Senate Democrat Leader Vi Simpson (D-Ellettsville):
We are very pleased with the participation that we had in our very first conversation with the people of the State of Indiana.
There were over 177 questions submitted and 13,000 votes cast to choose the top five questions that we'll be answering for you.
So I am very excited to look forward to further conversations, and I hope that you'll stay tuned.
Time Zones in Indiana
One of the most popular questions asked in our Q&A was regarding time zones.
Libby of Bloomington writes, "Why are we on Eastern Standard Time, not Central in most of Indiana? We should all be in the same time zone as Chicago, not New York. I would appreciate a referendum or vote!"
Bruce D. Ranger of Indianapolis writes, "There should be a statewide referendum on moving Indiana from the Eastern Time Zone to the Central Time Zone. This would enable the entire state of Indiana to be on Chicago time year round instead of being on New York time year round.
And MorningGlory of Indianapolis writes, "It appears that the Central Time coalition is gaining momentum, when can our legislature sponsor a bill that will allow our citizens a choice on this issue?"
State Sen. Lindel Hume (D-Princeton):
As the Whip for the Democratic Caucus I simply want to thank everyone who's taken the time to respond to the issue request that we placed on our web site. It's good to see the number of people who are concerned about issues in the State of Indiana, and we in the democratic caucus want to be attuned to that so that we represent the views and the concerns of the people in the districts we represent.
One of the issues that came up time and time again was that concerning the time zones in the State of Indiana, and that's really understandable because Indiana, as a border state, is always in the position of having the time zone affect the daily lives of the people of the state.
We have, with the time zone as it is today, the state split into two different time zones, the Central Time Zone and the Eastern Time Zone. In the past, we did not observe Daylight Savings Time in the Eastern Time Zone, but now as the result of legislation passed just a couple of years ago, the State of Indiana-the entire state-observes Daylight Savings Time.
A number of people have suggested that we have a referendum and determine what the people of the state think--where we should be, what time zone we should be in-and that's not new. We've had that before, I think two different times. And in both cases, a solid majority had indicated that they wanted the state to be in the Central Time Zone. But the Federal Department of Transportation did not take that into consideration when they split this state the way that they did.
So, I'm not sure that another referendum would help, but I certainly would support it. I think that the people of this state should have a voice. And I would hope that if we do have another referendum that it would in fact be taken into consideration by the Federal Department of Transportation and perhaps put this entire state in one time zone.
I think the big issue that most people are concerned about is not specifically whether we are in the Eastern Time Zone or the Central Time Zone; it's just that we should all be in the same time zone. And I think that would help eliminate a lot of the concerns that people have.
Chad from Jasper, Ind. writes, "What have Indiana Senate Democrat Caucus members done to reduce wasteful government spending?"
Democrat Leader Vi Simpson:
Well we've done several things, but I want to split it into two categories: there's state government spending and then of course there's local government spending. And although local governments do their budgets at the local level with locally elected officials, we also have some input into how those budgets are constructed. And so by dividing them I think it makes it a little clearer.
At the state government level, we have really held the line on expenditures from the last budget session. The last session we passed a budget that had in it very little additional spending. In fact we cut several departments of state government from previous expenditure levels.
And although we found a little bit of new level money for K-12 education and for higher education, it was very minimal and didn't even meet the requirements for inflation.
We've also been very concerned about the money that we've been spending in the Family & Social Services Agency, which was a ten year contract with IBM and subcontractors to provide services for people who were in need of services in the Family & Social Services Agency.
And that contract has now been cancelled because, in fact, it was supposed to save the state money, but it did not. It actually cost us more money than we would have spent under normal circumstances.
So the Governor, and I give him great credit for this, made the decision to cancel the contract because 1) it was very inefficient and people were falling through the cracks and 2)it was actually spending more money.
So we've been able to save some money there.
In the Senate itself we have cut our budget during the previous biennium, but again this year we're cutting an additional five percent out in terms of salaries, in terms of travel, and we also have a hiring freeze on, as many of the departments of state government do.
So we're doing our best to keep the costs down but still provide effective, efficient services for the people of Indiana.
The biggest impact that we've had at the local level is the legislation that passed a few years ago which capped the amount of property taxes that residential, and commercial, and agricultural property owners have to pay.
And because of those caps, communities around the state, local governmental units around the state have fewer property tax dollars to spend. And so, although we don't get into the mechanics of how much you spend on salaries, and how much you spend on fire and safety issues, or how much you spend on roads, we are able to control the total amount that is spent by a particular local unit of government by controlling how much they're able to raise from property taxes; and, also controlling the amount of local income tax that they're able to raise.
So we've worked, I hope cooperatively, with local governments. We still have some work to do because it's not very smooth. Some local units of government have had to cut out fire personnel and police, and other important services because their budgets are so tight.
But, as this all unfolds over the next couple of years, I hope that we're able to work more cooperatively with local government.
Property Tax System
TC of Anderson writes, "It is October 8th and I STILL have no property tax bill, but I've been told by the county that I need to pay it in full by November 10th. It has been held up by state bureaucracy I'm also told. When are you going to fix this dysfunctional system?"
