INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Budget director Chris Atkins found himself Wednesday in
the strange position of having to defend education cuts made by his former
boss, while pitching House lawmakers on a modest education proposal from his
new boss, Gov. Mike Pence.
Atkins told members of the House Ways and Means Committee that the planned 1
percent annual increase in education funding would be the most Indiana has
spent on schools in 10 years. But Democrats, who have asked the new
administration to restore $300 million in education cuts, noted the
Legislature routinely approved much more than the 1 percent, only to see
Gov. Mitch Daniels slash it from the budget.
"As we make promises, it seems like lately the Legislature — which is given
the constitutional task of creating the budget and moving forward — it seems
like it’s become more of a suggestion, than a budget for the state,” said
Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Crothersville, a school superintendent in southern
The Pence budget calls for roughly $6.4 billion in education spending in
each of the next two years, with another $64 million for high-performing
schools beginning the summer of 2014, at the start of the 2015 budget year.
Atkins worked in Daniels’ budget shop before joining Pence’s gubernatorial
campaign and, eventually, his administration.
“We did have a very bad recession, and the previous administration and
general assemblies tried to protect education where they could, that’s
reflected in the fact that we now spend 64 percent of the budget on
education,” Atkins said.
Yet Pence’s suggested, but nominal, increase in spending is one of the
lowest in years, doesn’t keep track with inflation and is hardly the most
cash ever budgeted for schools. Lawmakers approved $6.55 billion for schools
in 2011 and $6.6 billion last year. Daniels cut from there and elsewhere on
his way to building roughly $2 billion in cash reserves.
Education funding is at the crux of this year’s budget negotiations. Both
Democrat and Republican House leaders are calling for more cash for schools,
and the Pence team will be fighting mightily for the $500 million it would
need to cut the personal income tax by 10 percent.
Pence spent much of his first State of the State address delivering the same
pitch to lawmakers that he has used for months — that a tax cut is the best
stimulus for Indiana’s economy. He also sought to assuage lawmakers with the
promise that education was still adequately funded.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma has challenged that assertion, arguing
since October that the Pence tax cut might not hold amid a desire to restore
John Ketzenberger, president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, said it
should not surprise anyone that any budget battle focuses on education.
“If you look at how much the state spends on education ... you can make a
good argument that the business of the state is educating the next
generation of Hoosiers,” Ketzenberger said.