By Andrea Neal
The battle for Evan Bayh's open Senate seat will draw national attention in the fall election, but the campaign for constitutionally protected property-tax caps will likely draw more voters to the polls.
The Nov. 2 ballot will include this question: "Shall property taxes be limited for all classes of property by amending the Constitution of the State of Indiana?" The limits would be set at 1 percent of assessed value for homes, 2 percent for rental properties and farms and 3 percent for businesses.
When Californians in 1978 approved Proposition 13, turnout was the highest recorded for any non-presidential election in state history. The landmark property tax reduction won with 65 percent of the vote.
Although it's too early to predict the tenor of the coming debate, it's safe to say it will be spirited. Gov. Mitch Daniels, who wants to put tax caps into the constitution to insulate them "from judicial overthrow or legislative renege," will be chief spokesman for the advocates. Government officials worried about the impact of tax cuts on school, city and county budgets will represent the other side.
Daniels said tax caps were a key piece of his agenda, thus campaigning for it among voters "very much part of my job." Daniels will use his Aiming Higher Fund, a non-profit entity formed to promote public policy positions, to finance voter education and advertising. Whether that includes TV spots will be determined after the vigor of the opposition is known.
"I think we will certainly want to remind people of the importance of voting and finding this on the ballot," Daniels said. Should the other side present negative or erroneous information, "we'll counter it very forcefully."
Also working to educate voters is Watchdog Indiana, an online citizen activist group headed by Aaron Smith that is in the process of sending out a series of "countdown" e-mails, each of which covers one of the "Top Twenty Reasons to Support the Constitutional Amendment."
The other side will be made up primarily of organizations that fought the tax cap language as it progressed through the legislature although some are still sorting out their roles. As required by the Constitution, two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly had to approve the proposal before it could go to the voters -- an amendment process considered among the most stringent in the country.
Indiana Farm Bureau, which strenuously opposed the tax cap language before lawmakers because it treated farmers differently from homeowners, will sit out this round. In a statement to members last month, IFB President Don Villwock said that a successful campaign to defeat the amendment is unlikely so "Farm Bureau will not engage in a statewide campaign to defeat the constitutional amendment in November." If individual county bureaus opt to lobby against the amendment, they will not receive assistance from the state organization.
In contrast, the Indiana School Boards Association is awaiting marching orders from the rank-and-file. The association did not take a formal position during the 2010 legislature; its board will discuss in June whether to join a coalition opposed to the amendment.
In the meantime, executive director Frank A. Bush said the association is encouraging local school boards to conduct studies of the impact on their communities and launch local campaigns "trying to get voters to understand what may be lost in services."
Indiana voters, accustomed to choosing among candidates, will choose from two distinct priorities on Nov. 2: Guaranteed protection for citizens from unpredictable property-tax hikes versus the government's need for flexibility to raise levies to fund growing budgets for schools and municipal services.
Tellingly, despite their state's budget woes and efforts to blame three decades of Prop 13, a majority of California voters say they would vote for the tax amendment today if they had it to do over again. If that's the sentiment in liberal California, it's probably even stronger here where limited government remains a popular and largely bipartisan principle.