Tag Archives: Indiana legislature

Thankfully, a Lot of People Don’t Find Redistricting Boring….

The second meeting of Indiana’s Interim Study Committee on Redistricting, of which I am a lay member, was held yesterday. Despite the fact that it was a Thursday afternoon, and the meeting started at 1:00, there were well over 100 citizens present; they filled the House Chamber and from where I was sitting, it looked like they filled the balcony too.

The purpose of this meeting was to hear expert testimony. (Discussion leading to the committee’s recommendations will come at the next two meetings. I’ll blog the dates and times when I know them.)

There were two presentations; one from a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice, affiliated with New York University Law School, and the second from the Senior Legal Counsel to the Iowa LSA–the person responsible for directing Iowa’s redistricting process.

The Iowa presentation was a description of that state’s use of an independent commission to draw district lines–from all reports, a very successful effort to draw districts in a fair, transparent and nonpartisan way, and one that has earned the strong approval of most Iowa voters.

The first presentation, by Michael Li of the Brennan Center, focused upon the negative consequences of gerrymandering, and the current efforts of several states to reform their processes. He included a couple of interesting points that tend to get lost in discussions about gerrymandering’s more obvious effects.

Li pointed out that the redistricting “nitty-gritty”–the drawing of the lines–isn’t handled by local politicians; instead, the national parties send in teams of “experts” whose expertise is in manipulating data and computer programs, and who know little about the politics or culture of whatever state they are carving up. This dependence on national party operatives facilitates the contemporary shift of power and influence from state policymakers to national ones– further nationalizing America’s political parties.

Li also noted that although redistricting reform might not effect much change to the partisan composition of a state’s legislature, especially in very Red or Blue states, it does tend to change the nature of the partisans who hold those seats. (Social science research supports that observation; in states using independent commissions, Representatives of both parties tend to be less rigidly ideological and more willing to work across the aisle.)

This last observation is particularly important, because one of the arguments used by defenders of the current system (like Senator Hershman today) is to claim there are states where redistricting reform has changed a very minimal number of seats, and that shows the current system isn’t really a problem.

As Li quite properly responded, partisan shift is not the metric we should apply. In Republican states like Indiana, redistricting reform is unlikely to change control of the Senate, for example. If fewer elections are decided in the primaries, if fewer general elections are uncontested, if new people emerge to challenge incumbents, and –when those incumbents die or retire–if there is genuine competition for the open seat, then reform has worked.

When Senator Pat Miller challenged the notion of “nonpartisan” commission members–making the point that everyone has political opinions–Li agreed that most people have what we might call “political orientation,” although he noted that there is a difference between redistricting done by people who are deeply involved in the political process and that done by people who are not politically active. He compared the process to the composition and operation of juries; people serving on juries have prejudices and opinions, but most who serve take their responsibilities very seriously, evaluating the evidence and following the judges’ instructions.  ( I found the comparison compelling because when I was a practicing lawyer, I saw juries in operation, and saw the same seriousness of purpose.)

The one thing that seemed clear in the wake of the meeting was that Senators Hershman and Miller are not going to be voting for reform of any kind. But I have high hopes for the rest of us.

Indiana Legislative Folly….Rinse and Repeat…

Remember House Bill 1082? The “No Stricter Than” measure that would prohibit Indiana’s environmental agency from acting to combat local environmental threats if the proposed action was “stricter” than EPA standards?

I am not the only observer pointing to the real dangers--not to mention absurdity– of that measure, which has been moving inexorably through the legislative process.

The utter hypocrisy of the GOP on the EPA and environmental regulation was on vivid display last week in a Congressional hearing called to address the water crisis in Flint, Michigan:

In a House hearing last week, GOP lawmakers focused their outrage on the weakness of EPA regulations and actions that contributed to the Flint disaster. However, The New Republic has detailed their consistent opposition to its regulatory actions.

Republicans in Washington and Indianapolis constantly complain about EPA “overreach.” In one of the recent GOP debates, Jeb Bush called for sending EPA authority back to the states, and he is hardly alone. Indiana Governor Pence has been an ardent foe of virtually all environmental efforts, and has made the EPA a special target, despite the fact that Indiana’s air and water rank among the country’s most polluted.

