The appointment of Jim Schellinger to lead the Indiana Economic Development Corp. could be good for Indiana Democrats. Having one of their own lead the state’s primary entity for attracting jobs should lend itself to addressing one of their biggest criticisms: the state’s failure to boost the personal incomes of Hoosiers.
But having a seat at the table comes with some peril—and a few questions. Just how much freedom will Schellinger enjoy? And could a lack of economic progress on his watch provide political fodder for Republican Gov. Mike Pence as he seeks re-election?
Schellinger, a CSO Architects executive and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, will only have the balance of Pence’s first term to make a mark. He starts the job Aug. 10 with some wind at his back but big obstacles to overcome.
The good news? Indiana already has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the Midwest—4.9 percent—and can boast strong private-sector job creation. IEDC has locked up pledges of $3.8 billion in private sector-capital investment this year, which is expected to create more than 17,000 jobs in the next six years. Most of those jobs are projected to pay 21 percent more than the average state wage.
The lagging personal incomes of Hoosiers has been a talking point for Democrats since the administration of Gov. Mitch Daniels, Pence’s Republican predecessor. Per capita incomes have been stagnant, putting Indiana workers further behind those in other states.
With the higher wages attached to recent job pledges, Schellinger seems to be stepping into his new role at a good time. And he’ll have at least one new tool at his disposal, courtesy of Indiana Republicans.
The Regional Cities initiative that Pence pushed through the Legislature this year pledges $84 million to metro areas outside Indianapolis that create quality of life plans to attract and retain young workforce talent.
That strategy holds much promise in the long run for attracting high-paying jobs. Much will depend on how the initiative is executed in the early going. That’s Schellinger’s responsibility now. But regardless of what he and IEDC do in that regard, Indiana’s quality of life claims will ring hollow with a large segment of the business community until the state repairs the damage done by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act pushed by Pence.
Most Democrats and many Republicans say the best way to put RFRA behind us is for the Legislature to extend civil rights protections to the LGBT community, but Pence hasn’t called for such legislation. Since Pence appointed him, Schellinger himself hasn’t said publicly that he supports such a measure.
That’s a good reminder that Schellinger’s influence will go only so far. Like most Hoosiers, he has a boss to answer to. But he has a seat at the table, which means he’s in a position to bring some much-needed balance to the administration—and to accept some blame for IEDC’s shortcomings.•
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