Study committee green lights mass transit

 

A

legislative panel on Thursday endorsed a Central Indiana mass transit funding

plan that could mean a tax increase for residents and businesses and require

approval from local officials and voters.

The

Central Indiana Transit Study Committee voted 12-1 for a proposal that its

chairwoman — Sen. Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis — called a "concept"

rather than legislation. It would allow counties to impose a tax on

corporations and a local income tax on residents but would also require that

fares paid by bus riders fund at least a quarter of the system's operating

costs.

The

proposal does not address what kind of mass transit system could be developed.

"We're

trying to leave the decisions to local government," Miller said. "The

vast majority of the people on the committee felt that we would not dictate to

local units of government, that we would give them the wherewithal to make

their decisions and leave it to local governments to design their plans."

Miller

said the proposal would be fleshed out before the 2014 session, when she and

Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, will introduce it as a bill.

Ron

Gifford, executive director of Indy Connect Now, a coalition pushing for

expanded mass transit in Central Indiana, called the proposal a "very

constructive framework" for starting the legislative process.

He

said it is somewhat similar to a proposal approved earlier this year by the

Indiana House. The Senate amended that bill to order a study of the issue in

advance of the 2014 session.

"There

are a few new ideas we have to look at, but overall it continues to move the

conversation forward in a very positive way," Gifford said. "This is

a good proposal to get us started."

Originally,

advocates proposed a $1.3 billion mass transit expansion plan that would have

included more buses, more routes and a light rail line between downtown

Indianapolis and Hamilton County. The latter had been particularly

controversial and discussion has since moved away from the rail proposal,

focusing instead on express buses.

As

approved on Thursday, the plan would give local officials in five counties —

Marion, Hamilton, Johnson, Madison and Delaware — the authority to

develop plans and ask voters for permission to raise taxes through referendums.

Those

options include an increase in the County Economic Development Income Tax and a

business tax that would be imposed as a corporate income tax or a county

employment tax, which is essentially a fee charged based on the number of a

company's employees. The business taxes would impact only those firms organized

as so-called C corporations, not on partnerships or sole proprietorships.

Those

corporate taxes could make up no more than 10 percent of the total operating

costs of the system. And fares or other ridership fees would have to make up at

least 25 percent of the spending.

Sen.

Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican who heads the Senate Appropriations

Committee, said the mix of taxes is meant to capture income from those who had

been advocating the proposal. That includes a number of Central Indiana

business officials who testified that their employees need better ways to get

to work and that an expanded mass transit system would bolster economic

development.

"We

thought there ought to be some shared ownership in terms of paying for the

system," Kenley said. "It's always fun to talk about something new;

it's a lot harder to come up with how to pay for it."

The

lone vote against the plan came from Rep. Mike Speedy, R-Indianapolis, who said

he was concerned about the message that a tax increase on businesses would

send.

"We

are making recommendations to ultimately take additional dollars from the

private sector," Speedy said. The result might "not be best serving

the people we're intending to serve."

Lesley Weidenbener is executive

editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College

journalism students and faculty.

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