INDIANAPOLIS | State lawmakers have decided for now to leave the debate over a Lake County income tax to the County Council, but plans for Gary airport board reforms and studies of a Steel City port and trauma hospital are in danger following a contentious House committee hearing.
Senate Bill 585 was changed Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee to remove Senate-approved provisions intended to entice the Lake County Council into approving a county income tax.
The measure would have given the council authority to enact a 1 percent local income tax and spend the revenue in new ways, including public safety and transit.
Instead, with those sections now deleted from the legislation, any income tax imposed by the county will have to mostly go toward property tax relief, as required by existing law.
The Senate sponsor, state Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, said he didn't agree with the committee's decision to eliminate the Lake income tax portion of the legislation and is willing to continue working with legislators and county officials to reach a satisfactory compromise.
"At some point they're going to have to face the reality that they can't continue to operate by borrowing $15 million to balance their budget," Charbonneau said.
However, the legislation faces an uncertain future after its House sponsor, state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, declared, "I won't call the bill down," as he stormed out of the committee room following intense questioning about the Gary airport portion of the proposal.
The plan would give Republican Gov. Mike Pence a veto over airport board candidates nominated by local officials, which Soliday said is intended to give the board credibility following decades of inaction. The governor's veto is supported by Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
But state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, strongly objected to the idea that the governor should make the final decision about who serves on the board when Pence already gets to name one Gary airport board member and doesn't approve the membership of any other Indiana airport board.
"It is a slap at the mayor of the city of Gary, the commissioners of the county of Lake and the commissioners of the county of Porter to say that, 'Yes, you can make the appointment, but there's still another body that has to oversee that,'" Brown said.
A proposal by state Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, to remove the governor's veto of airport board appointments was defeated 13-10, with two Republicans joining all eight committee Democrats in backing the change.
Soliday said that makes him reluctant to bring the legislation up for a final vote in the full House because he doesn't want a small group of Republicans joining with Democrats to defeat the proposal.
Brown and Soliday briefly confronted each other outside the Statehouse committee room after the panel approved the revised legislation, 20-3.
Soliday quickly left to attend another committee meeting leaving Brown behind shaking his head.
"It is vintage Soliday," Brown said. "He's a bully and he feels that no one should have a contrary opinion to him, which is crazy."
If the measure does not advance, state-supported studies of the need for a second Lake Michigan port and a Gary trauma hospital would have to be inserted into other legislation or they will die.
Also at risk is a third study, which the committee added to the legislation, looking at whether the Port of Indiana should pay a fee for municipal services to Portage because the port is not required to pay property taxes.