Monday, April 28, 2003

O'Bannon ready to sign Indiana budget

By Mike Smith
The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS - The General Assembly passed a two-year, $22.7 billion state budget and companion economic-development package early Sunday, sending the proposal to Gov. Frank O'Bannon. He said he intends to sign the bill.

The House voted 61-37 to send the package to the Senate, which voted 34-16 to approve it. Both chambers then adjourned the legislative session three days before the statutory deadline.

The plan would ensure that all the state's 294 public school districts get more money, despite the state's $800 million budget deficit. The increases were made possible in part by freezing funding for prisons and Medicaid over the objections of the governor, who sought more money for both.

The budget included several provisions designed to jump-start the state's lagging economy by creating more jobs and spurring business investment. They included $75 million to foster research and development ventures between business and universities and move their products to market.

O'Bannon and many legislators from both parties sought the economic-development initiatives, so they were rolled into the budget bill in hopes of winning bipartisan support for both. Democrats have a 51-49 advantage in the House, while Republicans control the Senate 32-18.

The bill also would allow casinos to stay open 24 hours a day to bring in more tax revenue for the state and county governments. Under current rules, they can stay open 21 hours a day.

Fiscal leaders had reached a tentative agreement on the big-ticket items Friday night, including funding for schools, universities, Medicaid and state prisons.

But legislators spent all Saturday revising and reviewing details in the spending bill, and partisan differences over various provisions continued into the night. It appeared as if many of the snags had been resolved by 9 p.m., but some lawmakers wanted more time to review the plan.

"We are as close as we're ever going to get," said Sen. Luke Kenley of Noblesville, a top budget negotiator for Senate Republicans. "I believe if we don't get it done tonight, we'll only get farther apart."

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