State Sen. Tim Lanane (D-Anderson):
The answer to that question is somewhat complicated. It's my understanding that in Madison County there was a combination of some local problems regarding computer software. There were a lot of complications in terms of the information that the state was requiring in coordination in that regard.
It's a situation which should not occur, and we're going to have to continue to work to find better ways to make sure that the property tax system is efficient.
In all of my time with the General Assembly, going back to my first session in 1998, property taxes have been an issue we have continually addressed.
We've really tried to lessen the reliance of local governments on property taxes, we've taken the general operations of the schools, the public schools, for example, off of property taxes, we've taken the welfare levy off of property taxes.
So we've really tried to lessen the burden, in particular on homeowners as far as property taxes go. We need to continue, of course, to reexamine that situation.
But overall, in terms of the efficiency of the statements going out, we have done some things to try to address that. For example, many people do not realize now that they can make payments throughout the year to the treasurers. The treasurers are supposed to accept payments at any time in the year, and they can rely on what they paid last year to sort of judge what their property taxes are for a coming year.
But the bottom line is we do need to get better in terms of the statements going out on a regular basis, giving taxpayers plenty of time to pay. And I'm going to hopefully be able to work with my fellow legislators to find ways to coordinate between the state because it is a process that involves the state government and the local government.
And we need to continue to find ways so that they can coordinate and cooperate together to make the tax system just as efficient and as convenient as possible for the taxpayers.
Job Climate in Indiana
Walt O. from Northwest, Indiana asks, "How will the Indiana government set a climate to make it desirable for new industry to locate in Indiana, and help existing industry survive in these trying times? As industry creates tax paying jobs, creates real wealth, and puts food on tables."
Democrat Leader Vi Simpson (D-Ellettsville):
It has to be really two fold, all of our efforts have to be focused on keeping the jobs that we have, as well as attracting new companies and building new jobs here in the State of Indiana.
The nonpartisan Tax Foundation recently discovered that Indiana ranks ninth in the nation in terms of a business-friendly tax climate. And that's very important because it certainly is on the list when a company that is looking for a new location or a place to which they can expand.
They look at a lot of different factors-education levels of the workforce and quality of life issues. But one of the things they look at as well is the tax rate. And, although Indiana has a lot of fiscal issues right now that we're trying to deal with, one of the good things that's come out of this is that Indiana maintains a very low tax rate for the people of the state, and that means that commercial enterprises also have a very low tax rate.
So that makes Indiana even more attractive for companies who are seeking to expand.
We also passed an information technology tax exemption for equipment that is purchased. Many states around us had already taken that action, but we moved last year to do the same thing, which is really important for communities like South Bend, and the communities around Purdue University and the communities around Indiana University campuses, where a lot of research is going on, where there are a lot of small startup companies that are very heavy in technology equipment. And this will help them get off the ground and hopefully give them more opportunities to invest in employees.
For those counties that have an especially high unemployment rate, we also created a program last year that is a business recruitment grants program, which allows the IEDC-or the Economic Development Commission-at the state level, to award grants to local economic development groups that they can use for recruiting businesses from out of state.
Now we're looking ahead to the next legislative session, and, as I said, our primary focus should be on job creation and keeping the jobs that we have here in Indiana.
So the Senate Democratic Caucus is putting together a package of bills that we hope to introduce and that we hope to sell to our colleagues-in not only the Senate but in the House-that we hope encourage or incentivize employers in the state to hire back some of the people that they have laid off.
And, I think a lot of particularly small businesses who have had to lay off people because of the recession would like to take the chance and hire some of those good people back, and get those people off of unemployment. But it's risky right now because no one knows for sure how long this recession is going to last.
And so, if there's some way that we can find to offer an incentive to those employers to hire those people back-to help subsidize their salaries, for instance, or to give them a tax credit so that they can afford to hire those people back-I think we would be taking a giant leap forward in terms of putting people back to work.
Dave from Floyds Knobs asks, "Since the bottom has fallen out of the housing market, will there be a new state appraisal of my property to reduce the 35 percent increase I received from the last assessment?"
State Sen. Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis):
Thank you Dave for that very good question in regards to property assessments in Indiana. While Indiana did feel some effect from the property assessments in the country, we were not hit as hard as many parts of the United States of America.
What we did, in 2007 is we implemented a process called trending. Trending is done on a yearly basis and what happens is that your home is valued based on the sales of similar properties, as well as similarly located properties in your area. What this does is hopefully alleviate some problems with big jumps and your property assessment.
If you look at your tax bill and you think that there's a problem with your property assessment, you have 45 days in which to appeal your assessment to your local township or county assessor's office.
If you feel that you have a valid argument that your property is not being assessed correctly, you have the opportunity to appeal that. And I would encourage you to do that, just so you can find out from your local assessor how they valued your home. You will get information in regards to that, and I'm sure that after you speak to someone in your local assessment office you'll have a better understanding of what the process is.
We thank you for your question, and we appreciate you being a valued citizen to the State of Indiana and giving us the opportunity to answer your question.