Gov. Mike Pence proposes expanding vouchers and charter schools

Tony Cook and Stephanie Wang
IndyStar.com, 12/4/14

Indiana’s school voucher program is already the broadest in the nation — and now Gov. Mike Pence wants to provide even more money for vouchers.

In announcing his legislative agenda Thursday, Pence said he will ask state lawmakers to lift the cap on the dollar amount for vouchers and raise the cap on the choice scholarship tax credit program. He also proposed adding more funding for public charter schools.

“Together, these actions will make charters more available and more affordable, and make new choices available for many parents and their students,” Pence said.

But the changes could also have a significant impact on the state budget and shift money away from traditional public schools.

“It’s time to start debating the cost of these vouchers,” said Indiana House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. “They want to funnel all the dollars to private institutions. If they’re not going to slit the throats of those in public education, they certainly have the knife held there.”

Pence said the goal is to increase by 100,000 the number of K-12 students in schools with a grade of B or better on the state’s A-F school grading system.

“We do need to increase funding, but we need to do it the right way, the smart way,” he said. “We need to fund excellence.”

Indiana’s voucher program is already the most expansive in the nation, allowing nearly 30,000 students to attend private schools using public money. Unlike programs in many other states, it is not limited to students at failing public schools.

Right now, vouchers for kindergarten through eighth grade are capped at $4,800. Brian Bailey, the governor’s budget director, said lifting that cap would cost about $3.5 million.

The governor also wants to add a grant for charter schools to the state’s education funding formula, though his budget staff said the amount would depend on the state revenue forecast due later this month.

Charter schools, which are privately operated, already receive the same per pupil state funding as public schools, but unlike public schools, they don’t receive additional money for buildings or transportation.

At the losing end of both proposals is the state teachers union, a once-strong force in state politics that has been weakened in recent years by Democrats diminishing influence.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the expansion of charter schools and vouchers “continues to siphon away money from public schools.”

“It’s harming students that need to have schools that are strong in their communities,” she said.

Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated General Assembly were generally supportive of the proposals, but it’s unclear how much money will be available to fund them.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has already proposed more parity in per pupil funding between lower-income urban districts, which receive more, and higher-income suburban districts, which receive less. He also wants to increase the base funding amount that all schools receive.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, the Senate’s chief budget writer, said his support for Pence’s proposals will depend on how much money is available.

“If we don’t have the funds, then whether or not you want to do that is probably a moot question,” he said.

He said the state’s voucher program was once a money saver, since it provides only 50 percent to 90 percent of public per-pupil funding in a student’s district, based on family income.

But changes made since the program was approved in 2011 have allowed students who have never attended public schools to receive vouchers as well.

“It becomes a cost issue,” he said.

About 19,809 students received vouchers in the 2013-14 school year, more than double the previous year’s total. Those vouchers redirected $81 million in state aid from public schools to private schools.

While the program saved the state money in previous years, it cost the state an extra $16 million, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

Chuck Little, an education professor at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association, said he’s not enthusiastic about spending more money on charter schools and vouchers.

“I think that if the expansion of vouchers continues to come at a dollar cost to public schools, particularly financing youngsters who have never been in the public school system, the pool of money for education gets diluted. Less goes to the public schools, and the burdens to deliver become even more challenging,” he said. “It just dilutes the system, pulls away from the common good, and there haven’t been remarkable results.”

But Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said lifting the cap on vouchers would help low-income families better afford private educations.

“That cap is unfair to low-income families, and it’s arbitrary,” he said.

Enlow said the state is also approaching the cap on the choice scholarship tax credit program, where private contributions subsidize choice scholarships. The program is limited to $7.5 million in tax credits, which allows up to $15 million in donations, according to the state Department of Education website.

The governor said Thursday he wants to increase that limit, too.

Ultimately, the General Assembly will have to sign off on Pence’s proposals. The legislative session begins Jan. 6.

Potholes widen as (Indiana) struggles to pay for roads: Needs $7 billion in next 10 years

Maureen Hayden, News and Tribune CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief
12/8/14

INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Meece, a commissioner in rural Parke County, was happy when the Legislature funneled about $100 million extra a year into road funds last year.

