Taxes hot topic during Third House

The growing financial burdens of low to middle-income Hoosiers received attention on two fronts during Monday’s Third House legislative session.

Most state tax cuts either approved in recent years or are now being considered provide benefits to corporations and property owners more than working-class residents, audience member Bob Hyatt told two state lawmakers who represent the Columbus area.

In contrast, a proposed increase on the gas tax will hurt ordinary Hoosiers who are unable to afford hybrid or electric cares than those with higher incomes, Hyatt said.

“Lower-income people pay when the economy is bad,” said Hyatt, who advocates a higher minimum-wage in Indiana. “But when the economy is good, they don’t get the tax breaks. I don’t think the balance is appropriate.”

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In response, State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, cited higher employment figures as evidence that shows tax breaks for corporations and the well-to-do “have a tremendous impact for those in the working class.”

The average family in Indiana is saving about $325 a year under tax breaks approved by the General Assembly, and the proposed gas tax hike will only cost that same average family about $199 a year, State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, said.

But audience member Steve Schoettmer, a long-time postal union representative, said those quotes may be misleading.

“If you get a $1,000 tax break and I get a $1 tax break, we have an average tax break of $500,” Schoettmer said.

Right to work

In addition to the proposed gas tax hike, Schoettmer also spoke against the 2012 Right to Work bill, which prohibits unions from mandating that nonmembers pay fees to the unions for representing them.

Although Republican lawmakers were accused of trying to bust unions with that bill, Smith pointed out Indiana had 304,000 union members in 2016, a 6.9 percent increase from 2015.

It was the third time in four years that labor union participation has risen in Indiana, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In response, Schoettmer said the 2012 bill has “ultimately caused a cumulative cut in pay of $3,000 per person.”

“The lower your income drops, the less tax you pay,” Schoettmer said. “So unless you raise wages, we’re eliminating a tax base.”

When Hyatt said Indiana was 36th in the country in terms of average income, Walker said the Hoosier state is also the fourth cheapest in which to live.

Hoosiers have both a much lower cost of living and more job opportunities than those cities that have much higher minimum wages, Walker said.

And if lawmakers force employers to pay higher wages and taxes, many corporations would take their jobs out of Indiana, he said.

Medical marijuana

Indiana is just one of a few states that prohibit all forms of medicinal cannabis. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia offer comprehensive medical cannabis programs while 15 others allow people with certain conditions to use the drug.

Both Smith and Walker indicated they have evolving views on the issue of legalizing medical marijuana.

“I will tell you I am more open to it than I was a year ago, due to the medical benefits,” Walker said.

Although Smith also acknowledged those same benefits, he also said he read a recent study that indicates medical marijuana can cause medical problems for young people.

“I’ve moved a little bit, but I’m still not there to legalize it,” Smith said. “And it appears the General Assembly isn’t there yet, because the (medical marijuana) bills aren’t moving.”

Walker added he remains hesitant to support medicinal cannabis as long as a federal ban remains in place.

Hate crimes

Legislation that would create the state’s first hate-crime law has been reintroduced this year. In 2016, the measure passed the Senate, but wasn’t given a committee hearing in the house.

When Democrat Bob Pitman, who unsuccessfully challenged Smith during November’s election, asked whether the lawmakers supported it, Walker said he would again support the measure written by Sen. Susan Glick, R-LaGrange.

But Smith said the House GOP Caucus felt the law wasn’t needed because Indiana judges already have the ability to increase penalties when determining aggravating and mitigating circumstances during a criminal sentencing hearing.

However, Pitman disagreed, adding he thought house members should make it clear that Indiana does not condone hate crimes.

If you go

Third House sessions, sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, are held every Monday morning while the Indiana General Assembly is in session except for President’s Day, Feb. 20.

The 7:30 a.m. meetings in the first-floor Cal Brand meeting room at Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St., allow residents to learn where their representatives stand on matters before the state legislature.

Third House will only be canceled if the local schools are out of session.

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