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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ind. Gov't. - “We made this pledge to people who are from outside our state, who know nothing about us now”

That is a quote from a good story today, headed "No-tax pledge clouds Indiana's road funding debate," reported by Maureen Hayden of CNHI; the story appears in a number of papers including the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. Some quotes:

Back in 1998, then-candidate Bob Cherry made a promise never to raise taxes.

Seventeen years later, as the state needs billions of dollars to fix its crumbling roads and bridges, the Greenfield lawmaker wonders if it was a mistake.

“How can we make good public policy for the future if we’re tied to the past?” he said.

Cherry, a Republican, is one of 27 Indiana lawmakers who’ve signed the Americans for Tax Reform’s so-called taxpayer protection pledge. And he’s not the only one who now says the promise is putting them in a tight spot, especially in light of the indefinite shutdown of Interstate 65 near Lafayette due to a deteriorating bridge sinking into the ground. * * *

Cherry, a vice-chairman of the House’s Ways and Means Committee, said he fears the no-tax pledge will keep the General Assembly from acting on a long-delayed but needed solution.

“We made this pledge to people who are from outside our state, who know nothing about us now,” he said. “They don’t understand. Things change.”

The pledge, created in 1986 by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, locks signatories into a promise never to create new taxes or raise existing ones as long the pledge-maker holds office. Nearly all 54 Republican U.S. Senators and 245 members of Congress have signed, according to the group, as have 13 governors and hundreds of state legislators.

Cherry and other Republicans happily signed on, too, he said, to demonstrate their commitment to fiscal conservatism.

Breaking the pledge may have consequences politically, especially for Republicans in tough primary races where a tax vote would likely be used against them.

The Americans for Tax Reform, which closely monitors votes in the Legislature, is especially influential in Indiana. Last summer, Norquist was invited by Republican Gov. Mike Pence to speak a tax conference in Indianapolis, where Pence declared his blanket opposition to tax increases.

But such anti-tax declarations may be increasingly harder to keep for legislators.

Indiana hasn’t raised its gas tax since 2002, when it was increased to 18 cents a gallon. A combination of factors since then, including inflation and more efficient cars, have pushed down revenues. The gas tax brought in $582 million in 2004. Last year it was down to $527 million.

A few options to make up that money have been floated in the Legislature. They include raising the gas tax by tying it to inflation; increasing the portion of the sales tax on gasoline that can be diverted into road and bridge repair while cutting other spending general fund spending; and creating a license registration fee for drivers of electric or natural gas powered vehicles who don’t currently pay the gas tax.

All were shot down by the Americans for Tax Reform. In a statement, John Karsch, a spokesman, said any increase in gas taxes or registration fees not balanced by a tax cut “would be considered a violation of their promise to their constituents to oppose any and all efforts to increase taxes.”

He added: “If lawmakers wanted to ensure adequate transportation funding, it would have been prioritized in the state budget.”

Ed Soliday, R-Valpraiso, chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee, has pushed lawmakers for three years to act boldly on road funding.

Last year, Karl Browning, then-head of the state Department of Transportation, told lawmakers it will cost $3 billion over the next decade just to curb existing damage to state-maintained roads and bridges. The state needs another $4 billion to bring roads and bridges up to current safety standards, he said.

The condition of almost 7 percent of the state’s 5,400 bridges is considered “poor” – structurally deficient by federal standards, Browning said in a budget presentation last year. That number will nearly double over the next decade, he said, without a dramatic increase in current spending on bridge repair, now about $274 million a year.

Those kind of numbers force lawmakers, especially those who’ve signed the no-tax pledge, into a difficult position, Soliday said.

“Conservatives like to talk about how terrible it would be to burden our children with debt,” he said. “But by not fixing this now, we’re going to be handing our children a very, very big and costly problem.”

Posted by Marcia Oddi on August 13, 2015 01:34 PM
Posted to Indiana Government