House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, unveiled a Republican agenda Wednesday that includes a state-funded preschool pilot program. (Photo by Allie Nash, TheStatehouseFile.com)
By Halie Solea and Erika Brock
Republicans who control the Indiana House said Wednesday they'll push to let counties cut a tax on business property and work to send more poor kids to preschool.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, presented an agenda focusing on workforce development - which also included a new focus on college internships, increased funding for roads and highways and the repeal of "burdensome regulations."
The preschool and tax plan dovetail with Gov. Mike Pence's agenda for the 2014 session - which started this week - but the Republicans have a different twist on both ideas.
While the governor wants a preschool program for all low-income students, Republicans will focus on what they call a "pilot," initially helping about 1,000 children.
Indiana is currently one of 10 states that does not offer state-funded preschool programs and 60 percent of Indiana children aged 3 and 4 are not enrolled in preschool, he said. Republicans plan to accomplish their goal by linking preschool recipients to the K-12 voucher program.
"We had an aggressive program last year, which would have created a pilot program for about 1,000 preschool kids, low-income, high-quality programs around the state and while we had a little success and are working something into the budget that was a scaled down version of that program, we're coming back with our full-pilot program," Bosma said. "It's our hope that we can enact legislation this year that will be funded in next year's budget preparing 1,000 children for early learning opportunities."
Bosma didn't offer many details about the preschool program or say how much it would cost. He said Republicans are still working on the specifics of how to pay for it.
In addition to the preschool program, House Republicans intend to address student training and internship programs in try to close the skill gap between generations. Bosma said Republicans want to create a tax incentive to encourage schools to place significance on internship opportunities for students.
"Work ethic is really wanting in many folks, not in our workforce today or entering the workforce," Bosma said. That and other basic skills can be "very difficult to train."
"Plenty of employers told me that if we can get these young people in training opportunities, we can help them with these issues," he said.
Bosma said House Republicans also want to boost highway funding by using part of the $400 million that was set aside for future projects in the two-year budget passed in 2013. Pence has proposed something similar and Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, is skeptical.
"We put in last session that we would not spend the $400 million in this budget cycle because we had already given an extra $100 million to local governments and given INDOT an extra $250 million and we thought we would want to save it for special big projects," Kenley said. "We'll need to look over the proposal and if it makes sense."
House Republicans also plan to eliminate or phase out the business personal property tax on new equipment. Bosma said that the tax is a "disincentive" for business owners looking to buy property in Indiana as surrounding states either do not have such a tax or have one that is much lower.
Eliminating the tax "will give local counties the option to give what they know the community needs," Bosma said. He said the feedback he has received thus far has been consistently positive and anticipates further positive response.
Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said later that while he supports the goals of the House Republicans' agenda, he would have liked to have heard more details about the proposals.
And he said a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman is the "white elephant in the room." He said Republicans are trying to avoid controversy by keeping off their agenda. A few years ago, House Republicans had said the marriage amendment was one of the most important issues facing the state.
"It looks like an agenda to get out of the session as quickly as possible with the least damage," Pelath said.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence said he was pleased with what he heard.
"I commend House leadership for producing an agenda that builds on the progress our state has made in education, infrastructure and economic development," Pence said. "As this legislative session begins, every Hoosier should be encouraged by the shared priorities of this administration and both houses of the General Assembly."
Halie Solea and Erika Brock are reporters for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.
Readers will remember that, among other activities this session, leaders: chose marriage definition as an issue of prime importance; determined that pre-K education was important enough to fund a limited pilot program; dipped into their rainy day transportation fund to try to catch up with back-logged transportation infrastructure projects; and, finally, gave Central Indiana residents the right to vote on funding mass transit improvements - as long as they don't involve light rail.