The GOP’s (soft) counterpunch on roads

Earlier this week Senator David Long penned an aggressive op-ed that defended the state’s infrastructure and attacked Democrats as do-nothing naysayers. It’s yet another sign that Republicans feel politically vulnerable on the road issue. And, more than anything, it gives us a glimpse at the conundrum Republicans now face.

Long’s fiery opinion piece lauded Major Moves. There’s no doubt that Major Moves injected a great deal of investment in the state’s highway system. What resulted were many more miles of new pavement, but absolutely no strategic plan on how to maintain the existing roads or how to fund future repairs of the new projects. Long called it an “innovative accomplishment,” but in the kindest of terms history will judge Major Moves as a squandered opportunity.

Republicans have exploited Major Moves for more political mileage than they have actual road mileage, but one must wonder if that window is closing. While Republicans still try to ride the policy accomplishments of the last administration, the road ahead promises to be very bumpy as Hoosier motorists and businesses grow frustrated by the lack of forward-looking solutions.

In recent years Republicans have claimed that they’ve invested more than $1 billion in new road funding. True to form, Long did his level best to spin the Republican’s budgetary shell game as a road-friendly approach. Even if we accepted Long’s claim at face value—truly a bridge too far—it still leaves us with the reality that none of the recent investment in road funding is sustainable. In fact, as Indiana faces a road funding shortage of around $1 billion, the state coffers are slated to take in less revenue every single year for the next eight years until the GOP’s slew of tax cuts are fully implemented.

Rest assured, as the pot holes grow bigger, revenue from the corporate income tax, the financial institutions tax, the inheritance tax and other sources will continue to dwindle as we witness Republican pipe dreams become an inescapable reality. At some point, David Long and the statehouse Republicans must be shaken from their slumber and made to realize that the state’s budgetary course cannot be maintained if we are to fix its physical one.

This fact has escaped Mike Pence, as evidenced by his unserious infrastructure proposal a few weeks ago. His $1 billion plan lacked a single cent in new revenue—a typical and expected display of political cowardice in the face of a real and lasting policy challenge. It was a rich dose of irony that Long criticized the Democratic response to the governor’s proposal as even he and his fellow GOP legislators gave it a noticeably chilly reception.

What makes Republicans truly awful leaders is that many of them understand that new revenue will be required to fix some of the state’s sustained challenges; they just lack the political courage to get it done. Perhaps the biggest indicator that Republicans know a tax hike must be part of the road funding solution is a single sentence in Long’s op-ed. At the very end of his scathing diatribe pointed at Democrats, Long asserted that Republicans and Democrats must work together to find solutions to Indiana’s road problem.

This claim, of course, is patently false. With supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, Republicans are capable of passing anything that suits their fancy regardless of where Democrats line up, just like they’ve done time and again. Republicans have pushed through big, sweeping policy changes without regard to—even ridicule of—Democratic opinion, with RFRA being just the latest example of smug GOP leaders turning a deaf ear to the minority party.

Republicans got us into this road mess one boondoggle at a time. Now they want Democrats to help them solve it?

Mixed signals on road needs

Just one year ago INDOT commissioner Karl Browning told the legislature that his agency would need nearly $260 million per year in additional funding just to maintain the roads and bridges that Indiana already has. Several months later, Browning abruptly resigned.

Browning’s report was not controversial at the time. Ed Soliday, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, agreed that the task of finding more money for this unmet need was “large.” Even Brian Bosma conceded that the lack of movement on road funding last session was a “disappointment” and just recently Bosma acknowledged that transportation needs would be a focus next session.

Yet, this week Pence’s INDOT launched an aggressive and unusual attack on its “critics” saying that the condition and outlook of Indiana’s road conditions was improved.

So, what’s the deal? Statehouse Republicans can’t even seem to agree that there’s a problem, so don’t hold your breath for any solutions.

Are Republicans worried?

Indiana Republicans, already flailing from several self-inflicted wounds, have realized they have a worthy opponent in 2016. John Gregg, though a capable adversary, is not what has Republicans buzzing. It’s the relentless attacks coming from the Indiana Democratic Party apparatus that have the GOP scurrying for answers.

In a way not seen in many years, Democrats have sharpened their rhetoric, coordinated their attacks, and been absolutely relentless in their criticism of Mike Pence and the GOP supermajorities. Without reliable polling data, it’s hard to know the extent of the damage, but judging by the GOP response, Democrats are drawing blood.

