Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Don’t let politics thwart tax debate

August 10, 2013

Hoosiers love our low taxes. But there are times when that reality—which politicians play to the hilt—gets in the way of good public policy.

We hope that doesn’t become the case this fall, as Indianapolis tries to get its arms around its serious public safety problems. It’s difficult for the city to respond to concerns about the recent murder spree when spending is so tightly restricted by property tax caps—constitutionally mandated ones at that.

But there is an escape valve of sorts that city leaders should consider using judiciously: raising the local option income tax for public safety. Boosting it from the current 0.35 percent to the allowable maximum of 0.5 percent would raise about $25 million.

Raising taxes always should receive close scrutiny, and urban areas can accelerate their declines if they raise taxes so much that they become uncompetitive compared with suburban neighbors. But an increase this modest would not send Indianapolis over the precipice.

The consequences of doing nothing could be much more dire. The worst fallout from violence is the lives lost and families destroyed. But the drumbeat of negative headlines also, little by little, chips away at the city’s reputation as a safe place in which to live and do business. If the city can’t get its crime problems under control, much of the progress here that began under Mayor Richard Lugar and continued under Bill Hudnut, Steve Goldsmith, Bart Peterson and Greg Ballard could be lost.

Some of the recent comments by Prosecutor Terry Curry, who is on the front lines of the public-safety battle, should give us all pause. At a recent public hearing, he said bluntly, “The police department is woefully understaffed.”

Ryan Vaughn, Ballard’s chief of staff, told IBJ’s Kathleen McLaughlin for a front page story last week that a tax hike isn’t off the table—a surprising statement, perhaps, given that Ballard harnessed outrage over rising taxes to win the Mayor’s Office six years ago.

We were heartened by the stance—it showed the mayor was willing to consider the bigger picture. As Vaughn told McLaughlin, “It’s an ongoing conversation. We’re very sensitive to remaining competitive with surrounding counties.”

But whenever talk of increasing taxes surfaces, political gamesmanship kicks into high gear. Republican City-County Council member Aaron Freeman said in last week’s story that any tax increase put forward by Republicans would become an election issue in 2015. “I’m unwilling to give them that issue, period,” he said.

Let’s hope less parochial thinking prevails. Securing a bright future for the city may hinge on it.•

Send comments on this editorial to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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