INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Eric Holcomb is aiming to preserve Indiana's $1.8 billion state budget surplus over the next two years while not directing more money toward goals of increasing teacher pay or expanding the state-funded preschool program.
The Republican governor announced Thursday his agenda priorities for the upcoming legislative session during which lawmakers will debate a new two-year spending plan. Holcomb is seeking state money for a variety of tax breaks for attracting businesses, along with modest boosts in job training and drug-abuse treatment programs.
But education spending makes up more than 60 percent of the state's $16.4 billion budget this year. Holcomb proposes examining over the next two years how best to boost teacher pay, with the goal of making Indiana more competitive with neighboring states.
Republican legislative leaders have said they were working on teacher pay increase options for consideration during the General Assembly session that begins in early January.
Holcomb said he wanted to work with teacher unions and others on a "very thoughtful, methodical" plan for the salary boost — delaying a push for a significant funding increase until the state budget that's adopted in 2021.
"We're losing teachers, we're losing talent to neighboring states because we're competing against them, often times, on salary," he said.
Indiana ranked 31st among the 50 states in teacher pay during 2016, with average salaries of $50,715, according to the National Education Association. That's lower than the five nearby states that the Holcomb administration wants to compare Indiana with — Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Democratic House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said the governor needed to be more aggressive.
"What we do need is bold action from this governor that says we must increase teacher pay right now," GiaQuinta said. "We don't need to study this issue before making a final decision. We need to increase teacher pay."
Holcomb is recommending that the state's the preschool program for poor children remain limited to 20 of Indiana's 92 counties and at its $20 million annual budget. His goal is to then expand the program statewide with the 2021 state budget.
"We'll continue to help other communities scale up, make sure that their child care centers are actually high-quality learning centers so we can grow that program," he said.
Holcomb said that maintaining the state's surplus and AAA credit rating was needed "to make sure that we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the competition."