For years, at the urging of well-heeled industry lobbyists and donors, Republicans have done everything they can to neuter the EPA and eviscerate its regulatory power— and now, when faced with an environmental crisis, Congressional Republicans have the gall–the chutzpah–to blame that crisis on “weak” EPA regulations.

At the very same time, back home in Indiana, Republican state legislators —still singing the lobbyists’ song—are insisting that EPA regulations are so strong that we shouldn’t allow state government to supplement them. Ever. No matter what.

You really can’t make this shit up.


Guns, Gays and Greenhouse Gases…Welcome to Indiana’s Legislature

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when Indiana’s (mercifully part-time) legislature is in session, I tend to break out in hives. Thanks to our massively gerrymandered election map, a number of people who get elected to that august body tend to advocate measures that don’t reflect the opinions of most Hoosiers.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in many cases, Indiana’s lawmakers’ actual constituencies are the special interests–the NRA and gun manufacturers, the Christian Right, Big Agriculture….

A quick look at some of the bills being considered this year may illustrate the point:

Let’s start with guns. Every year, guns kill some 33,000 Americans. The Indiana General Assembly isn’t deterred by that number, or by repeated massacres of children and innocents. No siree. This year, bills have been introduced 1) to get rid of Indiana’s requirement of a license to carry a handgun, 2) to allow guns at public universities and state office buildings, and 3) to make it easier for repeat alcohol offenders to get a handgun license.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve posted previously about the reluctance of our lawmakers to just bite the bullet and admit that LGBT folks are citizens and taxpayers entitled to the same civil rights protections that apply to women, racial minorities and religious folks. (Although it has been sort of enjoyable to watch the discomfort of legislators who are used to doing the bidding of both the Religious Right and business interests—constituencies that are on opposite sides of this issue.)

Survey research has uniformly found a solid majority of Hoosiers favor adding “four words and a comma” to the state civil rights statute. Employers large and small are lobbying for that approach, and significant numbers of clergy and other representatives of faith communities have come out to support it–but our lawmakers have thus far been reluctant to incur the wrath of the small (but shrill and intensely homophobic) Christian Right.

Then there’s HB 1082, authored by Representative David Wolkins. Dubbed the “no more stringent than” bill, it would forbid Indiana agencies from making or enforcing any environmental rule that is more stringent than those established by the federal government. As the Palladium-Item noted

Indiana consistently ranks near the bottom of the states regarding environmental quality. If State Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, has his way, Indiana will stay there.

As the Hoosier Environmental Council points out, the situation in Flint illustrates precisely those gaps in federal regulation that Indiana would be prevented from addressing under HB 1082: For example, under federal regulations, drinking water systems can continue to deliver lead-tainted water to households and businesses for up to 24 months while a variety of fixes are attempted. In 24 months, children’s health and cognitive abilities can be permanently damaged.

In fact, there are a number of areas where EPA regulations are considered weak, among them pollution from fracking, factory farm manure pits, and outdoor wood boilers. There are probably others.

Why would we want to prevent Indiana from addressing areas where federal regulations may prove to be inadequate for our needs? It isn’t as if the absence of a “no more stringent” bill would require the state to act. Why tie the hands of those charged with citizens’ public health and safety?

I’m sure a closer examination of the bills that have been introduced would uncover still others belonging to the category that I call “good god, what were they thinking?”

Maybe I should just drink until they go home….

Civil Rights and the Religious Right

Yesterday at the Indiana statehouse, hearings were held on three bills taking different approaches to GLBT civil rights. None of those bills as originally written actually extended civil rights protections to the gay community—at their best (which wasn’t particularly good), they were efforts to look like the state is protecting the rights of LGBT Hoosiers without actually doing so— efforts to avoid the wrath of both a business community that supports real civil rights protections, and the Christian Right, which most definitely does not.

Of course, some of our legislators aren’t even pretending.

When I went to bed last night (we’re old and I go to bed early), the worst of the measures, a bill that had been dubbed “super RFRA,” was dead (at least for the moment), and a hearing on the others was still going on. This morning, I learned that SB344–which will now move to the Senate floor, would repeal RFRA and replace it with”protections” neutered by religious exemptions.

