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STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Tax turmoil isn't likely to uproot many legislators

March 3, 2008

Remember the main reason behind the property-tax-reform drive when we started the session?

If the anti-propertytax rallies across the state last summer and fall made lawmakers uneasy, the Indianapolis mayoral election result was a slap across the face. They were awakened to the reality that, but for a vote on tax reform, that, too, could be them.

The political imperative was overwhelming, as lawmakers feared the worst come primary time. Even if they were to survive an intra-party election, they were more concerned about their fate in a general election, where any given procedural vote or a vote on a larger package containing a single, isolated damaging provision could be distorted by the opposing party.

Because the minority party has less of an incentive to be responsible, House Democrats and Senate Republicans were particularly wary of how their respective votes might be used against them.

Also complicating things was the Feb. 22 statutory filing deadline. Challengers would have to commit before seeing how incumbents voted on the outlines of a final property tax package. Incumbents would have the luxury of learning their opposition before being forced to make the more critical votes of the session.

But a funny thing happened on the way to filing.

Few incumbents face serious primary challengers. Indeed, that the Statehouse is still standing after that huge collective sigh of relief exhaled by incumbent lawmakers is probably a testament to those Purdue engineers of the late 1800s.

Lawmakers managed to escape the filing deadline with a paucity of challengers overall, and an even more minuscule number of contests mounted by potentially serious contenders backed by property tax protest groups and focused single-mindedly on the property tax issue.

The tax protests did not metastasize into a single, potent, statewide force. Nor did they spawn many serious candidates.

The protests, often coordinated by both venerable organizations and more recently formed coalitions, made for great media. They involved people in some impressive protests and intensive grass-roots lobbying, and raised visibility high enough to have been largely responsible for ousting the mayor of Indianapolis.

However, there was a shortcoming. They made no inroads in generating a new cadre of trained, single-message candidates.

About two-thirds of the incumbent members of each Senate caucus and at least three-quarters of the incumbents in each caucus in the House will face no primary challengers.

Of all the Senate challengers, we can discern only a pair emerging from organized anti-property-tax camps-challengers to Sen. Teresa Lubbers, R-Indianapolis, and Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville.

On the House side, Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, saw a well-funded local property tax activist file against him in the primary, but the challenger may be subject to an eligibility challenge.

Beyond the primary, you will have difficulty discerning credible individual candidates who are running in open seats on an anti-property-tax agenda-although we do remain chastened by the memory that no one gave Greg Ballard a chance of winning his Indianapolis mayoral race even as the months wound down.

Before you can tell how effective the overall tax issue will be in terms of recruitment to fill general election vacancies (and there are plenty of them) and as a potent electoral issue, a few more House and Senate votes will have to take place, and a few more months will have to pass.

Those votes could prove important, particularly as lawmakers continue to confront large philosophical divides-including whether caps ought to be constitutional creatures, and whether caps should be income-related or flat-and, no less important, practical realities, such as how to ensure that schools and local governments can continue to provide an adequate and expected level of services.

Nobody said this would be easy, and it hasn't been. Now we head into some 10 days of intense conference committee deliberations, with the real negotiating limited to a few veteran lawmakers. The rank and file will not have significant input, and must eventually make an up or down vote on what may be a complicated two-bill package composed of thousands of dense pages.

There also will undoubtedly be some components quietly tucked into the conference report whose authorship will be disclaimed by participants in the same way that we're left wondering who really hired Kelvin Sampson in Bloomington.

And the governor may not be pleased with everything, including phased-in relief and permanence of caps.

That almost certainly will not be an easy vote, and it will be fraught with partisan consequences. While the end of the filing period may have offered relief for some incumbents, the electoral roller coaster has just cleared the first loop. More peaks and dips lie ahead.



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