Games, gimmicks dominate property-tax fight-WEB ONLY

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The fight between House Republicans and Democrats over constitutional caps on property taxes has become kind of strange.

The partisan positions for and against voting this year to put property-tax caps into the state constitution raise legitimate arguments for each side. It’s how the battle has played out that’s been bizarre.

It has involved projectors, big cardboard petitions and a vote for legislation everyone knew was going nowhere.

The stage was set last year when legislators enacted a law that phases in limits on property-tax bills. This year, homeowners’ property tax bills are limited to 1.5 percent of their homes’ assessed value, with 2.5-percent caps on rental property and 3.5-percent limits for business property.

The caps will drop next year to 1 percent, 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

Lawmakers in 2008 also took the first step toward amending the caps into the constitution by passing a resolution. If they pass it again this year or next, voters will decide in the November 2010 election whether the caps go in the constitution.

The idea behind constitutional caps is that they would prevent courts from nixing them and make it more difficult for future legislatures to repeal them.

The Republican-controlled Senate has passed the resolution a second time this session, but it has languished in the Democratic-led House.

House Speaker Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) has said he wants to wait until next year to consider passing the resolution a second time. That will give lawmakers time to gauge how the caps have affected both taxpayers and local governments.

The caps are projected to save taxpayers $158 million this year and about $323 million when fully phased in next year. But that’s money that local governments and schools won’t get. Some already have cut spending and services because of the caps.

That Bauer hasn’t allowed a second vote on the resolution this session has House Republicans crying foul. They want it passed again this year to ensure now that voters can decide the issue in 2010.

They argue that waiting until next year allows more time for lawsuits to be filed and leaves the public wondering whether lawmakers are serious about making the caps permanent.

House Republicans have gone beyond making speeches demanding that Bauer allow the resolution to be voted on. They’ve set up a countdown clock, projected billboard size on a wall outside the House chamber, ticking down by the second the time left for the resolution to get a vote.

House Minority Leader Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) clearly considers it a clever tactic.

Bauer finds it offensive. He sent a protest letter to Bosma asking him to take down the “hologram,” saying it could lead to dueling holograms. Bosma has refused to oblige.

Not your typical protest, but it isn’t a typical stunt, either.

To weigh in on the issue, Democrats threw up an amendment recently that would put the 1, 2, 3 percent caps into law retroactively, starting Jan. 1 this year. They said it would save people money during the recession and give a true picture of what the completely phased in caps would do.

Bosma called it a “sham vote” and “purely political cover” for not addressing constitutional caps this year. And Republicans said Democrats knew it would never pass the Republican-led Senate.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) broke into laughter when reporters told him about the House proposal.

But sham vote or not, the bill passed the House 80-12, with only three Republicans voting against it.

In the latest tactic, House Republicans called a news conference and signed big cardboard petitions demanding that Bauer allow a vote on the constitutional caps.

They are displayed on easels in a roped-off area by the Republican entrance to the House, where the projector shining the countdown clock sits. The site screams out for attention.

Although no Democrats have signed the petition, neither have several Republicans. They probably haven’t gotten around to it yet.

The deadline for bills to clear committees is this Thursday. That’s plenty of time for more games and gimmicks.

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