The money didn’t go far. His county’s allotment — about $500,000 — mostly bought thousands of gallons of thick oil and crushed stone to fill potholes.

“There’s a lack of understanding of what’s happening out here in the boonies,” said Meece. “We have roads with more patches than blacktop. We have patches on top of patches on top of patches.”

He isn’t the only one waving a warning flag.

Last week, state Transportation Commissioner Karl Browning gave budget-makers some dire news. Without a significant boost in road-repair money, 1 out of every 8 miles of highway will be in critical condition within a decade, costing nearly as much to fix as replace.

Browning estimates he needs more than $3 billion over the next 10 years just to curb existing damage. He’ll need more than $4 billion to bring the aging road system up to standard.

That doesn’t include the price tag to repair local streets — or repair and replace more than 1,500 bridges. Half of the state’s bridges are 50 years or older and soon will approach replacement age of 75.

“We’re not in a crisis yet,” Browning said, “but we’re on the cusp of a major problem.”

Some might see that as understatement. In a state that calls itself the “Crossroads of America,” a shortage of highway money has halted new construction as dwindling resources instead go to maintenance and repair.

That means no money for widening the congested arteries — Interstates 70 and 65 — that cross the state, even though a commission appointed by the governor last year identified those projects as essential.

“Indiana’s economy totally hinges on a good solid road network,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville. “It’s just going to be a question of our willingness to face that issue.”

Legislators have long known they have a funding problem, caused in large part by declining revenues from an 18 cents per gallon gas tax, unraised since 2003, and the 18.4-cent federal gas tax, which has been static for more than 21 years.

Nine years ago, the state gas tax produced more than $624 million a year for state and local highway departments. Last year, it only generated about $500 million. Gas taxes have declined due in large part to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

During the last biennial budget session, in 2013, lawmakers moved to slow the drain. They diverted $135 million in annual fuel taxes that were going to the State Police and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. They also reallocated 1 percent of the current sales tax.

But it wasn’t enough. And the cost of maintaining and fixing roads has skyrocketed, officials say.

That’s especially tough on rural counties. The state uses a general formula to divide road repair money, based on miles of roads in each locale and the number of people who live there. It seems fair but doesn’t quite work.

In picturesque Parke County, home to historic covered bridges and 17,200 people, about 1 million tourists travel the roads each year.

Meece said county officials have had to let go of their promise to repave some of the asphalt roads that were ground into gravel in the past to reduce maintenance costs.

“As long as we’re so dependent on the gas tax, we’re not going to see any more money,” he said. “Just less and less.”

Over the last year, six states have raised gas taxes. Earlier this month, Michigan’s Republican governor called for doubling that state’s gas tax over the next four years to collect $1.7 billion a year in new revenue for infrastructure.

The idea is non-starter in Indiana, where Republicans who control the General Assembly have vowed not to raise taxes.

House Transportation Chairman Ed Soliday, R-Valpraiso, said raising the gas tax would be a temporary fix anyway. New federal fuel efficiency standards, which mandate an average of 55 miles per gallon, will kick in by 2025, resulting in even lower gas tax revenues.

Soliday wants all options explored. He’s awaiting an extensive study, due next summer, of alternative funding. Options may include raising vehicle registration fees, a user tax for owners of hybrid and electric vehicles, or adopting technology to track motorists’ mileage and tax them for how much they travel rather than how much gasoline they buy.

Soliday said Indiana can’t ignore the problem much longer.

“We need to be honest and say to the public, ‘Here are our choices, here’s what it costs,’ he said. “Then someone is going to have to exercise some political courage.”

Voters deserve more: Why Hoosiers should demand an end to gerrymandering

Star Editorial Board Opinion

Ind’pls Star
November 2, 2014

Politics and understatements seldom go together, but here’s one: It’s been a quiet election cycle in Indiana. In part that’s because none of the perceived big races — governor, U.S. Senate, president — are on the ballot this year. An even bigger reason, however, is the fact that the great majority of the contests that voters will decide on Tuesday aren’t truly competitive.

