Category Archives: Local Government

Get Thee to the Statehouse–TODAY

Despite all of the hard work done by the coalition working on Indiana redistricting reform–despite the recommendation of the Interim Study Committee and the support of Rep. Jerry Torr,  it has been an open question whether H.B. 1014  would even be scheduled for a hearing. But just yesterday–presumably in response to consistent pressure from hundreds of Hoosiers– the Bill was scheduled for a hearing. TODAY.

I’m told there will be a rally starting at 2:30 on the east steps of the Statehouse, and many people are going to the hearing from there. Indianapolis area readers: if you can go to either the rally or the hearing, please, please do.

In case you’ve forgotten why putting an end to gerrymandering is so critically important, if you have missed my multiple, repetitive screeds on the subject, I direct your attention to this article from yesterday’s Washington Post, which identified gerrymandering as the single biggest obstacle to restoring American democracy.

There is an enormous paradox at the heart of American democracy. Congress is deeply and stubbornly unpopular. On average, between 10 and 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress – on a par with public support for traffic jams and cockroaches. And yet, in the 2016 election, only eight incumbents – eight out of a body of 435 representatives – were defeated at the polls.

If there is one silver bullet that could fix American democracy, it’s getting rid of gerrymandering – the now commonplace practice of drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain. It’s also one of a dwindling number of issues that principled citizens – Democrat and Republican – should be able to agree on. Indeed, polls confirm that an overwhelming majority of Americans of all stripes oppose gerrymandering.

Thanks to gerrymandering, Congressional elections aren’t real elections in the vast majority of districts. As the Post article notes, a typical race in a gerrymandered district ends with either the Democrat or Republican (whichever party has been “awarded” that particular district) winning nearly 70 percent of the vote. (That’s a North Korea-style election…)

Competitiveness is so last Century….

Last year, only 17 seats out of 435 races were decided by a margin of 5 percent or less. Just 33 seats in total were decided by a margin of 10 percent or less. In other words, more than 9 out of 10 House races were landslides where the campaign was a foregone conclusion before ballots were even cast. In 2016, there were no truly competitive Congressional races in 42 of the 50 states. That is not healthy for a system of government that, at its core, is defined by political competition….

These uncompetitive districts have a seriously corrosive effect on the integrity of democracy. If you’re elected to represent a district that is 80 percent Republican or 80 percent Democratic, there is absolutely no incentive to compromise. Ever. In fact, there is a strong disincentive to collaboration, because working across the aisle almost certainly means the risk of a primary challenge from the far right or far left of the party. For the overwhelming majority of Congressional representatives, there is no real risk to losing a general election – but there is a very real threat of losing a fiercely contested primary election. Over time, this causes sane people to pursue insane pandering and extreme positions.

The article concludes with a point I have made repeatedly: low turnout is not explained by voter apathy or even disinterest; it is explained by powerlessness–by voters coming to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that their vote no longer counts, that legislators are choosing their voters rather than the other way around.

Why bother showing up when the result has been preordained?

If at all possible, attend today’s hearing!

With a Little Help From Their Friends…

I know it’s hard to take our eyes off the mounting disasters in D.C., but let’s take a moment to talk about Indiana. Specifically, let’s talk about Senate Bill 309, sponsored by Senator Brandt Hershman. (It’s always wise to look carefully–and skeptically– at anything Hershman sponsors.)

Senate Bill 309 is about “distributed energy generation.” (If your eyes already glazed over, that was the intent.) What it is really about is the protection of electric monopolies at the expense of consumers.

Let’s say you have rooftop solar, and you currently have “net metering.” Net metering is a term that refers to a billing arrangement between you and the electric utility; when your rooftop panels are generating more energy than you are using, the excess goes back into the grid, and the utility credits you for that excess at the same rate that you pay them when you aren’t generating enough to cover your needs and you buy the rest of what you need from them.

Even if it is an even swap, you still pay the utility an amount sufficient to cover its overhead costs–billing, meter reading, etc. Fair enough.

Most studies of this growing practice have concluded that net metering benefits the grid and other customers, as well as the environment. As Citizens Action Coalition explains,

The multiple benefits of net metering include: avoided costs of purchasing energy and building new power plants, avoided capital investments, increased grid resiliency and security, reduced carbon emissions, and reduced toxic air emissions.

But what are those benefits when weighed against diminished profits for electric monopolies? In Senator Hershman’s calculus, not much.

If Senate Bill 309 passes, you will no longer be able to use the electricity from your rooftop solar panels and sell any excess back to the utility. Instead, you would be forced to sell all the electricity you generate to the utility at a much lower price than the utility charges you, and then buy back what you need at their substantially higher “retail” price. (The utilities will have to pay you at something called the “avoided cost” rate–which is somewhere between 2.5 and 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour.–You’ll have to buy it back at retail rates between 11 and 16 cents per kilowatt hour.)

Nice work if you can get it!

If SB 309 passes, it will price rooftop solar and small-scale wind generation out of the market.

During just the last five years, over a million Americans have installed solar, and the costs of both solar and wind generated energy have dropped dramatically. That’s good for the environment, and good for consumers’ pocketbooks, but it has cut into the profit margins of the big electrical utilities.

Fortunately for them, those big monopolies have good friends like Senator Hershman in the Indiana General Assembly.

Consumers, unfortunately, do not.

Update: for information about who to call, go here.

ALEC’s Little Brother

Most readers of this blog know about ALEC–the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is an arm of corporate America, and writes “model” legislation for lazy legislators (most of them beholden to those corporations for sizable campaign contributions) to introduce as their own. Once ALEC began to receive a good deal of public scrutiny, it began to bleed members, but it is by no means incapacitated.

Now, ALEC has a municipal-level sibling. 

