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Voters want to know: What happened to that big surplus?

“What happened to the surplus?”
That question more than any other has popped up during his campaign for re-election to the Indiana House of Representatives, said Paul Robertson, D-Depauw, who is opposed by Republican Tom Powers of Corydon.
Robertson has served in the House since 1979, and no one, he said, was prepared for the impact of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which came on the heels of a national recession that was on the verge of recovery in Indiana.
Steps taken earlier to return a big portion of the $2 billion in Indiana’s surplus funds and provide tax relief to the taxpayers plus the drop in state revenue led to the wipe-out, Robertson said.
Since 1996, taxes have been reduced by more than $1.5 billion, Robertson said. They include: increased homestead credit on property taxes, $381 million; personal property and inventory tax cuts, $323 million; removing welfare from local property taxes, $68 million; increased property tax deductions, $111 million; property tax cuts for seniors, $20 million; increased dependent child exemptions, $232 million; low-income tax credits, $63 million; inheritance tax cuts, $59 million; increased renters deductions, $22 million; repeat of state add-back requirement, $174 million; income tax cuts for seniors, $18 million; and unemployment tax cut, $108,000 million.
Added to that, Robertson said, teacher, police and firefighter pensions were beefed up by some $200 million, and $200 million was distributed statewide to maintain or improve local roads and streets. In the last two years, state revenue has fallen by $900 million as a result of the recession, he said.
But those figures don’t satisfy Powers, who is seeking election for the first time.
He said Indiana needs to create new jobs and make sure businesses don’t drown in red tape and taxes.
Powers, Harrison County’s LifeLong Learning director and former federal civil service employee with the Veterans Administration, said: “After being with the federal government, I’ve become frustrated with certain wasteful practices and inefficiencies in government. I would like to be in a position to do something about it.
“I think it’s time for a change,” Powers said. “Things aren’t going as well as they might.”
He said the state “has spent the surplus,” with “no new programs and no better services.”
But Robertson said that’s not true. He cited increased spending for education of two percent above the three percent inflation rate, and the figures mentioned above which add up to a $1.5 billion tax reduction and the funding for pensions and roads, coupled with the $900 million shortfall created by the national recession.
Indiana doesn’t have the luxury of going into debt to run the government during difficult economic times like the federal government, Robertson said. “We must have a balanced budget by June 30 each year, as required by Indiana’s Constitution.”
Still, he said, “We have improved education in Indiana. We are very proud of where our students are today as opposed to 20 years ago. Twenty-first century education is not less important; it’s more important. Lots of factory work today requires higher learning skills.
“The quality of life has improved greatly in Indiana, in Harrison County, and the 70th District.”
Robertson added: “I know individual Hoosiers need a break from taxes, too. That is why I voted to increase the income tax deduction for families with dependent children and supported over $800 million in property tax deductions, including special deductions for citizens older than 65.”
Powers believes the state needs to operate more efficiently. He said Indiana is top-heavy with high-level jobs that could be cut. “Any business tends to get top-heavy, but especially government,” he said. “We could make significant savings.”
He said outside consulting costs could be cut by using the state’s own resources. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy,” he said. “But someone needs to take a look at it. I’m not saying I’m any prettier or smarter than the next guy, but I think it’s time for a change.”
Robertson said Indiana’s government already operates leaner than most, with spending that ranks among the lowest in 50 states, but he will continue to work to eliminate waste. “By setting priorities and cutting waste, I will make sure Indiana can do more with less,” he said.
Robertson, an instructor at Corydon Central High School, takes an unpaid leave of absence when the Indiana General Assembly is in session. Powers said he would do the same.
Districts were redrawn last year by the legislature. The 70th District now includes most of Harrison County, the western half of Clark County and a small section of northwest Floyd. House representatives are paid $11,600 and a per diem of $112 to cover living expenses during sessions.