Lawmakers considering central Indiana regionalism legislation

Indiana lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow the communities in central Indiana to create a regional development authority, but the framework isn’t exactly what advocates initially proposed.

Senate Bill 350, authored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, would create a regional development authority framework for central Indiana to allow local officials to work together on significant economic development initiatives. The pilot program would be in place for five years.

Holdman said the idea is that central Indiana officials would use that time to come up with a framework for regional development and cooperation that could be implemented statewide. This new program would then essentially replace the Regional Cities Initiative, which was created in 2015 using one-time tax amnesty dollars, but has not continued because the state did not have an ongoing revenue stream for it.

Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness, who has been an advocate for regionalism, described the legislation as “a first step” and told lawmakers it allows him and other mayors in the Indianapolis metropolitan area to continue working toward the best long-term solution.

But Fadness and other central Indiana mayors and business industry leaders had a proposal prepared in the fall before the 2020 legislative session started.

The original idea would have allowed at least two neighboring communities to create what was called an “investment hub” and commit to the organization for 12 years or the length of the debt financing used for a project. The municipalities also would agree to impose either a new local income tax, sales tax, or food and beverage tax to pay for it. Each tax option would have been capped at 1%.

But the RDA outlined in the SB 350 would not have any taxing authority.

The RDA would have a wide scope for projects it could pursue. For example, the body would be allowed to develop strategies for affordable health care and child care, analyze electricity prices and gather data on venture capital investments.

That caught the attention of some lawmakers during Wednesday’s hearing on the bill before the House Ways and Means Committee.

“Good golly, Miss Molly,” House Speaker-elect Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said. “You’re trying to solve everything in the universe.”

The bill also addresses the future of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is trying to operate independently of the city and broaden its mission.

Under the legislation, the MPO would be part of the new RDA and it would be allowed to expand its focus beyond just transportation projects.

MPO Executive Director Anna Gremling has said the organization could help with economic development, housing and water infrastructure. She said the group, which is mostly federally funded, could then pursue additional federal dollars.

Despite the changes from the initial idea pitched in the fall, no one spoke against the bill.

Westfield Mayor Andy Cook said he thinks the creation of the RDA could help him promote his city to prospective businesses and residents, because a strong region helps all the communities.

“We want to coordinate what we’re all doing together so we can paint a much better picture,” Cook said.

The bill also has support from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indy Chamber, OneZone and Aspire Johnson County.

The House Ways and Means Committee did not vote on the bill. The deadline for bills to pass out of committee is Feb. 27.

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