Category Archives: Local Government

Asking A Favor

I want to ask a favor of my readers in central Indiana–especially those who live or work in downtown Indianapolis, but also those who come downtown for sporting events, theater, restaurants and other entertainment.

I have previously posted about the upcoming project to repair crumbling Interstate bridges and roads in Indianapolis’ downtown. The city has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to correct the dysfunctions that were a consequence of poor decisions made 50 years ago, but it has become increasingly clear that INDOT — the state agency responsible for the project–is determined to dismiss the alternatives presented to them for consideration, and simply augment and buttress the existing configuration. (The agency claims to be evaluating the alternatives, but when they “explain” that putting the downtown interstates in a tunnel would be prohibitively expensive using an example from Syracuse that required boring through solid rock (Indianapolis would only have to dig a ditch), it is apparent that they are not acting in good faith. Apple-to-apple comparisons are available.

Downtown businesses and civic groups, Historic neighborhoods, architects and planners and lots of downtown residents have formed a coalition to push for that evaluation. We aren’t arguing about the need to repair this infrastructure, but we don’t want to lose the opportunity to mitigate the problems caused by the original construction.

The favor? Write a letter to Governor Holcomb, asking him to instruct INDOT to produce  legitimate, comprehensive, good-faith evaluations of the alternatives available. Here is the letter I have sent; feel free to use it as a template.

Dear Governor Holcomb,

I am writing to you as a citizen of Indiana and a resident of downtown Indianapolis who is concerned about a major project being planned by INDOT to repair and widen the portions of Interstates 65 and 70 commonly referred to as the “spaghetti bowl.”

Fifty years ago, when the interstates were constructed, they were routed through an Indianapolis downtown that had been largely abandoned for the suburbs–a downtown dramatically different from today’s vibrant city center. The decisions made at that time divided neighborhoods, exacerbated public safety problems, and significantly delayed the ensuing commercial and residential redevelopment of our downtown.

Those interstates and their bridges are now deteriorated and require extensive and very expensive repairs. Indianapolis thus has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically improve what everyone concedes is a thoroughly dysfunctional system. A thoughtful revamping could improve traffic flow and restore community connectivity and walkability; it could also spur economic development that would significantly add to the city’s tax base.

Whatever decisions are made now will be in place for at least fifty to sixty years, so it is critical that this project fix current problems and enhance—not degrade—the city’s quality of life.  A routine, “off the shelf” repair and lane widening project will simply lock the current problems into place.

In the face of INDOT’s clear intent to proceed with that “off the shelf” plan, a coalition composed of planners, architects, landscape architects, and business and civic leaders has come together and proposed two potential alternatives to the currently proposed approach. Both alternatives would free up considerable acreage for commercial development that would add to the city’s tax base, while the plan currently being considered—with massive concrete walls, longer underpasses and increased noise and air pollution– would substantially reduce the assessed value of a large number of properties, as well as the desirability of significant portions of downtown’s residential and historic neighborhoods.

When the current interstate routes were chosen, Indianapolis had no historic districts; today, those interstates disrupt five such districts. In our city, as elsewhere, historic district designations have generated an enormous amount of investment. Property values have continued to rise due to the attractiveness, walkability and residential character of those districts. INDOT’s current approach threatens that investment.

Fifty years ago, mistakes were made. Indianapolis has a rare opportunity to correct those mistakes. Members of the Coalition do not dispute the need for major repairs. We do dispute the clear preference of INDOT to effect those repairs using a standardized approach with which they are familiar and comfortable (and which would be entirely appropriate in a suburban or rural setting).

This is an issue requiring leadership that can only come from your office. I hope you will ensure that the alternatives proposed by the Coalition receive a genuine, unbiased evaluation.

Yours truly,

If you decide to email or snail-mail the Governor, I’d really appreciate a note telling me you did so!

Tomorrow, we’ll return to my usual ranting….


Why We Blame The Victim

The Guardian recently ran a fascinating column explaining the evolutionary purpose of that all-too-human tendency to blame the victim.

Rape and sexual assault survivors are asked about what they wore and how they fought back. Poor people who work three jobs and still can’t support a family are blamed for “laziness” and failure, despite facing an economy that is stacked against them.

Recent research suggests that this tendency is actually a somewhat weird side effect of our human desire for fairness–a hard-wired “just world” bias.

The “just-world bias” happens because our brains crave predictability, and as such, we tend to blame victims of unfairness rather than reject the comforting worldview suggesting that good will be rewarded and evil punished.

“There’s just this really powerful urge for people to want to think good things to happen to good people and where the misperception comes in is that there’s this implied opposite: if something bad has happened to you, you must have done something bad to deserve that bad thing,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at Sewanee University.

It isn’t only human victims who are blamed for their own misfortune.

Case in point: In Indiana, local school districts rely upon state and federal tax dollars to operate. Since 2011, state per-pupil funding has been dramatically reduced. Those reductions initially cost Indianapolis Public Schools $9.4 million annually; the last three years, however, the annual loss has been $15.5 million. Federal funding has dropped by $14.2 million annually since 2010, and Indiana’s insane tax caps have cost the district an average of $16.8 million every year since 2011.

