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Column: Indiana not as red as tea party thinks, must get priorities right

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INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence is having a heck of a time getting Hoosiers to take their money back.

The first-term Republican governor made a pledge to cut personal income taxes by 10 percent the centerpiece of his campaign. Even then, it really didn’t catch fire.

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has complained that Pence gave legislative leaders very little notice — Bosma said it was 45 minutes — before announcing the proposed tax cut. Bosma expressed skepticism about the tax cut almost immediately, and he hasn’t wavered much from that position. When the House unveiled its proposed budget, Pence’s tax cut was nowhere to be found in it.

Nor has the public rallied to Pence’s side.

The best, that is, the most unbiased, poll on the issue came from Ball State University. It showed that a clear majority of Hoosiers don’t want Pence’s tax cut.

To change that, the tea party group Americans for Prosperity, a prefabricated conservative populist group largely funded by a couple of conservative billionaires, launched a statewide advertising campaign aimed at igniting support for Pence’s plan. It fizzled so badly that Pence himself had to ask the group to change the tone of its ads.

There hasn’t been much evidence that the group’s ad campaign has moved public opinion in any noticeable way.

Worse, it seems to have hardened Bosma’s opposition to Pence’s plan.

The question is: Why?

The popular perception, after all, is that Indiana is supposed to be among the reddest of the red states, a place so conservative that Hoosiers think Rush Limbaugh is soft on socialism. In Indiana, the residents are supposed to view tax cuts the way religious leaders view miracles, as divine occurrences from which most blessings flow.

The makeup of the state’s government supports that perception.

Every statewide office but one is in Republican hands. Both the Indiana House and Senate are so firmly controlled by the GOP that Democrats might as well consider their stays in Indianapolis for the legislative session an extended holiday away from home. And the state’s Supreme Court is studded with GOP appointees.

In this case, though, the numbers can be deceiving.

Hoosiers are a lot more divided in their political allegiances than the Republican dominance would suggest. Bosma, one of the state’s canniest politicians, probably knows that.

Consider the statewide races.

Pence won the governor’s seat with less than a majority of the votes, 49.8 percent. A Democrat, Glenda Ritz, won the state superintendent of public instruction’s office with more votes than Pence got. And the statewide official who got the most votes — Attorney General Greg Zoeller, a Republican — ran a largely apolitical campaign, presenting himself as the humble executor of the state’s laws.

The voters’ verdict in the legislative races also wasn’t as decisive as the GOP’s dominance in the General Assembly would suggest. Hoosiers gave Republican candidates for the Indiana House, for example, 54 percent of their votes, but the GOP claimed 69 of the 100 seats. That 54 percent is a healthy majority in political terms but not the landslide that Republicans’ hold on the House seems to indicate.

Instead, it’s a tribute to skillful — no, almost surgical — gerrymandering. Republicans control the General Assembly so decisively in part because they control the maps.

That control of the maps, of course, is designed to protect Indiana lawmakers from vigorous general election campaigns. But gerrymandering this effective also pretty much immunizes lawmakers from public pressure unless it reaches epic proportions.

The tea party’s ad campaign isn’t likely to whip up that level of support. Nearly 50 percent of Hoosiers are either Democrats or independents and aren’t likely to side with the Americans for Prosperity under any circumstances.

That leaves the tea party with having to mobilize all Republicans and conservative-leaning independents to carry the day.

It won’t happen because Hoosiers have shown that the tax cut isn’t what they want.

What Hoosiers seem to want is assurance that the state’s schools will be funded, that Indiana’s roads and bridges will be safe and that there will be some money set aside for hard times, should they come.

Hoosiers don’t want their money back. They seem to want to spend it on making their state a better place for their children and themselves.

And no outside ad campaign is likely to change that.

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, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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