflation is at 4.8%, how do we dare, in year two of traditional public school funding, say it’s a great thing to increase their funding by 1.3%? How dare we,” Minority Caucus Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said.
Rather than pay $1 billion toward the Pre-1996 Teachers’ Retirement Fund shortfall, as lawmakers previously intended, the final budget agreement included a one-time $700 million allocation.
That pay-as-you-go fund covers pensions for teachers who started work more than a quarter-century ago. According to the Indiana Public Retirement System’s 2022 annual report, the pre-1996 program had an $8.8 billion unfunded liability, which was expected to be paid off by the 2030 fiscal year.
One budget item that remained the same was the expansion of the voucher program. The budget would allow families making up to 400% of the threshold for free or reduced school lunches to participate.
According to EdChoice, 97% of the state’s students can now be served by a school choice program thanks to the measures lawmakers included in the budget.
“With the passage of this budget, Indiana essentially achieved universal choice, and it is now the most educational choice friendly state in the county,” stated Betsy Wiley, president and CEO of the Institute for Quality Education.
In a statement, Holcomb said the budget will give districts the ability to raise the average teacher salary to $60,000 statewide. It also will eliminate textbook and curriculum fees for more than a million students in public and charter schools.
Both items were part of his legislative agenda this year.
“We balanced our 10th straight budget, which enables us to strategically prioritize key areas in health, education and workforce that will elevate Indiana to the next level,” Holcomb said. “I’m proud of what was accomplished this legislative session, and through collaboration and hard work, we will be able to make transformational investments that will better the lives of Hoosiers and build a better today and stronger tomorrow.”