Mass-transit bill hits detour in Senate committee

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The Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee voted 12-0 on Tuesday morning to stall legislation that would give central Indiana voters the ability to choose if they want to pay higher taxes for expanded mass transit.

The vote approved an amendment to House Bill 1011 that would send it to a study committee, charged with producing a report by Dec. 15. The full Senate likely will vote on the amended bill next week.

"While I'm obviously not thrilled with the amendment, I'd rather have a live bill than a dead bill,” the bill’s author, Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, told the committee.

Ron Gifford, executive director of the Central Indiana Transit Task Force and Indy Connect Now, emphasized that there’s still a chance the original bill, or something like it, could emerge from an end-of-session conference committee, where House and Senate members hammer out their differences.

"It's always good to have a vehicle to work with in conference committee," Gifford said. "This happens a lot."

The bill would have allowed Marion and surrounding counties to hold an advisory referendum on whether to raise local income taxes to help pay for a new transit system. The current 10-year plan calls for doubling bus service and adding rapid transit from Noblesville to downtown, as well as along other routes.

The study committee amendment comes after some Marion County Republicans, including Sens. Brent Waltz, Mike Young and Scott Schneider expressed serious reservations about the plan.

In a press conference after the vote, Young said he and Waltz had done their own research on mass-transit systems around the country. “This is the reason we think a study committee’s important," Young said. "Some of those didn’t fare very well.”

Marion County Republicans presented a united front in favor of the delay. Sen. Pat Miller, who co-sponsored the bill along with Sen. Jim Merritt, said she wanted to give her constituents a vote on the issue but also wanted to make sure they were voting on the best possible plan. She said she believed there still would be time to pass legislation in the 2014 session and put the question on November 2014 ballots, as planned in Marion and Hamilton counties.

Merritt noted that the study committee will meet longer and have a larger budget than most. “This is not your ordinary study committee to go to the bone yard,” he said.

Tax and fiscal policy committee members sounded skeptical about the transit bill. Chairman Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, asked Gifford whether members of the business community would be willing to pay some sort of tax to help pay for expanded transit. He put the same question to Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Mark Fisher.

Both lobbyists said many business owners who support the proposal would be subject to the income tax themselves.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, told Gifford, “You make a persuasive argument about why we need to proceed,” but he said there are still six “major items” that he wants to see addressed. He didn’t offer details on those questions.

Last month Kenley dropped his sponsorship of the bill, saying he had “never been too persuaded for the need for this,” and that a majority of his constituents opposed the plan.


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