Indiana lawmakers still negotiating mental health funding as Senate GOP unveils budget plan

Indiana lawmakers still negotiating mental health funding as Senate GOP unveils budget plan
Indiana lawmakers still negotiating mental health funding as Senate GOP unveils budget plan

INDIANAPOLIS — Senate Republicans in Indiana unveiled their state budget proposals for the next two years, including some differences from the House Republican plan released earlier in the session.

Both Indiana House and Senate Republicans want more funding for schools: In the Senate, Republicans have proposed $1.1 billion in additional K-12 school tuition support over the next two years. They also want to allocate $160 million in annual state funding to eliminate textbook and curriculum fees, unlike House Republicans’ plan to change the school funding formula.

And now, Senate Republicans have not agreed to House Republicans’ proposal to increase eligibility for school choice vouchers.

“I don’t think we have a problem with vouchers, I mean, we have no problem with that,” said State Sen. Ryan Mishler (R-Mishawaka), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I think we just have to figure out Is it 300% or 400%, what should the eligibility be?”

Republicans in the state Senate and House of Representatives have proposed the same amount of public health spending: $225 million over the next two years, two-thirds what Gov. Eric Holcomb has requested.

But they are still figuring out how to increase funding for mental health beyond using state money.

House Republicans have called for higher cigarette taxes in the state. But Mishler said Senate Republicans are more interested in a phone bill surcharge that funds the 988 crisis lifeline.

“What we’ve decided to do is let’s work together and decide what the fee will be,” Mishler said of ongoing negotiations between the two chambers.

During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday morning, State Sen. Eddie Melton (D-Gary) proposed a $1.50 cigarette tax increase, but Republicans rejected it.

“I think that’s one piece of the puzzle,” Melton said. “I think that, in addition to the 988 solution, increasing the tax on cigarettes will completely solve this problem.”

Senate Democrats said they supported several parts of the Republican budget proposal, but had some concerns.

State Sen. Fady Qaddoura (D-Ind.) said he would like to see more funding for preschools. The Senate Republican proposal would raise income eligibility for the state’s On My Way Pre-K program from 127% to 150% of the federal poverty level.

“Investing in early childhood education is the most strategic investment we can make to ensure we increase high school graduation and college enrollment,” Qaddoura said.

Senate Republicans also proposed changing the way charter schools are funded, using property taxes instead of state appropriations. Democrats are concerned about the idea and its impact on school funding in low-income areas, Melton said.

Lawmakers have two weeks to work out the final version of the new budget before the session ends. The states’ revenue forecasts, due to be released on April 19, will factor into their final spending decisions.

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