Rokita attempts to call out Braun on fuel tax vote

Associated Press

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.


“My biggest take from this is that it is acknowledging that he feels I’m his main competitor,” Braun said in a phone interview with The Herald Monday morning.

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.

“It’s so apparent that he is complaining about what I did when he was in favor of it all along and hoping people wouldn’t remember,” said Braun, who owns Jasper-based Meyer Distributing.

Braun spokesman Josh Kelley said Rokita attacked Braun for supporting a permanent solution to fix Indiana’s roads and bridges.

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.

In talking with constituents and officials before passing the legislation, Braun said it was close to unanimous “that we had a problem and needed to do something about it.”

“So, we did,” Braun said. “That’s the way government works.”

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.”

Braun said Monday that he considers himself a “level-headed, fiscal conservative,” and said his business background and community involvement give him a one-up over Rokita.

Braun said the name-calling is nothing new.

In his campaign, Rokita has pledged to “Defeat the Elite,” alleging that his opponents, Braun included, are the “elite.”

Braun considers Rokita the “elite,” saying he’s a “career politician” who “never really practiced law.”

Braun said it’s slogans like “Defeat the Elite” that turn people off.

Rokita's Facebook cover photo includes the slogan "defeat the elite."

“Some guys will do anything or say anything to maintain their career,” Braun said of Rokita. “When you have to rely on stuff like that ... it means you don’t have any game of your own.”

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.

Braun acknowledged the campaign’s intensity will only increase.

“I think when you’re sticking your neck out at this level, you have to be able to stand the heat,” he said, also saying that the “tide is so strong to have someone who is not a career politician,” which he considers Rokita.

“I’m a conservative, business guy who has been in the trenches,” Braun said. “Then there’s these guys who have spent their entire life and given us dismal results in politics.”

Herald News Editor Olivia Ingle contributed to this report.

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