After months of research and debate and a great deal of compromise, the 2007 legislative session has come to an end. Every two years, the General Assembly has the constitutional obligation to produce a balanced state budget by April 29. For a while, it looked like we were not going to be able to do this. However, we diligently worked through the weekend drafting, redrafting, debating, and voting on committee reports in order to accomplish this feat for Hoosiers.
Perhaps the most pressing issue we dealt with is finding a solution to the ever-growing problem of rising property taxes. About a week ago, the Legislative Services Agency released some disturbing news-property taxes are expected to rise by nearly 24 percent, contrary to the previous estimate of an already drastic 14.6 percent. For years now, the House Republican Caucus has pushed for comprehensive property tax reform that would shift the burden of local government and school construction costs away from homeowners. School construction accounts for 38 percent of property tax growth in District 53. Growing school corporations are not receiving enough financial assistance in the current school funding formula because they rely too much on property taxes without looking for other revenue sources.
Unfortunately, as the minority party in the House, we were unable to achieve full property tax reform in this legislative session. The budget, which I voted against, does not provide immediate or long-term property tax relief. The Democrat plan is to allow Hoosier homeowners to pay their enormous property tax bills and then send them a rebate check in the mail sometime this fall. We could have provided immediate relief for this round of property tax bills, but instead, these people will have to wait until late fall to get relief. This is not a permanent fix. We will have to revisit the issue next year and possibly the year after that to find a permanent solution. On top of all of this, the budget did not cut spending. It was balanced, but we could have done more for Hoosier taxpayers.
Many of you have heard about the cigarette tax increase that will be used to fund the Healthy Indiana Plan, a market-based, consumer driven health care plan for low income Hoosiers. The health care plan is incredibly important for the people of Indiana, but I had to vote against the cigarette tax increase. I could not vote for a "sin tax" that would fund a health care plan on the back of cigarette smokers.
We also passed an initiative to crack down on illegal gambling in the state with House Enrolled Act 1510. The act creates an Annual Charity Game Night License allowing organizations to host a controlled number of gaming events per year. By limiting gaming to already-established charities, we hope to prevent any camouflaging of illegal gambling operations as legitimate not-for-profits.
In addition to providing property tax relief, producing a balanced budget, and helping Hoosiers access affordable health care, one of the 2007 House Republican agenda items was to further honor and support Hoosiers veterans and active military members. Senate Enrolled Act 480 increases the Military Pay Income Tax Deduction and exempts active duty military pay earned by members of the National Guard and Reserves from the income tax. The act also expands the high school diploma program for eligible veterans to include veterans of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. This act states that any veteran who left high school without graduating in order to perform military service is an "eligible veteran" entitled to receive a high school diploma.
Another military and veterans' affairs initiative to pass out of the General Assembly is House Enrolled Act 1092, which establishes an unpaid leave of absence for family members of soldiers ordered to involuntary active duty in the United States armed forces or the National Guard for deployment overseas. This way, Hoosier military members will have an opportunity to spend more time with their families before their deployment. The bill also extends the eligibility for grants from the Military Family Relief Fund to active duty members of the armed forces and provides for grants from the fund for child care assistance.
All in all, I wish we could have done more to relieve the burden of property taxes for Hoosiers. As I leave Indianapolis and head back home to spend the summer interim with my family, I encourage you to stay in touch. Contact me with any questions, comments, or concerns. Send letters to: State Rep. Bob Cherry, 200 W. Washington St., Room 401, Indianapolis, IN 46204. E-mail: H53@in.gov or call toll-free: 1-800-382-9841.