INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence always knew on an intellectual level that Mitch Daniels would be a tough act to follow. His first nine weeks in office, he is finding out just what that means in practice.
From the outset, Pence understood his fellow Republican’s legacy. Daniels had turned Indiana’s budget deficit into a hulking surplus and reformed the state’s government at lightning speed, allowing him to depart for Purdue University as a popular and powerful figure.
Pence also grasped the internal party politics. He called his predecessor “the best governor in America” and was careful not to risk alienating the operatives, lawmakers and business officials who helped Daniels along the way by criticizing the work they had done.
What Pence might not have fully known at his campaign’s outset is that along with what Republicans consider a lot of good, Daniels left behind, as the old movie title goes, the bad and the ugly.
It’s that the cost of Daniels’ accomplishments that now threatens to derail the top item on Pence’s first-year legislative agenda.
Citing Indiana’s surplus, the new governor wants to lower the state’s individual income tax rate from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent a move that would save average taxpayers a little less than $100 per year and cost the state $520 million in annual tax revenue.
The old governor, though, built that surplus by making tough decisions through the economic downturn. Public schools still get less funding today than they did in 2009, and state and local officials who manage transportation budgets are desperate for extra cash, especially now that Daniels’ signature “Major Moves” program is ending.
Pointing to his own budget proposal, Pence likes to tell groups he addresses that Indiana can afford to both fund its priorities and cut taxes. That budget includes marginal education spending increases, though not enough to keep up with the cost of living, and a conditional bump in roads funding.