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Hot topics rising at Statehouse

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

Medical marijuana. Gambling. Food-and-beverage tax reporting. Tax-exempt properties.

All of the above could make headlines as the 2019 Indiana General Assembly shifts into high gear.

State Representative Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville) discussed each of those topics earlier this month during the Henry County GOP January meeting, offering interesting insight on the issues.

Medical marijuana

Saunders said the wave of momentum for legalizing marijuana, which has now impacted as many as 28 states, will waft through the Statehouse.

“Somebody’s going to introduce a bill to make medical marijuana legal in Indiana this session, and I’m sure somebody’s going to amend that bill to make marijuana legal for recreational use,” Saunders said. “Personally, I don’t think making marijuana legal in Indiana will happen, but I do think you might see the medical marijuana issue passed.”

Gambling

In 1988, a lottery referendum was approved by Indiana voters with a 62 percent majority. Since then, the lottery has grown to include not only scratch-off tickets, but riverboat casinos and more.

Saunders says more talk of gambling this session is a sure bet.

“You’re going to see a lot of talk about gaming licenses,” Saunders said. “There’s two licenses up in the northern part of the state. The gentleman who owned them sold his interest in the racinos, but they didn’t put anything in the law that said he couldn’t buy more. There is talk of moving the remaining licenses to Terre Haute or Indianapolis.”

Meanwhile, sports event gambling will also be a hot topic.

“The Supreme Court ruled it would be legal to bet on sports events,” Saunders said, “so I think you’re going to see a lot of talk about that. Is that Blue River basketball games, or are we talking about the Indiana Pacers? I don’t know. I’m a little concerned about doing all of this just for increased revenue.”

Gambling revenues in Indiana have topped a billion dollars in wagering and admission taxes. Millions in riverboat casino taxes have been used to give Hoosiers property tax relief.

Yet, Saunders worries about expanding gambling into sporting events.

“I wasn’t there when they legalized gaming and I have been a great supporter of the French Lick/West Baden casinos, basically to preserve those two historic hotels,” Saunders said. “But I’m not ready to make a commitment yet on how I feel about gaming on sports events.”

Food and beverage tax reporting

A former county employee had lunch one day at a Knightstown restaurant and noticed that business wasn’t charging a food-and-beverage tax. That incident led Saunders to introduce a bill saying the Indiana Department of Revenue has to quarterly share information with the county auditor to ensure these taxes are being collected.

Saunders says he’s already run into resistance from state officials.

“I had a visit from the Department of Revenue today who said then-County Auditor Pat French had sent her a letter,” Saunders said. “They told me ‘if she’ll sign a confidentiality statement, we’ll give her that information and you won’t have to introduce that piece of legislation.’

“But if Pat French is having that trouble, I’m sure there are other county auditors across the state having the same trouble,” Saunders said.

So Saunders says for now, he plans to introduce the bill, one of nine he wants to author this session.

Tax-exempt properties

Saunders said he’s been accused in the past of “wanting to tax churches.” Not true, he emphasizes. But he does believe in everyone paying their fair share for services.

“As a former County Assessor, I’ve got a study committee on property tax assessment that has to do with exempt property across the state of Indiana,” Saunders said. “I don’t want to tax your church, but if you’re a non-profit and you own a shopping center or an apartment building or 100 acres of tillable ground, I would like for you to pay for the services that property receives – police, fire and trash pick-up. This is not pointing a finger at anybody in Henry County. It’s a problem all over the state of Indiana.”

Saunders said property tax caps have handcuffed local government officials, making it harder and harder to balance budgets and still provide vital services. He added there is no consistency on how tax exemptions are handled across the state.

“I’m not doing this to pick on anyone, but the more people we have paying taxes, the less you have to pay, because we’re spreading that burden around. So I am asking for that study committee,” he said.

Legislative survey

Saunders urged everyone at the meeting – and all of the people in District 54 for that matter – to let him know their views on these and other issues by completing his legislative survey. Surveys have been mailed and may also be filled out online at www.indianahouserepublicans.com and clicking on his name.

“I’m very interested in your feedback,” he said. “I do read them, and if there is a note attached, I really read them.”