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Daniels appears bent on ‘selling off’ government

Looks like Mitch Daniels worked too long with George Bush & Co. in Washington, because he’s come home bent on privatizing everything he can get in his sights. And just as Tom DeLay ‘hammered’ Republicans in Congress (Mike Sodrel included) to give Bush everything he ever wanted, Republican leaders in the state legislature ramrodded our man Mitch’s ‘Major Moves’ program into law.
Last fall, in preparation for the 2006 session, House Republicans went around the state holding ‘town hall’ meetings to hear what was on Hoosiers’ minds so they could set priorities for the coming session. Well, those meetings were either just for show or pure diversion, because by the time the session opened, Brian Bosma, House Speaker, was promising to push an ‘aggressive’ agenda, which, as it turned out, was our man Mitch’s agenda. At the beginning of the session, many lawmakers, even Republicans, had reservations about Mitch’s Major Moves (an epithet as goofy as his campaign slogan ‘My Man Mitch’). After all, it was a program for selling off state services and assets to a foreign-owned company for 75 years. Nevertheless, Mitch and his musclemen in the legislature ran a media campaign saying that anyone with reservations about the bill was an enemy of Indiana progress. The ads were crafted by Daniels’ transition team and paid for by Mitch’s left-over campaign funds and special-interest groups that will profit from the program. Daniels went so far as to say that Indiana’s share of the Ohio bridges ‘would be in jeopardy’ unless his program was passed, a claim Democrats said was groundless and Baron Hill called blackmail.
Daniels later took back his threat because most legislators knew that the bridges money had been provided for, regardless of Major Moves. In spite of Daniels’ campaign, legislative hearings on Major Moves made it clear that the public was against the bill, and many lawmakers, Republicans as well as Democrats, had serious reservations about it. Republican Marvin Riegsecker admitted, ‘The opposition, of course, has been considerable. It makes me as a legislator dig deep inside to ask the question: ‘Does public policy rule over the wishes of your constituents?’ ‘ Republican Bob Meeks said, ‘My e-mails have been brutal. I’ve been called a traitor and some other words I can’t even tell you.’ Democrat Dave Crooks asked Daniels to put Major Moves on hold so there could be some public hearings on it and lawmakers could have time to study it, but Daniels simply told reporters that, ‘Delay is often, as you know, a disguise for defeating something.’
Debate on Major Moves was the longest Speaker Brian Bosma had witnessed in his 20 years in the House. Republican David Wolkins acknowledged that Major Moves might be the ‘greatest idea in the world. It may not be. We don’t have enough information to know.’
But for all the debate, the outcome of the bill was pretty much foregone, because Daniels and Republican leaders were determined to have their way ‘ in spite of poll numbers showing that 60 percent considered Major Moves a bad idea while only 30 percent thought it a good idea. (Daniels’ approval ratings dropped to 37 percent, and 53 percent of respondents said the state was headed in the wrong direction.) Nevertheless, Daniels and Republican leadership, in true Bush-DeLay fashion, demanded obedience. They hammered enough Republicans, no matter their reluctances, into voting for the bill. Democrats, almost to a person, voted against the bill. And for good reason. As Democrat Craig Fry said, ‘This is not a bad deal. It’s a raw deal.’
The bill will allow Daniels to continue and even expand his privatization binge. He has already privatized food service for state prisons, the operation of the New Castle corrections facility and state hospitals, and he has plans for turning over Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Food Stamp and Medicaid programs to private companies. He’s also considering allowing private companies to log state forests as well as giving them operation of state-park inns. And, with Major Moves, he now has expanded authority to privatize the highway system.
Privatization has all kinds of dangers. Private companies are in business to make profits. What kinds of corners will they cut to make their profits? Will service be curtailed? Will they pay the wages or offer the benefits that state employees make? Will they pay even a living wage? Will they recognize and bargain with unions? Will they pay their CEOs exorbitant salaries and make oil-company profits at the expense of service and workers?
How much oversight will Indiana taxpayers have? Will these companies have the open records that law requires of state agencies? Are we reduced to only hoping that we will not have at the state level the kind of corruption, rip-offs and scandals that Bush & Co. Republicans have created in their privatizing of government functions to cronies like Halliburton in Iraq and along the Gulf Coast after Katrina? And, why shouldn’t the profits from this work stay in the state for the benefit of all Hoosiers? People who spoke against Major Moves at Senate Appropriations Committee hearings may well have the best grasp of what our man Mitch is up to in his Major Moves. One warned against being taken in by ‘instant gratification’ of the up-front money and said the bill will allow governors to ‘pawn our state assets like a junkie each time he needs fast cash. It has addiction written all over it.’
Major Moves, of course, was not the only bill passed by the 2006 legislature, but it took up so much of the sessions’ time and energy that important issues like property-tax reduction got only quick, temporary fixes.
Mark Redden lives in Elizabeth and is the chairman of the Harrison County Democrat Central Committee.