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EDITORIAL: Regional cooperation is bigger than an Indy commuter tax

March 16, 2018

Indiana’s cities are catalysts for economic activity beyond their borders. That makes their health important to the areas that surround them and to the entire state—and it speaks to the need for regional solutions to city challenges.

The long-discussed topic of regional cooperation was jolted to the forefront recently by the big chasms that opened on Indianapolis streets. The city’s pothole epidemic sparked discussion of a narrow example of regionalization, namely a commuter tax that would allow Indianapolis to capture income tax revenue from workers who live outside the county.

We’re not against a commuter tax to help Indianapolis fix its streets, which the city estimates need $725 million in repairs and reconstruction just to bring them into fair condition. But the issue is bigger than Indianapolis and it’s bigger than a commuter tax. The fair distribution of income tax revenue should be considered more broadly and with an eye toward how it might work in all the state’s urban areas.

Property tax caps, passed by the Legislature and then voted into the state constitution in 2010, have been especially hard on Indiana’s cities, whose property tax revenue was already suppressed by the large number of tax-exempt institutions that call them home.

Those same cities also happen to have some of the oldest infrastructure in the state. Unfortunately, infrastructure maintenance and replacement have for decades fallen victim to political expediency, which dictates that elected officials do the bare minimum or risk being skewered for taking money out of taxpayers’ pockets.

That short-term approach to managing our infrastructure has resulted in a seemingly unsolvable crisis. But solve it we must. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett says he wants to build a coalition of mayors and legislators to find and propose a solution that’s flexible enough to work for all Indiana cities. We call on him to not only discuss this effort but to lead it, and we urge Indianapolis-area legislators to join that effort, not undermine it.

Hogsett and his team can be more credible leaders on the issue if they simultaneously develop a plan showing how Indianapolis infrastructure will be maintained in the long term. Raising the money is only half the battle, after all. It’s showing how it would be used that can win over skeptics.

Regional cooperation is not a foreign concept, especially when the goal is clear. Ring counties agreed in 2005 to raise food and beverage taxes to help fund Lucas Oil Stadium. And Hogsett and Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness have worked together to try to win a second Amazon headquarters—not for Indianapolis or Fishers, for the region as a whole.

Even these narrow examples of regional cooperation are welcome, but it’s time to find an approach that’s more than piecemeal and more than simply a reaction to the latest crisis or big idea.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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