By J SWYGART
Elected officials in counties, cities, townships and schools ask for it constantly. Actually, they mostly whine for it, all the while bemoaning Big Brother in Indianapolis — which they claim is constantly imposing the collective will of state lawmakers to the detriment of small units of local government statewide.
And for the most part, that’s not an entirely inaccurate assessment.
But as was pointed out last Saturday in a town hall-type meeting hosted by the two lawmakers who represent Adams County in the Indiana General Assembly, with local control comes both responsibility and the courage of one’s political convictions. And both, at times, have been sadly lacking from local politicians who seem to be talking from both sides of their collective mouths.
The topic of local control surfaced as part of a question-and-answer session hosted by State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, and State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle. The crowd was small, embarrassingly so, and the majority of questions submitted revolved — as they typically tend to do — around funding for schools and other education-related topics.
Whether or not this heavily-weighted interest in school funding is reflective of a broader interest in the subject on the part of the general public or is simply a case of educators outnumbering other constituencies at these types of meetings is subject to speculation. I’d suggest it’s the latter, but I’m not sure.
At any rate, tucked among the endless number of school-related questions was a query about the status of a bill that, if adopted, would change the way Indiana counties could go about instituting a so-called “wheel tax” (formally called a Local Option Highway User Tax) as a way to generate additional funds for county road improvements.
Current law permits county councils to impose the tax, but a bill currently pending in the Indiana House — for the second time this session — calls for county tax councils to determine the ultimate fate of any future wheel tax discussions. For Adams County, it’s a distinction without a difference.
The updated wheel tax bill, which was defeated in the House last month, resurfaced in the Senate and was approved by a 37-11 margin. It has been returned to the House for further study. Senate Bill 398 permits a county income tax council to impose a motor vehicle excise surtax and/or a wheel tax for a county.
County tax councils, created by the Indiana General Assembly in the 1980s to decide local income tax issues, are actually a series of votes by different elected fiscal bodies, with each board controlling a specific percentage of the overall vote. Because of its population make-up, the Adams County Council would retain 51 percent of the decision-making authority in that decision here — making the bill mostly moot.
The legislation also specifies that the body that initially imposes the wheel tax is the body that is empowered to increase, decrease, or rescind the wheel tax. That authority also is extended to any county excise taxes. Again, in the local case, we’re talking about the county council.
The same cannot be said for some of Indiana’s larger counties, however.
“You have county councils that have control of the wheel tax, but you have counties with a city where most of the traveled road miles are concentrated, and those cities aren’t empowered to access that wheel tax,” said State Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, the bill’s original sponsor in the House.
Rep. Lehman said he does not support the bill (he voted against it earlier this year) because counties already have the power to increase local taxes.
It’s political courage that is often lacking. Few elected officials are willing to impose a tax hike on their constituents, especially the closer it gets to election (or more correctly re-election) time.
“You have county councils which want the wheel tax as much as the city councils and town boards do, but those county council members only want local control right up to the point they have to vote to raise taxes,” Karickhoff told the Hoosier State Press Association earlier this year.
The Adams County Council last tackled the wheel tax question in 2010, voting 4-0 to reject a proposal that would have generated between $150,000 and $900,000 annually for road improvements, depending on the level of tax imposed. Council members at the time said they had talked to several residents and none supported the tax.
Well duh. When’s the last time you heard someone begging for a new tax?
And we’re not here today suggesting that such a tax be enacted in Adams County. Merely it’s just a reminder that, while railing against “big government” is the easy and popular thing to do these days, in many cases it’s the failure of local government to make difficult choices that causes the scenario on the first place.
We all want decent roads. And we all know who’s ultimately going to foot the bill. Maybe the only remaining question is who will pay for it — politically.
The writer is the opinion page editor of the Decatur Daily Democrat.