First, consider Robert Vane, the presumptive PR savior for the Pence team, has suddenly jumped ship and headed to Republican State Committee—probably to coordinate a broader messaging strategy. But it’s not just the political operatives that are making moves. Just this week, INDOT undertook a Twitter offensive to combat their “critics.” In a series of tweets INDOT suggested that their critics—the Democrats—should “get their facts straight.”

And consider that in the two months that Jim Schellinger has been on the job as president of the IEDC, he has already shared an op-ed byline with Victor Smith in defense of IEDC’s job creation record. Most recently he defended the fact that IEDC announced millions of conditional tax credits without first seeking board approval.

The Pence administration and GOP lawmakers have provided plenty of fodder. Surprisingly, Democrats are feasting on every crumb. Republicans are making moves. A counter-offensive can’t be far off.

Help wanted in the House

Matt Butler, a contributing writer at Howey Politics Indiana, announced that today was his last day at the news service. Rumor has it that he is off to join the Indiana House Republicans as an advisor on policy and communications.

A journo jumping into the partisan fray that they once covered is not exactly unprecedented. Butler’s work at Howey was above reproach and no one should begrudge his move to the dark side. This move really says more about Brian Bosma and the House Republicans than it does about Butler.

This appears to be a newly created staff position in the House GOP. Absent a job description, it’s fair to surmise that this position is all about controlling optics—something the House Republicans and the entire party has struggled with.

RFRA and its toxic aftermath are great examples of the deficiencies Republicans have when it comes to understanding and manipulating public opinion. The weakness of Pence and his team to control the issues and drive the message leave the GOP caucuses in an unfamiliar position. The political and strategic mastery of Mitch Daniels was such a force in Indiana politics that the GOP caucuses could merely ride in its wake. In stark contrast, the Pence years have left Republicans adrift in some very choppy waters.

There is no presence, no driving force, no bold agenda, and no enforcement from the governor these days. Instead, it is a legislature mostly left to its own devious devices. It’s a new world for Brian Bosma (and David Long), playing the role of enforcer and sharing a harsh spotlight with a politically unpopular governor.

It’s a role Bosma has never had great success with. Eric Turner, Phil Hinkle, Eric Koch and Bob Behning are just recent testaments to the limits one can push Bosma and embarrass the caucus without much repercussion. Bad policy and worse behavior are rarely dissuaded in Bosma’s House. Each year, it seems, brings a new case and a new dose of bad PR.

Will Matt Butler help? It’s hard to say, but Bosma clearly thinks it’s time for reinforcements. Butler is likely there to remind members that they’re being watched by the fourth estate and maybe—just maybe—persuade the crazies to be just a little less crazy.

No issue too big for Pence

I know dreams can be hard to let go of, but Mike Pence should know that his White House dreams are effectively over.

You know what’s not over, though? The 2016 gubernatorial election.

In a puzzling move, Pence interjected himself in a national global debate again today as he proudly “led” a multi-governor letter to President Obama in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. It was stunt more fitting for a presidential contender than a governor facing a tough re-election bid.

Governors send these silly letters for one reason—political points. These letters have no effect on real-world policy decisions. They’re merely a way for small-time players to appear relevant and for politically ambitious governors to bookmark their support or opposition to foreign policy decisions.

It’s a curious move with no relevance to the job Pence was hired to do. And it has no apparent political upside for a governor that is besieged by problems at home.

We will watch closely to see if Pence enters the foreign policy fray once again when he heads to Japan later this week.

Until then, we’re left wondering if there is any issue too big, too weighty or too nuanced for an official Pence missive. Given his track record, poor instincts and inept political team, we’re there isn’t one.

Government on cruise control

This is a deeply embarrassing time for Mike Pence and Indiana Republicans.

The American Society of Civil Engineers issued Indiana a grade of D-plus for its annual infrastructure report card, noting that the state was home to nearly 2,000 structurally deficient bridges.

The Reason Foundation was just as unkind, ranking Indiana 36th for highway performance in its most recent report—a fall of 14 spots from its 2009 ranking. The report also ranked Indiana in the bottom ten for both rural and urban interstate pavement condition.

Providing quality—or at the very least, safe—infrastructure is an essential function of state and local governments. Good roads are one of the few returns most taxpayers expect on their tax dollars. The governor’s failure in this regard is no small issue.

Ironically, no version of Mike Pence’s “roadmap” for Indiana has ever detailed a comprehensive plan for infrastructure investment. It’s as if infrastructure issues have fallen off the radar for Indiana Republicans since Mitch Daniels pushed through his Major Moves package.

