By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
With an additional $1.5 billion to work with in the final days of the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers negotiated the state’s next two-year budget as the Indiana Catholic Conference and numerous allies continued to advocate key priorities.
The State Budget Agency released its updated revenue forecast 10 days before the General Assembly’s official April 29 closing date, prompting legislators and advocates alike to envision the possibilities for the extra funds in the state’s more-than $43 billion projected budget.
For the ICC, which has had a steady presence at the Statehouse throughout the legislative session, the budget wish list includes expanding school choice to nearly all families; bolstering conservation efforts; and assisting economically vulnerable Hoosiers. The ICC also shares what many lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly have considered their top priority: Senate Bill 1, which would transform emergency response procedures for people experiencing a mental-health crisis.
“One of the first things we want lawmakers to do is fully fund Senate Bill 1,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “This means putting an adequate infrastructure around dealing with mental-health crises – from having the appropriate people who are trained to respond to these situations, to having appropriate places to take those who are in severe distress and in need of help. They are deserving of dignity and the right kind of care, but too often they end up in our county jails instead of places equipped to treat them properly.”
Backed by Gov. Eric Holcomb and a growing coalition of Hoosiers, Senate Bill 1 would boost local implementation of the 988 national suicide and crisis hotline launched last year and continue building an infrastructure to provide for the mental health needs of people in the most urgent situations. The legislation would establish mobile crisis-intervention teams that are trained to respond to mental-health emergencies across Indiana’s 92 counties and fund additional community-based mental-health clinics statewide.
Espada pointed to studies showing that Indiana would need upwards of $130 million to effectively implement Senate Bill 1. However, only $35 million had been allocated for the initiative before the final budget negotiations.
“If you’ve got an additional $1.5 billion now, maybe you should think about fully funding the $130 million for this critical effort that can save and improve lives,” Espada said.
Another key priority for the ICC and its allies is expanding school choice to as many families as possible across Indiana. While the Indiana House of Representatives included a robust plan for doing so in its budget proposal, the Senate stripped all school-choice-related measures in its version of the budget, leaving the path uncertain as final negotiations were underway this week.
The Senate’s actions “lit a fire” among advocates for school choice, according to John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, which represents the state’s more-than 400 non-public schools – including Indiana’s 175 Catholic schools. He pointed to rallies held across the state, and the active engagement of school administrators and families in contacting Senate lawmakers to have their voices heard.
“There are a number of states that, within the last couple of years, have passed universal-choice legislation,” Elcesser said. “Indiana historically has been a leader in school choice, but the Senate’s version of the budget certainly didn’t reflect continuing in that kind of leadership mode from a national perspective.
“With the state’s revenue projections $1.5 billion over what was anticipated, we’re hoping that will propel some compromise on the budget that reflects the strong support for school choice in Indiana.”
Espada shared that hope.
“It’s important for all families to be able to decide what school is best for their child,” said Espada, who points out that her daughter thrived at both private and public schools. “Finances shouldn’t stand in the way of families seeking what they feel is going to be the best educational environment for their child and his or her unique circumstances.”
As this year’s legislative session neared the finish line, the ICC continued advocating for other key priorities, including funding for conservation efforts. In his State of the State address earlier this year, Gov. Holcomb called for $25 million to build on Indiana’s growing conservation initiatives with partners like The Nature Conservancy, “so that even more Hoosiers and our guests can enjoy Indiana’s great outdoors.”
But going into the week, there was no budget allocation for that – nor for expanding Indiana’s trail system, which the governor had also proposed.
“There are both human and environmental benefits to the common good in supporting these efforts,” said Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC. “This is not an extraordinary amount of funding for something that can have such a huge impact. From 2019 to 2020, trail usage in Indiana’s state parks increased by 92 percent, so there clearly is demand.”
During this legislative session, the ICC had also supported a measure that would offer greater tax relief for low-to-moderate-income Hoosiers. House Bill 1290 proposed a number of changes to Indiana’s Earned Income Tax Credit, including better aligning the state tax credit with the federal credit; eliminating the current marriage penalty; and extending credits for larger families, including those with foster children.
The bill, which the ICC considered a strong pro-family policy, passed the House unanimously but stalled in the Senate. Espada said she would like to see the issue revisited in the final days of the session.
“The Earned Income Tax Credit is something that would benefit so many people in our state,” Espada said. “Every little bit helps, especially during a time when there has been record inflation. We hope that lawmakers will look at this and decide that they should give this additional relief to Hoosiers.”
To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to ICAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for ICAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.