In most years, until recently, at least a couple of congressional seats in Indiana could be expected to flip from Democrats to Republicans, or vice versa. That’s not the case this year. Incumbents are heavily favored in each of the nine U.S. House races.

Don’t expect much change in the Indiana General Assembly either. The biggest Statehouse-related questions most political observers have going into Election Night: Will Republicans maintain a supermajority in the Indiana House? And will Rep. Eric Turner, embroiled this year in an ethics controversy, win re-election despite announcing he will resign after the election, no matter the outcome, to take a job in the private sector?

That’s not exactly scintillating stuff. Which helps explain why Tuesday’s voter turnout is likely to be abysmal.

Unfortunately, it’s also not anything new. In 2010, the last midterm election, only about 40 percent of registered voters in the state cast a ballot. That was six percentage points below the national average and, according to a study called the Indiana Civic Health Index, our state ranked 48th in the nation in voter participation in 2010.

Why is there so little competition in Indiana politics? It’s driven by both gerrymandering and decisions within each major political party not to go all-out in trying to win certain seats., Indiana tends to lean Republican, but the current legislative split between the parties is not a reflection of the true partisan breakdown. Gerrymandering has skewed the results.

Take the 5th Congressional District, for example. It consists of a large chunk of Marion County, Hamilton County, and rural areas and small towns to the north. Susan Brooks, a first-term incumbent, is almost certain to cruise to a second term. She’s proven to be effective and competent, but her easy glide to re-election also is thanks to representing an overwhelmingly Republican district and Democrats’ decision not to mount an aggressive campaign against her. In short, Brooks has a safe seat, and one that she likely can keep until she decides to move on.

That’s not the kind of stuff that inspires strong voter turnout. And it’s a story repeated throughout Indiana in both congressional and state legislative districts.

So is anything likely ever to change? That depends on what voters, and even non-voters, demand from state legislators.

The General Assembly is charged once a decade with drawing new district maps, both for Congress and the Statehouse. As it stands, the party in control of the Indiana House and Senate — in 2011 it was Republicans — gets to draw maps that tend to favor its side. Not surprisingly in 2012, House Republicans emerged from Election Day with commanding margins of victory, and more seats than they had controlled in many years.

But not all states allow those already in power to ensure their own path to future victories by creating safe districts. Iowa, for example, relies on a nonpartisan commission to draw district maps, and it’s achieved two important results: Voter participation is higher than the national average, and more races are truly competitive.

Hoosiers should demand no less in our state. Voters should have the ability to pick their elected representatives, and not the other way around.

Commentary: A day for the disenchanted voter

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com
November 5, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS – The 2014 election has a clear winner.

Anger.

None of the candidates for office at the state or national level elicited much enthusiasm. In fact, the polls tracking public approval ratings for Democrats and Republicans indicate that both parties are just slightly more popular than the common cold. 

The public’s disgust with – and distrust of – politicians, regardless of their political affiliations, rarely has been higher.

In Florida, for example, the two candidates for governor – Republican incumbent Rick Scott and former-Republican-governor-now-Democratic-candidate Charlie Crist – spent more than $100 million on their campaigns, the bulk of it spent on negative advertising bashing each other. The end result was that voters decided they didn’t trust either man and, in a classic case of choosing the lesser of two evils, opted to retain Scott for another four years.

That was a storyline repeated across the country. People didn’t much care for the choices they had when they went to polling places and wanted a way to express their anger, but found there was no easy way to do that.

When the smoke cleared, it appeared Republicans would control both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives with the White House in Democratic hands – making it likely that the federal government would improve upon its already record standards of dysfunction.

And, in the process, increase the levels of frustration and distrust among the electorate.

Closer to home, here in the Hoosier state, it appears that the GOP will hold onto its supermajorities in both the Indiana House of Representatives and the Indiana Senate.

Perhaps the day’s highlight was the apparent election of a man under a huge ethics cloud who didn’t even want the office for which he was running – Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero. Turner has been slapped on the wrist – hard – by the leadership of his own party for being less than forthcoming about his personal financial interests while he lobbied for legislation that would affect those interests within the House Republican caucus.

