Business interests donate $2.1 million for Pence travel

Gov. Mike Pence's travel at home and abroad to promote Indiana as a haven for business has been paid for by a collection of powerful interests that also stand to benefit from having close ties with the Republican governor.

Donation information from Indiana Economic Development Foundation show big business — notably energy companies regulated by the Pence administration — dominate the list of those who have given over $2.1 million to the state's economic development efforts over the past two years, state figures show.

Fort Wayne-based Indiana Michigan Power donated $424,000 to the fund, according to figures released to The Associated Press under a public records request. Duke Energy Corp., the largest electricity provider in the state, donated $381,000, with the company's foundation giving an additional $75,000. Meanwhile, Vectren, which supplies natural gas to much of the central and southern portions of the state, donated $267,000.

The companies, which have also given thousands to the governor's campaign fund, are dependent on the Pence-appointed Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, which must approve energy rates charged to consumers. Critics say the donations demonstrate a confluence of money and power that gives major companies and even more outsized voice in economic development, while Pence has maintained the donations pay for trips that have brought additional business and jobs to the state.

Over the past two years, the foundation has spent just over $600,000 for Pence's trips to Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Israel and China. Agricultural processor Tate & Lyle announced a $90 million Indiana expansion during Pence's trip to the United Kingdom and an additional $65 million expansion in March.

The trips pay for travel, lodging and in some cases splashy events. The foundation paid $24,000 for a Yankees baseball outing for relocation prospects during Pence trip to New York in early August, The Indianapolis Star reported.

With an eye turned to luring more business to the state, Pence is scheduled to leave Sept. 11 with a trade delegation to Japan.

In a written statement, Indiana Economic Development Corp. spokeswoman Abby Gras said money donated by private companies spares taxpayers from having to foot the bill for the trips. For example, the Japan trip is budgeted to cost $280,000, she said.

"We will aggressively pursue every opportunity that represents a promise for Hoosier jobs," Gras said.

Before Pence, the IEDC used a similar funding strategy for trade missions under Gov. Mitch Daniels. Prior administrations often drew criticism for excessive spending of tax dollars on trade missions.

Critics suggest the donations show Pence is in lock-step with the priorities of big business at the public's expense.

When the Obama administration developed new Environmental Protection Agency standards that were aimed at reducing the emissions at coal-fired power plants, Pence vowed to fight the plan, which was opposed by the state's energy interests.

"It displays the absolute stranglehold that the Indiana Energy Association and electric utilities have on our state government and our electoral process," said Kerwin Olson, executive director at Citizens Action Coalition, a consumer advocacy group. "It's the Gilded Age all over again. This is John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie walking around the statehouse all over again," he said, referring to the powerful 19th century industrialists.

Donations for economic development "provide another opportunity to flood the system with money," said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, a left-leaning citizens' advocacy group.

Duke Energy spokesman Lew Middleton disagreed with those who say Pence is too cozy with the energy industry.

"Working in cooperation is one way we can attract new business to the area and encourage expansion," he said. "And all of that helps the community."

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