Analysis: Pence faces tough obstacle in his highway funding plan


By Lesley Weidenbener
TheStatehouseFile.comMike Pence

INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Mike Pence wants to boost spending on highways and transportation next year by freeing up some $400 million lawmakers set aside for projects during the 2013 legislative session.

Analysis button in JPGIt’s a key part of the Republican’s legislative agenda – and one place where he can spend substantially more cash without potentially taking it away from something else.

Lawmakers did the hard financial work earlier this year when they opted to save the cash instead of spending it – or giving it away through one of Pence’s proposed tax cuts.

But that doesn’t mean Pence is going to have an easy time spending it.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley – a GOP architect of the budget that include the set-aside for highways – said he’s not ready to give the governor the authority to spend the money just yet.

“I really am pushing back on that,” Kenley said.

Lawmakers set that money aside for some specific projects that aren’t likely to be funded through the state’s normal transportation budget, which combines state and federal money for highway and bridge maintenance and construction across the state.

Specifically, Kenley is talking about making Interstate 70 a six-lane road from the Ohio border west to Illinois and making I-65 a six-lane road from Kentucky almost to Lake Michigan.

He said finishing construction of I-69 is on that list too.

The projects are so expensive that they could drain the state’s regular transportation budget, leaving no money for smaller road and bridge repairs and construction that are needed in other communities.

Still, Kenley said they are crucial for the state’s future.

“Indiana’s economy relies to a great extent on our crossroads position and our transportation infrastructure,” Kenley said. “If Indiana can suck it up and find a way to get (these projects) done, then Indiana would be leaps and bounds ahead of everybody else.”

He doesn’t think the state can pay the entire expense of the highway expansions. In fact, he said Indiana will likely have to use state money to leverage other funding – from private sources or tolling or other options. But he said putting the $400 million that’s already been set aside into the normal transportation funding stream is a mistake.

Pence has been mum about specifically how he wants to spend the money.

In an interview Friday, he said only that, “what we will seek to do in the session is to free up those resources so we can put them to work building more roads in Indiana.”

“If you’re going to say you’re the Crossroads of America, you better have the roads to back it up,” he said.

But the governor acknowledged that – unlike most transportation appropriations – he can’t spend this $400 million for roads without legislative permission.

That means Pence will have to make a convincing case for how he wants to spend the money.

After all, the current budget already allocates $215 million more for state and local road projects annually – dollars that Pence does not need legislative permission to spend.

Kenley said he talked to the governor about his plans for the $400 million but hasn’t seen any specific proposals and isn’t convinced freeing up the money is the right move.

“He’s just talking about taking money and spending it on other road projects on the wait list today,” Kenley said. “The money wasn’t set aside for that ordinary of a purpose.”

But as powerful as Kenley, he’s still just one vote. So it’s up to Pence to make his case to the full General Assembly.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.