David Hoppe

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:: Mitch Daniels can count

Is that all it takes?

By David Hoppe

This being Indiana, you probably didn't see the news last week about the $2 billion the Obama administration awarded to states for high-speed rail construction. No, here in Indiana we are still reeling from the aftershocks from the latest session of our Republican state legislature, also known as the Daniels Express.

Here's the news you might have missed: Florida was all set to begin building a high-speed line that would have run 168 mph trains between Tampa and Orlando. But its new Republican governor, Rick Scott, took a page from the playbook of Wisconsin's new Republican governor, Scott Walker (the similarity in their names is, apparently, a coincidence and not to be taken for an androidal conspiracy aimed at control of state governments), and sent the money back to Washington, D.C.

The feds repurposed the money, sending it to projects in California, the Northeast and the Midwest. The Midwestern money is of particular interest, since it ($400 million) will help pay for routes linking Chicago with St. Louis and Detroit.

Did you get that? There are going to be high-speed rail lines running from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit. For those whose geography is a little rusty, Indiana and its capital city, Indianapolis, is found between these two destinations.

But Indiana is not part of this latest high-speed rail initiative because, as our governor, Mitch Daniels, once said of the plan to build a Midwestern high-speed network connecting Indianapolis with other cities in our region, "I wouldn't want Indiana to get left holding the bag."

Daniels has become a role model for the new generation of Republican governors who think that public services are what's wrong with state government. The reason these services are bad is because they cost money. That's a real problem because most state governments are required by law to have a balanced budget. Admittedly, this makes running a state a tricky business. Since services cost money, you either have to pay for them through taxes, or face the painful fact that you can't afford them.

In Indiana, Mitch Daniels has resisted high-speed rail because he's afraid the state will wind up paying for ongoing maintenance costs. He has expressed doubt that high-speed rail can be self-supporting. This position has become a model for Daniels' newly elected colleagues in Florida and Wisconsin although, unlike those politicians, Daniels has never had to send federal funds back to the Department of Transportation. He hasn't allowed the discussion of high-speed rail in Indiana to get that far.

It's worth noting that another new governor named Rick - Snyder, in this case - has just taken office in Michigan. Snyder is also a Republican and has wasted no time in establishing his own Draconian bona fides, virtually dismissing, for example, the elected officials of Benton Harbor, replacing them with his own appointed manager. Rather than derail his state's existing high-speed rail initiative, he has taken the money. Why?

Perhaps it's because Snyder understands that while high-speed rail may represent a certain amount of longterm risk, its potential for economic development makes the gamble worth it. Detroit, thanks to federal stimulus funds that enabled General Motors to turn a corner into renewed profitability, is showing signs of progress. Creating a high-speed connection with Chicago will create jobs and foster synergies involving finances, human capital and cultural resources that could more than offset the costs of a new transportation system.

This position stands in stark contrast to the session just concluded by the Republicans in Indiana's state legislature. Just as Daniels has isolated Indiana when it comes to high-speed rail, these politicians, many of whom were elected thanks to strategic infusions of cash from Daniels' own war chest, have all but thrown a tarp over the state, warning potential entrepreneurs and investors to stay away.

What are women to make of a state that not only has one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country, but has taken the extra step of defunding Planned Parenthood, thereby denying many women access to a range of healthcare services?

And what are gays to make of renewed efforts to not only write a gay marriage ban into the state's constitution, but to deny couples the right to a civil union?

Combined with a corporate tax cut and vouchers that will use public funds to help even middle class parents pay for private school tuition, not to mention a billion dollar state surplus that might make taxpayer refunds possible, this session has succeeded in burnishing Gov. Daniels' conservative image for a national stage. Indiana's numbers look better than any other state in the Union.

But what, exactly, has this accounting gotten us? Our environmental quality is deplorable. Our care for seniors and children in need is dreadful. Hoosiers earn less than the national average - and this number has declined even further since Daniels took office.

California, meanwhile, has a budget deficit 15 times greater than Indiana. We're often told it's a basket case. But in California they're building a 220 mph high-speed system between San Francisco and L.A. Somehow they're still able to get things done out there. Maybe there's more to good government than balancing the books.