‘Tis the season for Indiana legislators’ spending wish lists


Luke Kenley had yet

to catch the Christmas spirit when he arrived

late at the Statehouse on a recent wintry day.

He’d slid his way to the Capitol on icy roads. His cheeks were like roses, but there wasn’t much twinkle in his eye.

Ahead of him were hours of work, scouring wish lists written by people with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.

“Everybody thinks I’m Santa Claus,” he grumbled.

No wonder. The Noblesville Republican is the

powerful chairman of the state Senate Appropriations Committee and the acknowledged elder on the joint House-Senate budget

committee charged with

figuring out what stockings will be filled in the

coming year.

For some, the most recent state revenue forecast was merry and bright. After grim years of flat or declining revenue, it predicts, state coffers will grow by a few modest percentage points over the next

two years.

That means about $840 million in new money as legislators craft a $30 billion, two-year state budget that takes effect July 1.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, maker of his own wish list, welcomed it as jolly news.

To Kenley fell the duty

of reminding the governor and others that their lists will be checked more

than twice.

One might accuse Kenley of not believing in the magic of the season — except that the uptick in revenue over two years comes partly because of bad news in the short term.

Last week’s report pegs state collections through June at $129 million less than what was forecast two years ago. Some temporary cuts must come.

A few other lumps of coal turned up in the report.

Sales tax revenue will grow at least 4 percent in each of the next two years, forecasters say, but income tax revenue is expected to grow only 1 percent next year and less than 3 percent the following year. That means Hoosiers’ personal incomes — already sluggish — aren’t in for much of a boost.

And the state’s leakiest revenue source just gets worse. Casino taxes, which once brought in almost $1 billion a year, will bottom out at about $300 million by 2017.

Setting all of that aside, the cheeriness of an $840 million gift doesn’t go far when so many ask for more than what they’ve gotten before.

“It’s not such a robust forecast that you can satisfy all comers,” Kenley said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz wants an extra $560 million for the state’s K-12 schools.

Transportation officials whispered in Kenley’s ear that they’ll need billions — not millions — more to

fix crumbling roads and aging bridges.

The state’s courts have asked for a small present:

A modest raise for employees, plus a few million

to pay for the data collection duties that the Legislature imposed on them

last year without any additional dollars.

Democrats, meanwhile, grumble that Kenley is a Scrooge for clinging to his commitment to protect the state’s $2 billion surplus.

Kenley, a Harvard University graduate who came back to Indiana years ago to take over his family’s grocery stores, defends the position by comparing it to the way he’s run his business: Always keep a healthy reserve in case the economy turns bitter and cold.

And, soon, he’ll have to carve off pieces of the Christmas bounty for obligations that can’t be wished away — $90 million in mandatory increases in the state’s college scholarship programs, and at least $100 million in new Medicaid expenses.

In all, the requests submitted to Kenley are almost double the new dollars projected to come.

“You’ve got a lot of people in the pie right now,” said Kenley, who is certain that no one willingly will pull out their thumbs.

This time of year, especially, playing Santa Claus can be a tough business.

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CHNI newspapers. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.