Pence: Session ‘productive’ so far, agenda largely intact

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said Thursday he’s pleased with the way his agenda is faring at the halfway point of the 2014 session of the General Assembly.

Talking to a group of reporters in his office, Pence said he is happy with the bills that have passed the House and Senate are now headed to the opposite chamber for consideration.

The Republican governor focused his comments on his key agenda items – a pre-kindergarten voucher program, the elimination of the business personal property tax, and more spending on highways. Pence said 23 of the 25 bills on his agenda are still alive – with 14 of those passing unanimously.

“This has been a productive session and Hoosiers will be happy when the gavel ends this session,” Pence said.

But not all of Pence’s priorities have passed as he proposed them. Pence wanted preschool available to all low-income students, but the bill passed by the Republican-controlled House would establish only a pilot program.

“We’re not proposing a universal program,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. “It’s very thoughtful, and we’re really dipping our toe in the water to see if it’s effective for Hoosier children.”

And, while Pence had wanted to completely phase out the business personal property tax – which is levied on equipment and supplies – bills passed by both chambers would only cut the tax, not eliminate it. But even those scaled-back proposals are facing opposition from local officials, who are complaining that they’ll suffer from lost revenue.

“I think we all see this as the most significant piece of revenue loss coming down the road that local governments have ever seen in the state of Indiana,” Indiana Association of Cities and Towns President Matt Greller said last month.

But Pence has emphasized he doesn’t want to unduly burden local governments. On Thursday, he said, “Last year was for tax cuts, this year is for tax reform.”

The Pence administration has endorsed both the House and Senate property tax bills. On Thursday, Pence said they could be improved – although he didn't say how.

But when discussing transportation the governor was clear. “Roads mean jobs,” Pence said.

The House has endorsed Pence’s plan to free up $400 million in Major Moves funds that had been set aside for future projects. The governor said Thursday that the Department of Transportation will be working on major changes to roads and improving infrastructure in a way that will make Indiana more attractive for economic development.

Pence also said that it’s important for Indiana to use the money now – rather than saving it for at least another couple years, as was originally contemplated – because inflation means state would lose $56 million in purchasing power.

Still, Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley said last week he’s skeptical of the governor’s plan, which will be headed soon to his committee. And he’s not buying the argument about inflation.

“That sounds like we’re just going spend it on the same old things, but we’re using a justification that if you spend it to today, it’s worth more money to you,” Kenley said.

Instead, he’s pushing for the money to be spent on major projects “we would not ordinarily contemplate,” including making Interstate 65 a six-lane road from Gary to Louisville and I-70 six lanes from Terre Haute to Richmond.

“I think it would be good for the state of Indiana economically and for the driving public,” Kenley said.

Bosma said the House transportation bill assumes the money will be spent on those types of big projects – even though the legislation doesn’t designate them. Those choices, he said, should be left to transportation experts.

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