Category Archives: Local Government

A Hoosier Cautionary Tale

First Kansas. Now Indiana. One by one, the pillars of conservative fundamentalism are failing real-world tests.

Under then-Governor Pence, Indiana negotiated a much-ballyhood 35-year “public-private partnership” with the Spanish firm Insolux Corsan to build and maintain a portion of Interstate 69, between Bloomington and Indianapolis. The project has dragged on and on, making trips between Bloomington and Indianapolis slow and treacherous. (I know this from personal experience; faculty of IU routinely make the trip between campuses, and I’ve done my share of cursing while in transit.)

The original contract called for a completion date of October, 2016; that date has been pushed back four times amid media reports suggesting that the state’s private partner was as slow in paying subcontractors as it was in building the highway. Now, it appears the contractor is going bankrupt. The Indianapolis Star reports that the state “intends to take control of the troubled I-69 project from Bloomington to Martinsville as the public-private partnership used to finance and build the highway crumbles.”

It is a GOP article of faith that the private sector is always more efficient and more competent than government, and that contracting out–privatization–saves money. In the uncongenial place called the real world, it seldom works out that way. The collapse–or “crumbling”–of this particular partnership joins a long line of failed privatization schemes, some scandalous and corrupt, many simply ineffective and expensive, that have ended up costing taxpayers more than if government had done the job.

This isn’t to say that contracting out is always a bad idea. As I’ve said repeatedly, the issue isn’t whether to work with the private sector, but when and how. Public officials need to carefully evaluate proposed contracting arrangements: is this something government routinely does, or an unusual task requiring specialized expertise that the agency doesn’t have? If the motive is saving money, how realistic is that? (After all, private entities have to pay taxes, and their bids will reflect that expense.) Does the contracting agency have the expertise needed to properly negotiate the contract and monitor the contractor? Have all the risks been weighed, and due diligence exercised?

Do the officials making the decision recognize that contracting with a third party won’t relieve the government agency of its ultimate responsibility to see that the project is properly completed or the service is properly rendered?

Are there situations where public-private partnerships are both appropriate and competently structured? Of course. The Brookings Institution recently reported on the success of the Copenhagen City and Port Development Corporation in revitalizing Copenhagen’s waterfront. I was particularly struck by this description of that effort:

The approach deploys an innovative institutional vehicle—a publicly owned, privately run corporation—to achieve the high-level management and value appreciation of assets more commonly found in the private sector while retaining development profits for public use.(emphasis mine)

Two elements of this particular partnership stand out: (1) it was formed to execute a lengthy, difficult and highly complex project requiring skills that few municipal governments have in-house; and (2) it distributed risk and reward in a way that ensured taxpayers would benefit financially from the project’s success.

In contrast, virtually every American contract I’ve seen has socialized the risk and privatized the reward; that is, taxpayers have assumed the risks of cost overruns, unanticipated problems and project failures, while the private contractors have reaped the lions’ share of the profits.(Trump’s infrastructure plan–to the extent it exists–would take that formula to new heights. Or lows…)

I69 and the Indianapolis parking meter fiasco are just two of the more recent examples of what happens when privatization is a mantra–a semi-religious belief–rather than one of several strategically deployed tools in the public toolbox.

Personal P.S. Thanks to all of you who posted good wishes for my husband’s surgery. All went well, and he’s home (with a very rakish temporary eye patch).

Making Connections Visible

Part of the reason American policy debates are so unsatisfactory is that they tend to be conducted in “silos”–with little or no recognition of how Policy A might affect issues B and C. This is particularly true of arguments about raising the minimum wage, which tend to focus exclusively on assertions that jobs will be lost and consumer prices will rise.

As cities have ignored those assertions and raised their minimum wages, data has emerged to dispel those concerns. According to economists at the University of California, Berkeley,  who studied nine cities that raised the minimum wage in the past decade, higher wages have virtually no effect on employment;  only restaurants, with their higher-than-average concentrations of low-wage workers, raised prices, but those raises were trivial.

What this wage discussion consistently misses is the fact that the effects of worker pay go far beyond job numbers and the pros and cons of an extra nickel for a Big Mac.

There is research, for example, suggesting that economic insecurity increases domestic violence and other criminal activity, and contributes to social discord generally. But the effect on our communities doesn’t stop there.

Economic development professionals spend their days trying to lure new employers to their cities and towns, and they are acutely aware of what those prospects look for when they are seeking a new location: an educated workforce and good schools, decent roads and public transportation to get workers and customers to and from their place of business, infrastructure (sewers, etc.) adequate for their particular needs, and more generally, an appealing “quality of life.”

