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:: Mitch Daniels' Indiana

Same as it ever was

By David Hoppe

Credit where credit is due: our governor, Mitch Daniels, can be as straightforward as a stop sign. This is what he said last week during his annual speech to the General Assembly: "Here in Indiana we live within our means, we put the private sector ahead of the government and the taxpayer ahead of everyone."

You could practically hear the creaking of self-satisfied Hoosier heads as they nodded in the Statehouse. Rarely has what passes for common sense in Indiana been this distilled. Daniels gave it to us neat, like a shot of corn whiskey.

The next day, pundits who had been looking forward to the speech in order to see how it might reflect Daniels' presidential aspirations gave a collective shrug. As far as they could see, the speech stuck to Indiana and gave little away in terms of a national agenda.

They missed the point.

For anyone who wondered about what the priorities of a Daniels administration might be, Daniels himself was - and always has been - clear as a bell. He sides with business and disdains government. This disdain means he does everything to keep taxes as low as he can until people start noticing that services they used to count on, like having enough inspectors to make sure our water's clean or our nursing homes safe, have gone missing.

Daniels takes pride in comparing Indiana with other states. In his speech he said, "Across the country, state spending, despite the recession, is still up sharply the last six years. But here it is virtually flat. Elsewhere, state government payrolls have grown, but here we have the nation's fewest state employees per capita. Fewer than we did in 1978."

Our state government, in other words, is locked in a time capsule with the Brothers Gibb.

Daniels, of course, can make this seem like Hoosier common sense because he's not entirely wrong about government. Governments, like other forms of human organization (financial services corporations, say, or large health insurance companies) provide opportunities for inefficiency and corruption. On the night Daniels gave his speech, the state legislature in Illinois was voting to raise the personal income tax by 66 percent in order to try and offset a $15 billion budget deficit. Corporate taxes in Illinois are also going up. This is bad news for people in Illinois, but it may bring new business across the border to Indiana, where Daniels has extended a welcome mat.

Although the inefficiency and corruption of others may make Daniels' puritanical approach to government seem responsible and wise, one still wonders whether it really works.

It's true enough that Indiana is weathering the recession better than its neighbors, but if we've lost less to the slings and arrows of a sinking national economy, it can also be argued that this is because we've had less to lose. Our diminished number of state employees per capita may be a sign of how little has actually grown in Indiana since 1978.

Indiana's supposedly attractive low cost of living comes to mind. It costs less to live here than it does in most other places in the United States. But that's because the average income in Indiana lags behind the rest of the country. We earn 86 cents for every dollar earned by average Americans, a figure, by the way, that's dropped a nickel since Gov. Daniels took office. Houses here are "affordable." But you'll be hard-pressed to trade a house in Indianapolis for a comparable residence in most other cities across the country.

To hear Gov. Daniels tell it, you would think that he inherited a socialist state from the likes of those Marxist radicals Evan Bayh, Frank O'Bannon and Joe Kernan. A state, that is, piled high with taxes, where the wealthy were getting soaked and everybody else was living off the fat of the land, thanks to all the benefits the state was paying out. You'd think social workers were making it rich.

But we all know that's never been the case. Government has always taken a backseat to business here. A hundred years ago, Indiana was transformed by capitalists who created an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse. A little later, these tycoons would grapple with labor unions over what constituted a fair wage - a legacy we're still dealing with today.

The point is, the state Mitch Daniels was elected to govern has never been designed to favor the working stiff, the college student or the single mom. It has never charged taxes like they do in California or New York or Massachusetts. You almost never hear about a business deal being busted here because of environmental concerns.

Yet, for all of Indiana's putting the private sector ahead of government, and in spite of our lower taxes, the kind of prosperity that created new wealth during boom times in other states has largely passed Indiana by. Our governor brags that we have fewer state employees than in 1978.

To those who wonder what America would be like under President Daniels, the answer is in plain sight -- back home in Indiana.