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Monday, April 9, 2012

Thanks for the memories, Mitch

Posted By on Mon, Apr 9, 2012 at 8:00 AM

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I was at my doctor's office not too long ago, waiting to settle my bill. The man in front of me, a somewhat portly fellow, wore a bright green t-shirt, emblazoned with the slogan "My Man Mitch!"

I'm not sure what I found more poignant, the vintage quality of the slightly shrunken shirt, or its owner's dogged insistence on wearing it in public.

But this was before last week's revelation that the Indiana Department of Revenue short-changed 91 of the state's 92 counties $206 million in local tax revenues.

This is the second major accounting blunder committed by the state in less than a year. You may recall that last December the state discovered $320 million in corporate tax collections that it failed to account for. At the time, Gov. Mitch Daniels acted as if this was a cause for celebration. He likened it to drawing a free money card in a game of Monopoly.

Indiana Democrats called for an independent audit to find out how such a large sum could have been overlooked at a time when local governments around the state were cutting back on services and laying off workers for lack of funds.

But as far as Indiana Republicans were concerned, this was nothing but sour grapes. Democrats had been trounced in the last election and, lacking majorities in both the House and Senate, carried about as much clout as a tofu salesman at a hamburger stand.

What's more, their man, Mitch, was due to open the 2012 legislative session with his final state-of-the-state speech where he would have the chance to, once again, regale his party animals with the story of how Indiana was managing to get by with the same number of state employees as it did in the 1970s.

Never mind that during the State Fair the previous August seven people died in a stage collapse that might have been prevented had there been a state employee designated to make sure the stage was safe. Hiring a safety inspector is the kind of fat Mitch Daniels takes pride in cutting. That's why they call him "The Blade."

"Throw away the rule book to the extent the feds will let you do it," was Daniels' advice to those building the new I-69 highway extension. These minions had the temerity to suggest the project would cost more than the governor had originally said it would — by about a billion dollars. So Daniels urged them to cut corners, narrowing medians and spreading a thinner layer of cement.

This was the same mindset that thought firing caseworkers at the Indiana Family and Social Services agency in favor of online communications and phone answering machines was a bright idea. So people who needed medicine didn't get it on time. People who needed food stamps went without.

If this hadn't been such a blatant failure, the governor might have been able to brag on having whittled the number of state employees down to Lincoln's boyhood days, when school children did their lessons with chalk, by firelight.

As with the FSSA debacle, the Dept. of Revenue's managing to screw virtually every city and town in the state out of money they need for police and fire departments, schools and libraries, is too big to paper over with pictures of Rich Uncle Pennybags, the bug-eyed tycoon from the Monopoly game. There's finally going to be an audit of all systems and processes in the department.

But what this audit will miss is the underlying contempt for government that has permeated the Daniels administration from its inception eight years ago.

Frustration with the performance of government is not only understandable, it is justified in many, many cases. Unfortunately, this frustration has inspired the rise of a predatory class of people whose interest is not to fix governmental laxity and incompetence, but to exploit it.

These carpetbaggers prey on public unhappiness by promising to dismantle government. In the process, they manage to divert public resources into the hands of private interests in the name of pubic-private partnerships. They call this, "Running government like a business."

Except that government isn't a business. If it was, entrepreneurs would be making fortunes cleaning up polluted rivers, repairing streets and bridges, creating safe public parks and, yes, teaching our kids.

Good governance is a combination of art and science that is more complex than a balance sheet. When this complexity is ignored and public needs are reduced to a numbers game, you get the kind of trouble Indiana finds itself in today.

Not only has Daniels' administration lost track of half a billion dollars worth of tax monies, last summer it added insult to injury by demanding local governments return $610 million in what it claimed were overpayments. "There is a definite loss of confidence," is the understated way Matt Groeller, executive director of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, described the feelings local officials now have toward the state administration.

But that's what happens when you put people in government who say government's for losers. You get what you vote for — and, I guess, a t-shirt.

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