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March 18, 2013

HAYDEN: Pence, tea party take jabs at GOP

Legislator: Fear mustn’t drive debate

— INDIANAPOLIS — If you’re outside the Indianapolis TV market, you may not have seen the Americans for Prosperity ad that demonizes Republican leaders in the General Assembly for resisting Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s tax cut plan.

But GOP Senate tax and fiscal policy committee chairman Brandt Hershman has. And he’s not impressed.

The mild-mannered, measured-worded Hershman describes it as “disingenuous” in content, “overheated” in rhetoric, and likely a waste of money by a national tea party organization with ties to Pence and founded and funded by the billionaire Koch brothers of Kansas.

“It reminds me of the rhetoric that takes place in Washington, D.C.,” Hershman told me last week. “It’s very aggressive in its message.”

The one-minute ad is a rip-off of a campaign commercial former Gov. Mitch Daniels once ran. It starts with the muscular “Mutiny on the Sea” music and flashes of newspaper headlines touting the state’s budget surplus. Then it abruptly switches to ominous music and headlines about Republicans (like Hershman) rejecting Pence’s plan to cut the state income rate by 10 percent.

It ends with words flashing on the screen: “Will Indiana grow the economy? Or grow government spending?”

Hershman, a fiscal conservative with high ratings from pro-business and pro-tax reform groups, would like people to believe he’s spent the past 12 years in Indiana working for the first option and against the second. (Pence, meanwhile, spent those same 12 years in Congress.)

He’d like to think viewers of the ad will question its premise: That the Pence plan (which would put less than $5 into the biweekly paycheck of an average Hoosier) is somehow a better idea than a plan supported by GOP legislators that invests about $500 million a year into the state’s cash-strapped schools and crumbling infrastructure.

He’d like to think viewers of the ad will remember the state’s current surplus came only after sharp budget cuts to schools and other public services, forced on the state by a recession that rocked an economy that’s still wobbly.

And that maybe they’d remember after Indiana built up a similar budget surplus in 1998, a series of subsequent property and income tax cuts led to a $1.3 billion deficit six years later, prompting what Hershman recalls as “painful and difficult” decisions about what state services to slash.

And that those same people might be skeptical of a one-minute ad funded by an outside organization that taps into the anxiety and anger of taxpayers — emotions Hershman attributes largely to the dysfunctional climate of Washington.

“It’s not a bad idea to have aggressive debate on tax and budget issues,” Hershman said. “As long the debate is civil and reasonable.”

It may get uncivil soon, if it hasn’t already. The Americans for Prosperity ad, meant to browbeat reluctant Republican lawmakers, is running at the same time Indiana’s Republican governor is traveling the state, urging voters to browbeat their legislators into accepting his plan.

Hershman said “good public policy” needs to drive the debate, not fear. The fact Americans for Prosperity brought down Republicans who dared to disagree with a similar tax cut plan proposed by GOP Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback last year can’t impact that debate, he said.

“If you start allowing your decisions or the process to be influenced by fear of any special interest group, it diminishes your effectiveness as a legislator,” Hershman said. “I’m not going to do that.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, including the Kokomo Tribune. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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