INDIANAPOLIS – Back in 1998, then-candidate Bob Cherry made a promise never to raise taxes on Indiana residents for the life of his political career.
Now, years later as Indiana needs billions of new tax dollars to fix its crumbling roads and bridges, he wonders if he made a mistake. “How can we make good public policy for the future if we’re tied to the past?” said Cherry, one of 27 Indiana lawmakers who’ve signed the Americans for Tax Reform’s so-called taxpayer protection pledge.
The pledge, created in 1986 by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, locks its signatories into a promise never to create new taxes or to raise existing ones as long the pledge-maker holds public office. Cherry and other Republican office-holders happily signed on, he said, to demonstrate their commitment to fiscal conservatism.
But now the promise feels like a chokehold, especially in light of the indefinite shutdown of a portion of the heavily traveled Interstate 65 near Lafayette, due to a deteriorating bridge sinking into the ground.
The shut-down bridge, which typically carries 20,000 motorists a day, is one of more than 350 state-maintained bridges deemed structurally deficient, a number that state transportation officials say will double in less than a decade without a huge injection of new money into the state’s highway fund.
Cherry, who serves as a vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, fears that no-tax pledge will keep the General Assembly from acting on a long-delayed but much-needed long-term solution for transportation funding.
“We made this pledge to people who are from outside our state, who know nothing about us now,” said Cherry. “They don’t understand: Things change.”
Indiana hasn’t raised the gas tax since 2002, when it was increased to 18 cents a gallon. A combination of factors, including inflation and more efficient cars, has triggered a drop in revenues. Indiana’s gas tax brought in $582 million in 2004. Last year, the tax brought in $527 million.    
Some long-term options to make up for the lost revenue have been floated in the legislature: They include raising the gas tax by tying it to inflation; increasing the portion of the sales tax on gasoline that can be diverted into road and bridge repair; and creating a new license registration fee for drivers of electric- or natural gas-powered vehicles that don’t currently pay the gas tax.
They were all shot down by the Americans for Tax Reform. In a statement. John Karsch, an ATR spokesman, said any increase in the state’s gas taxes or registration fees “not offset by an equivalent tax cut would be considered a violation of their (legislators’) promise to their constituents to oppose any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
And Karsch’s statement added: “If lawmakers wanted to ensure adequate transportation funding, it would have been prioritized in the state budget.”
Some lawmakers worry the no-tax pledge will keep lawmakers from getting there.
Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, House Roads and Transportation Committee chairman, has pushed lawmakers for the past three years to act boldly on road funding. The legislature freed up about $400 million in the 2013-2014 budget cycle for infrastructure, much of it going to repair local roads and bridges, without raising taxes.    
But it only put a dent in the bigger problem, said Soliday, who calls himself a “common-sense conservative” and who declined to sign the tax pledge.
Last year, Karl Browning, then head of the Indiana Department of Transportation, told lawmakers it will take $3 billion over the next decade just to curb the existing damage to state-maintained roads and bridges. Browning also said it will take $4 billion just to bring existing roads and bridges up to what’s considered current safety standards.
“Conservatives like to talk about how terrible it would be to burden our children with debt,” Soliday said. “But by not fixing this now, we’re going to be handing our children and very, very big and costly problem.”
Miles and miles of Indiana’s roads are in poor shape. But its bridges may be more worrisome. In his detailed presentation to state budget-makers last year, Karl Browning said delaying action only makes the situation much worse.
Browning told lawmakers that half of Indiana’s 5,400 bridges are more than 50 years old and nearing their life span of 75 years. He said about almost 7 percent of Indiana’s bridges are rated in “poor condition” – considered structurally deficient by federal standards – and he projected that number will nearly double over the next 10 years if the current level of spending on bridge repair, about $274 million, doesn’t dramatically go up.
Soliday hoped his fellow legislators were listening. His repeated message to them has been: “It’s a matter of, ‘You can pay me now, or you can pay me a whole lot more later.’ ”
Some did listen.
House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawsfordsville, signed the no-tax pledge. But he’s aligned with Soliday in trying to find a way to significantly increase dollars to the state’s highway fund. He sees the gasoline tax as “user fee” that’s long been paid by motorists to maintain the roads and bridges they use. Raising that “user fee” is one option that legislators could consider, without violating the tax pledge, he said.
“But I know not everybody will see it that way,” Brown said.
Earlier this year, Brown and Soliday convinced INDOT to pay for a publicly accessible tool that documents road and bridge funding needs, explains the different revenue-raising options, and shows what can be bought for the extra bucks. The tool should be online by October.
They’re both hoping that kind of information helps push the road-funding conversation forward. That, along with the visions of the closed Interstate 65 bridge collapsing if not fixed and the hours-long delays for motorists forced to travel a 17-mile detour on back roads to get back on the interstate.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley thinks any tax increase for road funding will likely come in the 2017 session. That’s a budget-making year, and also comes after the critical 2016 state elections. Kenley, known for his tight-fisted control over the budget, says it’s a good thing for Republicans to be seen as resistant to tax increases. But he’s glad he never signed the no-tax pledge.
“It’s going to be inevitable that we’ll have raise (road funding) revenues in some way, shape or form,” Kenley said, adding: “But I know for some lawmakers, this will create some anxiety.”