Posted on

It’s unwise to make Major Moves lightly

Major Moves is law, but getting it there hasn’t made Gov. Mitch Daniels into Mitch Congeniality.
The Indiana Toll Road will be leased to an Australian-Spanish consortium for 75 years, and $3.8 billion will flow into the state and help fund some 200 highway projects.
It’s an interesting development at a time when national debate rages concerning foreign leasing of U.S. ports. Foreign management of U.S. infrastructure is almost as unpopular in the interior as on the Coast.
Fewer than 30 percent of those polled by The Indianapolis Star supported the lease, 60 percent were opposed and 10 percent weren’t sure. Gov. Mitch Daniels’ approval rating slid to 37 percent.
So whose man exactly is ‘My man Mitch’?
Being an elected official doesn’t always mean doing what is popular. Representing the best interests of one’s constituents sometimes requires disagreeing with them.
Good parents make their children eat their lima beans, take their medicine and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Good government also has to make us eat our lima beans sometimes. Call it tough love.
The difference is that elected officials can’t promise, ‘You will understand when you’re older,’ like mom and dad do.
Political officials have an obligation to help the public see the wisdom of their positions today, especially when making choices that will impact the state long after they are out of office and existence. This lease ends on 2081.
There are a number of things about Major Moves that make Hoosiers uncomfortable, including a no-compete clause that will limit the extent to which Indiana can improve S.R. 20 which runs along the toll road area.
No one is sure how the no-compete clause will affect development over the next 75 years. In fact, only Daniels and his attorneys know the full details of that clause and the contract in general. Other state legislators expect to find out those details this summer.
They also hope to find out how it is exactly the toll road consortium is to be given control of gas stations, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that would be built along the road, and how the consortium will be allowed to profit by those businesses. Those controls and profits are to be part of the contract which requires only Gov. Daniels’ signature.
Like many economic decisions that burn fast and bright, evidence of Major Moves revenue at work should be visible all over the state before long, but it won’t last long.
That $3.8 billion is a big shot in the arm. It’s a brief high to be followed by an extended low. And some lawmakers say it isn’t nearly enough to fund all that is promised.
The revenue will help fund construction in the state’s 10-year plan, then the deal will leave Indiana with decades of lease agreement and new roads to maintain but no revenue stream from the Indiana Toll Road.
That leads to the obvious question: If the Indiana Toll Road is such a great investment, why don’t we continue operating it?
State Rep. Paul Robertson, D-Depauw, said he is asked that same question everywhere he goes. He knows the deal is to be awarded to the high bidder, but, as with the contract details, he doesn’t even know whose bid was second.
The Democrats suggested an alternative to outsourcing. They suggested selling bonds on future tolls to generate revenue for projects now while keeping the toll road under state control, but Gov. Daniels had vision ‘ tunnel vision.
Robertson and Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, both opposed the bill, but Republican majorities in the House and Senate pushed it through. Some legislators likely committed political suicide in the process.
In northwest Indiana, where the Indiana Toll Road was expected to eventually become a freeway, opposition was so strong that it took a lot of promising by the governor to sway the votes of state legislators in those districts.
Once those promises have been fulfilled, there won’t be enough money left over to do nearly what was originally planned, local lawmakers say. In any case, elections will be here long before those road and bridge projects are completed and soothing the wounds of misrepresented constituents.
The toll road deal is filled with unknowns, not just the details only Daniels knows but also unforeseeable risks involving the no-compete clause and outside management of the road. It begs the question of how much financial risk the government should be allowed to undertake with public dollars and infrastructure.
And Daniels wants to do it again. He already has future roads in mind for similar lease agreements, and he wanted the General Assembly to grant him the power to make those deals in the future without a vote. They did not.
It seems that granting the governor the ability to negotiate a contract, sight unseen, is as undemocratic as Republican legislators are willing to get.
The dynamic between the Daniels Administration and General Assembly is beginning to mirror that of the Bush Administration and Congress. Democracy only rears its head at election time.
Fortunately, that time isn’t far away. The public needs to elect a General Assembly that can keep this governor in check until his name is back on the ballot.