A remarkable event occurred in Indiana politics on March 24, when an Indiana governor actually listened to the people and responded to their concerns.
This development was even more dramatic when the source of this arguable democratic miracle is considered – Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s political CEO, whom some were calling “Little Napoleon” because of his autocratic approach to governance.
Add to that the fact that Daniels’ sudden respect for the democratic process involved a pair of proposed highways, the most fertile grounds for political pork, and it was indeed a historic day.
It was also a development that offers some sobering lessons for citizens whose opinions on new-terrain Interstate 69 were treated like contaminated soil by local and state Democrats for 16 years.
Here’s what Daniels had to say about his decision to withdraw from legislative consideration privatized toll-road proposals in Central and Northwest Indiana, respectively called the Indiana Commerce Connector (ICC) and the Illiana Expressway.
“The people of the affected areas have spoken clearly enough to persuade me that these ideas are, at best, premature,” Daniels said.
What?! "The people spoke, and I heard them?" When was the last time anyone in the governor’s office said that?
The governor was referring to widespread public opposition to his two latest proposals to charge Hoosiers to drive on Indiana highways and then give their money to private corporations. In recent weeks, citizens turned out en masse at public meetings in both parts of the state to oppose the ICC and the Illiana, just like they have for 17 years against I-69 in Bloomington.
The Illiana was intended to provide an alternative to, and relieve congestion on, Interstate 80 in the far northwestern part of the state. The ICC would have connected I-69 northeast of Indianapolis with the proposed new-terrain extension southwest of the city.
Daniels had planned to use revenue from tolls charged on both new roadways to help pay for construction of new-terrain I-69 from Evansville to Bloomington. But while he acquiesced to public opinion on the two new roads, he reiterated his determination to build I-69.
The governor strong-armed a plan to privatize the Indiana Toll Road across northern Indiana through his first legislative session as governor, for which the state received a $3.1 billion upfront payment in exchange for a 75-year lease to a multinational consortium.
He has earmarked $700 million of that money for I-69 construction, which he says will begin next year and reach the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center about 25 miles southwest of Bloomington in about seven years.
Soon thereafter, Bloomington will have an eight-later interstate highway.
Daniels’ decision to withdraw these two centerpieces of his legislative agenda, as well as his political maneuvering over the toll road two years ago, raise troubling questions for local Democrats about the leadership they have gotten locally on the I-69 issue.
Consider the following history of citizen opposition to I-69 compiled by Tom Tokarski from the Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR). Keep in mind that this movement developed under the rule of Democratic governors, most of it in a city governed by Democratic mayors, a Democratic City Council and represented by powerful Democratic state representatives and senators.
Of the 21,873 comments on the 2002 I-69 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, 94 percent (20,467) were opposed to Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s preferred new-terrain route through Bloomington or in favor of the U.S. 41/I-70 alternative.
In 2004 the Bloomington City Council passed a resolution opposed to routing I-69 through Bloomington, with all seven Democrats voting against it.
To date, CARR and the Hoosier Environmental Council have collected more than 140,000 signatures on petitions in opposition to I-69.
And as with the Illiana and ICC, citizens packed every public hearing held over 17 years anywhere outside Evansville and expressed emotional, well-reasoned opposition to the highway.
Yet, when the time finally came for the Democrats to put their preferred route on the table, it was the exact same route that they proposed in 1990 and will, when built, will cut right through our city.
Contrast that with Daniels and his Republican Party’s response to opposition to his plans for I-69 through Republican regions.
As he pushed I-69 as a toll road during 2005, the Martinsville City Council unanimously withdrew its support for a previous resolution in support of I-69 through that city.
Heavily Republican Perry Township, in southwest Marion County, passed a resolution opposing I-69 cutting through that community. And the City County Council of Marion County and Indianapolis passed a resolution against bringing I-69 through Perry Township by 27-2 vote.
When Daniels’ Major Moves legislation passed in 2006, he responded to his consituents’ concerns, and altered the I-69 route around Perry Township and removed tolling in Martinsville.
The lessons from these contrasting reactions to citizen reaction to gubernatorial highway plans couldn’t be more clear.
Republicans are more responsive to their constituents’ concerns than Democrats.
Bloomington’s mayors and state legislators have shown no leadership on the issue whatsoever.
And the fates of highway proposals like I-69, Illiana and the ICC have nothing to do with reason or right, they’re tied to politics, pure and simple.
Daniels didn’t withdraw Illiana, the ICC, Perry Township or Martinsville tolling because citizens presented him with compelling arguments that persuaded him he was wrong or that these projects were too expensive or ill-conceived.
Citizens in those regions put the governor and, more importantly, their elected state legislators on notice that there would be political prices to pay if they persisted.
Most political observers agree that Republicans lost the Indiana House last year in large part because of bipartisan citizen anger over the Toll Road lease in Northern Indiana.
Citizens in Bloomington, by contrast, have not effectively organized against their elected state officials. They let State Sen. Vi Simpson dodge the issue completely for the past 17 years. And they let State Rep. Mark Kruzan get away with paying lip service to their positions but never acting on their behalf.
Rather than representing the community, Kruzan, Simpson and others cast their lots with their governor and the state Democratic Party.
The most egregious example of their collective sellouts came with Mayor Kruzan’s recent refusal to join the city as a plaintiff in a citizen lawsuit against the I-69 process.
After being presented with compelling evidence that the city’s participation in the suit would be powerful, he proactively sought out an alternative legal opinion to justify his refusal.
This year is a mayoral election year, and Kruzan needs to be held accountable for his failure to lead on this issue.
The citizens’ lawsuit may very well be Bloomington’s last chance to avoid becoming a piss stop on the NAFTA highway.
If the citizens of this community don’t force Mark Kruzan out of the closet on I-69, he won’t be the guilty one, they will, and they will get what they deserve.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.