Lawmakers Should Fear Voters’ Wrath

December 31, 2007

Indiana Writers Group column for release Jan. 2 and thereafter (720 words)

by ANDREA NEAL

It sounds like a recipe for legislative disaster: Attempt to resolve a property tax crisis in a short session during an election year. In normal times, those three ingredients might deter the bravest of souls from taking action. But these are not normal times and lawmakers from both parties are racing to prove their commitment to tax reform.

The legislative session that begins Jan. 8 may end up as one of the more productive in Hoosier history. Voters across Indiana, in Indianapolis especially, sent a message in the 2007 municipal elections that property taxes are too high, politicians are to blame and incumbents may lose their jobs if they don’t do something about it.

“Here are the top three issues for the upcoming General Assembly session,” said Republican House Leader Brian C. Bosma. “Property tax reform. Property tax reform. Property tax reform.”

So pressing is lawmakers’ concern that House Ways and Means Chairman William Crawford, D-Indianapolis, began public hearings on Gov. Mitch Daniels’ tax reform plan in December rather than wait for the regularly scheduled January committee calendar.

The political dynamics are tricky because of upcoming elections. Gov. Daniels, a Republican, is running for re-election and looks beatable according to early polls. Democrats would like nothing better than to thwart his ambitions, but risk voter outrage if they thwart tax reform along the way.

Taxes blew up as issue No. 1 in July when a perfect storm of conditions – rising local levies, the phase-out of the inventory tax, changes in the assessment system – resulted in dramatically higher tax bills.

In September, a poll by WISH-TV asked Hoosiers: “Which one of the following do you blame the most for the current property tax crisis?” Statewide, 22 percent blamed the General Assembly and 19 percent blamed Governor Daniels, a dead heat in light of the poll’s 3.5 percentage point margin of error.

There’s no question Daniels will be the front man for voter concerns over tax climate, unemployment and economic conditions. A 1998 study by Susan B. Hansen of the University of Pittsburgh found that governors are held accountable for these things by voters. “If the farmers haven’t had rain, the governor is going to get blamed,” said a political consultant quoted in her report.

But in recent years, angry voters have begun to cast a wider net for their frustration. This explains in part why Republican newcomer Greg Ballard, written off by his own party, upset Democratic

Mayor Bart Peterson of Indianapolis in the fall elections. In the WISH-TV poll, 11 percent of Indianapolis residents said the mayor deserved the most blame for the tax fiasco, an opinion with which few tax analysts agreed.

Many legislators report that the electorate is more engaged than they have ever seen. This phenomenon is not unique to Indiana, but appears the result of a resurgence of grass-roots watch dogging of politicians.

A notable example is PACleanSweep.com, formed by voters in Pennsylvania after lawmakers there awarded themselves a pay raise in 2005. The group began by recruiting challengers to oppose every incumbent office holder up for re-election in 2006.

That year, PACleanSweep helped identify 100 candidates for legislative office and 55 incumbents lost their seats, 24 by defeat or disqualification and 31 through voluntary retirement. In 2008, PACleanSweep is at it again, encouraging new blood for all 203 seats in the House of Representatives and 25 Senate seats up for re-election.

Although not quite as ambitious, Watchdog Indiana is playing a comparable role here as it pushes a constitutional amendment that would cap property taxes at 1 percent of a home’s assessed valuation, as proposed by the governor. On its web site (www.watchdogindiana.com), it lists the names of lawmakers it considers friends and foes.

“Never has it been so easy to separate those who are part of the solution from those who are part of the problem,” says Watchdog founder Aaron Smith. “A legislator who pledges support of a constitutional amendment for a 1 percent homeowner property tax cap is part of the solution; otherwise the legislator is part of the problem.”

This attitude is exactly why the 2008 legislative session will do something about the property tax crisis. The incumbents get the mood of the public: To be branded part of the problem is to face defeat at the polls in November.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar at the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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