Recent projections by ASCE say Indiana needs $3.5 billion in state and local funding to fix and replace its bridge inventory. That’s nearly equal to the $3.8 billion in upfront cash that Major Moves secured for the state coffers. While Republicans have celebrated the short-lived success of Major Moves, other critical infrastructure needs have tallied an unpaid bill worth billions. Meanwhile the best that Pence has done is offer a $400 million spending spree on road upgrades, $200 million of which was conditional funding for the future.

As we near a new legislative session Pence has now promised that 2016 will be an infrastructure session. The problem is that we’re years late and billions short to fix a problem that has intensified over a decade of Republican neglect. This is reactionary policymaking.

It’s an epic failure. It’s crummy accounting. It’s really bad government and it’s even worse politics.

Republicans have put government on cruise control and Hoosiers are in for a bumpy ride.

IEDC: The Mike & Vic Show

Political savvy is not something Governor Mike Pence has been accused of lately. But he scored a rare political win by appointing Jim Schellinger, an important democratic fundraiser, to lead the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.

Schellinger’s appointment checks a few boxes for Pence. While fighting back the perception that he is an out-of-touch partisan, Pence can point to his ability to work with a leading Democrat on the most important and visible parts of his agenda—job creation. Schellinger also provides some insulation from the attacks IEDC has endured over the years for its lack of transparency and its questionable job creation claims.

A secondary, though not unimportant, effect is that the appointment effectively ends Schellinger’s fundraising work for the Victory Committee PAC. Since 2009, the PAC has raised more than $1 million for Democratic candidates while Schellinger and his wife have chipped in nearly another $1 million. Though the fundraising work at the Victory Committee is likely to continue, the effect of Schellinger’s absence will be something to keep an eye on.

By any fair account, it’s a good move by Pence. But the biggest question we’re left with is why Schellinger would say yes.

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The Washington Disease, Houchin Edition

Prior to her first legislative session as state senator, one of Erin Houchin’s top priorities was expanding access to rural broadband. She filed Senate Bill 469 this year which would have boldly sent the issue to an interim study committee had it been passed.

Instead, SB 469 died in the House.

Though Houchin later signed her name to a House bill that addressed broadband issues, her legislative record in 2015 was fairly void of big accomplishments.

Asked why she decided to run for office in 2014, Houchin said the district needed a “proactive, energetic, strong advocate.” Hopefully her constituency was satisfied with her energy this session because that’s about all the return they got on their electoral investment.

That’s not to say that it’s unusual for a freshman legislator to have very few W’s in the win column, but Houchin’s hubris leads her to believe that after one lousy legislative session she’s ready to move from the farm system to the Big Leagues.

Houchin’s announcement last week that she would seek the GOP nomination for the 9th congressional district surprised no one who has followed her political trajectory. She’s a talent on the rise. But like too many of her GOP colleagues, it appears Houchin is all about the ride to the top and not so concerned about the hard work of legislating.

Contrast Houchin’s young career with that of Democratic state representative Christina Hale who has tallied several important victories in her short tenure in the GOP-dominated House. Just recently Hale declined a bid for the U.S. Senate seat despite praise from both Democrats and Republicans for her leadership and legislative prowess.

It’s no wonder why the Indiana General Assembly is a source of such consternation for Hoosiers. We have elected too many Erin Houchin’s—legislators hurriedly working their way to the top and wholly unconcerned with the issues that actually need fixing.

It’s not like Houchin doesn’t have ample opportunity to make a difference in the state senate—a body that will be controlled by her party for the foreseeable future. Issues like rural doctor shortages, the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C and economic diversification are of growing concern for southern Indiana. And it seems a perfect opening for Houchin—a former DCS family case manager—to champion the issue of overworked and underpaid case managers that endanger our youth.

Instead these issues go unresolved in a rush to get to Washington. Perhaps it’s time for Houchin — and many of her colleagues — to heed the words of Mike Pence. The cure for what ails us does not, in fact, always come from our nation’s capital. There is a lot of good to be done right here in Indianapolis.

“The season of the entrepreneur”

“The season of the entrepreneur has begun in the Hoosier state and we are working to make it the greatest season ever.” – Gov. Mike Pence, June 2014

Just one year ago Mike Pence was bullish on the outlook of Indiana’s entrepreneurs. Large corporate tax cuts, regulatory moratoriums and easier access to startup capital made Indiana one of the best places in America to do business, Pence claimed.

A lot has changed in a year.

Though Pence’s most cherished policy accomplishments remain in effect, the results he foretold are not corroborated by the overwhelming of evidence.

A new report ranks Indiana nearly dead last in the nation for the number of new businesses created per adult and venture capital investment in
Indiana is far below the national average—lumbering in at number thirty-six.