Those community assets are supported by tax revenues. Poorly paid workers pay very little in taxes, of course, but that is a relatively minor part of the problem.

When large numbers of workers in an area are underpaid, when they make wages that barely allow them to subsist, they lack the means to purchase any but the most essential goods and services. Overall demand drops. When demand is weak, businesses suffer. (They also don’t need–or hire–more workers.) When the business’ bottom line declines, so do tax revenues.

Anyone who works for municipal government understands the dilemma: how do we stretch declining revenues? Hire fewer police and firemen? Fail to fill potholes and board up vacant buildings In neighborhoods? Grow classroom sizes?  Collect garbage less frequently?

Declining revenues, blighted neighborhoods, fewer city services and a lower quality of life don’t attract new businesses. Economic development stalls.

The American economy depends upon consumption. I happen to think there are a number of unfortunate consequences of that economic model, but it is what we have. When significant numbers of residents in a city or town aren’t being paid enough to allow them to consume, the consequences go far beyond their kitchen tables.

As Kevin Drum has written, in an article for Mother Jones,

Obviously, there’s a limit to how high you can raise the minimum wage without harming the economy, but evidence suggests we’re nowhere close to that tipping point. The ratio between the United States’ minimum wage and its median wage has been slipping for years—it’s now far lower than in the rest of the developed world. Even after San Francisco increases its minimum wage to $15 next year, it will still amount to just 46 percent of the median wage, putting the city well within the normal historical range.

The bigger threat to the economy may come from not raising the minimum wage. Even Wall Street analysts agree that our ever-widening income inequality threatens to dampen economic growth. And according to a new study by the UC-Berkeley Labor Center, it’s the taxpayers who ultimately pick up the tab for low wages, because the federal government subsidizes the working poor through social-service programs to the tune of $153 billion a year.

How many public school teachers and police officers could we pay, how many streets  could we pave, how many parks could we maintain with $153 billion dollars a year…

A Lawsuit Worth Supporting

Yesterday, the NAACP, Common Cause and several individual plaintiffs brought a lawsuit that I consider overdue.

A bit of background: Indiana law allows early voting, and also allows counties to establish satellite voting centers to make casting those votes more convenient. The law requires a unanimous vote by the County’s Election Board members in order to open a satellite center. Some Boards establish several  in order to accommodate their voters. Lake County, with fewer residents than Marion County, has eight.

Marion County is the most populous county in the state, but for the past several years, the lone Republican on the three-member board has adamantly opposed opening any satellite sites.

As the Complaint notes,

  1. Marion County had 699,709 registered voters in 2016 but because of the MCEB’s refusal to approve satellite voting locations, it had but a single early voting location due to the MCEB’s failure this decade to approve a resolution establishing satellite sites for early voting, a ratio of one (1) early voting site to 699,709 registered voters.
  2. By contrast, Hamilton County had 230,786 registered voters in 2016. Its election officials unanimously approved two satellite voting locations in addition to the office of the circuit court clerk, a ratio of one early site for every 76,929 registered voters.
  3. Hendricks County had 109,903 registered voters in 2016. Its election officials approved three (3) satellite voting locations in addition to the office of the circuit court clerk, a ratio of one early voting site for every 27,476 registered voters.
  4. Johnson County had 107,546 registered voters in 2016. Its election officials approved five (5) early voting sites in addition to the office of the circuit court clerk, a ratio of one early voting site for every 17,924 registered voters.

The refusal to open satellite sites in Marion County has caused  long lines and extended wait times at the sole available site–the office of the circuit court clerk in Indianapolis.

The refusal to approve satellite voting sites has also resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of voters who cast an early in-person absentee vote in 2012 and 2016 as compared to the numbers of voters who voted early in 2008 when satellite locations were approved and used, which has the further effect of causing a higher percentage of Marion County voters to cast an in-person ballot on Election Day, thus resulting in increased lines and wait times at precinct polling places.

Moreover, because Marion County has the highest percentage (28%) of African-Americans in Indiana, and because African-American voters are more likely than other voters to utilize early voting, the MCEB’s refusal to approve multiple satellite locations for early in-person absentee voting as permitted by Indiana law has disproportionately resulted in the denial or abridgement of the right of African-American voters to cast an early in-person absentee ballot.

