Groups push House committee for more education, public transit money

By Ashley Shuler
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — The House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony from organizations wanting a bigger slice of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s proposed $32 billion two-year budget plan Thursday.

Holcomb unveiled the budget, which provides a small increase in education spending, to the state budget committee earlier in the week.

But Gail Zeheralis, government relations director for the Indiana State Teachers Association, says the proposed money for schools isn’t enough.

The current budget provides $6.77 billion in K-12 spending, slightly up from the $6.66 billion in 2015.

“When it comes to education, 1- or 2- percent is barely treading water,” she said.

Zeheralis also said that although some of the funding has been keeping up with inflation, Indiana has devoted the same amount to some programs year after year. For example, the state has allocated $18.3 million for summer school programs since 2001.

Indiana has also seen teacher salaries decline more in the last decade than every other state except one – down 11 percent. The national average of teacher salaries fell 1.6 percent.

The governor’s budget isn’t far off from the priorities of the Indiana House Republicans, who also prioritize education funding. In addition to education, the priorities are roads, jobs, workforce development, addiction treatment and public safety.

As it exists today, Holcomb’s budget plan would increase K-12 funding by $70 million in 2018 and by $210 million in 2019.

Additionally, higher education funding would see an increase of $13 million in 2018 and $39 million in 2019.

K-12 and higher education would consume more than 60 percent of the state’s overall proposed budget, but less than 60 percent of the total education spending currently makes it to the classroom.

That’s what David Rosenberg, operations officer for Indianapolis Public Schools, said IPS is working on.

Rosenberg testified that IPS has been focusing on transparent, lean administrative spending that sends more money directly to the classroom. This comes after questions about the district mismanaging its budget spending and revenue in 2014.

Katrina Hall, public policy director for Indiana Farm Bureau, said her organization’s main priority is also education. She wants to get rural schools more funding in the state budget.

She said the current formula the state uses doesn’t give much funding to rural schools because of the low number of students they have and because they may not be as attractive as other school districts.

“Just because you live in a rural area doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an equal educational opportunity,” Hall said. “We want some equity.”

Aside from education, the House Republicans want to add a long-term road funding plan to the state budget.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has said that over the next 20 years the state needs more than $1 billion in additional funding per year to support its roads and bridges.

Most of the funds will come from an increased gas tax and tolling, which is laid out in House Bill 1002. The bill calls for increasing gas tax by 10 cents per gallon. The current 18-cents-a-gallon gas tax has not been increased since 2003. The increase would cost drivers about $4 more at the pump each month.

The bill, if passed, would also require a $15 annual fee on all vehicles registered in Indiana. A $150 annual fee on all electric vehicles is also part of the plan to make up for the lack of fuel purchased by those drivers.

Combined, those fees would generate approximately $92 billion per year.

As part of the road funding conversation, several individuals testified on behalf of public mass transportation funding around the state.

Becky Allen, transportation director for Access Johnson County, said funding for rural public transit systems like hers has flatlined over the last decade.

There are 41 rural transit systems that serve 2.6 million people in Indiana. Allen said she wants to see an increase in the dedicated funds going to those systems in this year’s budget, as they provide services to people who are disabled, elderly and have to share cars to get to their school or job, among other factors.

The House Republicans will introduce their version of the budget next week.

Ashley Shuler is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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