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Indiana lawmakers critical of Holcomb’s $1B toll road deal

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Lawmakers on Tuesday criticized Gov. Eric Holcomb’s unilateral move to spend $1 billion in proceeds from a renegotiated Indiana Toll Road lease without their oversight.

The Republican governor announced the windfall in September, which will lead to a major increase in toll fees for drivers of large commercial vehicles.

His administration argues that the deal — and the spending — is well within their legal authority and will go toward road construction and some of Holcomb’s pet projects

But legislators from both parties voiced concern over his handling of the matter during a Tuesday meeting of the State Budget Committee, which met ahead of January’s legislative session, during which a new two-year state budget will be written.

State Sen. Ryan Mishler, a Bremen Republican, said lawmakers are exploring legislation that would prevent a governor from doing the same in the future.

“There has to be some legislative oversight,” said Mishler, who leads the Senate Appropriations committee. “We’ll discuss with our colleagues in the House … how we want to handle that billion dollars.”

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Like much of the country, Indiana has struggled to keep up with maintenance on its aging infrastructure. Last year, Republicans who dominate the Statehouse — and have cut taxes on the wealthy in recent years — increased the fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon to help pay for improvements to the state’s crumbling roadways.

Holcomb latest move will put even more money into infrastructure, which he said is needed to keep the state economically competitive.

Lawmakers, however, were not balking so much at how he is spending the money. Rather, they say they were not kept in the loop while a deal was crafted to make Holcomb the sole arbiter deciding how the astronomical sum would be spent. It’s lawmakers’ responsibility, after all, to make appropriations and write the state’s budget.

“We knew nothing. It was just like: ‘Here, thou shalt take this and be glad,’” said Democratic Indianapolis Rep. Greg Porter, who is the ranking minority member on the House’s Ways and Means committee.

Under Holcomb’s plan, $600 million would go toward speeding up the completion of Interstate 69; $190 million would go to projects on U.S. Routes 20, 30 and 31; and $20 million would go toward luring new direct flight routes to the state. He also wants to spend $90 million to improve or build hiking and biking trails, and $100 million to increase rural broadband access.