Indiana lawmakers to settle debates on school vouchers, coronavirus action, cigarette tax hike

Republicans who dominate Indiana’s Legislature have several debates to settle among themselves after the first half of this year’s session, including how much they’ll expand the state’s private school voucher program and what limits they’ll put on emergency powers the governor has used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Posted: Feb 27, 2021 9:24 PM

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republicans who dominate Indiana’s Legislature have several debates to settle among themselves after the first half of this year’s session, including how much they’ll expand the state’s private school voucher program and what limits they’ll put on emergency powers the governor has used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers face another two months of jostling over the new two-year state budget, a proposal to increase Indiana’s cigarette tax and calls for greater police accountability.

Final decisions aren’t expected on many issues until near the Legislature’s planned adjournment in late April, although the badly outnumbered Democrats argue that Republicans are ignoring problems like the state’s lagging teacher pay in favor of a narrow business-friendly agenda.

A look at some of the top issues:

STATE SPENDING

The budget plan endorsed by House Republicans would boost the base funding for K-12 schools by 1.25% during the plan’s first year and 2.5% in the second year.

That would mean about $378 million more for total school funding over the two years — although 38% of that money, or $144 million, would go toward the voucher expansion and a new program allowing parents to directly spend state money on their child’s education expenses

Republicans tout their plan as giving parents more control over how to educate their children. The proposal would raise income eligibility toward a maximum voucher amount for a family of four from the current roughly $48,000 a year to about $145,000 in 2022, in part by eliminating the current partial voucher levels based on income.

Rep. Tim Brown, the top House Republican budget writer, said the overall plan invests in helping businesses recover from the pandemic slowdown while preserving about $2 billion in cash reserves to protect the state from future downturns.

“Indiana is the best state in the Midwest for jobs and people working and that shows in the strength of how we budget in state government,” Brown said.

Democrats argue traditional public schools are being shortchanged and Republicans aren’t doing anything to improve teacher pay after a commission appointed by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb found it could cost more than $600 million a year to increase Indiana’s average teacher salary ranking from ninth-highest to third-highest in the Midwest.

Democrats maintain that a focus on the state’s surplus and credit rating means not addressing critical needs.

“Are we going to continue to be overweight, with high blood pressure, with low college graduation rates? Is that what we’re going to do? Going to continue to pay our teachers $10,000 less than they should be making?” said Democratic Rep. Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis. “This budget is absolutely devoid of any vision.”

Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said he believes GOP senators support a school voucher expansion, but it could face Senate changes as “we’re not going to be awash with new revenue.”

COVID-19 CONCERNS

The House and Senate have passed considerably different proposals aimed at giving legislators more say over emergency orders issued by the governor and local health officials.

Those debates follow months of criticism from some conservatives of Holcomb’s statewide mask mandate and orders restricting businesses and religious services as government intrusion on personal freedom during the pandemic that has killed more than 12,000 people in the state.

The proposals seek ways to force the governor to call lawmakers into a special session if extended emergency orders continue after the legislative session has ended for the year. Holcomb has questioned whether that is allowed under the state constitution.

Despite complaints about Holcomb’s executive orders, legislative leaders praise his leadership during the pandemic and have taken no action toward overturning any of Holcomb’s current public health orders.

Republicans, however, have already pushed through a new law that gives businesses broad protections from lawsuits by people blaming them for contracting COVID-19 even as supporters don’t point to any such lawsuits in the state.

RACIAL RECKONING

The House unanimously approved a bill aimed at increasing police accountability that includes provisions for mandatory de-escalation training, misdemeanor penalties for officers who turn off body cameras with intent to conceal, and bans on chokeholds in certain circumstances.

The Indiana Black Legislative Caucus has supported the proposal that follows protests against racial injustice and police brutality spurred by last year’s death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

That unity was disrupted a couple weeks later when Black lawmakers were shouted down and booed by some Republicans when they criticized an unrelated bill as discriminatory and racist. Some verbal confrontations followed in hallways, and Black caucus leaders called for reprimands against some legislators and for all lawmakers to undergo mandatory anti-bias training.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, advanced bills cracking down on protests such as those that turned violent over several nights in Indianapolis last May. One bill toughens penalties for those arrested in connection with an unlawful assembly or riot.

Democratic Senate leader Greg Taylor, the first Black person to lead an Indiana legislative caucus, argued the measure goes too far and would harm free speech rights.

“Do you think it’s ironic that some of us are standing here only because people marched?” Taylor said during the Senate debate. “Some people called it rioting. (Protesters) got beat up, hoses sprayed on them, dogs sicced on them for me to be standing here. Were those riots?”

