Category Archives: Local Government

Speaking Of Blowhards And Scoundrels..

In yesterday’s post, I argued that, when politics is considered the refuge of blowhards and scoundrels, blowhards and scoundrels are who it will attract. Which brings me to Todd Rokita–elected in November to be Indiana’s Attorney General.

I have previously posted about Rokita–several times, in fact. In 2013, when he was in Congress, I explained why he was more embarrassing than then-Governor Mike Pence. In 2014, I explained why he was dangerous and anti-American. Also in 2014, I highlighted his comparison of himself to Earl Landgrebe, whose most famous quote, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. I’ve got a closed mind” was perhaps more telling than he had intended.

And just last year, I posted a compendium of Rokita’s positions and suggested that Indiana had once again elected a guaranteed embarrassment to the position of Attorney General. (We have a habit…)

That prediction has already been proved correct–and it’s only February!

On Valentine’s Day, Rokita sent out a “tongue in cheek” Tweet supporting Trump’s allegation that the election was stolen from him. As the Star described it, the tweet “featured a meme with floating red hearts and the text ‘You stole my heart like a 2020 election.’ Below the text is a cartoon-like portrait of Donald Trump.”

Twitter declined to see the “tongue in cheek” humor, blocked activity related to the tweet, and warned that it posed a danger of inciting violence. This was no aberration; Rokita has been an all-in Trumper,  urging the Supreme Court to hear election challenges that 60 courts–and every competent lawyer who read them– found bogus.

But hey! You can be a competent lawyer, or a culture warrior–and in Indiana, culture war is what gets you elected.

But all of that history pales against the discovery that Rokita is still employed by the health benefits firm he worked for prior to the  election, notwithstanding the fact that he now has a “day job” (which most lawyers consider a 24-hour-a-day job) as Indiana’s Attorney General. A day job that coincidentally gives him investigative jurisdiction over what we now know is his “other” job…

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita is moonlighting as a strategic policy adviser for the health benefits company that has employed him since 2019, his office confirmed Tuesday morning, raising questions about whether the arrangement violates state ethics rules.

An Apex receptionist said Rokita was still employed with Apex Benefits and transferred a reporter to his extension. Rokita’s Apex email and voicemail inboxes were still functioning Tuesday morning.

According to his job description, Rokita “advises Apex and its growing roster of clients who employ thousands of hard-working people on public policy initiatives, internal corporate strategies, and employee benefits compliance outcomes. In the best interest of the company’s clients, he also collaborates with industry experts to drive positive transformation of healthcare and benefits issues.”

Aside from the inherent conflict of interest, there’s another small problem: Rokita’s dual employment violates even Indiana’s weak ethics law. (You’d think a lawyer–especially the state’s lawyer–might have noticed that.)

Indiana’s Ghost Employment Rule —found at 42 IAC 1-5-13–is summarized by the office of the Inspector General as follows: “Don’t work on anything outside your official job duties.”

If that seems too complicated to understand, the IG offers some helpful examples:

  • In addition to your employment with the State Library, you also edit drafts of books for a publishing company. You may not review these drafts while engaging in your official duties during working hours.
  • You are an employee of the Criminal Justice Institute who would like to take advantage of State Personnel’s Community Service Leave to volunteer at a local elementary school. You may volunteer at the school in accordance with its guidelines since it has been permitted by a written agency regulation.
  • You work as an administrative assistant for the Civil Rights Commission. You may not assist the director on a case he has taken on pro bono for a non-profit legal service during your working hours since it is not part of your official duties.
  • You are a Family & Social Services Administration employee. You leave work early one afternoon to have your nails done. You may not claim a full day’s pay on your timesheet.
  • You are an Indiana State Police Officer. Your cousin is having a birthday party when you are scheduled to be on patrol. You may not stop patrol and attend the birthday party instead.

Granted, the examples don’t include “You are the Attorney General of the State of Indiana. You may not simultaneously function as an employee and paid advisor for a private firm while collecting a salary as Attorney General.”

