Conversations are occurring among Indiana legislators about reducing a proposed state gasoline tax to fund infrastructure, Bartholomew County residents learned in Monday’s Third House legislative session.

The original proposal for a 10-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax increase was made after the Indiana Department of Transportation announced last year it needed an additional $1.2 billion for road and bridge repairs, as well as related infrastructure.

But since House Bill 1002 was introduced in this year’s General Assembly, lawmakers have earmarked about $300 million in sales tax income to roads and bridges, which could reduce the amount of revenue needed from a gasoline tax, said State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus.

In addition, State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, said he met last week with Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee chairman Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, to talk about phasing in a gasoline tax increase that would be smaller at the start than the 10-cent-per-gallon hike included in House Bill 1002.

Speaking to about 40 people during the Third House meeting at Columbus City Hall, Walker said he is concerned that some lawmakers would attempt to divert revenue from a gasoline tax to pay for programs unrelated to roads and bridges.

“We can probably be more moderate in bringing in some of those increases, so we don’t get some of the wants ahead of some of the needs,” Walker said.

A gas tax increase will take a larger percentage of income from low-income earners than from high-income earners, audience member Sharon Kreig of Columbus told the lawmakers.

“Everybody uses roads and bridges, and everybody should pay,” Kreig told both lawmakers, as well as Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford.

But speaking as a member of the Indiana Motor Truck Association, Bartholomew County business owner Charles “Shorty” Whittington said he supports House Bill 1002 just as it is.

“Our own studies show every dollar we spend on road construction will result in $15 of return,” said Whittington, co-founder of Grammer Industries, a transportation company.

While some people in the audience spoke in favor of increasing fees for trucking firms, Walker cited New Jersey as an example of a state that lost jobs after raising income taxes on such companies.

Besides higher gas taxes, House Bill 1002 would impose a new $15 vehicle registration fee and allow the state to seek federal authority to impose roadway tolling.

Affordable housing

A petition containing 81 signatures was presented to Smith that urges him to support a bill that exempts property taxes from homes managed by affordable housing organizations.

The petition regarding Senate Bill 559 was circulated over four days by the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Alliance.

Smith said he offered a similar bill in 2011, but experienced opposition from lawmakers who claimed his proposal would take away local control of property taxes.

Lawmakers would likely have to mandate that the Indiana Department of Local Government Financing make guidelines to ensure all 92 counties provide that exemption, Smith said.

As of now, the department only makes suggestions to those counties, which allows them to develop their own interpretations, Smith said.

While Bartholomew County Assessor Lew Wilson continues to oppose Senate Bill 559, he said a new initiative to develop supportive housing in Columbus might receive a property tax exemption.

Under an initiative being developed by Centerstone Behavioral Health and Thrive Alliance, the initiative would provide the homeless, including people with untreated mental illness and substance-abuse disorders, with housing.

Since such an effort would relieve government of a financial burden, Wilson said he believes the Bartholomew County Property Tax Board of Appeals would provide the exemption.

The initiative is currently under development, and is expected to be presented to the community by early fall.

Senate Bill 559 was referred to House Ways and Means Committee on March 7 after being passed by the Senate. Smith said he has not heard whether a committee hearing on the bill has been scheduled.

Rural broadband

A bill co-authored by Koch that he describes as a solution to a lack of broadband in rural areas is still moving ahead in the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 478, also known as the Facilitating Internet Broadband Rural Expansion (FIBRE) Act, would allow Indiana’s rural electric cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet service to their members.

That would be achieved by permitting organizations such as Bartholomew County REMC to install fiber optic cables on existing infrastructure over electric easements, Koch said.

By a vote of 38-2, the FIBRE Act was approved on third reading by the Indiana Senate three weeks ago. It is currently being reviewed by the House Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

Koch’s 44th district also includes areas of Bartholomew County.

Net metering

Over the past month, the future of net metering — which allows customers who install solar panels to sell their excess energy back to the power companies — has received increasing attention at the Third House sessions in Columbus.

Under Senate Bill 309, a new policy that moves solar power from net metering to a sell-all/buy-all system would be phased in after five years.

That means homeowners with rooftop solar panels wouldn’t be allowed to use the electricity they produce themselves, opponents such as Steve Schoettmer of Columbus said.

Instead, they would have to sell all their electricity to an established utility at a lower, wholesale rate — and then buy back all their power at the higher retail rate.

Advocates of the bill claim net metering unfairly forces customers without solar panels to subsidize those who have them. It also provides large utility companies time to create renewable energy sources that will result in lower utility bills for all, Walker said.

Retired Columbus attorney Mike Mullett said if net metering is phased out, people who invested in homes with solar panels will lose an asset that increases the value of their property.

Smith said he believes Mullett may have a valid point, and promised to discuss the matter with lawmakers later this week.

The net metering bill passed the Senate 39-9, and is now being studied in the House Committee on Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications.

Time left

There is just under five weeks left in the 2017 Indiana General Assembly session. The state’s biennial budget, which is the primary responsibility of this year’s session, passed the Indiana House 68-29 on Feb. 27, and is now in the Senate Appropriations Committee.  Unless lawmakers choose to extend the current  session, the state legislature will adjourn no later than April 22.

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