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STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Legislators want tough reforms, but not too tough

February 11, 2008

The next two weeks should be interesting ones in the General Assembly, but not for the reason you might expect.

Now that bills have cleared their chambers of origin and moved across the Rotunda for consideration, there is a natural lull of sorts as lobbyists breathe a collective sigh of relief and gird themselves to battle with a different set of lawmakers.

You saw this in recent days, as committee action again took center stage, and action on the floor was largely ceremonial.

With property tax relief and reform uppermost in the minds of legislators, the electorate, and Gov. Mitch Daniels, it may be surprising that about the only substantive action on the issue was a lengthy informational Senate hearing on HB 1001, the 900-odd-page House-branded version of the governor's tax relief package.

That hearing offered little edification, failing to serve up any new information, data, or details on impact.

Don't expect a great deal of action on the property tax issue until Feb. 19, either. The Tax & Fiscal Policy Committee, chaired by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, will let the dust settle, allow staff to pick through some problematic amendments hastily attached in a late night of House action, and allow colleagues to assess how the changes will affect their communities.

Then you can look for senators to excise the House-inserted increase in the state earned income tax credit; try to better aid renters; and return requirements for referenda on all local building projects.

Over the next several days, attention will be devoted to legislation largely overlooked by the public to date. While all Hoosier eyes were on property tax issues, the House managed to pass 114 bills, and the Senate contributed even more, with 154.

So with fewer than 5 percent of the bills still alive dealing directly with property tax matters, lawmakers can now turn to items such as annexation bans, cooling-off periods for those arrested for domestic battery, courthouse preservation, restrictions on phosphates in detergents, and allowing pull-tabs and other paper games in bars and taverns.

Looming over all these items, however, will be the specter of property tax reform.

One would naturally assume lawmakers are sitting in the catbird seat, given they are the ones shaping the final legislation. But many are doing so with an eye on who may be filing by Feb. 22 to oppose them in the May primary. And they also realize that if they are too harsh on their local schools and governments in drafting a relief plan, they may face the wrath of voters who will blame them in May and November for teacher, police and fire cuts; closed parks; and unpaved local roads.

If legislators fail to act boldly enough, they risk a veto from Daniels, who suggests that the project referenda requirements watered down in the House may not be acceptable. The governor has every reason to stand fast, given the strong public acceptance of his program.

Local governments and school districts are the loudest elements right now, pushing back against what they perceive as crippling, untenable cuts.

Business and agricultural interests are well-represented in front of the Legislature, and lawmakers are acutely aware of how the reform proposals have largely left these two constituencies behind thus far. But there appears to be little legislative sympathy after assorted tax cuts in recent years have favored business, and any fears lawmakers might have that business will come to bear against them at election time are outweighed by their desire to appease homeowners.

That leaves voters. By and large throughout the state, where voters were angry and motivated before, they remain so. And where they may have been apathetic (such as in Hamilton County), the greater concern has been over the alternative.

So watch now for just how much resolve the assorted players carry into the next round of shaping the package. That may portend more for who emerges on top at the end than anything else.



Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached by e-mail at edf@ingrouponline.com.
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