District 37 Sen. Richard Bray kicked things off by stating Indiana has very quickly gone through the $1 billion stimulus money it received last year and was still facing "really big problems" with money.
"People can't count on bouncing back very quickly," Bray said.
Things got more discouraging when District 32 Rep. Vern Tincher presented various statistics showing just how dire a financial situation Indiana is in. Tincher said the state could be as much as $800 million below its anticipated yearly budget.
A major cause for this was Indiana's 10 percent rate of unemployment, which is second only to Michigan in the entire country. Tincher speculated there could be as many as 350,000 people currently out-of-work in Indiana.
To attempt to rectify this, wide-scale cuts are currently being planned. Tincher estimated cuts could include $298 million for public schools, $150 million for colleges and $320 million for state agencies. Even with these cuts, Tincher said the state could be as high as $600 million in debt by year's end.
One solution to improving employment was presented by District 37 Sen. John Waterman, who was working on a bill, which would make it so construction jobs would be 80 percent filled by Indiana workers.
"This could be a great way to get a lot of Hoosiers back to work," Waterman said.
Another major topics was a discussion of potentially implementing a system of property tax caps. Passed in 2008, and placed into law at the beginning of this year, the bulk of the conversation centered around the possibility of putting the cap system into the state constitution. The system is set up to charge 1 percent property tax for homeowners, 2 percent for farmers, and 3 percent for businesses.
A major concern presented by District 32 Rep. Clyde Kersey was the Indiana Constitution states all property must be fairly taxed, which he said wouldn't be the case with caps. A group facing major concern with caps is farmers, who would have to pay into all three areas. One member of the farming community vehemently stated his belief on the cap system was unfair to area agriculturists.
"Our forefathers knew the constitution would be fair, and caps are not," area farmer Jack Knust said. "Farmers are going to be taxed (multiple times) and it isn't fair at all."
Knust also stated he believed farmers would get the short end of the stick because they were a minority in the area, and homeowners would feel compelled to vote yes and leave the farming community reeling.
Another concern expressed by Kersey was the potential loss of various services throughout the community. Kersey said the cap system could result in losses up to $952 million in property taxes over the next two years. As a result, drastic cuts would have to be made all over the state. Communities could experience losses in police and firemen services, garbage pickup, libraries and parks.
The biggest potential problem Kersey envisioned was a major cutback in bus services to public school students, which the state is not legally obligated to fund. Kersey said if bus funding is cut, parents could be charged $375 a year per student in their household by their school corporation. Bus funds are paid for by property taxes.
In a recent online survey conducted by District 44 Rep. Nancy Michael, of 92 people surveyed, 50 voters (54.3 percent) believed the cap system was fair, while 33 (35.9 percent) believed it was necessary to amend the Indiana Constitution to incorporate the system. Michael also released a mail survey around the community, but said the results have not yet been recorded.
If implemented into the state constitution, the caps would take place in 2011. While Kersey said he was opposed to the system, he said he'd be OK if it were passed into law, as long as voters were properly educated on the services they could potentially lose.
"I just want people to be educated enough to know what they may have to give up," Kersey said. "We don't know for sure that we will lose these services, but it's a possibility. I just don't want people to vote on something they aren't fully educated about."
Kersey said if people were blindsided by the caps, it could create various legal issues and lawsuits, which could continuously tie up area courts.
Though she voted yes to the cap system, Michael actually expressed her disapproval, saying her yes vote was simply to get the issue on referendum. Like Kersey, she was very adamant about educating the public, and hoped people would have all available information before an official vote was made on getting caps into the state constitution.
"We need a grassroots approach to go about telling people why this is bad," Michael said. "Indiana's got to have a real hard conversation about how we are going to go about funding schools and agencies."
The next Cracker Barrel meeting has tentatively been scheduled for Feb. 20. A time and location has yet to be announced.