Tax proposals gain attention

Proposed tax hikes that would be paid by both motorists and smokers are among top legislative concerns of Bartholomew County residents during the current session of the Indiana General Assembly.

State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, anticipates the proposals will be heavily discussed when the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce begins its weekly Third House sessions at 7:30 a.m. Monday in Columbus City Hall.

The annual series of town-hall-style meetings, which usually attracts 50 to 60 people, allows residents to learn where their representatives stand on matters before the Indiana General Assembly, chamber spokesperson Melissa Hennessee said.

Locally elected state lawmakers have been attending the Third House meetings with Bartholomew County constituents for more than 45 years, the longest running Third House session in the state, according to the Columbus chamber.

People living in the Columbus area appear to be evenly split regarding a measure that would provide road funding by increasing gas prices, Smith said.

House Bill 1002, authored by State Rep. Edmond Soliday, R-Valparaiso, would add a dime to the current 18-cent gas tax, as well as create new fees for Hoosier drivers.

After Indiana Republicans announced plans to increase both the gas tax and vehicle fees in December, Smith said that’s when he began hearing reaction from local residents.

“It’s about 50-50, with half telling me we need to raise revenue, while others say we need to find ways to cut spending,” Smith said.

While possible hikes to the gas tax has garnered a mixed reaction, there seems to be a growing consensus regarding proposed cigarette tax hikes, the District 59 State Representative said.

“You might think a lot of people would be in favor of hiking cigarette taxes, but that’s not what I’m hearing,” Smith said.

Two coalitions — Tobacco Free Indiana and the Alliance for a Healthier Indiana — have been urging lawmakers to raise the state’s cigarette tax, which is now 99.5 cents, by another $1.50 per pack.

In their joint Raise It for Health Campaign, the organizations are asking that $35 million of the $300 million raised annually be spent on tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

At least three bills have been introduced in the Indiana House that would raise cigarette taxes in a range from $1 to $2 per pack. All three measures are currently being studied in committee.

Besides raising cigarette taxes, one of the measures — House Bill 1578 — would also raise the age for purchasing or possession of tobacco from 18 to 21, as well as repeal employment protections for tobacco users.

Although the two supporting coalitions represent more than 100 partners from business, health and community organizations, Smith says local opposition appears to be strong.

“Several people tell me they don’t want cigarette taxes raised, and few say they believe it’s a good idea,” Smith said.

Both Smith and Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, usually attend each 90-minute Third House meeting, held in the Cal Brand meeting room at Columbus City Hall.

Sen. Eric Koch (R-Bedford), who was elected in November to succeed the now-retired Brent Steele, will attend occasionally when his schedule allows, Hennessee said.

Mainly representing Lawrence and Jackson counties, Koch’s 44th District also includes areas of Bartholomew, Brown and Monroe counties.

Cigarette-tax proposals

At least three bills that would raise the cigarette tax in Indiana — currently 99.5 cents per pack — have been introduced into the General Assembly, and are now being studied in committee.

House Bill 1320, authored by Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, would increase the cigarette tax by $2 a pack, and utilize the revenue for a variety of smoking-cessation purposes; $1 of the additional funds per pack would go to a medical residency education fund.

House Bill 1490, authored by Rep. Timothy Brown, R-Crawfordsville, would increases the cigarette tax by $1 per pack, and use the additional revenue for reimbursements of Medicaid providers.

House Bill 1578, authored by Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer, R-Beech Grove, would increase the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack, raise the age for purchasing or possession of tobacco from 18 to 21, and repeal employment protections for tobacco users.

Gas tax proposal

Besides raising the current 18-cent per gallon gas tax to 28 cents, House Bill 1002 would also:

  • Provide for an annual rate increase in fuel tax rates based on an annual index factor.
  • Establish a $15 transportation infrastructure improvement fee that applies to the registration of all motor vehicles.
  • Require a person who registers an electric vehicle to pay a supplemental fee of $150 with an increase every five years.

Bartholomew County Third House sessions

What: A 90-minute free weekly forum allowing local residents to discuss pending legislation in the Indiana General Assembly with their representatives.

When: Starting next week, the Third House sessions will begin at 7:30 a.m each Monday, and continue until lawmakers adjourn for the year.

Where: Cal Brand meeting room, first floor of Columbus City Hall.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.