Craig Dunn: Indiana's road funding dilemma came over time
Thursday, March 09, 2017 9:50 AM
KOKOMO – Please forgive me for being Mr. Obvious here, but Indiana’s highways didn’t just begin to crumble last year and our bridges didn’t just start falling down at the same time. The deterioration of infrastructure begins the day a new highway is completed or a new bridge erected. Anyone driving around the Hoosier State over the past 10 years knows that roads and bridges have been getting progressively more in need of repair.
Why then, in the name of Harold Handley’s ghost, did we just notice last year that we had a problem? Well, sure, there was the impending collapse of the bridge on I-69 at Lafayette to focus attention on the issue, but surely someone in the Indiana Legislature had to notice the potential problem before then.
One would have expected Dolan Dirtdragger, Indiana Highway Department employee for the Pulaski County district, to have gone to his boss and told him, “Hey, Earnest, you know that bridge out on 250 West and Sewer’s Creek has got this darn blamed gigantic crack in it. You better tell your boss to go see Gov. Pence and have him send us $457 for an extra-large bucket of Bondo!”
Let’s face it, not every road and bridge went to pot at the same time. Somebody knew something at some time and failed to tell someone about some things.
The ugly truth about the infrastructure repair legislation slowly making its way through the Indiana General Assembly is that if the governor and the Indiana Legislature had not eliminated Indiana’s inheritance tax, cut corporate tax rates and cut personal income tax rates over the past five years, there would currently be no need for a new source of revenue to pay for repairs to highways and bridges. In retrospect, the tax cuts seem short-sighted.
Make no mistake about it, I love a good tax cut. I don’t like government sticking their greedy little mitts in my pocket any more than the next guy. It just doesn’t make sense to me to cut taxes, brag about it, cut taxes, brag about it, cut taxes, brag about it and then jack up taxes and try and explain it away. I’m sure the voters liked it in 2014 and 2016, but based on the social media that I’ve been reading, they are fit to be tied about a prospective inflation-adjusting gasoline tax increase and an increase in the cost of acquiring COPD.
Well, that’s all water over the dam as they say in Oroville. We can’t go back and change things now, even though it may look silly to taxpayers to be getting a miniscule tax cut on personal incomes in 2017, only to see it whisked away by an increased cost of driving, courtesy of our elected public servants.
Just shuffling around our state budget in an effort to find $1 billion for highway and bridge repair is not an option as offered up by the “never tax me again” coalition. I’m pretty confident that most of the wasted spending of past Democratic administrations has been flushed out. Gov. Daniels did a great job of taking a meat cleaver to a lot of sacred spending cows. No, Republicans have cut things pretty much down to the bone. Unless we want to see Indiana University try and replicate this basketball season with a coaching staff paid less, we better leave current spending levels alone.
Spending has to go up if we want to drive without finding our vehicles and ourselves fighting to get out of a pothole near Plevna or one of Indiana’s enchanting little streams, creeks (that’s crick to those of you south of U.S. 40) or rivers. Come to think of it, and this might really appeal to Eric Miller, we could change the name of the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge in Pike County to the Baptism Bridge. Any increase in autos dropping into the White River due to the deteriorating bridge could then be attributed to the Rapture. But I digress.
My only problem with an increase in the gasoline tax is that it will hit lower-income Hoosiers much harder than the affluent. I’m pretty sure that I won’t much notice the tax increase nor care much about it if I do. However, there are many Hoosiers living on the cusp of poverty who will feel the sting of a gas tax increase. A $5-a-week increase in gasoline cost means quite a bit to someone who doesn’t have the five bucks.
I will forever remember the man whom I wrote about last spring, who was getting gas next to me at Kroger and could only put $10 worth in his tank, who wondered out loud why President Obama wouldn’t open up the Keystone Pipeline. I would rather forgo my income tax cut and keep that money in the state till.
Unfortunately, Indiana Republicans have made so much political hay by touting tax cuts over the last five years that it is not politically feasible to just say “Oops” and restore taxes to their previous levels. Thus, in that massive legislative sausage grinder in the State House, a big tax increase becomes a use fee. Ah, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!
I’m proud that our Indiana Legislature is fiscally responsible. I’m happy that they have erred to the side of cutting taxes in the past. I just wish our state government, as well as all levels of government, would begin to take the strategic long view and avoid future short-term politically expedient gestures that make for great bumper stickers but questionable public policy.
Dunn is the former Howard County Republican chairman.