Meanwhile, expenses—especially teacher compensation and benefits, which represent the majority of the budget—have continued to rise.

So far, the district has met these punishing shortfalls without altering the academic programs that have led to recent, much-needed educational improvements. It has closed schools in order to save the expenses of operating underused facilities and it has sold off unused buildings and other properties. Where possible, it has leased facilities to third parties, to generate rental income. It has reduced its central office operations by $5.3 million annually. It has deferred maintenance on its remaining properties in order to protect instructional programs and refinanced debt when favorable interest rates made that feasible.

As I write in an upcoming column in the local business journal,

There’s nothing left to sell. At some point, deferring maintenance is no longer possible. Meanwhile, teachers need to be paid and provided with health-care benefits; and special education students must have their costly needs met.

The district is currently proposing to raise just over 65 million dollars a year for 8 years. Of that amount, 74% would go for compensation, 12% would go for supplies and services, 11% would go for transportation, and 3% for building maintenance. If the Referendum fails, teacher pay will be frozen, some transportation services eliminated, and educational programs cut back.

Predictably, opponents blame the district for poor management. But all school districts in Indiana—including IPS–are the victims of decisions made in the Indiana Statehouse, and to a lesser extent, in Congress. Among other indignities, Mike Pence and the legislature successfully diverted tax dollars from public schools to parochial ones. Indiana has the country’s largest voucher program, and Ball State researchers report that 98% of Hoosier children using vouchers attend religious schools. Taxpayers sent $146.1 million dollars to voucher schools last year; since 2011, the number is $520 million dollars.

None of those decisions were made by local school districts.

Blaming the numerous public school districts in Indiana that have been forced to propose Referenda is like accusing the victim of a robbery of being imprudent with the stolen money.



Why Government Loses Public Trust–Indiana Version

Most of us would avoid patronizing a butcher shop where the butcher routinely put his thumb on the scale.  We would take our business elsewhere.

When our state government lies to us, however, most of us can’t simply move elsewhere. Worse, we may not even find out that we have been misled.

I don’t know how it is in other states, but here in Indiana, we are most likely to encounter biased information when the people running the state are religious zealots. Mike Pence was uninterested in the nitty-gritty of governing, but he was intensely focused on imposing his religious beliefs on Hoosiers–he saved his real enthusiasm for his anti-gay, anti-woman efforts.

I had a much better impression of current Governor Holcomb, who has seemed refreshingly free of the urge to sermonize and actually appears to be tending to the issues facing Indiana. But then I came across this report.

Indiana ranks as one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to its infant mortality rate. In his state of the state address earlier this month, Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) called attention to this crisis and announced the goal of improving the state’s status in the coming years. As part of that process, in November 2017 the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) launched a new mobile app for its existing statewide campaign aimed at improving Indiana’s infant mortality rate. The app, Liv, was developed with state funding and includes pregnancy and parenting guidance.

It also provides users with contact information for health and service providers, along with basic descriptions of what the users can expect from those providers. But the app’s resource list excludes evidence-based family planning clinics and centers, such as Planned Parenthood and All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center (PRC), while including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs): fake clinics that do not provide medically sound reproductive health care and actively lie to people seeking services.

Public health research shows that access to comprehensive family planning programs and services can help reduce infant mortality. Nonetheless, continuing the legacy of former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), this app—and ISDH’s larger infant mortality initiative—promotes ideology over evidence.

Infant mortality is the result of a combination of factors, including poverty and lack of prenatal care. But research shows that comprehensive contraception and family planning help reduce infant mortality rates.

For example, as research from the Guttmacher Institute shows, access to contraception gives women the tools to space their births: “By allowing women to time and space the number of children they want, contraception prevents unintended, often high-risk pregnancies—too close together, too often, too early or too late in life—that can lead to maternal and child death and injury.” Additionally, addressing unintended pregnancies by increasing access to contraception and family planning services also contributes to increased prenatal care provision by establishing connections between patients and providers.

When policymakers allow ideology to trump evidence, and erect barriers to access for family planning services, you get the results we have been seeing in Indiana. In 2011, only 68 percent of infants in the state were born to women who had received prenatal care in their first trimester–and nearly half of all pregnancies in Indiana are unintended.   

Using taxpayer dollars to direct vulnerable women to crisis pregnancy centers, while omitting information about high-quality health services available through Planned Parenthood, is worse than irresponsible. Crisis pregnancy centers are purveyors of dogma, not medically-accurate information. They have no place on a state-run registry.

Women using the app don’t have to go to Planned Parenthood. But they are entitled to know that it is an option. For state government to omit a medically-appropriate service from a directory it has created and disseminated while including a “service” that offers dishonest “counseling” is unforgivable.

It certainly isn’t the way to cultivate public trust.




