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1/5/2011 6:19:00 PM
Elkhart County's Horizon Project education plan likely to face funding hurdles

Tim Vandenack, Truth

Boosters of the ambitious proposal to bolster education here by beefing up pre-school and high school offerings appear to face an uphill battle in securing funding to pay for their plans.

They've proposed a hike in Elkhart County's local income tax rate or a new food and beverage tax to raise the $2.5 million to $3 million that would be needed each year to finance their plans. However, representatives from the local legislative delegation seem hesitant about sponsoring the enabling legislation needed just so the Elkhart County Council could formally consider such tax increases.

Rep. Wes Culver, R-Goshen, for one, said he wouldn't back the enabling legislation. "I'm not for new taxes. I think government's too big," he said.

Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, expressed a measure of willingness to at least consider enabling legislation for a hike in the local economic development income tax rate. He's adamantly opposed to a food and beverage tax, though, and thinks it's unlikely local leaders would back any sort of tax hike anyway, even with the requisite enabling legislation.

"I think it's a difficult sell," Yoder said, citing, in part, the down economy. "Frankly I don't think people have a desire for any new taxes, or higher taxes."

Background: The Horizon Education Initiative, unveiled just last month by reps from the Elkhart County Horizon Project, aims to bolster low education levels here by increasing high schoolers' access to dual-credit courses, that is, classes that offer both high school and college credit. Increasing access to vocational training and pre-school programming also figures in the mix.

"We are not educating a world-class work force here," said Mike Yoder. He's an Elkhart County commissioner and member of the steering committee of the non-profit Horizon Project, a broad-ranging coalition of local civic, business and education leaders.

As proposed, a 1 percent food and beverage tax -- levied on drinks and food bought at restaurants and bars, on top of the state's 7 percent sales tax -- would cover the cost of the plans. Alternatively, boosters have proposed an increase of 0.25 percent, or less, in the economic development income tax. Elkhart County's cumulative income tax rate now totals 1.5 percent.

The Elkhart County Council would have to approve either increase, presuming lawmakers pass the enabling legislation.

The goals of the Horizon boosters are praiseworthy, Carlin Yoder said, but funding "obviously is the difficult part of it."

Plugging away: Mike Yoder acknowledges "lots of hurdles" in securing a funding source for the group's plans. "We're aware it may take two years to get the funding," he said.

At any rate, the proponents continue their efforts. The group is hoping to set up meetings with Tony Bennett, head of the Indiana Department of Education, and Gov. Mitch Daniels' office in a bid for backing.

"If we get shot down by the department of education or the governor's office says no, I think it'll be pretty tough for us to achieve anything," Mike Yoder said.

Meanwhile, Culver said he's working on a legislative proposal of his own that would increase the number of dual-credit offerings in Indiana schools. It would also potentially lower college costs for students and parents, doing away with fees high schoolers must pay to take dual-credit classes.

He also noted that funding of education will likely be a hot topic during the Indiana legislative session, which starts today. Additional ideas on financing schools could come from that discussion.

Related Stories:
• EDITORIAL: Horizon 2.0 headed in the right direction
• Just one tax needed for Horizon initiative for Elkhart County scholarships
• Initiative to address Elkhart County's workforce makeup

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR


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