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Indiana House backs GOP state budget plan, defies Pence on live dealers at horse track casinos

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INDIANAPOLIS — A state budget proposal boosting school funding by 2.3 percent for two consecutive years passed the Indiana House on Tuesday despite objections from Democrats that the plan shortchanges many urban and rural school districts.

The Republican-controlled House also may have defied GOP Gov. Mike Pence's undefined wishes by endorsing legislation that would allow live dealers for table games at the state's two horse-track casinos as part of a bill permitting Indiana's riverboat casinos to move onto land.

The actions, along with Senate approving a proposal aimed at granting protections for religious objections, came as lawmakers faced a Wednesday deadline for advancing bills to the other chamber.

House members voted 69-29 mostly along party lines to endorse the two-year $31 billion spending plan, sending it to the Senate for debate.

Under the plan, school districts that are losing students will see less money, while some affluent suburban districts would see increases of 10 percent or more. Republican leaders say their plan is based on money following student enrollment instead of funding districts based on previous years.

Rep. Greg Porter of Indianapolis, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said estimates show 139 of the state's nearly 300 school districts will see funding drops in the first year of the House plan — a list he says includes districts in Indianapolis and Gary, along with many rural areas.

Rep. Lloyd Arnold, R-Huntingburg, said he thinks it's important to fix the current inequity of some districts receiving $2,000 or more in additional per-student support than others.

"I would say it needs to be fair for all of us across the state, because all the kids are equally important," Arnold said, acknowledging that many school corporations in his rural southern Indiana district would see less money.

The Republican plan doesn't recognize the struggles that many of the state's poorest districts face in making what could be millions of dollars in spending cuts, said Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis.

"Many districts have buildings that are not full but still cost the same to heat," he said. "This is a big problem in rural areas. It's a big problem in the urban areas."

Meanwhile, the casino bill could receive a vote Wednesday on the House floor after members decided 76-22 to keep alive provisions permitting the state's two horse track casinos — Hoosier Park in Anderson and Indiana Grand in Shelbyville — to have live dealers for table games that are now run by computers.

Supporters say that is a key part of the overall bill aimed at helping Indiana's casinos as they've seen big drops in revenue with growing competition from neighboring states.

Pence hasn't publicly detailed what steps would violate his stance against an expansion of gambling in the state, but Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said the governor has expressed opposition to live dealers.

"I've made it clear to members that he's been pretty clear about that," Bosma said.

Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks said the governor would decide about whether to sign any casino legislation after he sees a final version of the bill.

House members did change the measure, putting off proposed casino tax changes that could've cost local governments millions of dollars in revenues in favor of a special committee studying those issues before next year's legislative session.

State senators voted 40-10 along party lines in favor of proposal that supporters say would allow those with religious objections to refuse services for same-sex weddings, which federal courts legalized in Indiana last year.

The bill would prohibit any state laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. Some business leaders have argued that the proposal could hurt the state's reputation.

Freedom Indiana, the coalition that led last year's successful campaign against legislation to add a gay marriage ban to the state constitution, started an effort this week to oppose the bill.

"Discrimination is not a core Hoosier value, and the people who will be affected by this legislation are ready to take action to make sure their voices are heard," campaign manager Katie Blair said in a statement. "We look forward to an engaging, informative debate in the Indiana House."

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