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Daniels swung for fences in office

Fans, critics differ as to how many homers

– Gov. Mitch Daniels made it tough for folks to define his legacy.

He did too much – the Toll Road, time change, privatization, tax reform, vouchers, budget cuts – to be known for any one thing, good or bad.

Some tout his fiscal prowess while others say he moved too fast. Some focus on the infrastructure he is leaving behind, while others define him as the man who didn’t run for president.

“It’s too early, and it’s not for me to say,” Daniels said of his legacy. “We made a lot of big change but for some of it there’s no guarantee that it lasts.

“Very quickly the memories will fade about what happened here. What I hope won’t is an attitude of higher expectations among Hoosiers.”

Daniels has only a few weeks left before leaving the governor’s office Jan. 14 and moving on to the presidency of Purdue University.

From the moment he was elected in 2004, he promised a “freight train of change.”

Longtime adviser and friend Mark Lubbers said he delivered.

“He never took his foot off the gas pedal,” he said. “I think the legacy of most governors is one or two things. In Mitch’s case there are so many answers. If you talk to legislators they would say they got sick of Mitch’s big ideas.”

Daniels spent his political capital early on, leasing the Indiana Toll Road and enacting daylight saving time. It initially hurt his polling numbers, but by the time 2008 rolled around voters were ready for more.

“I personally think your legacy is determined not the day after you leave but five or 10 years down the road,” said Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne. “When you first think of Mitch Daniels you think of someone who certainly wasn’t afraid to make changes. I think the jury is still out on whether some of those things were good for the state.”

One of the accomplishments most often mentioned was Daniels’ ability to balance the state budget in tough times, converting a deficit to a $2 billion surplus over his eight-year tenure.

“His success at repeatedly balancing the biennial budget will certainly top any list of achievements for Daniels,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

But that reputation as a strong fiscal manager took a hit with two major accounting errors in the range of $500 million at the end of 2011 and early 2012.

“That is significant,” said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. “You can’t lose half a billion dollars in the couch cushion.”

Allen County GOP Chairman Steve Shine said an extension of his budget successes was to run government efficiently with fewer employees and less money than expected.

“He brought Indiana through a renaissance period – a transformation from the bottom of the heap to the shining example of how government should work,” he said.

Democrats have long said the cuts he made to reach that surplus hurt Hoosiers and services.

From a national perspective, Daniels proved smaller government can still accomplish much for its citizenry, Sabato said.

“Daniels is seen as a can-do, upbeat, people-oriented practical conservative,” he said. “The key is that too many Republicans are seen as narrow-minded and exclusionary, not to mention obsessed with social issues like abortion and unwilling to compromise with others.”

Downs believes it’s too early to gauge the success of some of the governor’s larger initiatives.

The biggest is the 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road for $3.8 billion in upfront cash. Daniels said criticism of this deal is the dumbest thing he has ever heard. He contends the state took a road that was losing money and still hadn’t paid off construction bonds in 50 years and leveraged it for cash and future upkeep.

But now the money is pretty much gone – except for a trust fund that may or may not be tapped in the future – and Hoosiers will face decades of rising tolls.

Property tax reform is another wait-and-see subject.

The plan slashed homeowner taxes, but it is unclear how caps will affect local governments’ ability to provide services years from now. And school support could suffer in the long term now that the state took over all operational expenses.

Ironically, one of Daniels’ legacies will be something he didn’t do – run for president. He flirted with it in 2011 before his family asked him not to run.

But hard-core Republicans still reminisce about what could have been – ideally a defeat of President Obama.

Lubbers believes he not only would have won but would have also changed presidential politics for half a century.

“People will remember that he should have run,” Downs said. “Obama would have had a really difficult time up against a frugal guy with a strong state budget and national experience. He had a great story to tell.”

But Daniels said he doesn’t regret his decision.

“When I do think about it for a second I think I made the only decision that was right – first for my family – but secondly, not running allowed me to honor something that always meant a lot to me,” Daniels said.

He always said governor would be the only office he would ever seek and he wanted to see that job through to the end.

“Some of the things I think were really important for this state got done in Year 7 and Year 8,” Daniels said. “If I’d been running for president we wouldn’t have had education reform, we wouldn’t have had another rock-solid budget and some other things I can name. So all in all I think it was a decision I’m totally at peace with.”

Despite his glowing state and national reputation there were hiccups along the way.

Here are just a few: One agency head is currently facing felony charges; an internal audit had to be performed on the Department of Revenue; two lottery directors left amid spending and ethics scandals; a Bureau of Motor Vehicles head resigned under intense pressure because of a botched computer system upgrade; questionable job numbers arose; a failed $1 billion contract with IBM left some vulnerable Hoosiers without medical care; and a bribery scandal recently surfaced at the economic development agency.

“They controlled the message brilliantly,” GiaQuinta said. “He’s the Teflon governor. Nothing stuck to him.”

Lubbers said Daniels was self-effacing about mistakes and acted quickly, not letting things fester.

Daniels laughed at the notion, saying, “it didn’t feel like Teflon from this end. It didn’t feel like everything bounced off.”

He said he thinks his honesty in some of those situations helped, as well as the fact that his administration discovered some of the items on its own.

“Most of them only happened because we didn’t settle for mediocrity or we didn’t settle for some dysfunctional system,” Daniels said. “We tried to change it and sometimes didn’t get it right. I think on those occasions people generally understood, ‘well, fair enough. They’re trying to get it right. Give them a second chance.’ ”

nkelly@jg.net

At a glance

Gov. Mitch Daniels was successful with almost everything he pushed for during eight years. Here are the few that got away and what he had to say on things undone. “I’m surprised we got as many things done as we did.”
•Local government reform – Daniels said he accomplished a few key changes, such as reducing the number of assessors and changing nepotism laws. But the key items, such as having a single county executive, hit a wall year after year.
•Moving superintendent of public instruction to appointed position – He said he kept bringing it up, but legislative leadership never felt it was the right time.
•Criminal justice changes – Daniels sought some changes to drug and theft laws that would reduce the number of low-level felony offenders in prison. Legislators are still working on a package for 2013.
•Leasing the Hoosier Lottery to invest in higher education – Daniels wanted to reap a one-time lump sum to be invested in higher education scholarships and research. But legislators resisted putting the lottery in private hands.

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