Thanks in part to some skillful gerrymandering, Turner was able to hold onto his seat despite announcing his intention to resign as soon as the votes were counted. Turner’s maneuver means the citizens of his district will be represented by someone for whom no one other than a handful of precinct leaders has voted.

That sort of cynicism has a cost.

Earlier in the day, I hosted a radio program that dealt with the subject of supermajorities in the Indiana General Assembly.

Once people began calling and writing in to the program, it became clear that their disenchantment went further than mere partisanship.

They were frustrated with what they saw as a government more interested in political game-playing than it was in serving their interests. They were angry about a government that wasn’t responsive to their concerns.

One caller lamented the fact that gerrymandering meant she didn’t even have a choice in regard to who represented her because only one party fielded a candidate. Another caller said he didn’t even know how to connect with legislators because it seemed to him that they only wanted to hear feedback from voters that tracked with lawmakers’ preconceived notions.

And still another listener made the argument that elected officials often seemed to work to thwart her hopes rather than create opportunities to fulfill them.

Nothing that happened Tuesday is likely to erase or even ease those frustrations. The vote in 2014 did little more than set the stage for more bickering, more posturing, more gridlock at the federal level and more strong-arm maneuvering at the state level.

All of this raises an interesting – and troubling – question.

At some point, the campaigning is supposed to end and the governing is supposed to begin.

Now, though, it appears the campaign never will end.

So how are we supposed to govern?

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

End gerrymandering to get Congress moving

Ind’pls Star
October 15, 2013 

The government shutdown is reminiscent of the 1995-96 game of “chicken” between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. That drama was resolved fairly quickly when it became clear the public had no patience for taking the government hostage, but gerrymandering ensures we will not see a quick resolution this time.

There are many reasons for our dysfunctional Congress, but one which is glaringly obvious is the way gerrymandered districts can produce unresponsive legislators unconcerned about working for the greater good. If citizens want to take away the ability of uncompromising extremists to tie our government in knots, we must reform redistricting in a way that encourages districts drawn to enhance competition.

There is plenty of evidence that maps drawn by partisan legislators have helped create the “suicide caucus” that is so intent on scoring political points instead of legislating. An analysis by The National Journal indicates that the number of Republicans elected from competitive districts has declined significantly since 1995, from 79 members then to 17 today. Extremists elected from safe districts not only have nothing to fear from refusing to compromise, they also have political incentive to keep this debacle going.

The way to stop gerrymandering is to shift from partisan state legislators to an independent citizens commission the job of drawing congressional and state legislative maps. Both political parties are guilty of gerrymandering districts to ensure their candidates’ re-election. Creating an independent, citizen-led commission would be a realistic solution to this issue. An Irvine Foundation study of California’s 2011 redistricting process indicates that California has been able to insulate its process from partisan control, with the result that voters and legislators praised the process for its inclusiveness and transparency.

Is there evidence of the impact of gerrymandering on congressional districts here in Indiana? Yes. Under the maps drawn in 2011, only two of nine districts are considered competitive, compared with four competitive ones under the old maps. Of course, Indiana cannot expect incumbent legislators, many of whom represent noncompetitive districts, to lead an effort to end gerrymandering. It will take a massive grass-roots effort to end this incumbent protection scheme.

That’s why Common Cause Indiana and League of Women Voters of Indianapolis have launched “Drawing a Line for Democracy,” a user-friendly resource guide to redistricting reform. We ask all Hoosiers who are fed up with gerrymandering and the dysfunction it encourages to notify Indiana General Assembly members that it is time to end the ultimate conflict of interest — allowing incumbent politicians to choose their voters, instead of the other way around.

Although the next round of redistricting in 2021 may seem distant, a transformed process must start today. The job will require a constitutional amendment, so we face the challenge of a statewide referendum as well. For this effort to succeed, huge numbers of informed voters must demand real reform. If the current circus in D.C. doesn’t motivate us to contact our legislators and insist on a plan for an independent redistricting commission in Indiana, what will?

(Julia Vaughn is policy director for Common Cause Indiana. Becca Beck is president of the Indianapolis League of Women Voters.)

Shutdown…again?

