A Low Bar

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.


  1. This “agent of change” business has been going on for years. See, e.g., http://www.masson.us/blog/?p=2242 from June of 2007. As I posted then:

    “One more thought on change. My daughter, Harper, is a significant agent of change. She is “bold.” She has little patience for negotiation and the bothersome niceties of rules and the opinions of others. She has a take charge personality. But is she a visionary leader to whom we should entrust the reins of government? Probably not, she’s two.”

  2. Completely agree — the man-crush people (definitely including Tully) have on Mitch has been in place and obscured or prevented them from doing their jobs for Hoosiers by preventing them from providing voters accurate and complete information. Mitch deserves credit for some things, and excoriation for others: you left out the string of enormous mismanagement failures where a substantial number of his agency heads left office under a serious cloud: DCS, Revenue, IURC, and on and on. Why and how Mitch was held completely harmless by the media for these failures — some of which were exaccerbated by Mitch’s requirement that they revert $$$ appropriated for the agencies to do their job, like protecting children — and the mismanagement (or worse) is beyond me.

  3. Governorers should be judges as all others, by what they do – NOT by what they say. Talk is cheap, so the old saying goes, but Daniels talk has cost cities and towns throughout Indiana millions in tax dollars with little to show for it it. Unless you consider sports teams, venues and the possibility of another Super Bowl as progress. If it involves balls; this administration is all for it but they don’t have the balls to move forward regarding improving public eduction, public safety or resolving the collapsing infrastructure problems. “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Look out Indiana; here comes Pence!

  4. My daughter-in-law just told me that everyone must file new Homestead Exemptions by today. Is this true, if so why did I not receive notification? I did receive a reassessment notice weeks ago but no mention of the Homestead Exemption in the letter or on the form. Is this one of Daniels’ actions? I have tried contacting the Assessor’s Office, TV stations but gotten nowhere.

  5. Well Sheila, here is the deal. The Star must have it’s own dictionary and under the definition of Privatization = It is always good.

    The coal plant you mentioned seems to hardly fit in the with the robust market driven capitalism espoused by the Republican Party and Mitch Daniels.

    Then we have the Duke Energy issue of of musical chairs with the Government Agency that was supposed to be regulating Duke.

    Factory farms and the seeming disinterest by the Government here in the pollution issues resulting from them.

  6. “The Toll Road deal was part and parcel of the conservative love-affair with privatization.”

    Unfortunately, it’s not just conservatives who have a love affair with privatization. Look no further than Chicago. My big complaint about privatization by those who advocate it is that it is presumed to be more efficient and economical without first doing a top-down analysis of a government-run entity to determine if there are better alternatives to privatization. The Toll Road continuously lost money, which should not have been occurring if it had been run properly. The irony is that I predict we will likely wind up with more toll roads to pay for all of the new projects constructed with the $3.8 billion the state received from privatizing the Toll Road because the Daniels’ plan didn’t have any contingency for how we could possibly afford to maintain those new highways.

    I think what a lot of people respected about Daniels was that he wasn’t afraid to tackle big issues in an effort to bring about needed change. There’s plenty of room for debate on whether his choices were always wise, but he shines on leadership compared to the status quo leadership exhibited by Evan Bayh and Frank O’Bannon.

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