Lawmakers try to drive home their points about funding roads in state

With a bill designed to extend protections to lesbian, gay and bisexual Hoosiers dead in the Senate, legislators’ focus in the General Assembly has shifted to finding funds to pay for statewide infrastructure projects.

Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, told a crowd of about 50 local residents at Monday’s Third House session among legislators and constituents that the House had passed its signature road funding bill, House Bill 1001, but not without some disagreements.

The bill, which was sent to the Senate last week on a 61-36 vote, seeks to generate $280 million in revenue for road funding through a 4 cent increase of the state gasoline tax, which would rise from 18 cents to 22 cents a gallon.

Additionally, House Bill 1001 would raise the cigarette tax to $1.995 a pack and would use those additional revenues to reimburse Medicaid providers, freeing up money in the general fund to pay for road improvements.

However, some state leaders, including Republican Gov. Mike Pence, have spoken out against increasing the gas tax, saying the state should use money in its reserves to pay for infrastructure work.

As a compromise, the House introduced a bill that would lower the personal income tax from 3.25 percent to 3.06 percent, essentially neutralizing the extra revenues generated from the gas tax increase.

Smith said a person who drives about 15,000 miles a year and gets about 20 miles per gallon in fuel efficiency would have to pay an extra 58 cents per week with the higher gas tax.

Comparatively, the lower income tax would save a person earning an average annual income of $49,000 about 42 cents a week by 2019, Smith said. That would bring the total cost of the gas tax increase to the average taxpayer down to 16 cents per week, or a little more than $8 annually.

The gas tax would apply to both Hoosier and out-of-state drivers who do not pay an Indiana income tax, which would allow the state to generate extra revenues for roads despite the lower income tax, Smith said.

Additionally, asking drivers from around the country to pay more to fuel up in Indiana would re-brand the gas tax as a road user fee, which Smith has consistently said is the best way to approach raising the gas tax.

However, Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, has said since weekly Third House sessions began in late January that the Senate is only lukewarm to the House’s road funding proposal.

Semi-truck drivers have the ability to travel completely through Indiana without stopping for gas because they have larger gas tanks than standard vehicles, Walker said.

Raising the gas tax could discourage those truck drivers from fueling up in Indiana, which could hurt the state’s revenues, Walker said.

The Senate has introduced its own road funding bill, Senate Bill 67, which would designate about $430 million in county local option income tax (LOIT) revenues to pay for road projects.

Smith co-authored a similar bill in the House that would lower the amount of LOIT revenues the state could withhold for reserves from 50 percent to 15 percent. House Bill 1110 is estimated to return about $6 million to Bartholomew County in June.

Those funds could be used for any purpose the county sees fit, including funding for roads, Smith said.

The House passed the LOIT bill unanimously, and Walker said he expects it will get a hearing in the Senate.

Smith said he also expects Pence to sign the bill into law if it passes in the Senate.

The Senate has also considered using bonds to pay for road funding, Walker said.

The debate over the best way to pay for necessary improvements to Indiana’s roads will continue beyond this legislative session, so lawmakers should consider several options, Walker said.

“This isn’t going away,” he said.

Discussion surrounding LGBT rights — one of the most hotly debated issues of the session — was limited Monday morning.

Walker used a question about transgender restrooms use to address the larger LGBT debate across the state. The senator said he believes his chamber made a good-faith effort in discussing ways to extend protections to LGBT Hoosiers, but ultimately was unable to pass a bill related to the issue because of the multitude of questions that lawmakers were unable to answer.

However, House minority leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, has vowed to continue the LGBT discussion this session, even though the senate killed the General Assembly’s only bill related to LGBT rights.

In addition to discussion about the main issues facing the legislature this year, a group of sixth grade students from ABC-Stewart School in Columbus attended Third House and posed several questions to Smith and Walker.

They questioned the lawmakers’ thought processes when deciding to support a bill and asked them why they tend to vote along party lines. Their questions focused on more specific issues, as well, such as lowering the state’s unemployment rate and offering more support to local veterans.

Smith and Walker assured the students that they do their best to use common sense when debating bills and try to vote in the best interest of the people they represent.

Bills to watch

House Bill 1001: Road funding. Raises the gasoline tax to 22 cents and the cigarette tax to $1.995. Reduces the personal income tax to 3.006 percent. Funds would be used to pay for road improvements. Status: Approved by the House, sent to the Senate.

House Bill 1110: Local option income tax revenues. Reduces the amount the state can withhold from local option income tax revenues from 50 percent to 15 percent. Returns $550 million to local governments, with $6 million returned to Bartholomew County. Allows county governments to use funds for any purpose they see fit, including road funding. Status: Approved by the House, sent to the Senate.

Senate Bill 67: Local option income tax revenues. Gives $430 million in local option income tax revenues to local governments to use for infrastructure improvements. Status: Approved by the Senate, sent to the House.

About Third House

The weekly Third House sessions sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce are a 45-year tradition in Bartholomew County. Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, and Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, attend the sessions to inform Bartholomew County residents of the bills they are working on in their respective houses and to allow residents to voice any questions or concerns they may have about pending legislation.

Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, also has attended Third House sessions because his district includes Hope and Hartsville in northeastern Bartholomew County.

Third House meets at 7:30 a.m. every Monday until March 7 in the Cal Brand Meeting Room of Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St. Because of another legislative commitment, Walker may not be able to attend some Third House sessions or may only be available for a limited amount of time.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.