Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma said Thursday that Republicans "need to continue educating the public" about the need for a tax increase that would be used to fund infrastructure projects around the state.
The Indianapolis Republican even plans to hold a contest to bring attention to the issue and will award a prize to the person who finds the worst pothole in their neighborhood or commute to work.
"We need to continue educating the public on the need here," said Bosma, who professes to have popular support for the proposal. Later he added: "I think the average Hoosier will tell you that our roads are not in good shape."
Despite the outward display of confidence, conservative groups are mobilizing against the idea and say they will target Republicans who vote for the proposed $15 vehicle registration charge and 10-cent fuel-tax increase. Even Bosma's use of a gimmick, like the contest he plans to hold, suggests that Republicans have their work cut out for them.
"The bottom line: you're raising our taxes, dude," said Monica Boyer, of the Indiana Liberty Coalition, a conservative advocacy group. "They have all those nice little talking points ... but when you come outside the Indianapolis bubble, Hoosiers are ticked."
Finding a way to pay for maintenance and improvements to Indiana's aging infrastructure has proved to be a vexing challenge for lawmakers in recent years. Borrowing money, tapping the state's $1.8 billion reserve fund or cutting other programs are non-starters. And Republicans say they want a dedicated stream of funding for roads, paid for by people who use them the most.
But it's an awkward conversation for Bosma and his Republican allies in the Legislature, who have been busy cutting taxes over the past decade. Unlike those cuts in income taxes, property taxes and corporate taxes, which favor those with higher incomes, the tax hike Bosma is pushing for would affect motorists of all economic backgrounds.
Democrats have complicated the matter, taking pot shots at Republicans for the proposed increase, even though many are expected to vote in favor of the bill.
"The priorities up to this point have been ... to hand out tax cuts to a few, but now in order to fix the problem we're seeing a proposal for tax increases for the many," said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.
Still, lawmakers voted the bill out of the House transportation committee on Wednesday, clearing a preliminary hurdle.
Bosma also met with GOP Senate leader David Long and Gov. Eric Holcomb on Wednesday and he said the road-funding proposal was one of the issues discussed. He predicted that, in the end, some version of the bill will pass.
"What we did say, and agree upon, is that by the end of the session, the three of us and our teams will be standing in the same space (with) a long-term, sustainable, funded road plan," he said.