News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

January 8, 2014

MARK BENNETT: What is Indiana’s image in the eyes of the world?

TERRE HAUTE — A bus pulled up to the curb near the riverfront in downtown Chicago. An unusual advertisement was painted on its side.

Its slogan read, “Indiana: We’re not only a workforce, but a force that works.” A smiling woman was pictured inside a logo shaped like a cog.

I spotted the ad on a visit to the Windy City last month with my wife. It seemed peculiar, like a Burger King poster inside a McDonald’s restaurant. Indiana and Illinois are economic rivals, right? Hoosier officials enjoy deriding their western neighbor state for its fiscal calamities and embattled former governors. Beyond that duel, though, the ad poses a deeper question.

What is Indiana’s image in the eyes of the outside world?

The “State That Works” marketing campaign aims to “draw attention to the numerous reasons Indiana is a state that works for business,” according to the Indiana Economic Development Corp., which launched the promotions last year.

The ads tout, as Indiana Commerce Secretary Victor Smith said then, “a low-tax environment that glows vividly with America’s best-skilled workforce, a triple-A credit rating and all the ingredients needed to grow a world-class business.”

The multimedia ads target corporate executives in “high-tax” states, such as California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and, yes, Illinois. In addition to the Chicago buses, 15-second pro-Indiana ads — “Integrity is our complexion, innovation is our currency” — flash on jumbo screens on Times Square. The hope is the execs will see the pitch, think twice about Indiana, and locate a business here.

The IEDC spent $65,000 on the promotions in 2013, and spokeswoman Katelyn Hancock stated in an email to the Tribune-Star last week, “The IEDC’s ‘A State That Works’ campaign continues to be very successful.” Online ads drew 218,300 clicks from May through September, she reported, exceeding industry standards. Hancock couldn’t speculate yet on expenditures for the ads this year, but pointed out that the Indiana Legislature appropriated $3 million for IEDC marketing in the two-year budget.

Of course, not every out-of-stater views Indiana through that prism.

Some may think of bumpy highways and dilapidated downtown buildings in Hoosier cities. “There’s a lot of neglect in the state,” said Morton Marcus, an economic columnist and retired director of the Indiana Business Research Council. He cited the landscape visible while driving into Indiana from Chicago on the Indiana Toll Road.

“Unless you’re a romantic about dying industries and decaying cities,” Marcus said by telephone last week, “you don’t have much of a positive feeling about the state.”

The reality of that situation, present in various Hoosier communities and seen by visitors, can’t be shrugged off. Thus, Indiana legislators should think twice about eliminating the state’s tax on business equipment (known as the business personal property tax) as Gov. Mike Pence envisions. Despite the logical pluses of adding it to the long list of other tax cuts enacted over the past decade, dropping this tax would shift the burden of funding $1 billion for local services to work-a-day Hoosiers and further squeeze already-squeezed cities and towns, school districts and libraries.

Most supporters of the equipment tax cut, including Pence and some leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature, seem to acknowledge a replacement source for funding police protection, city parks upkeep and schools is necessary, but have yet to offer a good alternative. Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma’s vision, put forth Wednesday, is a scaled-back version of the Pence plan. Indiana’s leaders need to consider the impact of fully eliminating the tax.

Indiana already has its low-tax, business-friendly status in the quest to lure new companies here. The other half of the economic equation is just as important. High-caliber, long-term, solid-paying employers want to find active, well-kept, energetic and entertaining communities where employees can hike and bike on smooth trails, send kids to fully staffed and challenging schools, recreate in scenic parks, drive on evenly paved roads, breathe clean air, visit innovative libraries, and raise families in neighborhoods with properly funded police and fire protection.

More importantly, Hoosiers who already live here want that, too.

The property-tax caps imposed in 2008 — the centerpiece of Indiana’s decade of tax reform — forced the closing of three neighborhood branches of the Vigo County Public Library in 2009. Is Terre Haute a better place as a result? Some may note the state’s savings and say yes. Elderly folks and young families who saw those libraries as their nearby oases of lifelong learning might disagree.

Image is in the eye of the beholder.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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