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School funding cuts dominate state legislative forum

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As three local state legislators gave a Saturday morning update on the current legislative session, a recurring topic dealt with an issue that they and their colleagues had virtually nothing to do with: Statewide funding cuts for public schools.

Diana Kosakowski, a Duneland School parent and a teacher in the Union Township schools, asked the lawmakers what could be done to avert the funding losses that schools statewide are experiencing.

“I’m seeing strong school systems brought to their knees,” Kosakowski said, citing Duneland’s funding loss estimated at more than $4 million.

Similarly, Deb Porter, a Portage Schools teacher, said that Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett recently told school officials that the reality is that they will have to deal with general funds that have been cut to 2005 levels. But Porter noted that various school expenses, from office supplies and services for special needs students, have increased, not declined.

The three legislators hosting the Saturday morning “town hall” meeting -- State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, and Rep. Charles Moseley, D-Portage, and Charlie Brown, D-Gary -- were sympathetic.

Moseley criticized the action of Gov. Mitch Daniels, who cut school funding by $300 million unilaterally, without seeking input from lawmakers. He noted that the state funding cut in tuition support came in addition to budget cuts schools were already bracing for due to declining state revenues.

Moseley said at some point lawmakers will have to “dig in their heels” and take a firm stand against any future “raiding” of funding for public education. He took particular exception to the state’s policies on charter schools: He called it “nonsense “ that the state is setting aside $2.5 million a year for a virtural charter school program that no one is using, at the same time that it’s killing adult education programs.

He noted that his adult education bill passed the House but is currently on “life support” in the Senate. His bill would change the state funding process for adult education by allowing monthly payments of state tuition support. He said his bill would address the lack of cash flows for adult ed, which is one of the fundamental reaons why the programs are suffering.

Tallian pointed out that school funding went through a major change when the Indiana General Assembly passed property tax reforms that included a full state takeover of school general funds, beginning in 2009. “We made a bargain with the devil,” she said, citing a funding committment that now can’t be realized due to state revenues.

Tallain added that of the state government’s $13 billion budget, 53 percent is spent on K-12 education and that the only way to fix a budget shortfall is either to cut spending or find new revenues, the latter of which the state has so far been unable to do.

The three lawmakers spoke for more than an hour at the legislative town hall, held at Local 6787 on Ind. 149. Other topics addressed were as follows.

•Moseley said Indiana now has more than $1 billion in debt in its unemployment insurance fund and that a pending bill would delay implementation for one year of unemployment compensation language passed last year, in turn saving money for businesses. One of the most significant provisions in the bill, he said, would raise the threshold of projects that would require voter approval in a referendum, while still making the new building projects subject to the current property tax caps.

•A workers compensation bill authored by Moseley appears to be on its way to Daniels to become law. Under H.B. 1116, workers seriously hurt on the job won’t be required to wait for authroization for insurance coverage, as they must now do, before receiving treatment. Tallian said the bill won support from even the most conservative members of the Senate who were surprised that pre-authorization was necessary in such cases.

•Brown said he isn’t giving up on his bill that would ban smoking in most public places in Indiana, though he acknowledged the prospects aren’t positive. Tallian said that she has received more emails from constituents about the no-smoking proposal than on any other issue, and Brown himself said he is heartened by the number of people who have personally told him that they support his efforts.

•One of the larger issues that may not get decided until near the end of the legislative session is a bill that would authorize a privately built and operated Illiana expressway from I-65 to Illinois. Tallian said she tried to insert an amendement in the bill that would require Indiana produced steel in the toll road’s construction. “They turned me down,” she said.

Moseley had more luck getting a resolution passed that would encourage the use of Indiana steel in new wind farms and wind turbines. More than 25 percent of the wind towers that have been erected in Indiana contain foreign-produced steel. Lawmakers are proposing a study commission on tax incentives for new wind energy production, and Tallian said the hope is to tie the current tax credits for wind energy to the use of Indiana steel.

•Brown urged the public to get informed on the impacts of the property tax caps. The tax caps are already law, but voters will be asked in a November referendum to make the tax cap langauge permanent by amending the Indiana Constitution. Tallian said the different levels of tax caps for different classes of property are “clearly illegal” and that if it were not for the constitutional amendment, it’s likely the language would be challenged in court. She predicted that with the loss of funding from the tax caps, more government units will turn to higher user fees, which, she noted, are not deductible on state and federal income tax returns as property taxes are.

Posted 2/22/2010




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