Indiana lawmakers facing decisions over budget cuts, casino changes in session's final week

Indiana lawmakers were grappling Wednesday over where to make cuts in the new state budget with little more than a week remaining in the legislative session while also debating what steps should be taken to help struggling casinos.

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Senate and House budget leaders said they're looking for ways to handle a projected slowdown in the growth of state tax collections, which leaves them with about $213 million less than they expected when they began working on the two-year state spending plan.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he expects "some pain" from spending cuts and believes a top priority is protecting the 2.3 percent school funding increases both the House and Senate budget plans proposed for each of the next two years.

"That is probably the safest," Kenley said. "That's not to say that anything is safe, but that's probably the safest."

The House and Senate plans each spend about $31.5 billion over the next two years, with a projected state surplus of nearly $1.9 billion at the end of that time.

The budget negotiations include working out details over proposals for shifting money from many urban and rural school districts with shrinking enrollments. The House budget plan moves tens of millions of dollars to growing suburban districts — many in more affluent areas — in an attempt to reduce the gap in per-child funding between expanding and shrinking school districts.

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House and Ways Committee Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said negotiators were looking at several variations of school funding plans, including one from the Senate that phased in the school funding changes over five years.

The House funding plan included cuts to more than a third of Indiana's nearly 300 school districts that Democrats called devastating.

Democrats aren't satisfied with the Senate plan, but it does reduce the number of districts that would see funding cuts.

"It was a heck of a lot better than what came out of the House," said Rep. Greg Porter of Indianapolis, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Neither Kenley nor Brown would discuss details of possible cuts from the spending plans as they approach the General Assembly's April 29 adjournment deadline.

They both, however, said they didn't expect reductions from the additional $7.5 million a year to the Department of Child Services to add more than 100 child welfare workers. Gov. Mike Pence requested the money last month after the agency was criticized for not meeting the state law on workload standards for case managers.

Meanwhile, a House-Senate conference committee met Wednesday to discuss a bill allowing Indiana's riverboats casinos to build on-land facilities and make tax changes to help the casinos, which have seen big declines in business in recent years as more gambling options have become available in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

The company that owns Indiana's horse track casinos — Hoosier Park in Anderson and Indiana Grand in Shelbyville — objected to the Senate version of the bill that wouldn't allow them to add live dealers for their electronic table games such as blackjack until 2021.

John Keeler, a vice president of Centaur Gaming, said the two casinos could add more than 100 jobs if the House version allowing live dealers this year was approved.

The operators of casinos along the Ohio River in southeastern Indiana, however, worry they would be hurt if lawmakers allow what they call two full-blown casinos in the Indianapolis area.