Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, left, speaks Monday at a panel in Indianapolis that he and Marion Mayor Wayne Seybold organized to discuss auto industry woes. Chronicle-Tribune photo by Brett Wallace
Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, left, speaks Monday at a panel in Indianapolis that he and Marion Mayor Wayne Seybold organized to discuss auto industry woes. Chronicle-Tribune photo by Brett Wallace
By Brett Wallace
INDIANAPOLIS - A panel of politicians, economists and industry experts said Indiana's economy is too heavily dependent upon the auto industry to allow it to fail.

The roundtable discussion, organized by Marion Mayor Wayne Seybold and Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, was conducted Monday morning at the Sheraton Hotel just blocks from the state Capitol.

Seybold said the industry's success was an issue that crossed party lines for Hoosiers.

"As a mayor, you're not hired to be a Republican or a Democrat," he said. "You're hired to make sure the people in your city have jobs."

Seybold talked about how Grant County has worked to diversify its economy as the manufacturing employment base has eroded in the past 10 years. Losing the General Motors plant could undermine that work, he said.

"If the Big Three went down, we'd go back 10 years, maybe 15," he said of the progress.

Goodnight said 40 percent of his city's budget is dependent on auto-related companies like Chrysler and Delphi.

In fact, he said companies like Delphi and other smaller suppliers are actually more important to U.S. employment than GM, Chrysler and Ford.

"The automobile industry is much more than just the Big Three, and I think people are starting to realize that," Goodnight said.

The shutdown of the Big Three carmakers would conservatively result in the immediate loss of 3.3 million jobs in the United States, Robert Scott of the Economic Policy Institute told attendees.

He also said the loss of the companies would increase the country's trade deficit by $100 billion annually in the long term.

"That's a highly conservative assumption," Scott said.

The panel's other economist, Howard Wial of the Brookings Institution, said Kokomo stands to be hit as hard as any city in the country by a Big Three shutdown.

He said 22 percent of the city's jobs are in the auto and parts manufacturing field. The ripple effect from such a high percentage would be enormous, he said.

"It could be over half of all jobs in Kokomo would be affected," Wial said.

Democrat Joe Donnelly, who represents Kokomo in Congress, said public perception of a "bailout" rather than a "bridge loan" has been one of the most difficult hurdles to clear.

The problems faced by the proposed bill, which eventually died in the Senate, included carmakers' accountability to the taxpayers and lawmakers' belief in the long-term viability of the companies.

Donnelly said he was confident that the loan to GM and Chrysler was the right thing to do.

"Our responsibility was to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar," he said.

Congressman Dan Burton, one of two in Indiana's congressional delegation to oppose the federal loan and whose district includes Marion, did not attend the discussion, though a spokesman said Burton's district director attended the meeting.

Instead, Burton spent the morning on three Indiana radio shows, including on WBAT 1400-AM in Marion, to defend his "no" vote on the loan.

"He was on the radio for two straight hours to take calls from anybody who wanted to call in," spokesman John Donnelly said.

Donnelly, no relation to Joe Donnelly, said Burton's message was that he very much wants the Big Three to succeed but that he wasn't comfortable with the terms of the legislation.

Several agreed that Indiana is positioned as the ideal location to spawn groundbreaking changes in the way the industry operates, particularly in cutting-edge technology such as electric cars and low-emissions vehicles.

"When it comes to electric vehicle technology and batteries, we are the leader," Tom Sugar, chief of staff to Sen. Evan Bayh, said about Indiana. "We are the Silicon Valley of that industry."
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