By John Krull
The Statehouse File
The chair of the Ways and Means Committee in
the Indiana House of Representative played a game of chicken the other day.
In the process, Rep. Jeff Espich,
R-Uniondale, may have created an opening for reshaping the political dialogue
The issue was the mass transit
transitsystem many people in Central Indiana want. The system has a big
price tag — $1.3 billion – but many of the movers and shakers in
Indianapolis and the eight counties surrounding Marion County see it as
essential to the region's growth.
Espich, through whose hands all taxing and spending questions before
the Indiana General Assembly have to pass, authored a bill that would help make
that happen. But he threatened not to give it a vote.
"I don't know if I'm going to bring it to
a vote until I see some support from individuals," Espich
told The Statehouse File.
Espich said that he was upset that no one else – no Democrat
– had signed on as a co-author.
"Everyone is afraid of the tax increase,"
Espich said in a story written by Krista Chittum. "I'm the only one who's supportive of the tax
increase and I haven't found anybody else that is."
Translation:If you Democrats think
I'm going to be the only one assuming the political risk of calling for a tax
increase, you're crazier than Charlie Sheen.
It used to be said Social Security was the
third rail of American politics. Touch it and die.
That is still true, but there is another third
For more than 30 years, one certain path to
victory at the polls has been to accuse an opponent of supporting tax
increases. The accusations often don't have to be fair or accurate. And it
often hasn't mattered if the tax increases created important change or helped
the people who were being taxed.
Touch it and die.
In some ways, the two third rails are
bookends. Democrats use a Social Security scare as a campaign weapon.
Republicans use tax increases.
But Republicans' favorite weapon also has
brought the GOP into a kind of political cul-de-sac. At a time when Republicans
are in power in many states where the infrastructure is crumbling or
opportunities go glimmering without new investments of resources, tax increases
might make sense.
This trap of their own making sometimes has
pushed Republicans into strange choices.
Toll Road and Indianapolis's parking meters, respectively, for the same reason.
In order to improve things, they said, we need to let the private sector solve this, because
government just won't do this well.
That argument always has been circular in
nature — a large part of the reason government can't improve services is
because Republicans won't vote to improve them. And, in many ways, their
arguments have cut against the grain of the claims Republicans such as Daniels
and Ballard make to leadership.
They both pride themselves on being good
managers who understand opportunity, yet they both said this was an opportunity
they had to pass up because they couldn't manage the challenge. If it was possible to streamline either the toll road or the
parking meters, wouldn't it have been better to have government do it so that
the taxpayers could have reaped the rewards?
That's what makes Jeff Espich's
role so intriguing.
His implied argument is that some tax
increases are okay if they operate like investments and bring something in
Just as Richard Nixon was the only one who
could open China to the west, a Republican is the only one who can say that,
sometimes, tax increases make sense.
And, on the flip side, it will have to be a
Democrat who proposes meaningful reform to the Social Security system.
Espich won his game of chicken.
Not long after he threatened to deny the mass
transit bill for a vote, Rep. Peggy Welch, D-Bloomington, signed on as a
John Krull is director of Franklin
College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of No Limits, WFYI 90.1 FM
Indianapolis and executive editor of The Statehouse File, a news service
powered by Franklin College journalism students.