The suit asks the Court to find that the Republican member of the Election Board has caused the Board to violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses, the Voting Rights Act and the Indiana Constitution, and to issue an order “enjoining Defendants from continuing to obstruct, interfere with and block the establishment of at least two satellite voting locations in Marion County for the federal elections in 2018 and beyond.”

It’s bad enough that Indiana’s polls close earlier than all but one other state, and that our Voter ID law operates to suppress the votes of the poor and elderly. But to limit early voting to a site inconvenient to so many and where parking is so difficult is just another way of giving the finger to minority and Democratic voters in Indianapolis.

If you agree that this suit is meritorious and overdue, join me in supporting the crowdfunding effort that has been established to cover litigation expenses. The estimable Bill Groth (a local hero!)–is handling the case pro bono, but Defendants are sure to run up the expenses that will have to be covered.

This cynical effort to suppress votes rather than competing for them “fair and square” needs to be defeated.

America the Divided

A new Brookings Institution report shows that a substantial majority of Americans live in counties that did not vote for Donald Trump.

The contentious political back and forth seen daily in the media, cable TV, and polls should come as no surprise in a nation where Donald Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. Newly released Census population estimates for 2016 provide further evidence of just why the nation’s politics are split demographically. These data show that 31 million fewer Americans live in counties that voted for Trump than in those carried by Hillary Clinton…

While it is true that Clinton took less than one sixth of the nation’s 3,100+ counties, she won most of the largest ones, including 111 of the 137 counties with over 500,000 people. Trump won the Electoral College by successfully navigating rural-urban balances in key swing states, taking small areas by large vote margins.

The report–replete with multi-colored graphs– is well worth studying. It also describes the demographics of those Trump and Clinton counties, noting that when they are classified by income,  the least well-off households are over represented in Trump counties and the most well-off households are underrepresented.

Generally, Trump counties are least likely to be home to those with “urban” attributes. Only about one in five foreign-born residents live in these counties, compared with a much larger share of the United States’ native-born population (49 percent) that calls these places home. Fewer single than married persons are Trump county residents. Especially sharp divides are seen by race and ethnicity. Less than one fifth of all Asians and less than one third of all Hispanics and blacks live in counties carried by Trump.

I have written previously about the increasing urban/rural divide, and the Brookings research adds considerable data confirming that divide.

Still more confirmation is contained in an article from the Atlantic, titled “Red State, Blue City.”

The article begins by underscoring the decidedly progressive politics of cities, and the growing numbers of people choosing to live in them, but it also makes an often-overlooked point:

If liberal advocates are clinging to the hope that federalism will allow them to create progressive havens, they’re overlooking a big problem: Power may be decentralized in the American system, but it devolves to the state, not the city.

City folks in Indiana are painfully aware of that reality; Indianapolis is the economic generator in a state that barely  pretends to allow municipalities any self-determination. There’s no meaningful “home rule” in Indiana. The article also points out that most state-level policymaking is conservative:

That’s partly because Republicans enjoy unprecedented control in state capitals—they hold 33 governorships and majorities in 32 state legislatures. The trend also reflects a broader shift: Americans are in the midst of what’s been called “the Big Sort,” as they flock together with people who share similar socioeconomic profiles and politics. In general, that means rural areas are becoming more conservative, and cities more liberal. Even the reddest states contain liberal cities: Half of the U.S. metro areas with the biggest recent population gains are in the South, and they are Democratic. Texas alone is home to four such cities; Clinton carried each of them. Increasingly, the most important political and cultural divisions are not between red and blue states but between red states and the blue cities within.

There is no love lost between these progressive cities and the rural areas surrounding them.

In most states, agriculture is no longer king. Rural areas are struggling, while densely packed areas with highly educated workforces and socially liberal lifestyles flourish. In turn, rural voters harbor growing resentment toward those in cities, from Austin to Atlanta, from Birmingham to Chicago….

By and large, though, cities hold the weaker hand. It makes sense that these areas, finding themselves economically vital, increasingly progressive, and politically disempowered, would want to use local ordinances as a bulwark against conservative state and federal policies. But this gambit is likely to backfire. Insofar as states have sometimes granted cities leeway to enact policy in the past, that forbearance has been the result of political norms, not legal structures. Once those norms crumble, and state legislatures decide to assert their authority, cities will have very little recourse.

An important lesson of last year’s presidential election is that American political norms are much weaker than they had appeared, allowing a scandal-plagued, unpopular candidate to triumph—in part because voters outside of cities objected to the pace of cultural change. Another lesson is that the United States is coming to resemble two separate countries, one rural and one urban.

