House GOP Budget Prioritizes School Vouchers, Cuts Cigarette Tax Hike In Half

Feb 11, 2021

Indiana House Republicans want to spend at least $65 million less on traditional K-12 schools in their state budget plan than Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed.

The House GOP budget instead prioritizes increases for school vouchers and virtual schools.

The proposal increases tuition support for K-12 schools by $378 million over the next two years – that’s $1 million more than Holcomb’s proposal. But the House Republican plan includes a significant expansion of school vouchers for private schools, taking up $66 million of that increase.

Rep. Tim Brown (R-Crawfordsville) is his caucus’s budget architect.

“Parents by far and away want to make choices for their kids," Brown said. "They want to have options.”

In a statement, Rep. Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis) said the House GOP budget prioritizes private schools over traditional public schools, “creating haves and have-nots” and furthering what he calls a “separate and unequal” system.

There's also no specific new help to increase teacher pay. The governor's teacher compensation commission unveiled more than a dozen recommendations for the General Assembly late last year and the state budget proposal from House Republicans doesn't include a single one.

Asked how his plan helps teacher salaries, Brown pointed to preexisting teacher appreciation grants (which did not get an increase) and the overall K-12 spending boost.

"The decision on what a teacher gets paid is a local school board decision," Brown said. "And you don't want the Indiana General Assembly to become a school board."

House Republicans’ proposed state budget also cuts a potential cigarette tax increase in half.

Legislation already approved by one committee this session would raise the state cigarette tax by $1 per pack. Health advocates (who pushed for an even higher increase) say that’s the point at which such a tax hike pushes people to quit smoking.

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But Brown’s proposal only raises it by 50 cents.

“Had a discussion among all the members in Indiana House Republicans and what was permissible," Brown said. "Some people don’t want to do any tax increase at all.”

Rep. Ed DeLaney (D-Indianapolis) said that’s an inadequate increase. He wants at least a $1 per pack hike – and he wants the money from that dedicated to programs that will improve Hoosiers’ health.

“We need to take money from the evil of smoking and devote it to paying for health, rather than only for sickness,” DeLaney said.

The House GOP plan does create a new tax, on vaping products. A previous version based the tax on the amount of e-liquid someone purchased. Brown's budget proposal instead imposes a 10 percent sales tax on electronic cigarettes. 

House Republicans also prioritized one-time expenses very differently than Governor Holcomb. Holcomb's proposal would have spent $700 million this summer out of state budget reserves to pay down debt; $300 million for state highway and other capital projects and $400 million for a teacher pension fund.

But the House GOP plan only spends $110 million this year on the debt for those capital projects. Instead, they propose using budget reserve dollars to create a new grant program that helps students with learning loss from the pandemic, a small business restart grant program to help those trying to recover from the pandemic and money to improve the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, which trains a majority of police across Indiana.

The budget bill passed out of committee Thursday. It now goes to the House floor.

This story has been updated.

Contact reporter Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.