Indiana–Always Last

The Hill recently reported on a number of states where 2018 will see raises in the minimum wage. Indiana, of course, was conspicuously absent from their list.

The lowest wage workers in 18 states will get a boost in their paychecks starting on New Year’s Day, as minimum wage hikes take effect.

Many of the wage hikes are phased-in steps toward an ultimately higher wage, the product of ballot initiatives pushed by unions and workers rights groups over the last few years.

The minimum wage in Washington state will rise to $11.50 an hour, up 50 cents and the highest statewide minimum in the nation. Over the next three years, the wage will rise to $13.50 an hour, thanks to a ballot measure approved by voters in 2016.

Mainers will see their minimum wages rise the most, from $9 an hour to $10 an hour, an 11 percent increase. Voters approved a ballot measure in 2016 that will eventually raise the wage to $12 an hour by 2020.

Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont will see their minimum wages increase by at least 50 cents an hour. Smaller increases take effect in Alaska, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio and South Dakota.

Our overlords at the Indiana Statehouse like to brag that keeping Indiana a “low wage” “right to work” state means we are attractive to businesses looking to relocate. What they don’t seem to understand is the flip side of the equation, beginning with the state’s inability to provide the quality of life amenities (not to mention smooth highways)  that appeal to businesses proposing to relocate. Higher wages would generate more tax dollars. Higher wages would also reduce the number of people who–despite working full-time–must depend upon social welfare programs funded by tax dollars simply to make ends meet.

I have posted before about the ALICE study, conducted a couple of years ago by Indiana’s United Ways. That study found

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

Here in Indiana, we don’t seem to find ALICE poverty problematic or immoral, despite the fact that virtually all of us who are more privileged depend upon the services these people provide.

Even more immoral, in my humble opinion, is having my tax dollars effectively paying a portion of the wages of Walmart, McDonalds and other big employers’ workers. As I have previously posted,

Walmart generates nearly $500 billion in revenue annually; over the past five years, its yearly profits have averaged $15.5 billion dollars, and the family that owns it has a net worth of $129 billion dollars.

Despite its obvious ability to do so, the company declines to pay its employees a living wage, instead relying upon government programs–taxpayer dollars– to make up the difference between its workers’ paychecks and what they need to make ends meet. In essence, when a Walmart employee must rely on food stamps or other safety-net benefits, taxpayers are paying a portion of that employee’s wages.

Walmart (including its Sam’s Club operation) is currently the largest private employer in the country–and one of the largest recipients of corporate welfare. Walmart employees receive an estimated $6.2 billion dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies each year. Money not paid out in salary goes directly to the shareholders’ bottom line.

The Indiana legislature declines to offer even a modicum of help to the third of Hoosiers who are working for below-subsistence wages, but they are evidently happy to continue subsidizing the wealthy.

The Hoosier bottom line.

Very Good News, For Once

The next time you see local attorney Bill Groth, buy him a drink. Hell, buy him two!

According to the IBJ, 

The Marion County Election Board unanimously approved a bipartisan proposal that would convert the county’s traditional polling places to vote centers starting with the 2019 primary election. That way, Marion County registered voters can use any of 300 vote centers, rather than only a designated polling place. The county currently has about 300 polling sites.

The proposal also expands the use of early voting in the county and creates electronic pollbooks to be used county-wide.

Several months ago, I blogged about the lawsuit brought by Groth on behalf of Common Cause, challenging the lack of satellite polling places for early voting in Marion County. Thanks to a provision of state law that requires all election board decisions to be unanimous, the Republican member of the Marion County Board was able to block the designation of any early voting sites other than the one in the Clerk’s office in the City County Building.

The meticulous petition Groth filed in the case detailed the number of early voting sites in other whiter, more Republican counties, and the comparison was devastating: for example, Hamilton County had a ratio of one early site for every 76,929 registered voters; Hendricks County had one early voting site for every 27,476 registered voters, and Johnson County had  one early voting site for every 17,924 registered voters.

Marion County? The state’s most populous county’s one inconvenient site–with parking problems– had to serve 699,709 registered voters.

According to the IBJ’s report, the Republican member of the Election Board has changed her tune, and the vote to establish vote centers and expand early voting was unanimous. The article ended with this “throw-away” observation:

The changes comes after a previous impasse over early voting in Marion County between the two major political parties.

In May 2017, Common Cause and the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Marion County’s single location for early voting provided unequal access for voters and that it was discriminatory and caused voter suppression.

“After this, therefore because of this” is a famous logical fallacy, but in this case, it’s quite obviously true. Had a good lawyer (in both senses of the word “good”–i.e., a good guy and a highly competent practitioner) not been willing to take this case pro bono, and had it not been more likely than not that he would win it, I am confident this sudden turnabout would not have occurred.

The only disappointment is, it appears from the reporting that we will still have to get through November’s election with the old rules. It will be up to all of us who recognize the incredible  importance of these midterms to get people to the polls.

After that–chalk this up to one win against voter suppression.