INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A plan to spend an unexpected jump in state tax revenue on college campus construction projects is on its way to Indiana's governor without any of the Democratic proposals to use some of that money to boost teacher pay.
The Indiana Senate voted 38-8 mostly along party lines Thursday to approve a bill backed by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb directing $291 million toward paying cash for several building projects that were part of the state budget adopted in April, rather than borrowing money.
Republicans who dominate the Senate and House unanimously rejected a variety of Democratic proposals to increase school funding as the bill raced through both chambers in the first three weeks of the legislative session — and after several thousand teachers joined a boisterous Statehouse rally in November citing stagnant salaries as a top concern.
Holcomb and GOP legislators maintain paying cash for those construction projects will save the state at least $130 million in long-term interest payments and that more can be done about the state’s lagging teacher pay when a new two-year budget is written in 2021. The governor could sign this bill into law as soon as next week.
Senate Democratic leader Tim Lanane of Anderson argued that the fast-tracking was aimed at getting the teacher pay issue off the table since this spending bill is the only one on this year’s legislative agenda.
“When we do that, that cuts off public input, it cuts off public debate on this matter,” Lanane said. “I always worry it sends the message, ‘Well, we just want to get this done and get it over with. We know it’s tricky, we know it’s sticky and we just want to be done with it.'”
The construction projects included in the spending plan include $73 million toward a new veterinary hospital at Purdue University and various building plans at Indiana University, Ball State University, Indiana State University, the University of Southern Indiana and Ivy Tech State College in Columbus. One Republican and one Democratic senator split with rest of their party members on the final vote.
Republican Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ryan Mishler of Bremen said the quick action on the plan was justified because those schools have largely received state board approvals for the construction work.
“It’s not just putting it behind us, it's because they're ready to start these projects,” Mishler said.
Lanane said thousands of educators showed up at the Statehouse urging immediate action to resolve years of stagnant teacher pay.
“The bargain that we get for the investment of money, I think, would be better put into rewarding our teachers today,” he said.
Republicans have repeatedly defended the 2.5% per-year increase in school funding included in the current state budget. They say it provides significant progress toward boosting teacher pay and protects the state’s $2.3 billion in cash reserves. But education advocacy groups estimated last year that a 9% funding increase was needed to boost average teacher pay of about $50,000 a year to the midpoint of Indiana’s neighboring states, while GOP state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick cited a study showing Indiana had the lowest teacher salary increases since 2002.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray of Martinsville said legislators have no reason to delay passing the spending bill.
“People are going to try amend it or insert other things into it,” Bray said. “We want to be very, very protective of our budget process so that we are fiscally responsible and so we want to try and get it moved through with dispatch.”
This story has been corrected to show that the Senate vote was mostly on party lines but that one Republican and one Democrat split with the rest of their party members.