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: 1084488

Reported Deaths: 17386
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1425562217
Lake705171220
Allen64347862
Hamilton49481481
St. Joseph48135639
Elkhart39011536
Vanderburgh33874494
Tippecanoe29863271
Johnson26876463
Hendricks25548379
Porter24683380
Madison20440444
Clark19785275
Vigo18609308
LaPorte16638260
Monroe16237217
Delaware16230286
Howard16181310
Kosciusko13763162
Hancock12644184
Bartholomew12544188
Warrick11889189
Wayne11794264
Floyd11792225
Grant11484233
Morgan10134188
Boone9576120
Noble8921121
Henry8917163
Marshall8792146
Dearborn875798
Dubois8673138
Shelby7958127
Cass7907126
Lawrence7861182
DeKalb7416106
Jackson738093
Huntington7280107
Gibson6922118
Montgomery6830122
Harrison680696
Knox6779113
Steuben641185
Miami6384106
Whitley631160
Putnam626582
Clinton614176
Wabash5958108
Jasper591991
Jefferson5617102
Ripley540892
Adams527881
Daviess4964116
Scott475978
Wells462998
White459967
Greene458399
Clay452162
Decatur4491109
Jennings434666
Fayette429094
LaGrange413890
Posey398344
Washington380654
Randolph3770107
Fountain364962
Spencer353446
Fulton352270
Starke343672
Sullivan342454
Owen341676
Orange320270
Jay315450
Rush293332
Carroll287037
Franklin283544
Perry281453
Vermillion277557
Parke244930
Tipton244664
Pike241744
Blackford213944
Pulaski203158
Newton176552
Brown169850
Crawford167129
Benton160517
Martin149219
Switzerland143712
Warren131416
Union115416
Ohio90513
Unassigned0581

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1673496

Reported Deaths: 26483
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1757641826
Cuyahoga1629012636
Hamilton1118741528
Montgomery791421387
Summit697231199
Lucas615331017
Butler55597803
Stark521611170
Lorain40661639
Warren35239412
Mahoning34821769
Lake31171493
Clermont30541362
Delaware26553182
Trumbull26366611
Licking26095335
Medina25072351
Fairfield24063287
Greene23957369
Clark21542387
Portage20538280
Richland20465336
Wood19524246
Allen18427320
Miami16950348
Columbiana16385331
Muskingum16346206
Wayne15351304
Tuscarawas14018357
Marion12978194
Erie12350198
Ashtabula12171225
Scioto12166182
Pickaway12009151
Ross11417223
Hancock11151173
Geauga10572174
Lawrence10433171
Belmont10200231
Huron9545155
Jefferson9425225
Union933375
Sandusky8981166
Seneca8639156
Knox8591169
Washington8578156
Athens825096
Darke8215179
Ashland7777147
Auglaize7695115
Shelby7302132
Defiance7174114
Brown7015115
Crawford7010150
Fulton6953111
Logan6818108
Mercer679397
Guernsey677983
Highland6591117
Madison639289
Clinton6361106
Williams623498
Preble6153139
Putnam6054120
Jackson569496
Champaign564786
Perry557179
Coshocton5525103
Ottawa549599
Morrow504464
Fayette481270
Hardin475399
Gallia460278
Pike457876
Van Wert451591
Adams4495109
Henry422776
Hocking398093
Holmes3917137
Wyandot366673
Carroll348978
Paulding317449
Meigs300957
Monroe230860
Noble216147
Morgan208938
Harrison204052
Vinton182037
Unassigned05
Fort Wayne
Mostly Cloudy
34° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 25°
Angola
Cloudy
32° wxIcon
Hi: 37° Lo: 31°
Feels Like: 26°
Huntington
Clear
32° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 31°
Feels Like: 25°
Decatur
Mostly Cloudy
34° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 25°
Van Wert
Cloudy
34° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 34°
Feels Like: 23°
The chilly temperatures and clouds are sticking around Monday with a brief warm up midweek.
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