The past two years, The Times of Northwest Indiana has graciously offered me this space to say a few words about our state. This gives me a welcome opportunity to reiterate how important I believe the Northwest region is to Indiana's overall success.
Amid our current economic climate, this point cannot be overstated. States, all over America, are taking drastic measures under the pressure of this recession. Michigan, facing a $1.6 billion dollar deficit, is grinding asphalt roads back into gravel to save maintenance costs. Illinois, saddled with a backlog of $3 billion worth of unpaid bills and a $13 billion deficit, is releasing thousands of prisoners early. California, attempting to fill its $20 billion deficit, is raising state college tuition by 32 percent. Alabama cut K-12 education spending by 16 percent. Kansas sends IOUs instead of tax refunds. And worst of all, 40 of our sister states are raising taxes.
But Indiana is an exception. Our bills are paid, our taxes have been reduced not raised, and the reserves we had carefully built up are now being used to maintain vital services and get us through the downturn.
By keeping taxes low, modernizing government functions, reducing waste and finding innovative solutions to old problems -- such as leasing the Indiana Toll Road for $3.8 billion to kick-start decades worth of stalled infrastructure projects -- we have transformed Indiana into the most job-friendly state outside the Sun Belt. Businesses, at least 50 of them last year, are leaving other states to set up shop here and put Hoosiers to work.
But not all parts of our state have grown equally. To be candid, Northwest Indiana has too often lagged behind. A culture of cronyism and sometimes corruption, in a top-heavy system of local governments, makes business more expensive, difficult and risky than in other parts of our state.
This environment makes it difficult to recruit new jobs. In fact, out of 160 business expansions or consolidations into Indiana from other states in 2009, only six were in the Northwest. Out of 19,995 new jobs committed to the state, only 328 were in the region.
This is frustrating to me, and should be unacceptable to Northwest Indiana residents. With Illinois and Michigan in crisis -- their taxes soaring and services crumbling -- now should be the perfect moment for a surge of economic growth on our side of those boundary lines. It is happening in Northeast Indiana but not yet in the Northwest.
A starting point will come in November when voters have the opportunity to make 2008's property tax relief, the largest tax cut in state history, permanent.
Our bill reduced property taxes in Lake County by 35 percent and in LaPorte County by at least 28 percent. An important byproduct of the new tax caps will be that counties, forced to make do with fewer taxpayer dollars, will re-examine how local governments are run and public funds are managed.
However, the ultimate responsibility for effecting change rests in the hands of the people of Northwest Indiana. The time has come for residents to demand accountability and vision from their leaders; to find elected officials who will put the interests of the people ahead of their own.
For example, the area would be truly energized by establishing the Gary/Chicago International Airport as a regional transportation hub. A fully operational, state-of-the-art facility in Gary could absorb the overflow of traffic and freight from Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports, in turn providing a much-needed infusion of investment into the region.
My administration has devoted millions of dollars to the airport. Yet despite this support, there has been little progress on this project. It is now very clear that the only way for it to come to fruition is for Gary to open the facility to private investment and to private management.
East Chicago's Cline Avenue Bridge presents a problem but also an opportunity.
The bridge was closed in November after being found unsafe for its 30,000 daily motorists, the result of poor design when it was built. The closure offers local leaders a chance to work with the state to produce a viable alternative that better fits the area's long-term plans for the lakeshore.
These are just two examples of areas where the region needs transformative leadership. Voters owe it to themselves to demand it of today's officials or find new leaders for tomorrow.
They also owe it to their fellow Hoosiers because any economic advance in the region will greatly benefit all of Indiana. I have long stressed this important connection and we have invested greatly in the infrastructure of the area. Most recently we ended decades of dithering and launched the final stages of the Little Calumet River project. This 22-mile flood project, which has been allocated $14 million, will finally protect homes and businesses throughout Gary, Hammond and Munster from the recurring floods they have endured for too long.
During the last five years we have dedicated unprecedented dollars and unprecedented time to Northwest Indiana. I continue to advocate for the area to residents in other parts of the state. But for these communities to realize their full potential, voters must demand a serious and dedicated effort to reform local government and to pursue policies that encourage new business rather than drive it away.
All of Indiana needs a more prosperous Northwest corner. The time has come for the region to join the rest of the state's forward motion.