The governor oversold the benefits of his economic agenda.

While the Pence administration is falling over itself to get from one low-wage jobs announcement to the next , it is largely ignoring one of the state’s most valuable and underutilized infrastructures—the university and bioscience research sector which could transform the state’s startup community.

Policymakers love to tout the strength of Indiana’s life sciences sector. And it is impressive. But its potential is also unrealized.

Writing for the IBJ’s The Dose, J.K. Wall notes that there is an $80 million “trade deficit” in Indiana for medical researchers. Put another way, the state’s drug and device firms are shelling out more research funding than Indiana researchers are taking in. That’s money flowing to doctors, hospitals and researchers in other states.

Growing the interdependence of behemoth firms such as Cook, Roche and Bioment with the state’s university researchers and medical professionals should preoccupy our state leaders. Instead, they have pushed an outmoded economic agenda that has appealed mostly to low-wage firms, but has done little to spur the vitality of the state’s prized life science industry.

Efforts such as BioCrossroads and the Biosciences Research Institute (and the state’s modest investment) are important steps in the right direction, but they are hardly crowning achievements.

How promising is the research and potential at our institutions of higher learning? Very.

Consider that since 1997, the IU Research & Technology Corporation has helped launch more than 2,500 inventions and 80 startup companies. And in the span of just four years, research at Purdue University led to the formation of 47 startup companies.

This is transformative power for our economy and its struggling startup scene, but its potential is unrealized until these institutions are better connected to life sciences firms and health care providers around the state.

The lack of vision is frustrating and the frustration lies with policymakers wholly unconcerned about the potential (and the need) to transform this into something even better.

While the Pence team goes smokestack chasing, the moneyed roots of a promising Hoosier industry are creeping beyond the border into other states.

At some point public tiffs with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and full-page advertisements in the Wall Street Journal need to give way to a smarter, more necessary form of economic development. The next big breakthrough for Indiana’s economy is not waiting in Connecticut or Illinois or Germany. It’s in our own back yard.

Hill-Rom: An Unknown Known

During the Iraq War our esteemed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, concerning information, “…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns-the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Little did he know that there is another “known.”

Slavoj Zizek says there is a fourth, an unknown known—in which users intentionally refuse to acknowledge that they know. Or as he puts it, “the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about.” In other words, it’s ignoring the truth.

Governor Mike Pence and his fellow bosom buddies in the Indiana General Assembly often practice this “unknown known” path when crafting public policies and when repping their agenda.

Lower tax rates, fewer regulations and a business-friendly environment are part and parcel of a nakedly untruthful dogma that is repeated ad infinitum by Republicans. It acts as a screeching dog whistle to voters who only hear “low taxes.”

So a story caught my eye over the weekend. This, from the Indiana Economic Digest: Hill-Rom headquarters to leave Batesville and move to Chicago.

Whoa.

Hill-Rom is a substantial company based here in the Hoosier state. They are a leading worldwide manufacturer and provider of medical technologies and related services for the health care industry and employ over 2,000 people. Though there are no indications that Hill-Rom will move its call centers or its bed-frame plant out of Batesville, the Fortune 1000 company will now be headquartered in Chicago.

That’s right, Indiana can keep the low-paying, low-skilled call center jobs, but, let’s face it, it’s just not the place for a Fortune 1000 company wants to be headquartered.

Pay no attention to the spittle about Illinois’ high-tax climate or the “competition” between Illinois and Indiana because this little move puts a big win in the column of the Land of Lincoln. Apparently Indiana’s touted business environment wasn’t enough to keep the company’s annual combined sales of $2.6 billion in the state of Honest to Goodness.

Combine the above with this year’s debacle during session on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) it would appear Governor Pence and the General Assembly know all about the unknown knowns.

Remember when RFRA was snaking its way through the legislative process? Opponents of RFRA, many from the state’s most-esteemed businesses, spoke loudly and often about the dangers of the proposal. Yet when the law was signed by Governor Pence he and his ilk were “surprised;” “astonished;” and “taken aback” by the sudden onslaught of unhappy people. Lawmakers quickly set about “fixing” the unknown known.

There are other fixes that need to be accomplished. According to the Institute for Working Families, over a million Hoosiers are living in poverty while over two million are making wages so low it’s nearly impossible to get by. Meanwhile, the Hoosier middle class is shrinking, median household income has dropped by a whopping $8,000, and the state’s GDP growth is laughably low. These are things we know. These numbers matter, but are continually ignored as unknown knowns.

I remember when President Reagan said, “Facts are stupid things.” Such thinking must be genetic to his party.