Only one of them, at present, appears entitled to self-determination.

Getting From Here to There…and Back

The age of driverless cars and trucks is rapidly approaching. Literally millions of Americans make their livings driving vehicles–trucks, Ubers, taxis, school buses…the list is long, and the consequences of those massive job losses will be severe and unprecedented.

I have no policy prescriptions to offer that might mitigate that job loss disaster. But I do have a response to those transit skeptics who oppose improving city public transportation systems because they claim self-driving cars will make those systems unnecessary.They don’t seem to understand that whether or not someone actually has to drive their car is utterly irrelevant.

What is relevant is that good, reliable public transportation–whether driven by a human or a computer–makes automobile ownership less necessary, and automobiles take a huge chunk out of most household budgets.

A recent article in Resilience, written by an American now living in Ireland, makes an effective case for public transportation.

The healthiest cities in the world have one thing in common; a network of trains, trolleys, trams, subways, buses, and other ways of getting around that don’t depend on everyone having a personal vehicle. Such services save everyone money, use less energy, generate less exhaust to pollute the air and less rubbish to pollute the water and soil. They tip the balance of power on roads, making them light with cars and bustling with humans — walkers, bicyclists and sidewalk vendors. Cities with healthy bus and rail systems feel like neighbourhoods threaded with capillary streets, rather than rows of buildings built alongside highways.

We think of Ireland as having progressed in recent decades, but a hundred years ago trains covered much more of Ireland, with perhaps twice as many lines as there are now. A map of Dublin in the 1920s, likewise, would show a spaghetti-explosion of streetcar lines winding through the narrow streets, pulled by horses at first, and later powered by overhead lines. The recent construction of light rail systems like the Luas were promoted as a next great step forward in transportation, but like most Great Steps Forward, it was merely restoring a tiny piece of what we once had.

The USA used to be the same; for more than a hundred years cities there were networked with a web of streetcars that acted as a circulatory system from one end of a city to the other, as well as buses that filled in the gaps.  Streetcars and buses seem slow to modern eyes only because we compare them to a car on the Autobahn; compare them to a car in the city and they were often faster.

The author notes, with regret, that many cities have begun to regard public transportation as expendable, since it doesn’t make headlines or make money for elites. The people most dependent upon public transit don’t hire lobbyists or make “meaningful” political contributions, and in an era where “tax” is a dirty word and municipalities are starving for income, that lack of political clout makes it easy to defund transit.  When that happens, it not only inconveniences middle-income people who depend upon transit, it also isolates and strands thousands of poor, elderly and vulnerable people.

And it privileges automobiles in ways that we now recognize are both costly and unhealthy.

I know that from experience, for I grew up in the USA, a nation that once had trolleys and streetcars in every major city and most minor ones. According to historian Bradford Snell, 90 percent of all trips in the 1920s were by rail; only 10 percent of Americans needed a car. My grandmother and grandfather met on the St Louis trolley, the one Judy Garland sang an ode to in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and said most people never needed to drive.

After World War II, however, my country’s cities were transformed; most of the streetcar lines were reduced, sold, cancelled and destroyed, many by a coalition of car, tire, oil and truck companies. Those companies were found guilty of criminal conspiracy in 1951, and fined a pittance, long after the damage was done. Snell believes the corporations were not just trying to monopolise streetcar lines – the actual charge – but consciously conspiring to transform America to a car-dependent society. When they bought out the streetcars they didn’t just tighten belts – they destroyed the infrastructure, ripping the rails out of the streets and paving over their grooves, effectively salting the earth.

Our cities are now built around the fact that there is about one car for every American. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

Since most train lines were ripped up in the USA, Ireland and most other Western countries, many people must rely on buses. My native USA’s buses are less readily available than most other countries. In many cities I’ve been in, bus lines habitually run late or not at all, and can be expensive for the financially-strapped people most likely to need them. In many places they carry a stigma of poverty, or require people to wait in unsafe neighbourhoods.

Taking public transportation to the job is an amenity that bolsters our sense of being part of a public, unlike commuting (usually alone and at substantial cost) in one’s own car. The author’s final point is worth emphasizing:

Critics of public transportation accuse such systems of not making money. But how much money did the road in front of your house make last year? How much money does our asphalt make, or our electric wires, or our sewage pipes? The questions are ridiculous because these are not moneymaking enterprises; they are basic infrastructure, one of the legitimate reasons for paying taxes or having a government.