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Compromise bill allows state to spend $200M on interstates

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will have the opportunity to sign a bill that fulfills a key part of his legislative agenda after the House and Senate passed road funding legislation on Thursday.

The compromise bill allows Pence’s administration to spend $200 million on new highway projects starting July 1.

Then it puts the bipartisan State Budget Committee – which includes four lawmakers and the governor’s budget director – in charge of deciding when or even whether to transfer another $200 million from the state’s main checking account to the highway fund.

The bill’s author, Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said the money would be used for highway projects on the state’s priority list.

“There are projects all over the state,” Soliday said. “And these projects will stretch over far more than just two years by the time we’re doing them.”

Last year, lawmakers scheduled the $400 million to go into the Major Moves 2020 fund and the cash was intended for the widening of Interstates 69, 65 and 70 and the extension of I-69 in southern Indiana. Those were projects Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, had said the state needed to save up to afford.

But Pence had requested that the legislature allow him to spend all $400 million on projects now. The House said yes but the Senate balked, initially approving a version of House Bill 1002 that halved the amount.

In negotiations this week, the Senate relented – but only as long as the State Budget Committee retained some control over the cash. That means the members could opt not to transfer the money if the state’s tax receipts continue to fall below projections. The decision to approve or deny the transfer of the remaining $200 million is expected to be made after the release of the 2016-2017 state budget report.

The House passed the compromise bill 95-4, even as a number of lawmakers – including Democrats – complained that the legislation doesn’t include any money for local roads. As the legislation originally passed the House, it allocated $25 million to grants for local projects. But senators insisted that all the money be used for state highways.

“We call this Major Moves but it’s a major flop for our local governments,” said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis. “They don’t get any money.”

Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, said local governments are struggling under the weight of road problems and revenue reductions.

“Surely we can find it in our heart and our head and our pocketbook to find some money to help local government,” she said.

But Senate leaders just wouldn’t sign on to a deal that included money for local roads, Soliday said.

“I hear what you’re saying and I care about locals,” Soliday told his colleagues. “But we got the deal we could get.”

The compromised bill passed the Senate 43-5 after a debate that also included complaints about the lack of money for local roads.

“One thing I’ve learned here is that we don’t fix things that we break,” said Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take to make that final decision that we need to invest more in our local governments.”

House Bill 1004 now moves to the governor’s office for final consideration.

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