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Pence touts General Assembly’s progress on his agenda items


– Gov. Mike Pence touted progress on his legislative agenda at the midpoint of the session, though several of his priorities don’t have funding or are in vastly different forms than proposed.

“We are in the midst of a remarkably productive session,” he said. “We are getting things done for Hoosiers on a broad range of areas.”

Pence’s biggest priority has been an elimination or phaseout of the business personal property tax. Neither the House nor Senate version goes anywhere near the governor’s goals, instead focusing on slight changes. And the Senate version even shifts the focus to corporate tax reform instead.

“I think that he’s having somewhat of a difficult time, and it’s another reason to ask what bold direction are we getting out of our (Republican) supermajorities?” asked House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City.

But the business tax proposal is only one of Pence’s 25 agenda items. Twenty-three passed during the first half of the session in some form. The two that did not were a teacher innovation fund and a school accountability proposal. But members of the governor’s staff expect those items to be revived in the Senate.

Pence said the vast majority of the others were passed on a bipartisan basis, many unanimously.

Pelath did give faint praise to one of Pence’s items – a move toward state-funded preschool.

House Bill 1004 calls for a five-county pilot program to provide vouchers for 4-year-olds in low-income households to attend prekindergarten programs.

The bill has no funding because it’s not a budget year, and lawmakers won’t appropriate new funds. And tax revenue is lagging behind projections.

The proposal is generally what House Republicans tried to pass last year, only to be blocked by Senate Republicans – who aren’t convinced of the program’s effectiveness.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, last week sent a memo to his Senate colleagues to try to deflect the bill in that chamber.

And Pence on Thursday released a policy review on Indiana’s pre-K initiative that included a look at national preschool programs, evidence for and against the programs and fiscal estimates of its cost.

“Across the board, some of the results about the value of pre-K are ambiguous, but with regard to disadvantaged kids, … numerous studies support that quality pre-K education is a great benefit to children,” the governor said.

House Speaker Brian Bosma acknowledged that some lawmakers still need to be convinced, and that is why he is pushing a pilot instead of full-scale program.

“We’re really dipping our toe in the water to see if it is effective for Hoosier children,” he said.

Also in Pence’s agenda is a program to give stipends to teachers who switch to a struggling public or charter school.

Senate Bill 264, authored by Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, would set up the structure for a $10,000 stipend available to teachers who choose to leave one school to teach in a charter school or failing public school.

But again, there is no money attached to the program, so it’s a future proposal at best.

“Every priority in the state budget needs to compete in the budget at the same time,” Kenley said. “We could pass this bill this year without the funding, and then you could go back and work on a program. What if the economy goes in the tank?”

The proposal passed the Senate 34-14 after some changes. For instance, it is now geared specifically to effective or highly effective teachers. And it no longer gives special attention to charter schools; it requires the charter or public school to be low-performing in order for a teacher to be eligible for the money.

It does not specifically say the teacher is taking a pay cut in the new position, so the money could sometimes be a bonus.

On the tax side, Pence has pushed several income tax ideas that sailed through the House and are now on the way to the Senate.

The first ties personal income tax exemptions to the consumer price index, allowing them to grow slowly over time.

Initially, new individual income tax exemptions would save an additional $16 a year. The plan also increases the child tax exemption from $1,500 to $2,000 while tying it to inflation.

An adoption proposal would create a state tax credit for families who qualify for an existing federal tax credit for adoptive parents. It also establishes a study committee that would examine ways to promote adoption.

One priority item that does have funding behind it is a push for major highway projects. Last year, legislators set aside $400 million for future Indiana Department of Transportation projects. But Pence has pushed House Bill 1004, allowing INDOT immediate access to the money.

Pence said one argument for freeing up the money now is that the state could lose $56 million in purchasing power because of inflation if the money is saved and spent later.

He and the department have not provided a specific list of projects that would be targeted, though he said they would focus on adding capacity. There is also a $25 million component for local road projects.