By The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is proposing a modest increase in school funding that is unlikely to provide much of an immediate boost for teacher pay.
The Republican governor and GOP legislative leaders have stressed the importance of finding ways to address Indiana's lagging teacher salaries, but Holcomb's $33 billion, two-year budget proposal released Thursday recommends a 2 percent increase for public schools each year.
State fiscal analysts project tax revenues will grow by about 2.5 percent both budget years. Holcomb proposes much of that money go toward allowing the state's troubled Department of Child Services to keep hundreds of new caseworkers added over the last few years and an expected jump in state costs for the Medicaid program for low-income families.
State funding makes up the bulk of money that school districts have available to not only pay teachers, but also provide support staffers, maintain buildings, purchase supplies and provide transportation.
The proposed state funding increase of about $430 million over two years won't be required to go toward teacher pay, which remains a decision for local school boards, said Micah Vincent, director of the state Office of Management and Budget.
"As they work with their teachers, we would be hopeful and expect that we will see increases to teachers through that," Vincent told legislators on the State Budget Committee.
Indiana ranked 31st among the 50 states in teacher pay during 2016, with average salaries of $50,715, according to the National Education Association. That's lower than the five nearby states that the Holcomb administration wants to compare Indiana with — Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, faulted Holcomb's school funding proposal for falling below both the expected growth of state revenue and the national inflation rate of 2.2 percent over the past year.
"We've been calling for teacher pay increases, we all know that we need them," Tallian said. "This budget doesn't do anything to get there."
Holcomb and fellow Republicans want to protect the state's $1.8 billion budget surplus, which they say preserves Indiana's top credit rating and is insurance against a recession.
The governor's proposal would leave about $400 million in expected revenue available for the Republican-dominated Legislature to consider spending in the new budget that they have until late April to approve.
Tallian maintained that the money could go toward teacher pay, saying "They're yelping that there's not enough money but there is."
Dennis Costerison, an education lobbyist and executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, said Holcomb's proposal is a good start but that education funding has lagged behind inflation in recent years, including the current two-year budget's annual increases of less than 2 percent.
Costerison said all school officials support increasing teacher pay, but there are other growing expenses as well.
"We need to keep the buildings safe, need to pay our utilities, we need to do all the things from the standpoint of running the operation," he said.
Holcomb's proposal maintains a $286 million, or about 40 percent, increase to the Department of Child Services that his administration transferred to the agency last year amid complaints about it being unable to handle a jump in the number of abused or neglected children cases. The agency, however, wouldn't see any additional increases the next two years.