It’s Now or Never for Three Legislative Priorities

January 4, 2010

For release noon Tuesday Jan. 5 and thereafter (665 words)

Considering there’s no money in the bank and only 30 days to do business, the 2010 legislature can’t do a lot. Yet this could be one of the most meaningful sessions on record if lawmakers pass three measures to enhance the citizens’ role in the political process.
           
For starters, Indiana lawmakers need to put a constitutional property tax cap question on the ballot for Hoosiers to decide this November. Voters deserve a say in future tax policy.
          
In 2008, lawmakers responded to a property tax revolt by enacting statutory tax caps and proposing a constitutional amendment that would limit taxes permanently to 1 percent of a home’s assessed value, 2 percent of a farm’s value and 3 percent of a business’s value. At the same time, they increased the sales tax from 6 to 7 percent, took over school general funds and county welfare funds previously financed by property taxes and gave local governments more flexibility to raise local option income taxes. Their actions reflected an intentional shift away from property taxes, which had become so high in some neighborhoods that folks on limited income were being forced to sell their homes.
           
Since then, politicians have developed cold feet over the possibility of limiting any source of revenue for schools or local government.
           
Property taxes have a place in funding services, especially things like fire and police protection that are directly related to property ownership. But the legislature did the right thing in deciding that property taxes should play a smaller role in the overall revenue pie.
           
A constitutional amendment must pass two separately elected general assemblies before it can go to the public in a general election. Last year, House Speaker Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, refused to bring the issue to a vote. It must happen this short session or it will die, and voters will feel betrayed by the same politicians who promised help.
           
Another pressing issue is redistricting reform. Hoosiers are sick of legislative districts drawn intentionally to maximize one party’s electoral chances or to protect incumbents. Candidates deserve a shot at winning and voters deserve to have their votes counted.
           
The decennial Census will take place this spring as required by the Constitution. Next year’s legislature will have to redraw state legislative and U.S. House district lines to reflect changes in population.
           
Secretary of State Todd Rokita has proposed redistricting guidelines that would end partisan gerrymandering. Among other provisions, his proposal would require lawmakers to respect existing political boundaries such as county and township lines and prohibit the use of incumbent data for partisan reasons.
           
Whichever party wins control of the Indiana House and Senate in the 2010 elections will have no incentive to change things. Reform must happen this short session or it will not happen this decade.
           
Now is also the time for ethics reform within the legislature itself. In the same way that gerrymandering diminishes the value of a citizen’s vote, a legislature beholden to lobbyists and special interests cannot honestly pursue the public good.
           
Led by the Indianapolis Star, 23 Indiana newspapers joined together last year to document inappropriate relationships between lawmakers and people paid to push for legislation in the Statehouse. Among the findings: During the most recent annual reporting period, $25.8 million – $172,272 per lawmaker – was spent trying to influence state senators and representatives.
           
The newspapers have recommended a set of reform measures including a limit on the value of gifts lawmakers may accept from lobbyists, stronger financial reporting rules and a cooling off period between the time a legislator may leave office and accept work as a paid lobbyist.
           
House Speaker Bauer, who received the most gifts from lobbyists, has said he will support ethics reform this year. The 2010 legislature must seize the moment while the spotlight is on this problem. If it doesn’t happen now, it won’t happen. Lawmakers will be way too busy crafting budgets and drawing legislative districts in 2011 to reform themselves.



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



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