"By Gary Welsh
Gov Mitch Daniels’ second year in office was no less exciting to political observers than his first. After successfully balancing a state budget, which had been out of balance for many years, and doing the seemingly impossible — passing daylight-saving time — he moved on to finding a fix for the holes in our state’s transportation system. While governors have been promising to build highways to Evansville and South Bend from the state’s economic center for decades, Daniels was the first to step forward with a plan to make those highways a reality.
His bold Major Moves plan to lease the Indiana Toll Road, long mired in corruption and poorly managed by government, is one of the many different approaches he has offered to end the status quo mentality, which has been holding our state back for so many years. While the idea galvanized political and public opposition to him, he ultimately prevailed and surprised even the critics by getting $3.8 billion through a competitive process, which can now be used to leverage funding for long-awaited projects, including an I-69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville, a U.S. 31 expressway from Indianapolis to South Bend, along with a new Hoosier Heartland Highway from Lafayette to Fort Wayne.
Major Moves represents the man at his best: the good guy we refer to as My Man Mitch. Then there’s the darker side of the man: the bad guy his opponents like to refer to as Not My Man Mitch — the man with the Napoleonic complex. That’s the “it’s my way or the highway Mitch.” It’s the Mitch who accuses opponents of his ill-considered toll road bypass around Indianapolis of engaging in “zero-sum thinking.” It’s the Mitch who unfailingly chooses economic development over the environment. And it’s the Mitch who lambastes the state’s underpaid and ill-equipped welfare workers as inefficient, error-prone and ripe for fraud, while lauding a plan to award one of the state’s largest-ever contracts to a company with a checkered past of success and, in some instances, downright failure, to take the place of state employees in managing the state’s welfare programs.
The Not My Man Mitch hypocritically overlooks recurring ethical lapses in his administration, including:
• a multimillion-dollar collection contract for a company that formerly employed the man he hired to manage the state’s contracting process;
• a welfare privatization contract that includes a company that formerly employed the man who he appointed to run FSSA;
• and his chief of staff and even his inspector general engaged in conduct that gave the appearance his administration was trading lucrative state jobs for political consideration.
The results of this year’s elections will require many adjustments on Mitch’s part. He’ll now have a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives with which to contend, so his bull-headed ways and duplicity will be challenged and he will have to make room for other people’s ideas. Undaunted by the election losses and his own unpopularity, he’s promising even more bold challenges to move our state forward in the coming year. He’s said he’ll work with Speaker Pat Bauer to enact full-day kindergarten and property tax reform. He wants to use a cigarette tax increase to fund a health insurance plan for Indiana’s most-needy uninsured citizens, and he’ll find plenty of help from Democrats on that initiative as well.
But there are more troubling signs on the horizon. His devotion to privatization is being pushed too far. Against the advice of even Republican lawmakers, he wants to privatize the Hoosier Lottery to financially aid higher education. And a new study released by his administration promises dozens more privatization initiatives in the remaining two years of his term. While privatization has its benefits, it’s not the end-all, be-all to everything that ails our government.
Daniels still has an opportunity to restore people’s confidence in his leadership. That means learning to be a better listener. If he can focus on being the things people like about My Man Mitch, he’ll regain their confidence, perhaps win another term and leave behind a positive legacy for Indiana’s future. If he relies on the poor instincts of Not My Man Mitch, he risks harm not only to his own political well-being, but the long-term interests of the state as well.