Dan Carden, Times of Northwest Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS | When the Indiana General Assembly adjourned for the year just before midnight Friday, lawmakers closed the books on a short but productive session that could impact employment and economic development in Northwest Indiana far into the future.

Many lawmakers questioned by The Times named the Illiana Expressway as the most important region measure to win passage.

"I think that was very significant, very lasting for generations to come," state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said. "I'm really happy we were able to do that."

Gov. Mitch Daniels is expected this week to sign into law Senate Bill 382, allowing the Illiana Expressway to be built as a public-private partnership. With that authorization in hand, the Indiana Department of Transportation can begin seriously looking for an investor to build and operate the proposed toll road linking Interstate 65 in southern Lake County with Interstate 55 near Joliet, Ill.

"Even though the jobs are in the future, you've got to start somewhere," said state Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville. "It was long overdue."

A state report estimates the new expressway could create as many as 30,000 jobs, both short-term construction work and permanent positions in new developments made possible because of the road. The Illiana also is expected to relieve congestion on the Borman Expressway, the most heavily traveled truck route in the United States.

Given the state's troubled financial condition, the Illiana would not be possible without a public-private partnership program. Depending on the route selected and width of the road, the 10-mile Indiana portion of the project could cost $1 billion or more.

Similar public-private partnership legislation currently is working its way through the Illinois General Assembly. Daniels has been in touch recently with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and said Quinn supports the Illiana.

Put it on the ballot

In November, Hoosiers will decide whether to add the state's current property tax caps to the Indiana Constitution. Lawmakers voted in January to submit the constitutional amendment to the electorate.

If approved, property taxes would be permanently capped at 1 percent of the assessed value of homesteaded -- owner occupied -- residential property, 2 percent on rental and farm property and 3 percent on business and industrial property.

State Rep. Don Lehe, R-Brookston, said if voters approve the caps, more jobs for Hoosiers are likely to follow.

"The caps would give businesses predictability and reassurance in the level of their property taxes, further setting Indiana apart as an attractive location for starting or relocating a business," Lehe said.

But local government leaders remain concerned the property tax caps will force cities and towns to cut services because less tax revenue will be available. Legislative analysts predict local government will forfeit nearly $465 million to the caps this year, with Lake County losing $125 million and Porter County taking a $3.5 million hit.

Gary, for example, already has cut millions from its budget as it attempts to bring city services in line with reduced revenue. The Steel City has twice appealed to the state for a partial reprieve from the tax caps, but it still faces the possibility of cutting police, firefighters and additional city services in the next two years.

All Lake County cities are allowed to exceed the caps through 2019 to raise money to pay off loans signed before the property tax caps became law in 2008. When state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, tried to make tax rates for Lake County property owners the same as the rest of the state, she received dozens of calls from region officials asking her to rescind her proposal. It never won final passage in the House.

Casino bill moored

At the same time, Candelaria Reardon was not the only region lawmaker to see best laid plans perish in the legislative process.

State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, began the 10-week session optimistic this would be the year Gary was allowed to develop a land-based casino. Rogers has advocated for land-based gaming in Gary since 1989, and a legislative study committee last summer recommended lawmakers approve inland gaming in Gary to better compete with new land-based casino developments in Michigan and Ohio.

However, the Senate stripped land-based gaming from the gambling legislation it sent to the House, and attempts by state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, to restore the effort were rejected.

Brown also saw his attempt to pass a statewide indoor smoking ban go down in flames. Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, repeatedly blocked a House-approved smoking ban from getting a vote in the Senate, saying Brown should try again next year. Brown will head a legislative study committee this summer to examine state smoking bans and craft legislation that Brown plans to sponsor in 2011.

Mapmaking changes dead-end

Next year state lawmakers also will begin the process of redrawing legislative districts based on the results of the 2010 census. However, House Democrats blocked a plan sponsored by state Sen. Sue Landske, R-Cedar Lake, that would have laid out specific guidelines for how districts are to be drawn.

Current law only requires that all pieces of a district be contiguous, which has led to creative district shapes designed to protect one political party or another.

Other proposals that didn't make the cut this year included township government reforms, a ban on texting while driving, legalizing all alcohol carryout sales on Sundays and setting a statewide school start date.

On the other hand, lawmakers did approve legislation delaying a scheduled increase in employer-paid unemployment premiums for one year, allowing school corporations to transfer money from one tax-supported fund to another without penalty, requiring counties to send provisional property tax bills when they expect to be late with the official bill and giving the state new tools to collect child support payments, including seizing casino winnings.

Daniels is expected to act on those proposals later this week.