04/26/11 As we enter the final week of the 2011 session of the Indiana General Assembly, attention turns to one of the most important and misunderstood parts of the legislative process: conference committees.
In a normal year, conference committees are designed to reach agreement on divisive legislation in a session’s final days. Made up of two state representatives and two state senators, a committee meets to settle differences on a particular bill.
Sometimes conferees agree quickly, then sign a committee report that must be approved by both the House and Senate before going to the governor. Sometimes they do not agree, and the end result of those negotiations often lead to passage of legislation that ends up delighting or infuriating people in equal numbers.
Conference committees usually are most effective and entertaining when a Legislature is under two-party control. Since this Legislature is under single-party control, I suspect there will be few bills assigned to their care and very little trouble reaching agreement on the bills that do make it there.
In fact, there is a very strong indication that most of the negotiating on this session’s major legislation – such as a new biennial state budget and new maps outlining districts for our congressional delegation and the Indiana House and Senate – will be wrapped up without even going to conference committee.
If there has been any debate on the new budget, it has centered around the governor’s recent announcement that improved budget numbers will enable him to provide $150 million in additional funding for schools.
This decision has been greeted with praise, particularly the news that about 25 percent of that funding – around $37.5 million – will be used for full-day kindergarten.
By and large, this is good news. Full-day kindergarten should have been a reality in this state a long time ago, and as each day brings more news of layoffs and program cuts to our schools, every new dollar can help.
But, as is always the case with this governor, the numbers do not stand up under close examination.
You’ll notice I didn’t say this new support fully funds full-day kindergarten. That’s because it doesn’t. The state never has fully funded full-day kindergarten. It only provides about 20 percent of the per student cost. It’s up to the school corporation to make up the rest.
The only way that many school corporations can pay their share of the costs is by either cutting funding for other programs or raising local property taxes. It’s a difficult choice, and many schools simply cannot afford to expand kindergarten to a full day.
This is the case with the additional $37.5 million the governor is providing. Since many schools cannot afford to provide their share of the costs, those schools will not choose to take part. The only schools that can easily participate will be charters.
Part of the reason why schools cannot afford it is that they are still coming to grips with the loss of $300 million in state support in each of the last two years. Those cuts were ordered by this same governor.
When you take the funding for full-day kindergarten and a second proposal from the governor to provide merit pay for teachers out of that $150 million, about $100 million is left to provide additional state support for the day-to-day operations of our public schools.
That helps, but an extra $100 million isn’t going to make up for the increased class sizes, lost instruction time and reduced access to materials and programs that resulted from the governor’s $600 million in cuts these past two years.
And please remember that our local schools still are looking to lose even more funding the next two years, thanks to the governor’s plans to expand charter schools and pay for a voucher plan that will enable a select few students to attend private schools on the taxpayers’ dime.
We shall see just how much this grand announcement translates into reality in the weeks and months ahead.
For now, we are focused on our deadline to get our work done. April 29 is just a week away, and there is no reason why we cannot get everything done by then.
Next week, we’ll start to look at the quality of that work.
Here are the best ways to stay in touch during this session’s final days:
Call the toll-free Statehouse telephone number of 1-800-382-9842;
Write to me in care of the Indiana House of Representatives, 200 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, IN 46204; or
E-mail me at H17@in.gov.