Change in bills snarls process

An ongoing debate over the best way to fund state infrastructure improvements could continue until the last moments of the 2016 legislative session.

Rep. Milo Smith and Sen. Greg Walker, both Columbus Republicans, gave an update on the General Assembly’s road funding bills to a group of about 40 people at Monday’s Third House session.

The House and the Senate each sent their proposed infrastructure improvement bills to each other for amendments and approval in early February.

However, in a move that Smith describes as playing political games, lawmakers stripped the bills from the opposite chamber of their original content and instead inserted the language of the bills that were proposed in their own chamber.

Senate Bill 333 now contains the language of the original House Bill 1001, which proposes raising the state gasoline tax by 4 cents to generate an estimated $280 million for road funding.

But some state leaders, including Republican Gov. Mike Pence, have said they would not support a bill that raises the gasoline tax. Instead, Pence has said he would like the state to pull money from its reserves for road funding — the original concept of Senate Bill 333.

As a compromise, the House proposed a decrease in the personal income tax from 3.25 percent to 3.06 percent, which would essentially neutralize the extra gas tax revenue.

Additionally, the language now in Senate Bill 333 calls for raising the state cigarette tax by $1. The extra money would go into the state’s Medicaid fund, freeing up money in the general fund that could be used for infrastructure work.

Smith has supported the original concept of House Bill 1001 — now Senate Bill 333 — since the beginning of the session, saying he believes the increased gas tax should be viewed as a user fee drivers must pay to travel on Indiana roads.

But the Senate Appropriations Committee removed both proposed tax increases from House Bill 1001 last week.

The House’s proposal now contains the original language of Senate Bill 333, which would transfer funds from the state’s reserves to the state highway fund at the end of the fiscal year if the reserves are in excess of 11.5 percent.

Additionally, Walker said the new language of House Bill 1001 could be combined with Senate Bill 67 — which would distribute local option income tax revenues for infrastructure work — to generate an additional $2.8 billion for road funding over the next four years.

However, the hybrid Senate plan dips into future appropriations, which means it will only work if the state holds level revenues over the next four years, Walker said. The senator said he is unsure if the state will be able to do that.

“It doesn’t look like this is a sustainable goal,” Walker said.

As an answer to the sustainability concern, the Senate Appropriations Committee established a 22-member task force to study over the summer ways to find sustainable road funding.

Bob Pitman, a Columbus resident who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the District 59 House seat Smith holds, questioned the effectiveness of summer study committees, saying they seem to drag out the legislative process.

In addition to the road funding committee, the General Assembly has also created task forces to study a replacement to the ISTEP+ standardized test and to study rights for transgender Hoosiers.

Summer task forces usually include experts in the field in question, which gives the General Assembly a more targeted look at the pros and cons of proposed legislation, Walker said. However, the senator also said he believes lawmakers need to stop kicking the can down the road and create a sustainable road funding plan.

Walker said he thinks the public is open to the idea of raising taxes to generate infrastructure funding, as long as the extra tax funds are used exclusively for road work. While the House embraces that concept, Walker said the Senate is not there yet.

He said he thinks the road funding debate will likely continue to the last 24 — or even 12 — hours of the 2016 session, which is scheduled to end March 14.

What's next

All bills must be heard on third reading in the Indiana Senate by Wednesday and in the House by Thursday to stay alive in the 2016 legislative session. The session will officially adjourn on March 14, but Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, said lawmakers could have their work completed by March 9.

The final Third House session in this year’s series sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce will be 7:30 a.m. Monday in the Cal Brand Meeting Room of Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St.

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