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Legislative arrogance knows no boundsOn August 29, the State Board of Tax Commissioners released new rules regarding property tax reassessment that will result in a 13% property tax hike for Hoosier homeowners. This is lower than the estimated 20% jump homeowners would have faced without the rules, but considerably higher than the 6.5% increase an earlier plan would have created. Meanwhile, the state budget is in full crisis mode, with spending expected to exceed revenues by $500 million.
One would think that now is not a good time for our legislators to be reaching into the cookie jar for a little something extra for themselves. Governor Frank O'Bannon vetoed an increase in legislators' base pay from $11,600 to $19,000 earlier this year, citing the irresponsibility of a legislative pay hike while the state budget is in shambles. As the Indianapolis Star pointed out in an editorial, our lawmakers don't make out too badly without the raise, considering they get $112 for each day the legislature is in session and $44.80 for each day out of session. The average member earned $30,000 in 2000, and that does not count the outside income legislators earn from non-legislative employment.
Legislators were quite upset when O'Bannon vetoed the pay hike, but they've managed to squeeze taxpayers for a little extra even without an increase in salary. The Indianapolis Star reported on August 21 that lawmakers have significantly expanded their benefits package. Lawmakers' children will be covered by their health insurance programs until age 23, or until 25 if they are in college. Meanwhile, most health insurance plans allow children to be covered through their parents until age 19, or age 23 if in college.
Former spouses of legislators are also eligible for the state health insurance plan providing they haven't remarried, and surviving spouses of deceased legislators are also eligible for state health insurance at any time after their spouse's death, the Star reported. This is practically unheard of in the private sector.
In addition, legislators can contribute up to 5% of their taxable income to a retirement fund, where taxpayers "contribute" $4 for every $1 the legislator contributes. This year, they also gave themselves the ability to borrow from those retirement accounts.
Legislators say these benefits are necessary in order to allow middle-class people to serve in the legislature, but the timing of the extra benefits is highly questionable. To have legislators helping themselves to tax dollars during a fiscal crisis and during a time when Hoosier homeowners are expecting to take a big hit in their property taxes smacks of irresponsibility.
The legislature, led by House Speaker John Gregg, avoided taking on property tax reassessment like the plague, abdicating their responsibility as elected officials to deal with the biggest issue to face state government today. Hiding from court mandated tax reassessment to avoid potential political heat while fattening their own compensation package is not a good way to show working Hoosiers that the legislators care about the burdens they place on their constituents.
The Associated Press reported on September 1 that lawmakers are planning to travel to Alaska at taxpayer expense to attend the annual meeting of the Council of State Governments, from September 20-24. The fact that legislators are travelling to a meeting is not of major concern, but the fact that taxpayer dollars will also be helping to underwrite their leisure time should be. This is yet another example of fiscal irresponsability in the face of a budget that wiped out the state's cash reserves and will force cuts in Medicaid and other programs. The state legislature have themselves an unlimited appropriation for travel earlier this year.
It was just this kind of arrogance in things like the House Bank scandal a decade ago that helped lead to a complete shift of power in the 1994 Congressional elections. How long will Hoosiers put up with this kind of irresponsible "leadership" before there is another power shift in state government?