Community Comment:

Property tax issue leaves tangled mess

As the silly season of this election cycle begins in earnest, many Hoosiers concerned about property tax relief may be wondering if members of the General Assembly have taken leave of their senses.

For weeks at the beginning of this legislative session, there seemed to be agreement regarding the gravity of the property tax crisis, and both parties seemed interested in finding an amicable solution. Leaders of both parties were quick to find merit in various portions of Gov. Mitch Daniels' property tax reform proposal.

But recently the rhetoric and posturing have become more combative. Disagreements over portions of the two major versions of the tax bills have become more intense. While some may chalk this up to old-fashioned political bickering, there is a theory about how we got to this juncture offered by a rather monkish, combative property tax activist to whom we will refer as Brother Phinias the Fair from the fictitious world of Camelot.

This plausible theory, discerned from the quiet conversations among the monks and sages toiling in the carrels near our Capitol, holds that back in the dog days of summer, when property tax activists were taking to the streets of our capital almost weekly, an "Agreement of Nonaggression" was drawn up by behind-the-scenes activists supporting both Democratic incumbent Mayor Bart Peterson and Republican Gov. Daniels.

The theoretical Agreement of Nonaggression held that Republican regulars in Marion would basically sit out the mayor's race during the 2007 election cycle, leaving the political neophyte Republican challenger, Greg Ballard, with very little in terms of manpower, name identification and campaign contributions.

In appreciation for this lack of support and enthusiasm to unseat the popular incumbent Peterson, the Democrats were willing to put up token opposition to Daniels when he seeks re-election in November.

Unfortunately, this Agreement of Nonaggression did not contain a clause to accommodate the "Law of Unintended Consequences" resulting from a groundswell of anger throughout the state generated by an across-the-board 24 per cent increase in property taxes.

This anger lit a fuse among neighborhood activists throughout Indianapolis. Through rallies in churches, street demonstrations and public hearings, the anger grew and the unknown Ballard in a matter of weeks was propelled into being the poster child for the property tax repeal movement, which continues to grow in Circle City.

When the powder keg exploded with the unexpected election of Ballard as mayor of Indianapolis, the Agreement of Nonaggression apparently went up in flames with everything else. The Democrats were taken aback that their young, fresh-faced, has-been mayor could become a casualty of the property tax war being waged across the state.

Now they feel under no obligation to do anything to help Daniels, and whatever tax legislation is ultimately passed will bear only vestigial resemblance to the plan originally offered by the governor other than the portion raising the sales tax to 7 cents on the dollar. This will place Daniels in the unenviable position of having to run for re-election after having presided over two enormous tax increases in three years something no incumbent Republican ever wants to do.

The more recent abridged thinking seems to be that the Democrats can actually defeat Daniels in November, retain control of the Indiana House and pick up Senate seats, thereby placing them in a stronger position next year to finish the tax reform work left undone in this session of the General Assembly.

Brother Phinias the Fair looks out over the political landscape and sees little but trench warfare in the coming months. He has been warning of a "perfect political tsunami" that may be about to hit in Indianapolis, with residents receiving three enormous tax bills in the coming months, one to make up for the money owed from last year's increases that went unpaid in lieu of the Marion County reassessment and two installments for the coming year's obligations.

Elsewhere, there are warnings of "a long hot summer" in Indianapolis.

How this will play out in the November elections is anybody's guess, but I would be more willing to bet on the outcome being determined by the Law of Unintended Consequences rather than a bipartisan gentlemen's agreement between political adversaries any day.

David Coker is president of the Vanderburgh County Taxpayers Association