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Senate budget proposal splits with House on school vouchers, textbook fees

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Senate Republicans on Thursday nixed a school voucher expansion but also proposed a major change to charter school funding.

The upper chamber revealed its budget proposal early Thursday morning ahead of a committee vote that sent it to the full Senate. The proposal largely mirrors what House Republicans unveiled in February. K-12 education would get an additional $2.5 billion over the biennium, including $1.1 million in basic tuition support. That compares to $2 billion and $1.6 billion, respectively, in the House’s version. Public health funding would still increase $75 million in the 2024 budget year and $150 million the year after that. State troopers would still get a boost in starting pay to roughly $70,000 per year. The Senate Republican budget also eliminates funding for the Kinsey Institute, an amendment the House added just before it passed out of the lower chamber.

The proposal splits with the House on several key policy questions. First and foremost, the income limit for school voucher eligibility would remain at its current level of 300 percent of eligibility for free or reduce-price lunch, currently $166,500 for a family of four. House Republicans had wanted to raise the threshold to 400 percent and eliminate the eight eligibility tracks that determine whether an applicant can receive a voucher. Senate Republicans also plan to eliminate textbook fees but the money to do so would come from a separate line item in the budget, rather than coming out of a school’s basic funding.

Finally, Senate Republicans proposed allowing charter schools to receive a portion of per-student property tax collections from a student’s home school district. The proposal would only allow this in the student’s home county or an adjacent one. Distressed school districts would be exempt.

Sen. Eddie Melton of Gary, the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, said he thought the Senate budget was an improvement over the House’s version but he didn’t like the idea of diverting property tax revenue to charter schools. Melton said this could jeopardize the ability of rural districts in particular to adequately fund their schools.

“Having to share that with other entities, I think, would be a disproportional share,” he said.

Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Mishawaka, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters the property tax proposal would phase out an existing charter school grant program. He said it was unlikely the proposal would divert a significant amount of money from any particular school.

“As we look at the charter schools, those charter schools aren’t going to get much anyway because of what they said about the low assessed value,” he said.

Additionally, a $10 million grant program for Martin University would instead become a scholarship program for minority and first-generation low-income students to attend any public or private four-year college or university in the state.Mishler said he wanted to keep the idea of helping minority higher education students but allow the funding to be used by anyone in the state rather than supporting one particular institution. Melton said he agreed with the thinking behind the proposal though he would still like to find a way for the state to support Martin University in particular. Martin University is Indiana’s only Predominantly Black Institution.

The budget bill for now leaves unanswered the question of how to fund the 988 suicide prevention hotline as prescribed by Senate Bill 1. Mishler said lawmakers are still deciding whether to fund the system with a cell phone fee, an increased tobacco tax or a combination of both.

The Senate has until Tuesday to send any legislation from the House to a conference committee. On Wednesday, the State Budget Agency will release an updated revenue forecast. Legislative leaders have said they will incorporate those numbers into final budget negotiations between the two chambers.