Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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April 30, 2013

State roads might be this year's big winner

— Gov. Mike Pence might see the 5 percent income tax cut delivered last week by the General Assembly as a “great victory” for Hoosiers, but for Matt Greller and the local governments he represents, it was the $215 million in new road repair money that was the real win of the 2013 session.

Greller, head of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, is witness to what a decade of dwindling highway dollars from the state to local communities has meant.

As a boy growing up in Brown County, he remembers when the gravel road in front of his family’s home was paved for the first time. “It was an event,” Greller said. “We all came out to watch.”

Now that road has been turned mostly back to gravel because the county has lacked the money to pay for repairs.

A few weeks ago, while Indiana’s first-term governor was traveling the state boasting of the state’s surplus and promoting his grand vision of a 10 percent tax cut as an economic stimulator, the Brown County Commissioners were finalizing details of a $2 million loan they’ve taken out to patch up miles of crumbling roads.

It’s a story that could be told in communities across the state that have miles of roads gone to pot. In the years between 2000 and 2010, the major sources of road repair money collected by the state and doled out to local governments dropped by about $100 million.

Evidence of the lack of investment in local infrastructure can be seen on back roads and main roads in almost every county in Indiana. In 2009, studies done by Purdue University’s Local Technical Assistance Center and by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated it would take more than $800 million to fix just half of all county-paved roads in Indiana that are badly in need of repair.

Michael Hicks, a Ball State University economist and self-described fiscal conservative, remembers finding himself in what he calls the “rare position” of arguing for a tax hike a few years ago when he urged his county council to adopt a local wheel tax to pay for road repairs.

“I was driving to work every day over some of the worst roads I’ve ever traveled,” Hicks said. “They were as bad as any I’ve driven, including the roads I’d driven during the extensive years I spent in Asia and Africa.”

Hicks believes the $100 million drop in highway funding is misleadingly low. While it represents the drop in state highway fund dollars from the state to the locals, it doesn’t include the walloping hit from the property tax caps ushered in by the General Assembly in 2008.

Those caps, approved by 70 percent of voters in a 2010 referendum, imposed austerity on local governments, which rely on property taxes as a main source of funding for public services.

Hicks and Greller view the long-term value of the caps differently (Hicks is more optimistic they’ll eventually force local government consolidations and efficiencies) but both agree on this: Bad roads don’t just lead to damaged cars and irritated motorists. They damage a community’s prospect for growth and economic development.

It’s not hard to find irony in the political decisions from the past. Two years ago, it was Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, a champion of tax and budget cuts, who scornfully derided: “Michigan and Illinois are grinding road back into gravel. They can’t even fix what they have.”

Here we are, now admitting to the same and having to face a clichéd but stark political truth: You get what you pay for.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, including the Kokomo Tribune. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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