Indiana lawmakers near finish with budget, gambling votes

INDIANAPOLIS  — Indiana lawmakers approved a wide-ranging gambling bill Wednesday as they also neared a vote on the new state budget ahead of the expected end of this year's legislative session.

House and Senate leaders aim to wrap up the session Wednesday night with votes on numerous bills — most importantly the two-year state budget.

The Republican spending plan announced Tuesday would increase base school funding by 2.5% each of the next two years. But it's facing criticism from Democrats and some education advocacy groups that it won't do enough to boost Indiana's lagging teacher pay.

House members voted 59-36 and senators voted 37-12 in favor hours after negotiators on the gambling bill were able to settle differences over shielding cities that might take tax revenue hits over new casinos that would be allowed in Terre Haute and Gary.

The deal would have the city of Gary make payments to the cities of Hammond, East Chicago and Michigan City from its expected growth in casino taxes and have the Terre Haute casino operator make payments to the city of Evansville over three years.

A proposed $40 million tax credit to the new owner of the current two Gary casinos on Lake Michigan was dropped, but Republican House Majority Leader Matt Lehman of Berne said tax changes could save Spectacle Entertainment a similar amount over five years.

The bill's provisions allow Spectacle to build a new, on-land casino along heavily traveled Interstate 80-94, with it giving up the other license for a to-be-selected operator of the proposed Terre Haute casino.

A Democratic negotiator, Rep. Terri Austin of Anderson, said she supported the tax breaks for Spectacle because the state has never before taken away an operator's casino license.

"The state is going to take one of those licenses back and say 'If you want to move you have to give us your second license,'" Austin said. "They are getting 30 cents on the dollar for what they paid."

Some legislators criticized the deal for lowering a previous version's requirement of a $100 million fee from Spectacle to build the new Gary casino to $20 million and allowing the tax breaks.

"I've never been in a negotiation where we change who pays whom," said Democratic Rep. Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis. "That is a more than 100% shift — in the opposite direction."

If signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb, the bill would also legalize sports betting in the state possibly starting as early as this fall. The horse track casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville will be allowed to have table games with live dealers starting Jan. 1, 2020 — 18 months earlier than allowed under current law.

Republican Rep. Ben Smaltz of Auburn argued against the bill, saying provisions allowing sports wagering by mobile devices opens the state up to future attempts for letting traditional casino games like blackjack move online.

The GOP-dominated Legislature must agree on a new two-year state budget before ending this year's session.

Holcomb and other Republicans had talked of the importance of improving the state's lagging teacher salaries since before the legislative session began in January. But their funding proposals never came close to the 9% increase that education advocacy groupsestimated was needed to boost Indiana's average teacher pay to the midpoint of neighboring states.

Holcomb said the budget plan responsibly directs more money to schools and protects the state's cash reserves of about $2 billion while a teacher pay commission he appointed in February begins its work.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was proud of the budget deal "really focusing on education, beyond what I honestly thought we could stretch ourselves to, while maintaining reserves."

The governor and legislative leaders were joined at Tuesday's budget announcement in the House chamber by officials from six groups representing school boards and school administrators, but no teacher organizations.

Hundreds of teachers attended Statehouse rallies and local demonstrations calling for greater funding increases. The Indiana State Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union, said Tuesday it appreciated the state's best school funding boost in 11 years but will continue to fight for more money.

The education advocacy group Stand for Children Indiana said the proposal represented "incremental progress" for improving teacher pay and hoped that would continue with future state budgets.

"While some progress was made to lift up Hoosier teachers, we all need to recognize we have a long way to go if we want every child to be taught by great educators, who are staying and growing in their respective roles for the long term," the group said.

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