Small biz preparing wish list: Lobbyists hope to repeat past legislative success

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But that doesn’t mean the organization and its 16,000 Hoosier members will rest on their laurels for the short legislative session in 2006. The group will bring a full wish list to the Statehouse in January, lobbying against increased property taxes and health insurance mandates. It’ll also petition lawmakers to restrict eminent domain seizures.

Still, observers don’t think the organization will have as much cause for uncorking the bubbly as it did last year.

No different than last session, businessfriendly politicians can be found in every corner of the Capitol. Not only do Republicans control the governor’s office, they also have a 33-17 advantage in the Senate and a 52-48 edge in the House.

But one major difference exists: 2006 is an election year. That means priority No. 1 for the NFIB-avoiding property-tax increases for small businesses-might be in jeopardy.

Some legislators, including Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, think homeowners deserve some tax relief. Shelley worries a residential property tax break could translate into a property-tax increase on commercial properties-and the small businesses that own them.

“From their standpoint, that’s a legitimate fear,” said John Gregg, a former House speaker and attorney at Bingham McHale. “Speaker Bosma wants to try to give some property tax relief to homeowners. The question becomes … what the Senate and what the governor say.”

Round one may have gone in favor of small businesses. Rep. Jeff Espich, RUniondale, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, already has introduced House Bill 1001, which would lower property taxes statewide by an average of 5 percent and cost the state roughly $150 million.

Budget forecasters predicted on Dec. 14, however, that the state’s cash flow is about $74.2 million short of projections. That means the future of proposals such as Espich’s may not be as rosy as originally thought.

Regardless, Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of the Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter, said property taxes would be the highest-profile issue of the session. And in an election year, “reducing taxes” always makes a good campaign trail sound bite.

Eminent domain imminent

While the outcome of the property-tax battle could ruffle Shelley’s feathers, he should have smooth sailing on his two other agenda items.

The Indiana Stadium and Convention Center Building Authority has made headlines in recent months for its proposed use of eminent domain to seize downtown property now occupied by bean manufacturer N.K. Hurst Co.

Officials want the 4.4-acre property because it sits adjacent to the site of the future $625 million stadium, but Hurst doesn’t want to move. And when negotiations broke down, some raised the specter of imminent domain.

The issue has raised so many hackles in the business community that Capitol observers consider it a political slam-dunk.

“Members seem unanimous on both sides of the aisle that there needs to be some sort of restriction on eminent domain,” Feigenbaum said. “The only question is whether they’ll be able to get something through [in a short session].”

Gregg, however, thinks it’s too big of a target for legislators to pass up.

“I’d bet a new rubber ball and a box of doughnuts they pass something,” he said.

A legislative study committee already has pondered the issue and lawmakers are going to be in a rush to tout how they’ve protected people’s homes and business properties on the campaign trail, Gregg predicted.

Mandating coverage

The last issue on the NFIB’s agenda may turn out to be not much of an issue at all. The organization is worried that lawmakers will pass more health insurance mandates-health benefits required by state law.

Some of the more popular mandates, such as mammograms and maternity stays, are required in all 50 states. Others, such as hospice care and sickle-cell testing for newborns, are only required in a handful of states.

According to the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, Indiana is in the middle of the pack nationwide in terms of how many benefits must be included in all health plans. State law requires 35 benefits, such as autism treatment and prostate screening. Maryland, with 58, mandates the most. Idaho, with 13, has the fewest.

Running up to 2004, the Legislature had passed at least one mandate in every session for nearly a decade, according to the NFIB. The past two sessions, however, no mandates have passed.

Shelley hopes to keep that streak alive because each mandate inevitably increases the cost of health care. A particularly expensive mandate-infertility treatments, at a cost of as much as $6 per employee per month-surfaced in the last session and he’s worried that it’ll find its way to the docket again in 2006.

He shouldn’t lose too much sleep over it.

“Mandated health care is not going to show up,” Gregg said. “If that’s the only reason they’re hiring a lobbyist, they can cut his salary by a third and send him home.”

He must have read the minds of legislators.

Rep. Trent Van Haaften, D-Mount Vernon, introduced the infertility legislation last session. He has it drafted and ready to go again in 2006, but said, “It’s not going to get anywhere in a Republican-controlled House.”

That’s why he may not even bother filing it. And even if it did make it through the House, the Senate would squash it.

“The last couple of years as a committee we just have not been moving mandates,” said Sen. Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the Health Committee.

It all adds up to a semi-rosy future for small businesses.

“There’s an increasing amount of attention to the … importance of small businesses in the state,” Feigenbaum said. “The governor and the [Indiana Economic Development Corp.] have made it very clear they’d rather grow 1,000 small businesses in the state than bring in one big business from out of state.”

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