News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 27, 2011

Hoosiers get back to work — except for House Dems

INDIANAPOLIS — Here’s a bit of good news out of the Indiana Statehouse this week: Indiana’s unemployment rate dropped below 9 percent last month.

At 8.8 percent, it’s still worrisome. But it’s also some reason for cautious optimism because it marks the first time since December 2008 that the state’s unemployment rate has fallen below 9 percent. And it puts us in a little better position than the rest of the nation, with its unemployment rate of 8.9 percent.

The Indiana Department of Workforce Development, which released the February numbers (the most recent available) accompanied the announcement with a little more good news: The number of Indiana residents claiming state unemployment insurance benefits is less than half it was two years ago.

Getting Hoosiers back to work is important for all sorts of reasons. One of them is the impact that jobs have on the state budget. More people working means more income taxes paid into the state treasury. And more people working translates into higher sales tax revenues, too. There’s nothing like a steady job to make you feel more secure about spending money on taxable consumable items.

So that’s good news for Indiana’s budget-makers laboring to find a way to make up for income- and sales-tax revenues lost by two years of an economic recession.

Of course, “getting back to work” has been a theme in the Indiana Statehouse for more than a month now. When 39 of the 40 House Democrats walked out Feb. 22, they robbed their Republican counterparts of the constitutionally mandated quorum needed to do business in the House.

Who knows when they’re coming back?

Some of the most experienced Statehouse speculators have stopped speculating on that question.

While the House Democrats have thrown a wrench into the legislative machinery, they haven’t stopped all work there.

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee took up the hard work of balancing a budget drained by that decline in revenues I mentioned earlier.

A glimpse of the difficulty of that task came Thursday, when committee members continued what’s been an ongoing conversation in the Statehouse about how to keep promises that past lawmakers have made to children.

Specifically, the 21st Century Scholars program that was launched in 1990. That’s the program that promised full-ride scholarships to needy kids who promise to study hard and stay out of trouble.

Enrollment in the program has escalated. Just to keep the promises made to all the kids who’ve enrolled, the state would need to double the current funding by next year and triple it by 2017.

But there’s not enough money to do that and keep all the other promises that were made, in various forms, to other students in need.

Part of the challenge in keeping the promise to the 21st Century Scholars is how the promise was made. Kids from low-income families enroll in the program when they’re in middle school. They have to provide information on their family’s income when they sign up, but not when they take the money to go off to college.

What Senate committee members heard Thursday was that almost 30 percent of the kids enrolled in the program and who are now in college no longer fit into that low-income category. In the years since they signed up, their family incomes have gone up.

But since the promise was made in the way it was made, those students are still entitled to the scholarships. There are ways to fix the program, but it takes a change in the law and some hard work and hard decisions to get it done.

And none of those decisions can be put into place until House Democrats return to their work in the Statehouse.

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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