In late March 2006, Mitch Daniels spoke in Indianapolis at the retirement ceremony of Indiana Pacers legend Reggie Miller. As he sprinted out to mid-court of Conseco Fieldhouse, Indiana’s governor was greeted with a thundering and sustained chorus of boos. Miller offered the governor a sympathetic “tough crowd.”
Since taking office three and a half years ago, Daniels has seen first-hand just how tough of a crowd Hoosiers can be.
In 2004, fresh off a stint as director of President George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget, he campaigned for and won Indiana’s governorship by canvassing the state vowing to change the way its government did business. For the most part, he has spent the past three and half years delivering on that pledge.
As promised, Daniels balanced the state budget for first time in eight years, turning a $600 million defect into a $1.2 million surplus and reduced the size of state government by cutting its spending by $250 million.
When he took office the state was divided into a complex and chaotic time system that varied by county with little reason as to why. Previous attempts to align the state with the majority of the country had generated intense and bizarre opposition and failed. In April 2005, to reduce confusion and increase business, Daniels strong armed the Indiana legislature into finally putting the state on Daylight Savings Time.
He transformed Indiana’s transportation system by leasing the state’s toll roads for the next 75 years to Macquarie-Cintra, a Australian-Spanish consortium for $3.8 billion in 2006. The arrangement provided Indiana with a ten-year funded highway construction program, which has financed more than 400 road projects that are projected to create 130,000 jobs.
Last month, the state legislature passed Daniels’s property tax plan. It restructured the state’s property tax code to add a penny to the income tax and dropped the state’s hated property taxes to the 9th lowest in the nation.
Daniels also pushed through legislation last year for state-funded full-day kindergarten, which is now being implemented; he has privatized parts of Indiana’s government services including its prison system and the delivery of its welfare services.
Other controversial proposed reforms which Daniels was unable to bring to fruition included increasing cigarette taxes to help finance health coverage for uninsured Hoosiers as well as a plan to lease the state’s lottery for a reported $2 billion.
There have been some setbacks but, for the most part, Daniels time in office has been marked by promises fulfilled and goals met. So why are Hoosiers booing him?
THE GOVERNOR HIMSELF has noted that change disturbs many people. His wide ranging reforms have ruffled many feathers. The same voters who elected him have not been so comfortable with the disruption that has accompanied many of Daniels’ initiatives.
Last fall an Indianapolis Star poll revealed that half of the state’s voters disapproved of the governor. Additionally, only 35 percent of Hoosiers polled said the state was going in the right direction, while 57 percent believed the state was headed in the wrong direction. These numbers fly in the face of Indiana’s economic reality. The state is projecting the creation of 60,000 new jobs by 2012 and its unemployment rate is the lowest in six years.
But Daniels unpopularity underscores the dangers that lurk for Republican reformers in conservative states such as Indiana — where voters are not always so receptive to the shocks of quick and sudden change, and do not always appreciate reforms — even beneficial ones.
The disruptions necessary to facilitate progress has put the odds of Daniels’s reelection in some jeopardy. In May, Indiana’s Democratic voters will pick either former Congresswoman Jill Long Thompson or Indianapolis architect Jim Schellinger to oppose Daniels in November’s election.
Either one would present a serious challenge: A Wish-TV (Indianapolis’s CBS affiliate) poll taken late last year revealed that 37 percent of those polled said they would vote against Daniels in 2008, while 21 percent said they would at least consider voting for a candidate other than the governor.
Should Daniels lose in November, the last four years in Indiana will be a stark warning to forward-looking Republicans: delivering on your promises can cost you your job.
But Daniels can take some comfort in this: almost a century ago, Indiana had an equally effective and ambitious governor: Paul V. McNutt. McNutt’s time in office saw similar sweeping changes, and the polarization of much of state in the process. He is now remembered as one of Indiana’s most successful governors.
Despite all the recent trauma and upheaval, who is to say that Daniels will not follow suit?