Legislators gear up for January session

Laura McPhee

By Laura McPhee

Speaker of the House Brian Bosma (R)

The Indiana House of Representatives met last week for its traditional Organization Day at the Statehouse. Legislators met to prepare for the upcoming 2006 General Assembly that will begin Jan. 4.

With Republicans controlling the House, Senate and Governor's Office, they have the numbers and voting power to advance key initiatives with only minor opposition.

According to Speaker of the House Brian Bosma (R), Republicans will concentrate on property tax relief, job creation, education, local government efficiency and road funding.

"Last year we accomplished a great deal of work in just a few short months," Bosma said. "We must continue to steer Indiana in a new direction towards opportunity and prosperity for all Hoosiers."

But that opportunity and prosperity seems at odds with the main concern of Republicans and Democrats alike: tax increases.

Bosma estimates property taxes will raise somewhere between 7 and 11 percent next year, and both parties are making property tax relief a key issue. Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee Rep. Jeff Espich (R) announced a series of legislative hearings to take place throughout the month of December to discuss property taxpayer relief measures.

Democrats are already blaming the Republican leadership for the rise in property taxes and other perceived failings.

"After the first year of the Daniels Administration and Republican rule, Hoosiers have seen fiscal policies enacted that will drastically increase their property taxes, our state resources put up for auction to the highest bidder and the public's interest in a debate over time zones in Indiana ignored," said House Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer. "House Democrats will do everything in their power to make sure that all of these critical issues will be thoroughly debated when our work resumes in January."

"The advances we had made in limiting property taxes were essentially undone with the passing of the 2005 state budget," Rep. Dennie Oxley (D) said.

With 2006 an election year for all House of Representative members and approximately half of state senators, both parties expect tax debates to be partisan and politically dangerous.

In discussing ways to increase state revenue, Bosma suggested that "politically safe" legislators "need to look at funding with the traditional measure of a gas tax increase." Bosma also said a rise in cigarette taxes is also likely.

Both parties are also eyeing the $200 million the state collected as part of its tax amnesty program. While Gov. Daniels has not made a specific recommendation for the funds, he has indicated that he wants it used to close the budget deficit.

Republicans are considering using the money for the state welfare program, currently paid for by local property taxes. In doing so, they will also be able to lower property taxes by an estimated 5 percent.

But House Democrats have other ideas.

Rep. William Crawford (D) will file legislation calling for all money collected through the state's tax amnesty program to be dedicated to the reduction of welfare levies, which are expected to increase by nearly 40 percent statewide.

"Using the tax amnesty money will provide immediate relief to taxpayers across Indiana," Crawford said. "The governor has not clearly stated what he will do with the money, apart from using $65 million toward the $1 billion budget balance. It seems only fair that, instead of building up surplus with money from delinquent taxpayers, we use those funds to give some relief to those well-deserving Hoosiers who have paid their taxes on time."

Funding for state roads will also be a key issue this session, as the state is $2.8 billion short in paying for planned projects over the next decade. Daniels has announced he would like to privatize the I-69 expansion and make it a toll road to increase revenue.

Rep. Bauer and Rep. Joe Micon (D) will take a leading role in pursuing legislation that will make sure lawmakers have oversight in administration efforts to privatize operations like toll roads, hospitals, parks, prisons and services for families like the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. Bauer claims these privatization efforts could cost Hoosiers 4,000 jobs.

"Many have expressed concerns that these programs and assets will be run by private, out-of-state companies, and that the result will be lost jobs and millions of state dollars leaving Indiana," Micon said. "In our role as elected officials, we must strive to make sure that these moves are cost-efficient and improve services, rather than the opposite."

Democrats are also expected to revive the debate over Indiana's time zone in the upcoming session. They hope to take the final decision to the voters next November and away from Daniels.

"In the public hearings on time zone changes that have taken place this year, it is painfully obvious that the governor has failed to act on the true public policy decision: whether Indiana should be on Eastern or Central Time," said Rep. Dave Crooks (D). "The only way to proceed on this question is a statewide referendum, which will put the issue to rest once and for all."

Politics even managed to find their way into the way Organization Day began.

At the request of Speaker Bosma, his pastor, Dave Rodriguez of Grace Community Church in Noblesville, opened the session with the Lord's Prayer, and Miss Indiana, Susan Guilkey, sang "God Bless America."

Bosma is currently named, at his request, as the defendant in a lawsuit seeking to stop House sessions from opening with proselytizing prayers that are overtly Christian, rather than non-denominational.

U.S. District Judge David Hamilton has yet to announce his ruling in the case following a hearing in federal court last October.

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