11/23/14 – It was only about one year ago that a 16 day government shutdown ended.  The day following its ending President Obama stated, “…These last few weeks have inflicted completely unnecessary damage on our economy.  We don’t know yet the full scope of the damage, but every analyst out there believes it slowed our growth. We know that families have gone without paychecks or services they depend on.  We know that potential homebuyers have gotten fewer mortgages, and small business loans have been put on hold.  We know that consumers have cut back on spending, and that half of all CEOs say that the shutdown and the threat of shutdown set back their plans to hire over the next six months.  We know that just the threat of default — of America not paying all the bills that we owe on time — increased our borrowing costs, which adds to our deficit…” (more)

On November 14, 2014, several days before Obama announced actions he’s taking regarding immigration, MSNBC.com reported, “…For his part, McConnell said again yesterday that “there is no possibility of a government shutdown,” at least not in this session. Soon after, however, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared that “all options are on the table” when it comes to GOP opposition to the president’s policies. Boehner’s posturing is very likely the result of pressure from his House Republican members, who tend to lead their leaders, rather than the other way around. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) has assembled 59 GOP lawmakers – and counting – who’ve endorsed a letter calling on Congress to “prohibit the use of funds by the administration for the implementation of current or future executive actions that would create additional work permits and green cards outside of the scope prescribed by Congress.” To be sure, 59 is hardly a majority, but the number is growing and Republican fury isn’t subsiding. If GOP lawmakers decide to pursue a shutdown strategy, here’s how it would work: Current federal funding expires on Dec. 11, at which point the government would shut down (again)…”

House Approves Keystone XL Pipeline … Again

November 14, 2014
blogs.rollcall.com

In a bid meant to bolster the campaign of bill sponsor Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is in run-off election for a Louisiana Senate seat, the House voted 252-161 on Friday to once again approve the Keystone XL Pipeline.

It was the ninth time the House has passed a measure authorizing the construction of the pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada to Texas. But this time, with an election far off in the distance, 31 Democrats voted with 221 Republicans in favor of the bill…

… the bill would still need 60-votes in the Democratic Senate before heading to President Barack Obama’s desk — a tall, but perhaps achievable order. There are roughly a dozen Democrats who have voiced support for Keystone in the past…

…The pipeline has been under review for six years, with federal regulators taking in nearly 2 million comments as they drafted environmental impact statements… (more)

The Keystone XL Pipeline: Three Stories to Help You Understand the Debate

November 14, 2014
Time.com

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has become the single most important environmental issue in the U.S.—even though its environmental impact may not even be that great. The pipeline would move some 830,000 barrels of crude a day from the Canadian oil sands in Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska and then down to the Gulf of Mexico. Keystone would make it easier for Canadian producers to sell their landlocked crude to the rest of the world—which is exactly what environmentalists fear. Oil sands crude is dirtier and has a bigger carbon footprint than conventional oil.

Landowners in Nebraska worry that a spill could contaminate the state’s vital aquifer, while environmentalists fear that the pipeline will speed the development of the oil sands and help add huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But other experts argue that oil sands crude will come to the U.S. by another route—most likely through rail—or be sold elsewhere in the world if Keystone isn’t built, meaning the planet won’t be any better off.

Since it’s an international project, the President has to sign off on the Keystone pipeline before it can be built… (more)

Keystone XL Pipeline Facts: Pros and Cons

November 14, 2014
Heavy.com

The Keystone XL Pipeline is a project to extend the existing Keystone pipeline, which carries heavy crude oil from the oil sands of Canada to U.S. refineries. It was approved by the Republican-controlled House on November 14, and will now proceed to the Senate.

The current pipeline reaches to Cushing, Okla., Wood River and Patoka, Ill., and Texas’ Gulf Coast. The proposed Phase IV, Keystone XL, would begin in Alberta and extend to Steele City, Neb., essentially replacing phase I of the existing pipeline with a more direct route.

The project has been politically fraught, with debate over the pipeline now entering its sixth year. The Senate will vote on Tuesday, and from there, if passed, the proposal will go to President Obama for consideration.

He has to date delayed making a call, citing on ongoing State Department review, but it seems likelier in recent days that he may veto the proposal.

Here are the pros and cons to the controversial proposal: (more)