Amid intense criticism that Indiana's roads are crumbling under his watch, Gov. Mike Pence called Tuesday for an additional $1 billion in spending to improve state highways — a proposal that was widely derided by Democrats while earning only a tepid response from fellow Republicans who control the Legislature.
Pence is seeking to head off Democrats who have bombarded him for weeks over the condition of the state's roads, accusing the governor of stockpiling a $2 billion budget reserve at the expense of properly funding state government.
The debate over highway conditions has become a major early theme in the 2016 gubernatorial campaign, gaining prominence this summer during a month-long emergency closure of an Interstate 65 bridge near Lafayette. A brutal, labor union-sponsored ad that ran during an Indianapolis Colts game was soon to follow, blaming a handful of roadway deaths on Pence's desire to build up the state's reserves.
"Some of the suggestions and opinions that have been expressed about infrastructure in the state of Indiana are just political nonsense," Pence said. "It's hard to believe it's already started more than a year before the election."
But if Pence was hoping for an enthusiastic response to his plan from Republican supermajorities in the Legislature, he was left wanting.
Most of the spending will require lawmakers' approval. And while the plan does not call for a tax increase, Republicans would be required to divert $241 million from the state's reserve fund while borrowing an additional $240 million to meet Pence's 2017 spending target. Future years would be less costly, ranging from about $150 million to $200 million a year until 2020.
"We appreciate the governor's proposals and will keep his proposals in mind," House Speaker Brian Bosma said in a written statement released after Pence's announcement.
Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Chairman State Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said he was "thankful" for the governor's proposal but was "concerned about taking on any debt against the state's ongoing operating expenses."
Indiana's roadways may have been given a "C-" letter grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013. But siphoning off a budget surplus and borrowing money are tasks that many modern-day Republicans are resistant to, says Paul Helmke, a public affairs professor at Indiana University and former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne. Pence, who has staked his reputation on the fiscal stewardship, has crowed about the state's budget reserves for months.
"Gov. Pence and the Republicans have said borrowing is bad — you can't have it both ways," said Helmke, who also questioned the political wisdom of paving streets and creating road delays immediately before an election. "You don't fix the streets in the election year; you fix them the year before," he said.
There's also concern over whether the state can make an actual dent in the long list of needed repairs and upkeep without finding a sustaining source of additional revenue. Gas tax collections, which are charged per-gallon, have declined as cars have become more fuel efficient. Pence all but ruled out such a hike Tuesday and also disputed Democrats assertions that roads have been neglected, saying Republicans have made "historic" investments in infrastructure during his tenure.
The state has spent about $600 million on highway infrastructure improvements and raised transportation spending every year since Pence took office in 2013, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation.
"I don't believe we need to look to Hoosier motorist to pay more of their hard-earned dollars when we got money in the bank and we've got the best credit rating in the country," Pence said.
But a commission formed by Pence and co-chaired by his running mate, Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann, concluded last year that upkeep of the state's existing roads was "unsustainable" with current funding streams.
Meanwhile, Democrats, including gubernatorial challenger John Gregg, continue to pile on.
"Mike Pence continues to lead from behind," Gregg said in a statement. "As he's done in the past, it's only after an embarrassing public relations crisis that he has stepped up to offer any ideas."