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Lawmakers grappling with state road-funding strategy

November 16, 2015

Republican and Democratic leaders from the Indiana General Assembly sparred on Monday over how to shore up the state’s road and infrastructure funding, signaling a tough legislative road ahead.

The key question is what the Legislature can do in a “short” or non-budget-making session, which will convene in January.

Republicans on Monday at the Indiana Chamber’s 2016 legislative preview event defended their record on road funding, saying the state’s challenges are a national issue and not due to a shortage of investment from Gov. Mike Pence, as Democrats have suggested.

“Can we do more? Sure,” said Senate Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne. “Indiana is not suffering from some sort of crisis from lack of investment in infrastructure. We all face challenges.”

Long said the issue was better left to be focused on until the 2017 legislative session, when lawmakers are tasked with coming up with the state’s two-year budget.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he believed the issue should be the top priority during the upcoming session.

“We don’t always agree on everything,” Bosma said. “I think it’s worthy to have a discussion on all options now.”

Bosma floated two possible ideas to shore up funding: increasing a tax on gasoline and imposing a fee on alternative-fuel vehicles.

“House Bill 1001 will be about road infrastructure,” Bosma said, referring to the numerical slot usually reserved for the top-priority legislative item.

Meanwhile, Pence and House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, have put forward their own plans for increasing infrastructure funding. The Indiana Association of County Commissioners estimates that Indiana has a $1 billion annual funding gap to maintain the state’s roads.

Pence’s plan is to spend $1 billion over the next four years, which he plans to pay for partly by diverting about $241 million from the state’s reserves.

The House Democrats’ plan would spend $2 billion over the next four years by directing all gasoline and special fuels sales tax toward infrastructure projects. Money lost to the General Fund would be made up by dipping into the state’s roughly $2 billion in reserves.

“We’re not meeting our demands for infrastructure and it is a limiting of attracting and maintaining business and jobs here,” said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.

Pelath said lawmakers should tackle the issue of infrastructure funding in both a short-term and long-term manner. First things first, he said he would rather see the state draw down on some of its reserves before he would support Bosma’s ideas.

“Before we start talking about new revenue-raising measures, we first need to look at revenue we already have at our disposal,” Pelath said. “Let’s focus on the achievable.”

Road and infrastructure funding was also among the Indiana Chamber’s key priorities for the legislative session.

The group said it would support several strategies to get to a sustainable funding stream, including dedicating more of the state’s gasoline sales tax to infrastructure, increasing fuel excise taxes, tolling, fees on alternative-fuel vehicles and other tools based on a “user fee model.”

“It’s best to address this in a bipartisan way before it becomes a crisis,” said Cam Carter, vice president for economic development and federal relations. “Sometimes the only solution to a money problem is more money.” 

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