Pence plans more charters, road money for 2014

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence plans to spend his second meeting with the General Assembly advancing a legislative agenda centered on expanding the number of charter schools, finding ways to pay for road projects and seeking new tax cuts.

"As we were working through the summer and this fall in developing that agenda, it's about building on the momentum. We're looking at more pro-growth tax relief, particularly focused on encouraging investment in industry in Indiana," Pence told The Associated Press.

Pence talked about his plans for next year during a meeting of The Republican Governors Association in Scottsdale, Ariz. He heads into his second year as governor with strong support from Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate and a handful of victories from his limited agenda during his first year in office.

But he has also had trouble pushing through tax cuts before and is in the midst of a power struggle with Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, which lawmakers have said they might need to clear up. Meanwhile, the fight over amending the state's gay marriage ban into the constitution threatens to distract from other items during next year's two-month-long session.

Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault wouldn't provide specifics of the governor's agenda Thursday, but he's expected to release more details next month. The broad strokes of Pence's plan, however, are similar to what Republican legislative leaders say they want to focus on.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, both said this week they would like to eliminate the state's personal property tax, which is levied on business equipment and machines. Pence did not specify cutting that tax, but hinted at it with his statement about supporting industry.

The state's top lawmakers also said they would like to expand early childhood education, something Pence mentioned as well.

On education, he said he would like to expand the number of charter schools and improve flexibility for teachers who score well on their performance reviews, but did not give specifics. The specifics of the state's education debate have become increasingly important over the past year.

Pence campaigned last year on improving coordination between schools and employers, but never mentioned he would create a new agency to accomplish that. That new agency, which is staffed in part with Ritz's political rivals, has become the focus of the latest education feud.

Winning a tax cut, even in the Republican-dominated General Assembly, could prove tricky as well. David Bottorff, executive director of the Association of Indiana Counties, said there's widespread concern among local leaders that the newest tax-cut proposal could force them to cut more services.

If counties have to make up budget shortfalls caused by the elimination of the personal property tax, they may look to raise taxes elsewhere, including on homeowners, he said.

"There's more and more stress on the system, because people don't want to have to pay the tax," he said.

But Pence and legislative leaders could sweeten the pot for local leaders with more funding for roads and new transportation projects.

"We have a blue ribbon panel that I set up to plan the future of transportation in Indiana, 25 years out, 50 years out. But we're also going to look for resources to plow back into infrastructure in the short term," Pence said.

Lawmakers made some significant changes to the tax code earlier this year, which helped add funding for roads, but the state still needs something close to $2 billion annually to maintain roads and construct new ones, said David Holt, vice president of Conexus Indiana.

Lawmakers have already floated the idea of looking at how to collect taxes not based on gasoline consumption, but based on the number of miles driven by each car. They also will have a raft of recommended projects come in from Pence's transportation group to consider for funding.

Holt, who is also working with Pence's transportation panel, cautioned that some ideas may only be discussed during the upcoming session, and acted on during the 2015 budget-writing session.

"It's an incredibly important debate," he said.

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