Indiana lawmakers give Pence much of what he sought

Indiana lawmakers give Pence much of what he sought

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Republican-dominated Legislature gave GOP Gov. Mike Pence much of what he sought during this year's General Assembly session, leading the governor to declare several triumphs on Thursday.

Legislative leaders were skeptical about several Pence initiatives at times during the four-month session that wrapped up late Wednesday, but largely acquiesced to the governor's requests after his lobbying efforts that included several private meetings with top lawmakers in recent days as final versions of bills were being settled.

Lawmakers approved a new $84 million regional development program Pence proposed and endorsed his call for adding a balanced budget amendment to the state constitution. They were more hesitant in other areas, such as backing only about a quarter of the $80 million in new charter school grants Pence sought and stopping short of allowing the governor's appointees to the State Board of Education to replace Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz as its leader.

Pence praised the state budget plan, which includes a 2.3 percent increase in K-12 funding each of the next two years as well as Pence's request to drop the cap of $4,800 per elementary school pupil enrolled in the state's private school voucher program.

"More resources, more flexibility for our traditional public schools, more resources for public charter schools and more choices for families," Pence said.

Democrats, meanwhile, said the agenda pushed by Republicans did little to help working-class people, while allowing the session to become badly sidetracked with the religious objections law that Pence signed last month amid a national outcry over claims it would sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, faulted Republicans for directing more money to charter schools and the voucher program, while shifting tens of millions of dollars to growing suburban school districts at the expense of those in urban and rural areas with shrinking enrollments.

"To me, it boils down to just a rich get richer, poor get poorer type of scenario," Lanane said. "I think we need to have policies that help all school districts because we're expecting all the school districts to perform and perform well."

Pence called repeatedly for changing a decades-old law that made the state schools superintendent the automatic chairman of the State Board of Education, which is dominated by his appointees.

Democrats and Ritz supporters called it a political power grab to take greater control of state education policy.

Legislative Republicans backed off a plan to make the change this year and on Wednesday approved a proposal that leaves Ritz as the board chairman until after her elected term as head of the Department of Education ends in early 2017. That bill also scales back some of Ritz's authority over the board and moves two of the governor's eight board appointments to legislative leaders.

Pence said he was reviewing the bill and will decide in the coming days whether to sign it into law.

Ritz, who has opposed the school voucher program and other Pence education initiatives, said the governor has done nothing but work to "centralize control of education in one unelected and politically appointed board."

One Pence proposal that gained late traction among legislators was his Regional Cities economic development program. The program was targeted to receive about $20 million in the budget until a late push by Pence led to approval of the full $84 million he requested.

Lanane said the program was never well explained to lawmakers throughout the session and that he still wasn't sure how it would work.

Money for the initiative will come from a new tax amnesty program allowing people and businesses who owe back taxes before January 2013 to pay their state bills without penalties, interest or collection fees.

"It will give it a two-year shot to see if it works," Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said. "We'll have the opportunity to talk about permanent funding in the future."

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