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Indiana lawmakers looking for cheap ways to impress

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In an election year with a big reward—the potential to redraw political maps for the next decade—lawmakers are looking to impress voters.

But don't expect new programs or sweeping plans to jump start the economy during the 2010 legislative session, because Indiana doesn't the cash for that now. And lawmakers know it.

"There'll be a lot of talk, but whether there's any real action will be very, very interesting to see," said Brian Vargus, a political analyst and professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. "They don't have any money to spend. They need to raise revenue, but how do you do that without ticking off your constituents? They're between the proverbial rock and a hard place."

Democrats who control the narrowly divided House and Republicans who have solid control of the Senate both say they'll stay away from expensive items during the short legislative session that begins Tuesday and is expected to end by mid-March.

Legislators are already focusing on issues that won't immediately sock the state with a huge price tag. They've held early committee meetings to discuss changes to lobbying ethics rules that were shot down in previous sessions but seem to have a much better chance of passage this year.

Another proposal would help businesses by delaying an increased unemployment tax that was slated to take effect in January. And lawmakers seem poised to take another step toward a statewide vote on whether to put property tax caps into the state's constitution.

The politically charged session could add some urgency to legislation that has languished in the past, said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

"Just the fact that it's an election year adds to the intensity of the session," Long said. "It may allow certain issues to move that wouldn't have otherwise, such as tax caps."

State law will limit property taxes bills for homeowners to 1 percent of their homes' assessed values in 2010, with 2-percent limits on rental property and 3-percent caps on business property. The caps are estimated to save property owners about $465 million in 2010, but that's money that local governments and schools won't receive.

Committees in both the House and Senate have endorsed a proposal that, if passed during the 2010 session, would allow voters to decide in November whether the caps belong in the constitution.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels said he'll be pushing for the tax caps this session, along with changes to local townships and measures to boost the collection of child support.

"Clearly the Legislature's appetite in any short session is limited, and especially under conditions where there is no extra money," Daniels said. "But we should never take a total holiday out."

Other issues could pop up this session, including political redistricting. Indiana lawmakers are currently required by the state constitution to vote on new maps for legislative and congressional districts following the U.S. Census every 10 years, so the parties in power after the 2010 elections will redraw the maps in 2011.

Some have suggested revamping the way redistricting works to avoid dividing communities, neighborhoods and precincts for partisan reasons. But because it's still unclear how redistricting will work, lawmakers — especially in the competitive House — will be focused on winning the elections and will sort out the rest later, Vargus said.

"Anything they can do to look good to their constituents, that's what they want to do," Vargus said.

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