Tax Cap Issue to Get Genuine, Grass-Roots Airing
Congressional town meetings have received lots of media attention of late due to disruptive outbursts by citizens concerned about health care legislation. Expect more civilized and courteous discussion at public meetings to be held on proposed Indiana property tax caps. Aaron Smith, founder of Watchdog Indiana, has carefully designed the events so they will generate more light than heat.
In fact, Smith is organizing something unprecedented that deserves the support of all politicians and citizens. If enough “community volunteers” come forward to help him, Hoosiers will be treated to 60 information sessions on the important topic of property taxes — in particular the proposed constitutional amendment to cap taxes as a percentage of assessed valuation. The legislation has passed one session of the legislature, but must be approved again in 2010 in order to be placed on the ballot for a public vote.
“I want everything about property tax caps out in the open, all the pluses and the minuses,” Smith said. “I got the idea just because I so strongly believe the more information the public has, the better they will understand property tax caps and therefore support them.”
Smith will moderate the events, which will be held in the evenings and on weekends starting next month in schools, libraries and downtown buildings. Community members have been asked to serve as hosts, responsible for arranging location and handling logistics. Area legislators – the people who will ultimately vote whether to advance the amendment – have been asked to be panel members.
The sessions will consist of five-minute opening and three-minute closing comments by the panelists and 45 minutes of audience questions in between. “My remarks as moderator will be carefully scripted to make certain there is an even-handed and balanced presentation centered on panel member answers to audience questions,” Smith said. “My primary job as moderator is to keep exchanges between the audience and discussion panel members pertinent and respectful.”
Although Smith is a strong proponent of the tax caps, he won’t skew panels to advance his point of view. Panelist invitations were reserved for lawmakers and were based on geography, not politics. As a result, some panels may consist of only legislators who support the caps, others of only opponents. Smith has wisely resisted suggestions to create “balanced” panels reflecting the perspective of others such as county councilors or school officials.
“When you start to add other panel members in addition to the local state legislators, you bring up the question as to why one single-interest stakeholder group was included and another group omitted: apartment owners, chamber of commerce, farm bureau, local elected official, media representative, realtors, school superintendent, working families, etc. Also, the more panel members you have, the fewer audience questions you are able to accommodate.”
Forty-four legislators have agreed so far to be panelists, among them Rep. Wes Culver, R-Goshen, who said he’s been lobbied plenty on the issue by local officials and believes “it’s time we heard from the community.”
Plans are well along in Clarksville, Fort Wayne, Fulton, Greencastle, Greenfield, Lanesville, Lafayette, Muncie, Santa Claus, Shipshewana, South Bend and Terre Haute. Smith is hoping to hold a special event in South Bend featuring two of the biggest players in the debate – Democratic House Speaker Pat Bauer and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels – though neither has committed. About 15 citizens have stepped forward as hosts, which means Smith needs a lot more help to pull off this exercise in grass-roots democracy.
One criticism of recent town meetings on health care is that the “angry mobs” in attendance have been organized by national organizations running telephone and radio campaigns and, as a result, the public participation is “artificial.” No such fear when it comes to Watchdog Indiana, an online community of people interested in tax issues with a mailing list of about 25,000.
“Folks seem to be yelling at the elected officials in some venues,” Smith notes. “That to me is not the way to share information.”
Here’s hoping that volunteers and lawmakers come out in droves. These meetings have the potential to be models in active citizenship, leading to a better-informed public and better policy choices by the men and women we elect to serve us. (For more information, go to www.watchdogindiana.org).
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.