Mitch Daniels will be leaving the Governor’s office next week, and the predictable “puff pieces” are popping up. Daniels will leave with a reputation for good stewardship, primarily because Indiana emerged from the recession in decent fiscal shape–at least if you gauge fiscal health by money in the state’s bank accounts rather than by the condition of its cities, towns and workforce. (By that measure, we don’t look so good…)
Which leads to a question none of these adulatory articles has bothered to address: how should we measure a Governor’s performance? What are the criteria for success as a state’s chief executive?
In Daniels’ case, those applauding his performance seem to set the bar pretty low. Yesterday, Matt Tully’s column celebrated the fact that Daniels actually made decisions. Granted, Tully has long exhibited what local political wags call a “man crush” on the Governor, but he is not alone in suggesting that the mere fact that someone we elected actually did stuff is reason enough for praise.
So what “stuff” did Mitch do? Let me use Tully’s list: He leased the Indiana Toll Road. He led the fight for “Right to Work,” and was successful in adding property tax caps to the State Constitution. He was the moving force behind Tony Bennett’s approach to education reform. He revamped the BMV, and finally got Indiana on Daylight Savings Time.
Fair is fair: the BMV is a far, far better agency than it ever was before. It is efficient, user-friendly–I’d certainly give Daniels kudos for solving agency problems that defied his predecessors. I will also give him credit for Daylight Savings Time; it seems ridiculous that getting Indiana to go along with the rest of the country took so much political capital, but hey–this is Indiana, where one of our brilliant legislators worried aloud that an extra hour of sunlight would burn the crops. So props to the Guv for that one, too.
The rest of it, not so much.
The Toll Road deal was part and parcel of the conservative love-affair with privatization; it amounted to what one expert recently called an “intergenerational transfer,” meaning the state deferred expenses that will be paid by our grandchildren in return for quick and easy up-front cash that could be spent during Daniels’ term in office. (And spent it was–it’s all gone.)
Right to work was a payoff to the business interests that supported his campaigns.
The tax caps are strangling every urban area in Indiana–making it virtually impossible for Mayors to fund ongoing services, and forcing them into “rob Peter to pay Paul” deals to sell off public assets. Indianapolis is less safe, less clean, and less healthy; thanks, Mitch.
Whatever the merits of the education policies that Daniels and Bennett championed, it is hard to find anyone–education reform advocate or defender of the status quo–who has a kind word for their aggressive, slash-and-burn attacks on teachers.
I haven’t read all of the fawning articles, but the ones I’ve seen haven’t mentioned some of the other legacies Governor Daniels is leaving. There’s a state contract with a horribly expensive coal gasification plant in Southern Indiana, run by a company that employs Daniels’ close ally Mark Lubbers–a contract that ensures Indiana ratepayers will overpay for gas for the next 30 years. There’s the developing scandal involving the IEDC and Mitch Roob, another Daniels protege.
Tully and others acknowledge that there is “debate” about the consequences of many of his decisions, but they praise Daniels for the fact that he actually did stuff, that he “boldly” made decisions. That he changed things.
Apparently, that’s enough to earn their praise.
Talk about setting the bar low.