INDIANAPOLIS– From a Senate news conference demanding action to a flurry of House amendments to force votes, Democratic lawmakers pushed last week for ways to boost funding for teachers, health care and other priorities.
But Republicans who hold supermajorities in the legislature, as well as the governor’s office, urged patience.
Republicans have insisted they don’t want to reopen the two-year budget passed in 2019 and don’t want to commit the state this year to a long-term funding liability. And Gov. Eric Holcomb and legislative leaders have also counseled waiting until the governor’s “Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission” issues its report this spring.
Thursday, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said Holcomb plans to address teacher pay in his State of the State address on Tuesday, but will offer a solution for a future year.
“The governor’s proposal is going to be outside this budget year,” Bosma said. “So, he’s going to propose a future resolution which I think is a very wise one.”
Indiana has lagged the nation in pay increases for teachers, contributing to falling numbers of people holding or applying for teaching positions in this state. Concerns about that, as well as ongoing frustrations with standardized testing and the use of it to evaluate teachers, brought thousands of teachers to the Statehouse in November.
Republicans have responded by pushing bills to not grade schools for now on the poor results from the new ILEARN test, and to decouple teacher pay from the results of those tests. But they have balked at giving teachers a raise this year.
During the House session Thursday, Democrats took aim at House Bill 1007, which takes about $290 million of the state’s surplus to pay cash rather than borrow money for university capital projects. They tried and failed nine times with amendments to instead devote funds to school corporations, health programs, shifting the cost of school counselors to the Department of Education and to establish paid family leave for Indiana workers.
The amendments included spending $50 million for pre-kindergarten programs; $5 million for making schools safer, $50 million for a prescription drug program for seniors and $186 million for a one-time bonus for public school teachers.
Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said there is already a budget set in place for the current fiscal year, and the amendments are simply trying to open up the budget when it isn’t needed.
But Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said once the budget is adopted, passing bills regarding expenditures shouldn’t stop.
And he expressed outrage that the state has a surplus of $2.27 billion while needs go unfunded.
He noted that when he first was elected to the Indiana House in 2008, the state was cash strapped.
“The only problem I had then was we were broke. And the only question was who was going to get squeezed and it turned out to be the schools. Now, the problem is nobody can be helped.”
“What is this session about?” DeLaney said. “This is really very disappointing if we don’t want to address a single new topic or make an adjustment.”
Senate Democrats made their case for acting now in a news conference Thursday morning.
Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, urged passage of a bill he’s authored, Senate Bill 413, to increase the teacher appreciation grants the state provides by 333%. This will be achieved by appropriating $100 million each year for the current fiscal year and the following one.
“Currently, IPS (Indianapolis Public Schools) eligible teachers will receive, as the budget is right now, on average $350 per teacher. Under this bill they will receive over $1,100,” Melton said.
Teachers statewide who are already eligible for the grant would receive the raise immediately upon SB 413 passing.
Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, said a bill she authored, SB 306, would free up $100 million per year to increase teacher salaries statewide by lowering payments to the Teacher Retirement Fund.
“I would never do anything that would jeopardize your pensions and I assure every teacher in the state that this will not harm” the retirement fund, Tallian said.
When asked whether enough Republicans would go along to help pass the measures, the Democrats were hopeful, recalling positive comments from some GOP lawmakers in the past on these issues.
“This should be a bipartisan effort,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.
Melton also called attention to the teachers’ November protest.
“They can’t forget what happened on Nov. 19th … when over 15,000 teachers were here,” Melton said, adding: “I’m sure they have been contacted by teachers around their districts.”