[r44] Looking Ahead to the 2008 Legislative Session (12/27/2007)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Start Date: 12/27/2007 All Day
End Date: 12/27/2007

In the aftermath of the holiday season, most of us reflect on the year behind us and look ahead to the coming year with hope for the future, full of new goals and the hope for better times.  As we all know, it's hard to predict where the year will take us or what joys and hardships will befall our friends and family. 

Likewise, as I look back on the 2007 legislative session, I am proud of many things we were able to do, such as creating more relief for military members and their families, encouraging the use of renewable energy resources and providing affordable health care for more than 100,000 uninsured Hoosiers.

Unfortunately, we were unable to accomplish one goal that matters most to many homeowners and government officials: We failed to provide sufficient and lasting property tax relief, and we did nothing to reform Indiana's terribly outdated taxation systems. 

As we get closer to the start of another legislative session, I can say with relative certainty that we will confront the property tax problem with a resolve to provide relief and make lasting reforms.  Hoosier homeowners have made it clear they won't settle for anything less.  However, there is no way to know for sure exactly which ideas will make it through the process.

There is no shortage of research and proposed actions to guide our decision making.  In October, Gov. Mitch Daniels announced his plan to provide property tax relief, and more recently, the Kernan-Shepard blue ribbon commission laid out its plan for local government reform, which is closely tied to many of Indiana's property tax woes.  Both plans have been met with support and criticism from constituents, editorial writers, various associations and state legislators.  It's a hard task to sort through these plans and to weigh both the good and bad points being highlighted by people throughout the state.  Surely, the coming session will be full of  debate and disagreement as we work to create the best property tax and reform packages to benefit all Hoosiers. 

The governor's plan calls for the state to assume school operating funds, K-12 transportation funds and child welfare costs; these funds currently are paid for by local taxpayers. Also, his plan includes $700 million of dollar-for-dollar property tax relief on 2008 property tax bills and $1 billion in 2009. More controversial has been the governor's call  for permanent limits on property taxes by seeking a constitutional amendment to cap homeowner, residential and business property taxes at 1, 2 and 3 percent respectively.

Some legislators think a constitutional amendment is too extreme, that it is risky to place numerical limits into the Indiana Constitution, when these might not be reasonable in the future.  What's more, some people and business organizations think it is inequitable to place a higher cap on business property than residential and homeowner property.  Even more controversial is the governor's call for a single, appointed assessor for each county. 

In all, however, the governor's plan looks promising.  It will give Indiana the ninth-lowest homeowner property tax burden in the United States, and that looks good to most of us in the legislature.  Compared to the Kernan-Shepard Report, the governor's plan seems downright conservative.  Without a doubt, the local government reforms called for in this report will be the most difficult to get through the Indiana General Assembly, even though many of their recommendations make good sense and would bring Indiana out of the local-government dark ages.

The report made 27 recommendations to address the structure and efficiency of local government, focusing on counties, townships, cities and towns, schools and libraries.  Some restate aspects of the governor's plan, such as state assumptions of child welfare costs and an appointed, county-wide assessor.  The rest of the plan goes much further to consolidate and significantly reduce the number of local government units.  While the entire plan is bold, the issue of school consolidation is igniting criticism across the state.  This item may be among the hardest to pass, as many will argue that their smaller school districts provide an extremely high-quality of education to children. 

The Kernan-Shepard report calls for actions that make significant changes to the structure of local government.  I agree that Indiana would benefit from many of the recommendations, but I also understand how difficult these radical changes will be for our current local government officials, who work hard and do good work in our communities. 

Now more than ever, I turn to you for your thoughts on property tax relief and local government reform. I encourage you to respond to the legislative survey you will soon receive in your mailboxes. Tell me what you would like to see happen in the upcoming session.  To familiarize yourself with the options currently on the table, read Gov. Daniels' plan for property tax relief at www.in.gov/index.htm and the entire Kernan-Shepard Report at www.in.gov/legislative/house_republicans/pdfs/kernan_shepard_report071210.pdf.

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Contact Rep. Thomas with questions or concerns through e-mail at h44@in.gov, or by calling the Statehouse toll-free at 1-800-382-9841.  It is also possible to write him at 200 W. Washington St, Indianapolis, IN 46204.