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July 7, 2012

Brian Howey: Daniels at Purdue raises questions over potential conflicts

ANGOLA — At the advent of the Mitch Daniels governorship, a close ally of his told me that the new governor always had a long-range plan. In fact, the Daniels governorship was scripted in advance.

When you look at how things turned out, there’s some credence to that notion. In 2005, he got the budget in the black, ended collective bargaining, began paying money owed to local governments and schools, put a freeze on Taj Mahal taxpayer-funded construction projects, and offered tax amnesty to stoke up the reserves.

In 2006, there were his signature Major Moves project and telecommunications reform, though reaction to the Bush wars helped Democrats regain the House. In 2007, there were a second balanced budget, an emphasis on health with a cigarette tax hike and money for full-day kindergarten, the Kernan-Shepard reform proposals and, of course, tax relief. In 2008, it was the signature property tax relief and caps that would drive his re-election and recoup the House.

It was there that the kink in the plan occurred. Daniels would win a resounding 58 percent re-election landslide, but for the first time in modern Hoosier politics, he didn’t bring a GOP House with him. In 2009 and 2010, the governor worked on the administrative front, changing education licensing requirements by executive order, and prepared for the retaking of the House. That occurred in resounding fashion in 2010, achieving a 60-40 House majority, which set the stage for his education reforms, along with a smattering of social legislation (the defunding of Planned Parenthood and abortion restrictions) emanating via the Senate conservatives who seemed to violate his call for a “truce” but positioned him for a White House bid.

Such a script with such resounding successes would then poise him for a presidential run. The Daniels Family Female Caucus put an end to that.

So, what next?

What we’ve learned in the week after the Purdue University trustees — eight of the 10 Daniels appointments — approved him as university president, is that the internal discussions involving Daniels coming to West Lafayette have been percolating for more than a year, which, coincidentally, corresponds with the end of his White House dreams.

I began hearing the Daniels/Purdue rumor early last winter. When it unfolded last week, the initial thought was that this is a bold stroke for Purdue, which has seen its state funding decline under the Daniels administration, and that Hoosiers would benefit from an ex-governor staying involved in the state, particularly with his education and transportation reforms under way and well within Purdue’s academic portfolio. Usually, ex-governors just move on.

But this script is now prompting some nagging concerns for a governor who has railed against “conflict of interest” in municipal governments as well as nepotism.

The Kernan-Shepard reforms took aim at city and county councilors who worked as cops and firefighters, essentially setting their own pay. But, as one mayor pointed out to me, here we have a governor who chose eight of the 10 Purdue trustees, with the voting coming fully seven months before he leaves office.

Believe me, there is grumbling to be heard in various city and town halls and township trustee offices over how this one came down.

There was a Purdue trustees meeting during the hiring process at Chicago’s sprawling O’Hare Airport, according to the notice, with no building or room designated. So much for transparency.

And, of course, there is a gigantic pay increase coming for a governor who makes about $107,000 while the current Purdue president makes about $450,000. Daniels is said to be worth about $50 million despite his years in city, state and federal government (his Lilly and IPALCO years responsible for much of that wealth). A retiring governor with his résumé could conceivably have done much better on the open corporate market than what a university president brings in.

There is the state’s mandatory 65-year-old retirement age in place, while the 62-year-old Daniels is preparing for a five-year contract. But Purdue forced out IPFW Chancellor Michael A. Wartell due to the age limit. That law will almost surely be changed in the 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly.

But it does have people in some quarters stewing about the inconsistencies involved here.

It reminds me of another famous state employee — one Robert Montgomery Knight — who operated under the “do as I say, not as I do” code. The profane, chair-throwing coach demanded that his players be choir boys in one breath while telling crowds at Assembly Hall that he wanted to be buried upside down so his critics could “kiss my ass.”

Politically, there has been little irritation. “It’s a little bit troubling that you have a board that is appointed by the governor then choosing that same person to lead the institution,” said state Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.

But Democratic gubernatorial nominee John Gregg and Indiana Democratic Chairman Dan Parker actually lauded the hiring. And here lies a political reason. With Daniels now consumed by studying all things academic administration, he won’t have time for politics. Daniels as a campaign fundraiser, stump speaker and commercial writer will be history.

In the art of politics and academia, there are always trade-offs.

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com.

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