INDIANAPOLIS — In the coming years, Indiana may become a focus of national attention as a laboratory for conservative models of governance.
For the past eight years and, now, the next four, the Hoosier state has had and will have governors who are conservative activists.
For the past two election cycles, the Indiana House of Representatives has been dominated by Republicans; and in this legislative session, the GOP has a supermajority, meaning that even Democratic boycotts or other parliamentary maneuvers cannot delay progress of a conservative agenda.
In the Indiana Senate, of course, the GOP has been in a dominant position for more than 20 years and, for the past several, with a supermajority of its own.
Republicans have used this clout to deliver one item after another on the conservative wish list.
Tax breaks? Check.
Right-to-work legislation? Done.
The most expansive school voucher program in the country? Accomplished.
Labor unions busted? In the works and soon to be a reality.
At no other place in the United States have Republicans and conservatives been able to transform so many of their public policy visions into reality. In no other state has the GOP been able to experiment so freely with their notion of what the ideal government should be.
What remains to be seen is how effective their experiments have been and will be.
The typical use of scientific method calls for the scientist to conduct an experiment, gather data from the result, analyze that data and then proceed.
But power politics ain’t science. Hoosier Republicans know that they aren’t likely to have such unfettered control of state government forever, so they’re trying to get as much done as they can while they’ve got complete control of the reins.
That means, of course, that Republicans are expanding their experiments in some areas — vouchers, for example — before the data might indicate such an expansion was justified, much less necessary.
So be it. Again, in a political world, political considerations will trump the need to do accurate research.
And Indiana Republicans have some significant triumphs to which they can point. The biggest of them is the state’s budget surplus, a robust $2 billion at a time when many other states are struggling not just with deficits but maintaining solvency.
That’s no small thing, but it is not conclusive proof that the conservative experiment has been a success.
Government is but a means to an end, and the end, Republicans themselves like to say, is creating a prosperous society.
By that measure, Indiana’s record is not nearly as enviable.
Part of the conservative argument for keeping government small, avoiding deficits and maintaining budget surpluses is that doing so allows citizens, Hoosiers, to have more money themselves.
By that standard, though, the conservative model in Indiana may not have failed, but it sure hasn’t succeeded.
The average per capita income for Hoosiers lags significantly behind the national average. On average, the typical American earns nearly 117 percent of what the typical Hoosier makes.
Worse, that gap has grown over the past decade. Ten years ago, the average American earned 111 percent of what the average Hoosier did.
Worse still, we Hoosiers can’t blame this disparity on regional dynamics. It isn’t a Midwestern problem. It seems to be specifically an Indiana problem.
In every state around Indiana except one, Kentucky, the residents earn more on average than people in Indiana. And even Kentucky has been closing the gap. A decade ago, the average Kentuckian earned 90 percent of what the average Hoosier did. Now, the average Kentuckian earns slightly more than 95 percent of what the average Hoosier does.
What does this mean?
Basically, it means that over the past 10 years Indiana residents have seen their wages fail to keep pace both with those of the nation at large and those of their neighbors. Put more simply, we’ve lost ground when it comes to earning our livings.
Can all of that be blamed on conservatives and Republicans?
Of course not, but they also can’t take credit for solving the problem because they haven’t solved it.
And solving that problem, bringing more high-paying jobs to the state so Hoosiers make better livings, ultimately may be the standard by which their experiment in governing will be judged.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.