By Megan Banta
Legislative leaders say they're closing in on deals to cut taxes, boost school spending and expand the state's private school voucher program just days before the General Assembly is to adjourn for the year.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said lawmakers want to include the "largest single tax cut in state history" in the two-year, $30 billion budget.
Bosma wouldn't release details of the tax cut plan but he said the savings for taxpayers – and therefore the reduction in state revenues – would be about $1.1 billion over the next two years.
Those cuts will "touch every Hoosier, every Hoosier family, every Hoosier business, every Hoosier taxpayer," he said.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence has proposed a 10 percent income tax cut that would reduce tax collections by $525 million
annually, but lawmakers are more interested in eliminating the inheritance tax. The final budget is expected to include a mix of cuts – although the number will include a corporate tax phase-down already in law.
"There's a budget out there that a lot of people are comfortable with, but we're still talking about what final tweaks we can put into it," said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne.
Lawmakers were also working on final deals to expand Indiana's private school voucher program, pause the Common Core school standards program, bolster the state's gambling industry, and help the Indianapolis Motor Speedway pay for $100 million in improvements.
Legislative leaders said they were looking to Friday for adjournment, although state law doesn't require it until Monday.
Long said leaders hope to finalize their budget deal and release the details on Thursday ahead of a Friday vote. The final plan is expected to increase funding for public schools, universities and roads – in addition to cutting taxes.
House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said the tax discussion is taking place among Pence, Long and Bosma, rather than the legislative budget writers.
"It won't be decided just by the two chairmen of the committees," Brown said. "It'll be a leadership decision."
Meanwhile, House Education Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he's reached an agreement with his Senate counterpart on vouchers but the deal had to go their respective caucuses for approval.
This proposal includes language allowing for students to enter directly into the voucher program without going to public school for one year – but only in cases where the student would be going to a D or F rated public school.
It also raises the maximum voucher amount for elementary students to $4,700 in the first year and $4,800 in the second. That's a response to leaders from private schools saying they would be able to accept more students and expand their schools if the amount they receive for each state voucher student went up.
"Once both caucuses approve it, we'll get it put together and make it available to the minority caucuses and then they can see what they want to do," said Behning, the original author of the bill.
He said he would like for legislators to vote on the final bill on Thursday. And Kruse said if the bill does not come to a vote soon, it could fail.
But Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, a former state education official, disagreed.
"No way it fails," Huston said.
At the same time, another group of lawmakers were working toward a compromise on a bill to help the state's gambling industry deal with out-of-state competition.
The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Bill Davis, R-Portland, called the legislation "a work in progress."
Senators are still pushing to authorize live dealers at horse track casinos that now have only electronic poker, roulette and other games. But he said the House won't sign off on that deal.
However, lawmakers are likely to let riverboat casinos rebuild on land – as long as they stay on the same property as their other amenities.
"We're going to continue to work for a solution to help the gaming industry," Davis said.
Lawmakers have agreed to provide tax breaks to casinos for so-called promotional play, which are coupons that let customers gamble for free. Davis said lawmakers are still working on the amount of that tax break.
Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, said lawmakers are finalizing a deal to provide the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with $100 million for improvements – but none of the money will come from gambling revenues..
The money will be used to make the grandstands more handicap accessible and to add lights so that there can be night races. The House added a provision into the bill that loans the Speedway $5 million every year, but requires the owners to increase revenue enough to pay the state back each year.
The Speedway must also put $2 million of its own money each year to pay for the state bond.
"They have to pay it back and they have to pay it back on their own efforts," Young said.
Besides technical issues that make the bond secure and make the improvements property taxable, Young said the bill is ready to be passed.
"It's good to go," Young said. "Gentlemen, start your engines."
Reporters Tim Grimes and Lesley Weidenbener contributed to this story. Megan Banta is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.