INDIANAPOLIS – Thousands of teachers didn’t fill the Statehouse hallways Monday, as they did when the legislature held its organizational meeting in November. But the issues they raised then remain the key topics as the Indiana General Assembly kicked off its legislative session.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, made it clear Monday that teachers are going to get some of what they have demanded. That includes legislation to not punish schools for the low scores on the new ILEARN standardized tests and to no longer mandate that teacher evaluations are tied to such tests.
But it doesn’t include doing more than talk about raising teacher pay. Indiana teachers have seen their pay languish compared to other states. Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Republican majorities in the legislature have balked at opening the two-year budget passed last year to address that, and also are reluctant to commit to an ongoing increase in state funding that a pay hike would entail Besides, they’ve argued, pay should be decided at the local level.
Holcomb, however, touched off a flurry of speculation Monday when asked by a reporter if the state revenue forecast, which in December predicted that state would bring in $260 million more than anticipated, could allow for something to be done this year on teacher pay.
“Stay tuned,” Holcomb said. “You’ll hear from me (next Tuesday) at the State of the State address. The answer’s yes.”
Bosma said that after reporters tweeted on social media about the governor’s cryptic remark, he, Speaker-elect Todd Huston, R-Fishers; and House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville “ran right down to the governor’s office just to be sure that we were all on the same page.”
Bosma said Holcomb “is looking for all options to address the teacher salary issue” but added: “I don’t think it’s going to impact the current budget cycle… He’s talking about the future.”
Democrats continued to press Monday for more to be done sooner, both in floor speeches and news releases.
House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, applauded the moves to not count the poor ILEARN scores against school districts and to decouple teacher pay from standardized tests.
But, he said in a statement, “this is a short-term fix to a long-term problem in our state. We’ve spent $133 million on standardized tests in the past two years and do not have much to show for it.”
Indiana has gone through several iterations of standardized testing in recent years, changing when it is given and what is tested, adding to teacher frustrations.
Eliminating them, though, appears a non-starter.
“I’m a big believer in standardized testing,” Bosma told reporters jammed into his office to hear the speaker outline his caucus’s priorities. “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.”
Among the issues both Republicans and Democrats want to address in this short session, which ends in mid-March, is health care costs.
Bosma said House Republicans will advance legislation to prohibit health care providers from charging the higher out-of-network rates at facilities that are in a patient’s insurance network, a step meant to end so-called “surprise billing. They also have filed a bill to allow Hoosiers to get a timely cost estimate for non-emergency procedures and require hospitals to post their prices online.
Again, though, Democrats argued that Republicans aren’t going far enough.
“Prioritizing the transparency of health care costs without also fighting to lower those costs does little to help sick Hoosiers who are fighting bankruptcy due to unaffordable medicine, whether they know the cost up front or not,” Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said in a statement.
Both the Senate and House also plan to pursue bills to follow the federal governments’ lead in raising the minimum age to smoke or vape to 21.
One thing on the governor’s agenda that is not, at least so far, among the GOP legislative priorities: Requiring motorists to only use their cell phones if they can do so hands-free.
Bosma said Republican lawmakers are split on the issue.
“There are a lot of libertarians in our caucus who don’t think this is a decision for government to make,” he said. “We have some folks who are more safety-minded who think this is absolutely the right decision for government to make.”
Asked where he fell on the issue, Bosma said he is “not convinced yet in either direction. I’m a swing vote.”