It's a private matter in Indiana

| 1/19/2007

Less than a year after state officials signed off on a deal to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign group, legislation in the Indiana Senate would clear the way for two more projects.

Sen. Thomas Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, has introduced a bill that would allow a private group to build and operate a toll route through five counties neighboring Indianapolis. The proposed 75-mile Indiana Commerce Connector would link Interstate 69 northeast of the city with Interstate 70 to the southwest.

The state would get money upfront and use it to help build the planned extension of I-69 through southern Indiana.

The bill - SB1 - would also transfer the legal authority to collect tolls from the I-69 project to Gov. Mitch Daniels' proposed connector project. Tolling authority for I-69 from Evansville to Martinsville was part of the Republican governor's Major Moves legislation from 2006 that included privatizing the Indiana Toll Road.

Wyss, chairman of the Indiana Senate's Homeland Security, Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committee, said he supports the connector because it will keep I-69 toll-free for the entire length of the route from Evansville to Indianapolis.

Another provision in the bill would authorize the proposed Illiana Expressway to be privately funded. The proposed 63-mile, limited-access route is intended to relieve congestion in northwestern Indiana and near Chicago.

A separate measure - SB239 - offered by Wyss includes authorization for the connector but doesn't mention the expressway project.

Like the $3.8 billion, 75-year lease of the Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium, the latest round of privatization talks has rankled Democrats. In hopes of making it more difficult for the governor to sign lease deals with groups, House Democrats have offered legislation to boost oversight of the privatization process.

The legislative package includes a bill - HB1062 - that would create a 15-member committee to review privatization proposals of more than $15 million before they could be implemented. Sponsored by Rep. Joe Micon, D-West Lafayette, the bill also would limit the length of privatization contracts to make sure they don't exceed the terms of office of the governors who may sign them.

"In the rush to put these contracts in place, I think we can get too enamored at the large dollar figures begin thrown around, and not examine the long-term implications of what is being done here," Micon said in a written statement. "There is a human cost to this effort, and we want to make sure that part of the equation gets a full hearing."

In addition, the bill would require state agencies looking to privatize a program to prepare a plan that would include estimates on the cost savings that would result as well as the effect on state workers.

Another privatization review measure - HB1045 - would require the state to prove cost savings in any privatization plan in which state employees would lose their jobs.

Sponsored by Rep. Mae Dickinson, D-Indianapolis, the bill also would allow state employees to offer a competing bid. The bid must be accepted if it's lower than the current cost of operations.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, has offered a separate bill - SB53 - that would require agencies pursuing privatization deals to publish plans that include details about the potential cost savings, and the impact on state employees and state assets.

In the meantime, several public meetings are being held to discuss the proposed projects. Observers say any public sentiment could be pivotal in determining legislative support for the governor's plans.

All of the bills are in committee.

- By Keith Goble, state legislative editor