The Pence effect: Will departure pave way for road funding?

INDIANAPOLIS – Mike Pence’s departure from the governor’s office removes a major roadblock to plans to pay for road and bridge work throughout the state.

Since arriving in the Statehouse four years ago, Pence has vowed to uphold the no-new-tax pledge that he made as a tea party congressman.

As recently as his vice presidential acceptance speech, he boasted of his tax-cutting record. Pence told delegates to the Republican National Convention, “We’ve cut taxes every year since I became governor four years ago.”

Maybe not unexpectedly, he failed to mention how an assortment of conservatives, from Republicans in his state’s House of Representatives to the state’s Chamber of Commerce, have tried to bend his thinking when it comes to road dollars.

If Indiana is to remain the “crossroads of America,” as Pence often likes to brag, the state cannot let bridges and roads continue to crumble, the advocates of road funding have argued.

Last year, Pence OK’d an $800 million, stop-gap plan that pulls money from other places to spend on roads and bridges. It leans heavily on local governments to come up with matching dollars.

But he failed to heed the concerns of his own highway commissioner, who said before resigning that the state needs more than $1 billion in new money each year just to keep its roads up to snuff.

State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee, has spent five years looking for a solution to carry the state over the long haul.

This week, before meeting with a new task force looking for a long-term funding plan, Soliday recalled telling Pence that most Hoosiers expect government to guarantee three things — clean water, good schools and decent roads.

“All things they’re willing to pay a little more for,” he said.

Lawmakers in the last session debated options for paying for roads and bridges — from hiking the gas tax to levying a toll on interstate drivers.

Their discussions were fueled, in part, by an embarrassing development last summer, when a bridge along the heavily traveled Interstate 65 failed and was closed for more than a month.

Two people lost their lives on the resulting detour.

Pence and highway officials later took to Twitter to defend themselves, with governor at one point re-tweeting: “Accusations that Indiana’s infrastructure is ‘crumbling’ are irresponsible and false and only scare the public.”

Now, advocates for road funding are cautiously hoping for a sea change.

In deciding to join the Republican presidential ticket, Pence had to follow state law and pull out of his re-election bid. Five Republicans have declared their interest in replacing him on the ballot. A 22-member Republican Party committee is scheduled to make the pick on Tuesday.

Three leading contenders — Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks and Todd Rokita — are fiscal conservatives with a general aversion to tax hikes.

But road-funding advocates see all three as pragmatists when it comes to infrastructure.

When working for former Gov. Mitch Daniels, Holcomb was instrumental in gaining support for Major Moves, a $3.85 billion infrastructure program.

Last year, Brooks and Rokita voted for a five-year, $305 billion highway bill that was the first long-term national transportation spending package in a decade.

On the Democratic side, gubernatorial candidate John Gregg has come up with his own long-term spending plan that avoids new taxes, but he at least acknowledges a need for a fix.

Soliday sees a long road still ahead and jokes that he’s abiding by a Chinese proverb: “The ox is slow but the Earth is patient.”

“That’s me,” he said. “It’s going to take a while, but I’m persistent.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CHNI newspapers.