American City County Exchange (ACCE) was spawned by ALEC in 2014 to spread ALEC’s ideas about “limited government, free markets, and federalism” down to the most local levels of government.

The linked report, from the Mayor of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, describes what he learned about the organization from a meeting he attended:

ALEC leaders intend to hire a membership/fundraising director and researcher in 2017 and make ACCE a profit center by 2018. This, presenters said, will require ACCE to solidify relationships with traditional allies, such as the bail-bond and telecommunications industries. ACCE must also find new allies, including those who would privatize historically municipal services, often by adding technology that is easily replicated but new to municipal clients.

For example, we heard presentations from “smart cities” vendors selling information and communications technology at the meeting, in a sales pitch format called a “workshop” by ALEC.

The priorities of ACCE, as one might expect, mirror those of ALEC: privatization of government functions, evisceration of public unions…the group is evidently working hard to expand both its membership and the number of corporate sponsors, but it is already cranking out cookie-cutter “model” ordinances intended to move local governments toward their goals.

Sometimes, just keeping track of the corporatists and crony capitalists is exhausting.

 

Whatever Happened to Integrity?

I concluded yesterday’s post by saying “We have spoiled toddlers running state and federal offices, but at least adults run the cities.” Evidently, some of those adults are less  praiseworthy than I suggested.

Indianapolis recently held a referendum on transportation. It wasn’t easy convincing the General Assembly that residents of the city should be allowed to decide for ourselves whether to impose a modest tax increase dedicated to the expansion of the city’s painfully inadequate bus service. It took a couple of years, but we finally did.

The vote was advisory, meaning that it will inform members of the City-County Council, whose votes will be dispositive. I think it is fair to say that voters expect the Councilors’ votes to reflect the clear results of the popular will.

The referendum won handily. But some Councilors– in districts where constituents voted decisively for the transit expansion– are vacillating. According to several people who have talked to them, the reluctant Council members are ambitious politicians who plan to run for higher office; they have been telling transit proponents that they don’t want a future opponent to be able to accuse them of raising taxes.

Think about that for a minute. This isn’t about legitimate disagreement about the merits of the proposal; this is about personal political calculation– a conflict of interest between the public good and personal advantage.

These City-County Counselors were elected to serve the constituents in their districts. Those constituents have signaled their belief that improved transit is sufficiently important to them to justify the (relatively minor) tax increase required. Rather than considering the wishes of those constituents, rather than considering the needs of the disabled and elderly people who depend upon transit, or the needs of workers to get to their places of employment without changing buses and enduring lengthy commutes (when they can get there at all–see yesterday’s post), these Councilors are viewing their votes only from the perspective of their personal self-interest.

Why, they might have to defend voting for the public good in a future political campaign!

I can understand why someone representing a district that voted against the referendum would decide to ignore the interests and expressed preferences of the overall community, but when elected officials disregard the wishes and needs of both the overall community and their own constituents in order to protect themselves from potential criticism in a potential future campaign, I find that contemptible.

I think it was Maya Angelou who said “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.”

And remember them.

Because if those who are threatening to vote no simply to protect themselves from criticism in a future campaign actually follow through with that threat, and if and when they do run for higher office, those of us with a different understanding of “representation” and “integrity” need to make a very public issue of their self-serving behavior.

 

RFRA, Pence and Holcomb

What has been interesting about having Indiana’s Governor Mike Pence on the national ticket  has been the research on Indiana’s Governor being done by national media outlets.

Here in Hoosierland, we know Pence as an avid culture warrior uninterested in the day-to-day administration of state agencies. We know him as an opponent of Planned Parenthood whose disinclination to authorize needle exchanges led to an HIV crisis in southern Indiana, as an adversary of public education responsible for diverting millions of dollars from the state’s public schools in order to provide vouchers for religious schools, and of course as the anti-gay warrior who cost the state economy millions of dollars by championing and signing RFRA.

The national press has investigated Pence’s previous activities, both in Congress and as editor of the Indiana Policy Review, a (very) conservative publication. What they’ve found won’t surprise anyone who has followed Pence, but the research has confirmed that the Governor has certainly been consistent….

For example–and despite his disclaimers of discrimination to George Stephanopolous and others–Out Magazine unearthed an earlier article advising employers not to hire LGBTQ folks, and describing homosexuality as a “pathological” condition:

“Homosexuals are not as a group able-bodied. They are known to carry extremely high rates of disease brought on because of the nature of their sexual practices and the promiscuity which is a hallmark of their lifestyle.”

Another article, from December of 1993, was entitled “The Pink Newsroom” and argued that LGBTQ folks shouldn’t be allowed to work as journalists without being forced to identify themselves as gay publicly, since their LGBTQ status would surely create a conflict of interest when writing about politics.

Other outlets have reported his efforts while in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood, his speeches warning against the use of condoms, his insistence that climate change is a “hoax,” and his longstanding support of creationism and denial of evolution.

It’s highly likely that the Trump-Pence ticket will lose nationally in November, relieving Indiana voters of the task of defeating Pence at the polls. In his place, the GOP is running Eric Holcomb for Governor. Holcomb, it turns out, is pretty much a Pence clone. (The link has video from his meeting with the editorial board of the Indianapolis Star.)

Eric Holcomb had his chance to distance himself from the economic disaster of Mike Pence’s RFRA legacy in Indiana.

Instead, in a painful 4 minute answer to the Indianapolis Star editorial board, Holcomb doubled down on the same discrimination law that risked $250 million for state’s economy, and threw his weight behind Pence’s failed agenda.

Holcomb has previously embraced all of Pence’s agenda.

In November, we’ll see whether Hoosier voters have had enough of incompetence and theocracy, or whether we will vote to endure more of the same.

This is a very strange political year.