House GOP makes last-ditch effort on road funding bill, tax hikes

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Indiana House Republicans are making a last-ditch effort to try to garner support for their transportation funding plan by tying one of Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s key legislative agenda items to the bill, which is not supported by Pence and raises taxes to pay for road and infrastructure investments over the next decade.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted on Monday to put the road funding plan in the same bill with an extra $42 million "Regional Cities” award—a Pence project that some Republican lawmakers have expressed skepticism over, especially after spending $84 million on it last year. The bill would also authorize a 13th pension check worth about $21 million for public employee retirees this year.

The bill, which the committee passed 13-8, heads to the full House for consideration. If passed, it would likely go to a conference committee—where members of each chamber try to work out a compromise—before it could land on Pence’s desk. Whether he would sign the version that advanced Monday is still in question. Pence and his staffers have said on several occasions that the governor does not support a tax increase to pay for roads.

The House plan calls for the gas tax to be indexed to inflation, meaning it would likely increase over time, and would capture more of the sales tax on gasoline to be devoted to roads and bridges. The bill would also increase the tax on cigarettes. The plan also allows local governments to adopt additional taxes to add to their infrastructure dollars, including matching grants for road and bridge projects. And it would decrease income taxes over time.

“I hope he would look at it in a favorable light by in 10 years being revenue neutral,” said Republican Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the committee. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Republican lawmakers in the House and  Senate have sketched out a few different road funding plans this year and are still searching for a compromise on how to proceed. Meanwhile, the legislature is slated to end March 10, leaving them limited time to hammer out their differences.

“We agree on the principles, where we want to be at the end,” Brown said. “We agree we need road funding. We agree the regional cities concept is very important, and that local options and tools are needed. It’s the pathway through conference committee to get there.”

The Senate plan focuses on shorter-term roads funding with an emphasis on freeing up money for local governments to spend on roads.

The governor’s plan calls for $1 billion to be spent on road and bridge updates over four years, paid for by using the state’s reserves and borrowing money through bonding.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, criticized the governor Friday for thinking about “the next election” and not the next generation.

“It’s unfortunate folks aren’t willing to look at the long term,” Bosma said. “It’s very clear the Senate and governor's program is really a three- or four-year program."

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, who voted against the plan, said he did so because there were too many “sprinkles” added to the bill.

“Is this an incentive for us to Kumbaya?" Porter said. “I just want to make it perfectly clear what road we’re going down. It’s awfully bumpy.”

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