INDIANAPOLIS — Rep. Todd Rokita has started a new feud in Indiana’s bitter Republican Senate primary, attacking a rival — whom he calls “Tax Hike Mike” Braun — over the former state lawmaker’s vote for a GOP-backed infrastructure plan that raised fuel taxes.
The issue offers considerable upside for Rokita, who is trying to present himself as a conservative outsider despite nearly 20 years in elected office. There’s just one problem: It wasn’t long ago that Rokita called for the same kind of tax increase.
That opens Rokita up to charges of hypocrisy as he campaigns against Braun, fellow Republican Rep. Luke Messer and several others. Already he’s been accused of a willingness to do — or say — anything to win the race that will decide who faces Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly next year.
“Todd Rokita attacked Mike Braun for supporting a permanent solution to fix Indiana’s roads and bridges,” said Braun spokesman Josh Kelley. “It is typical of career politicians like Todd Rokita to say one thing and do another.”
Indiana’s neglected infrastructure became a political fiasco in August 2015. An Interstate 65 bridge in Rokita’s district sank several inches, forcing a month-long emergency closure. As traffic snarled and accidents piled up, Rokita weighed in on the issue during an interview with Indianapolis radio host Abdul Hakim-Shabazz.
“There’s already been 19 or 20 states that have raised their gas tax, because the federal government won’t, and as a result are going to have a better infrastructure,” Rokita told Hakim-Shabazz, a conservative commentator. “And by the way, I don’t know of a politician that’s been unelected for that yet. So, I encourage all those in elective office — from the federal, to the state, to the local level — to look at these ideas.”
That’s exactly what Braun and his fellow Republicans who dominate the Indiana Statehouse did this year with their plan that increases fuel taxes by a dime-a-gallon while raising dozens of fees. Once fully phased in, it’s projected to raise $1.2 billion a year.
Since then, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has barnstormed the state promoting road and bridge work that is underway. And many Republicans, including GOP Speaker Brian Bosma, said it’s a responsible way to pay for much-needed road repairs after years of tax cuts elsewhere.
That hasn’t stopped Rokita, whose aides have whispered for months about Braun’s tax vote. More recently, those attacks became overt against the independently wealthy candidate, who stepped down from the Legislature in October to run a largely self-financed Senate bid.
“Hey Tax Hike Mike, authoring the largest tax hike in state history is not ‘living conservative values,'” Rokita campaign spokesman Nathan Brand tweeted Thursday. “It just makes you another tax & spend establishment politician.”
Rokita’s campaign said there is more nuance to his beliefs than reflected in the 13-minute interview with Hakim-Shabazz that was devoted to infrastructure funding issues. They also argue — accurately — that lawmakers sat on a nearly $2 billion budget surplus when they raised taxes.
Still, the state’s Rainy Day fund would be drained before accomplishing a fraction of the road work planned. The surplus was also touted by Vice President Mike Pence as fiscally prudent and necessary when he was still Indiana’s governor.
Many of the same concepts Rokita discussed favorably in his interview — like imposing tolls, or making those who use roads most pay for them through increased gas taxes — either were adopted, or are being considered by Statehouse Republicans.
But in what’s already proved to be an intense campaign, Rokita appears to be betting that many GOP voters either won’t pay attention, or won’t care, about his previous comments.
“Todd Rokita has never voted to raise gas taxes,” Brand said in a statement Friday. “By contrast, even with a $2 billion dollar surplus … Mike Braun voted to raise taxes and fees 45 times in 2017, including the $1 billion tax hike on Hoosiers he continues to celebrate.”