Tax cuts and increased funding for roads and education — those are some of the highlights of this year’s legislative session for some members of Elkhart County’s delegation to Indianapolis.
As of late Friday afternoon, April 26, the two-year Indiana budget for 2014 and 2015 had yet to be formally approved by legislators. Reps from Elkhart County indicated it had broad support, though, foreboding passage. And members of the local delegation — all GOPers — touted many of the spending plan’s provisions as the top achievements of the year.
“I think the total set of tax cuts will help economic growth and Hoosier families,” said Sen. Joe Zakas, R-Granger, who represents northern Elkhart County.
Among other things, the budget plan contains a phased-in 5 percent cut in the income tax rate through 2017, elimination of the state’s inheritance tax retroactive to Jan. 1 this year and, Zakas said, a cut in the tax rate for corporations and financial institutions. Those changes generated round praise from Elkhart County reps, speaking by phone from Indianapolis Friday afternoon. They weren’t the only things on their minds, though, and here are highlights of what they had to say as the session neared its end.
Rep. Tim Neese: The overall package of tax cuts amounted to the largest one-time “tax credit” in the history of the state, said the Elkhart lawmaker.
The increase in roads funding in the budget, meanwhile, would mean $1.4 million more for Elkhart County, he said. Primary and secondary public education across the state would get around $330 million more in the two-year budget cycle.
Neese further noted a measure increasing funding to the Indiana Department of Child Services by $35 million over two years, money that would allow for new training, more employees and increased case monitoring.
He was doubtful lawmakers would reach compromise on a measure calling for drug testing of recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits in certain circumstances. Neese backs the measure, but apparent “philosophical” differences among lawmakers were likely to stall it, he thought.
Democratic lawmakers walked out during the 2012 and 2011 sessions, but not so this year, in which Republicans hold supermajorites in each legislative chamber.
“I think this was probably a very cordial session. I think it was about compromise,” Neese said. Notably, he pointed to Gov. Mike Pence’s original efforts to get a 10 percent cut in the income tax rate, whittled down to 5 percent in the final budget proposal.
Neese noted that Pence, in his first year as governor, and his predecessor, former Gov. Mitch Daniels, had differing leadership styles. He didn’t delve too deeply into specifics, though.
“You notice they’re just two very strongly contrasting personalities,” he said.
Rep. Wes Culver: The Goshen lawmaker noted that $215 million in new funding for local roads projects and maintenance is included in the budget. That’s significant as gas tax revenue drops due to increasingly fuel-efficient autos and Major Moves funding from the lease of the Indiana Toll Road runs out.
He also pointed to plans to pay off the debt on two government buildings and pay for two other structures up front. “The less debt we have, the less overhead we have when a recession comes,” he said.
Other legislation would give judges more discretion in meting out punishment, increase potential penalties for those who commit serious crimes and reduce potential penalties for those committing lesser offenses.
He touted measures to reduce the skills gap, that is, provide for training enabling Hoosier workers to take the jobs that local employers need filled. Some Elkhart County employers, Culver noted, report openings, but too few qualified applicants to fill the posts.
On the down side, Culver lamented the failure of a measure he authored to address local officials’ concerns that the state shortchanges them on income tax revenue, House Bill 1479.
Rep. Tim Wesco: The Osceola lawmaker was particularly enthusiastic over the proposed elimination of the inheritance tax retroactive to Jan. 1. He had crafted a measure to do just that, though the change ultimately ended up in the budget plan. “I wanted more tax relief for Hoosiers and this budget has it,” Wesco said.
He also noted his efforts to address the flap over proposed change in the city of Elkhart’s sewer fee structure for industrial clients located just outside the city limits. He pulled a legislative amendment addressing the situation, but thinks his involvement helped push discussion on the topic.
Sen. Joe Zakas: Like the others he touted the tax cut provisions of the budget and, like Culver, singled out measures meant to address the skills gap.
He lamented that legislation stalled that would have required certain serious felons to supply DNA samples for a criminal database.