Indiana lawmakers continued negotiations Wednesday on final versions of a wide-ranging gambling bill and a proposal to start taxing the liquids used in electronic cigarettes as they near 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 a new 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.

Lawmakers attend the final scheduled day of the legislative session at Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (Robert Scheer/The Indianapolis Star via AP)
Lawmakers attend the final scheduled day of the legislative session at Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (Robert Scheer/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

Republican House Majority Leader Matt Lehman said gambling bill negotiators were trying to settle differences over shielding cities that might take tax revenue hits over new casinos that would be allowed in Terre Haute and Gary. Talks also continued over a proposed $40 million tax credit to Spectacle Entertainment, the company buying the two Majestic Star Casino boats on Lake Michigan in Gary.

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.

“We’re trying to thread that needle of trying to make everybody get to a point where we have a workable bill,” Lehman said.

Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, left, and Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, talk during the final scheduled day of the legislative session at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (Robert Scheer/The Indianapolis Star via AP)
Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, left, and Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, talk during the final scheduled day of the legislative session at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (Robert Scheer/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

The bill would also legalize sports betting in the state, allowing it to start as early as this fall.

Also unsettled was whether to impose a state excise tax on vaping liquids similar to that charged for cigarettes. The House has backed doing so, but the Senate has resisted the proposal amid questions about the tax level and whether to charge it to buyers at retail stores or on manufacturers.

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

Gov. Eric 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 groups estimated 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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