CIGARETTE TAX HIKE

House Republicans supported increasing the state’s current 99.5 cents-per-pack cigarette tax to $1.50 and imposing a new 10% retail tax on electronic cigarette liquids.

The cigarette tax has remained the same for more than a decade even as health advocates and major business groups have backed increasing the tax to $3 a pack to help drive down the state’s 21.1% smoking rate for adults.

That was the fourth-highest in the country for 2018, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Republican senators have turned aside attempts in recent years to increase cigarette taxes. Bray, the Senate’s GOP leader, was noncommittal this past week on whether the tax hike could gain Senate approval this year.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 698692

Reported Deaths: 13148
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion953091706
Lake50868931
Allen38607670
Hamilton34028404
St. Joseph33404537
Elkhart26868431
Vanderburgh21948393
Tippecanoe21483212
Johnson17346371
Porter17059297
Hendricks16638309
Clark12600190
Madison12239335
Vigo12109243
Monroe11253166
LaPorte10639204
Delaware10251183
Howard9572211
Kosciusko9009112
Hancock7866139
Bartholomew7807153
Warrick7660155
Floyd7509175
Wayne6849196
Grant6732167
Boone648199
Morgan6341137
Dubois6054117
Marshall5720108
Cass5658102
Dearborn565275
Henry5545100
Noble534983
Jackson489869
Shelby474495
Lawrence4304118
Gibson425788
Harrison425370
Montgomery414686
Clinton413953
DeKalb404183
Huntington373180
Whitley372639
Miami369965
Knox363889
Steuben359657
Putnam350760
Wabash344977
Jasper342246
Adams336852
Ripley332668
Jefferson306779
White306054
Daviess288199
Wells283680
Decatur278092
Fayette276762
Greene268785
Posey267533
Scott258753
Clay250944
LaGrange249670
Randolph233679
Washington228929
Spencer227231
Jennings224347
Fountain207245
Sullivan207241
Starke199452
Owen191056
Fulton189139
Jay184829
Carroll184520
Perry178536
Orange175852
Rush169424
Vermillion165543
Franklin164835
Tipton160743
Parke143516
Blackford132130
Pike129634
Pulaski112445
Newton102434
Brown98940
Crawford96814
Benton94913
Martin82115
Warren78715
Switzerland7688
Union69510
Ohio55411
Unassigned0405

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1039455

Reported Deaths: 18827
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1205361345
Cuyahoga1051802040
Hamilton774991164
Montgomery49566984
Summit44613904
Lucas39235757
Butler37466566
Stark31150890
Lorain23831467
Warren23725291
Mahoning20653581
Lake19760360
Clermont19325226
Delaware17811130
Licking15996205
Fairfield15520195
Trumbull15412458
Medina14693255
Greene14510233
Clark13455287
Wood12575182
Portage12183193
Allen11225229
Richland10924197
Miami10470211
Muskingum8653127
Columbiana8482225
Wayne8463209
Pickaway8394120
Tuscarawas8317239
Marion8302135
Erie7434153
Ross6650145
Hancock6608123
Geauga6462146
Ashtabula6374163
Scioto625699
Belmont5523158
Union551747
Lawrence5439102
Huron5237112
Darke5229121
Jefferson5223147
Sandusky5096118
Seneca5050118
Washington5031107
Athens494854
Auglaize470684
Mercer467984
Shelby453489
Knox4339108
Madison417957
Putnam417698
Ashland409186
Fulton402565
Defiance396396
Brown383955
Crawford3827100
Logan370076
Preble368295
Clinton357459
Ottawa352278
Highland345058
Williams318274
Champaign317355
Jackson305051
Guernsey303448
Perry286949
Fayette276348
Morrow272639
Henry261866
Hardin261163
Coshocton256057
Holmes251799
Van Wert237562
Gallia232146
Pike231031
Adams226251
Wyandot224553
Hocking207057
Carroll187846
Paulding167638
Meigs140938
Noble131837
Monroe128541
Morgan105822
Harrison104836
Vinton81013
Unassigned01
Fort Wayne
Mostly Cloudy
57° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 57°
Angola
Partly Cloudy
57° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 45°
Feels Like: 57°
Huntington
Cloudy
54° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 54°
Fort Wayne
Cloudy
57° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 57°
Lima
Cloudy
54° wxIcon
Hi: 62° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 54°
Rain showers taper off throughout Sunday evening. Temperatures overnight will drop into the mid to low 40s. Monday, expect more clouds in the morning, with a littler clearer sky in the afternoon. Isolated rain showers possible on Monday. Highs around 60 on Monday.
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