INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mitch Daniels will leave Indiana a state modeled after the businessman’s conservatism he practiced and studied for decades, with all the successes and mistakes that came of his bold vision.
He leased the Indiana Toll Road through 2081, pushed the nation’s most sweeping school voucher law, privatized welfare, overhauled the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and placed Indiana on sound financial footing even as other states foundered during the recession.
He also ignored well-documented problems at the Department of Child Services, lost track of $556 million in tax money, eliminated collective bargaining for state employees and took billions in federal aid while building a national career bashing the federal government for mismanagement and overspending. Efforts to privatize the state’s welfare system, cut funding to Planned Parenthood, bar employers from requiring union dues of workers and create the voucher program sparked numerous legal battles, some of which will continue long past the end of his term Jan. 14.
Through it all, he thought big – long a foreign concept in Indiana politics that he said he hopes will stand as the new norm.
“Building a great business climate — that was always the central goal,” said Daniels. “If it does have staying power, it will lead to all the other good things we want. It will lead to new jobs, it will lead therefore to revenues to do the things government should do and it will underpin the success of the state.”
As his second term as governor winds down and Daniels prepares to become Purdue University’s president, the man who campaigned across the state in an RV has traveled the nation on his legacy tour to share “the Indiana story.” It’s a glossy tale of his achievements: sending hundreds of dollars back to taxpayers via his automatic tax refund, weathering the national recession without raising taxes and leaving Gov.-elect Mike Pence with money to spend, on tax cuts or elsewhere.
But Democrats point out that Daniels omits many details, such as the state’s need to borrow $2 billion to shore up its bankrupt unemployment insurance fund and Daniels’ decision to accept $2 billion in federal stimulus money despite saying he opposed the measure. They also say his decision to lease the Indiana Toll Road for $3.8 billion to a foreign group for 75 years was short-sighted, noting that most of the money has been spent or committed and that key projects, such as the completion of the Interstate 69 expansion, aren’t funded.
“I think that it’s going to turn out to be a bit of smoke and mirrors for Indiana over the longer haul. I feel like he’s been very skilled at selling Hoosiers — and quite frankly the country — a bill of goods, and it’s really disappointing,” said Betty Cockrum, the president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Indiana who clashed with Daniels in 2011 after he signed a law cutting off public funds to the organization because it provides abortions.
Cockrum, who ran the state budget for former Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon, said Daniels relied on tricks to make the state’s books look good just like any other governor, but he rarely gets called on it because of his national reputation.
Daniels, who promised to bring a “freight train of change” to Indiana in a 2004 speech to fellow Republicans, continues to paint state government as a mess before he took over in 2005. Customer service was awful at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, fraud was rampant in the state’s Medicaid program and the state’s roads and bridges were crumbling, he says.
In his first year in office, he eliminated collective bargaining for public employees and put the state on daylight saving time, something no governor had achieved in decades of trying. The next year, he leased the toll road and awarded a contract to a consortium led by IBM to privatize welfare. He also hired hundreds of new caseworkers at the Department of Child Services, transformed the state’s economic development department into a quasi-public group — with all the freedom and the secrecy that status grants — and turned the BMV into a beacon of customer service.
As the Republican Party’s old guard courted him to run for president in 2011, Daniels signed some of the nation’s most sweeping changes to public education into law, including a voucher program that would let some students use public money to attend private school. And in this last year in office, he made Indiana the first Rust Belt state to ban mandatory union fees with right-to-work legislation.
His allies and close friends say Daniels had a distinct vision for fixing the state and executed it with fervor. Before Daniels took over, state leaders were fine with mediocrity, said Neil Pickett, Daniels’ policy director from 2005-2009.
“The general opinion of the state’s leadership was that we were okay, and it was an okay place, and it was okay place for your family and an okay place to raise your kids, but it wasn’t extraordinary,” Pickett said. “And Mitch wanted something more, and he used his energy, and the force of his personality and the force of his vision, to help people see that there could be more.”
Daniels was uniquely poised to execute that vision after years of jobs in politics and corporate boardrooms, Pickett said. Daniels’ work in the Reagan White House and as President George W. Bush’s budget director co-mingled with his time as an Eli Lilly executive to show him how to get big things done in a state unaccustomed to big changes, he said.
Former House Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer isn’t as flattering.
“Mitch would do anything to accomplish his goal. He was persistent and he kept at it and he didn’t let the facts get in his way and he didn’t let anything get in his way,” Bauer said. “And ultimately, because of the fact we’re basically in a Republican state, he got his way.”
Perhaps more than anyone, it was Bauer who drew out Daniels’ sharp tongue. IN 2005, Daniels said Bauer and the House Democrats “car bombed” his first-year agenda. Since then, he has mellowed significantly in public, but still has his moments. At the opening of the Interstate 69 extension, Daniels called opponents of the projects “bellyachers.” He later apologized for the flip remark.
He incurred the wrath of the state’s public school teachers with his sweeping education agenda, which in addition to the voucher program tied teacher pay to student performance and led to the first state takeover of failing schools. Those moves cost his education chief, Tony Bennett, his job in the November election. The state abandoned its welfare privatization project after complaints of delays and lost services, replacing it with a hybrid system of public and private services. And changes in the embattled Department of Child Services have sparked hours of public testimony and prompted lawmakers to propose revisions in how the state handles reports of abuse and neglect.
But despite the stumbles, supporters say Daniels’ legacy will be that of a governor of immense talent who knew how to inspire.
“When you stack up all the chips at the end of the game, each stack is important all by itself. But the most important thing is what all the chips represent altogether. And you look at those chips and you go ‘Wow. We’re really something,'” longtime friend and confidant Mark Lubbers said. “We, not him. And how he has done rubs off on all the rest of us. That’s the biggest achievement of all.”