Genuine extension of civil rights to the LGBT community would be simple: four words and a comma added to the Indiana law that currently protects people from being discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, gender, and national origin. (Interestingly, there aren’t religious exemptions to those categories: if your religion preaches separation of the races or subordination of women, tough. You still can’t fire black people or refuse to serve women.)The convoluted measure that emerged is pretty strong evidence that Indiana legislators really don’t want gays and lesbians (and definitely not transgender Hoosiers) to be treated as citizens entitled to equal treatment.

These legislators are in thrall to the diminishing number of fundamentalist religious activists who want to be able to pick on gay people without worrying about some law requiring owners of public accommodations to actually accommodate all members of the public.

Ironically, all these howls of religious righteousness, all this deference to the delicate religious sensibilities of Christian literalists, is taking place at the same time that leaders of those groups are displaying the highly selective nature of their religiosity. Yesterday, Jerry Falwell, Jr.—one of those who finds homosexuality to be an “abomination”— endorsed Donald Trump for President.

So let me get this straight (pun intended). Gay people—even the most exemplary gay people in long-term, loving relationships—are sinners not to be accorded civic equality or human dignity. But a three-time married megalomaniac who has repeatedly used bankruptcy laws to screw over his creditors, who has flaunted his sex life in the tabloids, who has separated poor people from their money in his casinos, lies constantly and has repeatedly exhibited the crudest racism, sexism and xenophobia—that man is entitled to your “Christian” approval and endorsement.

If there was ever any doubt, Falwell’s endorsement makes one thing clear: This pious insistence that religious objectors should be accorded “special rights” to discriminate isn’t theology. It isn’t based upon their (selective and convenient) reading of their bibles.

It’s bigotry. And our lawmakers should not accommodate it.



I Don’t Think D- Is A Good Grade…

Here in Hoosierland, we like to grade stuff. Well, some stuff.

We assign grades to public schools despite the dubious nature of some of the criteria used. We are less enthusiastic about the grades given to our infrastructure by the Corp of Civil Engineers, although we’ve seen some grudging acknowledgment of those scores, given that our crumbling roads and bridges are hard to hide or ignore. (A former student tells me that a big chunk of the bridge from I70 into downtown Indy just fell off yesterday…)

Then there’s a grade I’m betting we won’t hear very much about: the grade for ethical government, awarded by the Center for Public Integrity. Indiana got a D-. (If you click through, you can see the scoring criteria, and the categories.

You may recall lawmakers’ promise to make ethics reform the centerpiece of the last session :

During the 2014 legislative session, a top Republican House leader, Rep. Eric Turner, privately lobbied his fellow Republicans — who control both chambers — to scuttle a proposed ban on nursing home construction that would have hurt his family’s business. A House investigation cleared him of wrongdoing, but he was later stripped of leadership roles and stepped down after being re-elected. Department of Transportation official Troy Woodruff took advantage of an ethics law loophole that allowed him to skirt a one-year cooling-off period and become an independent contractor for an Indianapolis firm he’d regulated. And former state education superintendent Tony Bennett only had to pay a $5,000 fine for questionable campaign practices, including the use of state staff and computers, even though the state’s inspector general condemned his actions as wire fraud and misuse of state resources. Bennett wasn’t charged.

Ultimately, legislators approved an ethics reform law, effective in July. But even during the reform debate, two lawmakers floated proposals that drew conflict of interest charges and sharp criticism.

To be blunt, the vaunted “reforms” were more atmospheric than effective. Indiana earned F’s in numerous categories, including public access to information, political financing, state budget process, judicial accountability, ethics entities and civil service oversight. The only B’s were earned by the state pension systems (B+) and internal auditing practices (B-).

Ironically, Indiana’s score was better in 2012. Before “reform,” we earned a C-.

Knowledgable observers cite many reasons we consistently  fail to clean up our act: lax enforcement of guidelines, a culture of quid pro quo, and most of all, a gerrymandered state where 80% of the legislative seats are uncompetitive, making it highly unlikely that unethical behavior will be punished at the ballot box.

That’s what happens when lawmakers choose their voters, rather than the other way around….