INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers wrapped up the 2010 legislative session with two days to spare and are pointing to a host of accomplishments, including a statewide vote on property tax caps, new lobby rules, aid for schools and a tax reprieve for business.
I think we did work on all the areas we hoped to. Mission accomplished, House Speaker Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said moments after adjourning the session about 1 a.m. Saturday.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, also termed the session a success but noted the difficulty of the final days in reaching a compromise giving employers a one-year delay on new unemployment insurance tax increases, which are also known as UI.
I think the environment’s tough right now. There is a lot of pressure on the elected officials, the toughness of the economy, the unrest of the populace and our constituents, Long said. It took longer than it should have in my opinion. But we got it done.
Gov. Mitch Daniels seemed less impressed with the results of the session.
In all honesty, this was an essentially defensive, Hippocratic session, he said. We protected taxpayers against those who want to spend money we will not have, protected our business climate against an untimely increase in UI premiums, protected schools by enhancing their flexibility to use unspent funds they have in reserve, and protected everyone against attempted raids by gaming, labor unions, and other narrow special interests.
He noted a few modest successes from his agenda, including a bill to help collect more delinquent child support.
I prefer playing offense on behalf of change for Indiana’s future, but in this economy and political environment, this was not a bad outcome, Daniels said.
Legislative leaders initially tried to finish a week early to save the state about $100,000. In the end, they left about 48 hours early.
Now lawmakers can hit the campaign trail. All 100 House seats are up for grabs, and half the Senate seats are up for re-election. The party that wins the majority in each chamber gets the right to draw new legislative boundaries next year.
Long said the effort to overhaul redistricting was one disappointment.
The Senate had proposed establishing standards for drawing legislative and congressional districts, as well as a more in-depth study of the issue for the future.
Their plan set guidelines for districts such as being as compact and geographically uniform as possible while respecting known community boundaries such as county and precinct lines. The Indiana Constitution gives the duty of redistricting to the General Assembly, which will receive updated census data for the districts in 2011.
Bauer chose not to hear the bill.
But Long promised his members will follow the rules and standards they adopted in the bill even though it isn’t law.
One area Bauer wished had moved forward was the township government overhaul. Meaningful changes to the system failed for the second year in a row.
That was a little bit of a disappointment, he said. We thought it was a good compromise, to let the people decide.
The House passed a bill that would have allowed voters to keep or eliminate their township government on a township-by-township basis.
The greatest accomplishment of the session was clear, at least for Republicans. They hailed the passage of a constitutional amendment on property tax caps.
Voters will get to make the final decision in November on whether to place the restrictions into the Constitution. Under current state law, property tax bills are limited to 1 percent of a home’s assessed value for primary residences. The caps rise to 2 percent for farmland and other rental property and 3 percent for businesses.
The tax caps are very important, said Rep. Randy Borror, R-Fort Wayne. I’d be hard-pressed to think of people not approving them. They want certainty. They deserve certainty.
Another significant feat of the session was an ethics and lobbying overhaul bill. For the first time it requires those lobbying on behalf of state universities and colleges to report their expenditures.
House Bill 1001 also requires lawmakers who leave office after Dec. 31, 2011, to wait at least a year before becoming lobbyists; eliminates lobbyist-paid, out-of-state travel for legislators; limits elected state officials’ use of their name or likeness in ads paid for with state funds; and reduces from $100 to $50 the expenditure level at which lobbyists must report meals, gifts and entertainment they provide.
Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said the growth in the number of lobbyists – especially those working on gambling matters – has surprised him and he appreciated the new changes.
While we haven’t really had any major problems with ethics, it was a good time to really set some parameters, he said. You have to do that sometimes and take a look at the whole picture.
The legislation that threatened to derail the session came together at the last minute Friday night.
It delayed scheduled unemployment insurance tax increases of $350 million on employers for one year. Senate Republicans had sought a two-year delay, but Democrats resisted what they termed a billion-dollar bailout for businesses.
The General Assembly originally passed the tax increase in 2009 to help make the state’s broken unemployment insurance trust fund solvent again.
Senate Bill 23 also contains a modest job-creation package and some pro-labor provisions, such as not requiring someone on unemployment to submit one application a week to an employer that is hiring.
Indiana Manufacturers Association President Patrick Kiely said the tax increase would have been the state’s largest business tax increase at the worst possible economic time.
He and others said the tax increase would have been the equivalent of the loss of 10,000 Hoosier jobs annually.
In today’s economy, preserving existing jobs and creating an environment for future job growth must be the top priority, Kiely said. This action by the legislature is a huge step forward for Indiana.
Legislators also were able to provide schools struggling with the state’s $300 million in funding cuts some flexibility to tap into property tax funds for operating costs.
All schools would have access to some money, about $40 million statewide, out of various accounts such as capital projects, transportation and school bus replacement.
Additional dollars could be reaped if schools do not give general wage increases to employees in the 2011 school year.
Lawmakers said House Bill 1367 could help save 1,600 jobs.
I thought for the short session we did a lot, GiaQuinta said. We allowed them to move some funds around. We did what we could do. But the big picture is that we have to continue to grow the economy because schools rely on sales tax and income tax now.