Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels acknowledged his agenda for the 2012 session of the General Assembly may not be as sweeping as in past years when he pushed for the privatization of the state’s toll road, implementation of daylight saving time and property tax caps.
But in an interview days before legislators convene Jan. 4 in Indianapolis, Daniels said “this year’s agenda is very important” and that there may be a few ideas he hasn’t yet revealed.
Among his goals: Implement a statewide smoking ban, make Indiana a right-to-work state, and end what he calls “credit creep,” which is the increasing number of classes college students must take to earn majors.
He’s also pushing to close loopholes in the state’s human trafficking law before Feb. 4, when Indianapolis will host the Super Bowl, an event that typically attracts a fairly large sex trade. Daniels said fixing the state’s laws to protect children pushed into prostitution is a top priority.
“I admit, I just didn’t know much about this until about six or eight months ago,” Daniels said. “Some friends I know who have become active on behalf of exploited children began educating me about this growing phenomenon and then I learned how it has special relevance to an event like the Super Bowl.
Here’s what else Daniels said during a wide-ranging interview about his agenda, his first seven years in office and what he wants to accomplish in his final year.
QUESTION: The evidence for right-to-work (which frees workers from paying fees to unions they don’t join) is murky. You can find right-to-work states that have good unemployment rates and bad unemployment rates. Given that, why is it worth pushing for?
DANIELS: Well, some things aren’t murky at all. One is that we miss a lot of shots. We just do. Every site selector will tell you, some businesses will tell you privately, and then we just watch as some big operations that absolutely should’ve looked at Indiana just don’t.
QUESTION: If the state decided to eliminate right-to-work laws, as it did a few decades ago, what has made Indiana ready for right-to-work again now?
DANIELS: We’re in a completely different world, of course. A completely different world. I don’t know very many things that applied five decades ago that haven’t changed since.
QUESTION: What is not on your list of legislative priorities that you wish you could’ve gotten out there?
DANIELS: I believe that we will leave a lot of undone work in higher education, for one example. That doesn’t make us any different than other states. I think higher ed is going to need to make all sorts of changes across the country to adapt to new technologies and the economy of today.
QUESTION: What are the biggest obstacles to reforming higher education? What have been the biggest roadblocks?
DANIELS: There’s a lot of inertia in that system as in any. And up to this point, higher ed has been able to continue with its model without much change. But as costs have risen and risen both to families and students and to the taxpayer, people are starting to ask questions about the value of this that they weren’t asking two and three and five years ago.
It’s been accepted for some time now in the country that a college degree is an unquestioned value and that everybody who could get one should. But it’s in the last really just few years people are beginning to question that assumption for the first time. And so I think the time is right. I just hope Indiana and its institutions move more quickly than others elsewhere.
QUESTION: Do you have specific things you’ll ask the General Assembly to do about credit creep?
DANIELS: The starting proposal is to empower the Commission on Higher Ed to disallow degree programs that they believe are excessive, that are above some number (of credits). They have the authority now to authorize new programs.
This will give them the ability to have a look at existing programs. Nobody is suggesting there’s some sacred number. I’m told something like nine in 10 of our current degree programs have now gone above (the traditional 120 credit hours for majors). And one way to get at it is to simply say that if you’re above that number you have to come show the commission there’s a good reason. Often there will be, but not always.
QUESTION: What else is on the list of things you won’t get done? Sentencing reform?
DANIELS: It could be. I always try to approach these things with optimism but I’m not finding too many other friends of that reform right now that think we could get it done this year. That could be one.
There will be a lot of things left over. I think we’re going to get some things done in local government reform but that will still leave a lot of work I believe that should be attended to in the future.
There’s another category I think we can do better at and that’s health care costs here in the state, which at least in certain areas are higher than they are elsewhere. This is noteworthy because in general we are such a low-cost state. Our cost of living here is dramatically lower than other places, but health care stands out as an area where it’s more.
QUESTION: You have proposed increasing the amount of money that victims of the state fair stage collapse would receive – beyond the $5 million total paid out under state law. How much money are we talking about? Would it be continuing or one time?
DANIELS: I think a singular gesture to recognize the singularity of this event. I don’t have an absolute number in mind. Something probably similar to what the state’s already done.
The best thing for the legislature to do is try to figure out what is fair and just and see what that number produces. For instances, some folks have said, “Wouldn’t it be fair for the seven families of fatalities to get them up to the individual limit in the law, which is $700,000 and they got about ($300,000).” There’s some logic to that.
QUESTION: One of the things you ran on was increasing the state’s per-capita income, but you have not been successful. Why has that been such a hard number to move?
DANIELS: It’s a huge tanker to turn. First we had to stop sinking if we could before you can hope to climb. But I’ve learned that you cannot look at this without looking at the cost of living. IU just did another report on this and it’s striking the extent to which the dollar goes further in Indiana.
But what can be done about it? We are doing exactly the things I can think of that a state can do. This is a 50-year phenomenon in Indiana. National and international economics has a huge bearing on it. But if somebody can think of something that we aren’t trying, I’ll be happy to add it to the list.
QUESTION: You said in your book you have an “oops list” you keep in your drawer. Have you added to that “oops list” this year?
DANIELS: (The governor gets up from his seat and walks over to his desk, rifles through a file drawer and comes up with a notebook flagged with sticky notes.) OK. Sure, here’s one. Here’s a fairly recent example. We struck a deal with a start-up company (Lightbox) that wanted to make some – and still hopes to make some – portable TV screens here in the state and I went to an event (to announce the project). In retrospect, I probably would’ve waited longer to see (if the project would come to fruition).
It was a request to go and operating on the facts I had, it seemed like a good thing to do. Let me be very clear, I completely support the action that our folks took (to provide tax credits to the project). I don’t know if the things are going to work or not ... these are risky deals. But the state is not at any risk. If this thing makes it, it’ll make it here and hire a lot of people and that’ll be great. If it doesn’t, we’re not out a cent. Only the private investors are. So that was a right thing to do.
QUESTION: Looking back on seven years now, are there things that you’ve learned?
DANIELS: So many things. One is I learned not to spring big ideas by surprise – or at least to do as much preparation work as you can. So I made that mistake more than once. The Commerce Connector (toll road around Indianapolis) was a good example of that. Even though we tried, it wasn’t enough ground work laid in advance.
I learned very early on that there’s just no percentage, there’s no upside, in responding in kind. Somebody says something terrible or insulting or untrue and your first instinct is to shoot back. It feels good for about 10 minutes and you realize that if the goal is to get something done, you probably didn’t advance it. The public is not particularly impressed when people in public life zing each other. I had to learn that.
QUESTION: Have you ever wished you could run for a third term?
DANIELS: No. It’s been a moot question and I don’t usually spend time thinking about things that are purely hypothetical like that. If we didn’t have a two-term (limit), I think I would’ve stopped at two. Pretty sure. First of all, I think that that it’s a good idea to have new people to come along. Eight years is probably about the right amount.
We’re going to be going hard on our last day in office. We’re going to use every day of eight years. But maybe eight years is the time when you should let somebody else have a go at it.
And from a personal standpoint, it would probably be good to have another chapter.