Rokita evidently did have some concerns about this patently unethical arrangement: he hired the Inspector General to join his office (the Attorney General office, not the Apex office) in a senior (and undoubtedly well-compensated) position, after allegedly obtaining from that individual’s office an opinion that his conduct didn’t violate Indiana’s seemingly straightforward ethics statute…an opinion that, for some reason, his office declines to make public.

Rokita is evidently as big a fan of Trump’s swamp as he is of Trump’s Big Lie…

 

The World’s Worst Legislature

During his too-brief life, former NUVO editor Harrison Ullmann was best known for his repeated assertion that Indiana had the “world’s worst legislature.” Participants in the current session are once again demonstrating the accuracy of that label–and given the number of other legislative bodies that could plausibly win that title–especially, after yesterday, the United States Senate– awarding it to the Hoosiers in the Indiana Statehouse is really saying something.

The current session has seen a steady stream of bills by sponsors who haven’t even tried to obscure outrageous conflicts of interest: efforts by real estate developers to eliminate environmental protections like wetlands, a bill from a homebuilder/legislator that would disallow local design oversights. (Respecting the environment and following minimum design standards costs money, you know…)

An obscene number of measures take aim at Indianapolis.

I have previously pointed out that municipalities in Indiana have no genuine home rule–that the same lawmakers who bemoan “unfunded mandates” from Washington are perfectly happy to impose ridiculous constraints on Indiana’s cities and towns. It certainly won’t surprise anyone living in Indianapolis that our legislature– dominated by rural interests– has once again aimed its animus at the state’s largest city. But this year, the effort to spit in the face of the state’s economic driver–to punish Indianapolis for being “blue”–has gone into overdrive.

One bill would remove the police department from the control of the mayor and city council. Another would remove the city’s legal authority to provide bus rapid transit. Yet another would prevent the city from regulating the placement of 5G wireless devices.

A truly despicable bill that seems likely to pass is a legislative smackdown of a city ordinance that provided (minimal) extra protections for tenants. That measure, which passed previously, was vetoed by Governor Holcomb; legislators now propose to override that veto.  Indiana  law has historically and unfairly favored landlords; the Indianapolis City-County Council had begun to redress that imbalance.

As Michael Hicks recently wrote in a column for the Howey Report,

These are unusual issues for a state legislature to become involved in, but there’s more. One bill would prevent Indianapolis, or any other city, from changing its name. To be fair, that bill might be targeted at Russiaville, Toad Hop or Slab Town, not Indianapolis. Another would limit the powers of Indianapolis to undertake land-use authority within its city limits… 

This flurry of legislation aimed at the heart of Indiana’s largest municipal government seems to signal that something unseemly is happening in Indianapolis. 

What is “unseemly,” of course, is that Indianapolis is now a reliably Democratic city in a reliably Republican state.

The proposed punitive legislation wouldn’t just affect Marion County. (For those readers who don’t live in Indiana, the city limits have been essentially coterminous with the county’s since the early 1970s.) This is, as Hicks noted, different from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes the surrounding counties. Much of the proposed legislation would affect both the City of Indianapolis and the surrounding metropolitan area that depends upon the success of the city.

Hicks also notes that–far from demonstrating “unseemly” governance,  the metrics show that Indianapolis has been far more successful than the rest of the state.

 Indianapolis has been responsible for the lion’s share of state population growth.

Since 2000, the Indy metro area has grown by 35%, the City of Indianapolis by 12%, and the whole rest of the state by 2.1%. The City of Indianapolis saw more population growth this century than the 80 non-Indy metro counties combined. So, whatever concern about crime, zoning or building design residents have about Indy, they are worse everywhere else. 

What about jobs?

Since 2000, the Indianapolis metro region has added some 154,000 jobs. Of those jobs, the City of Indianapolis can account for 18,000 new jobs over the same time period. Here’s the rub; over the same time period, all the rest of Indiana lost a whopping 151,000 jobs. 

Speaking of economic impact, Hicks tells us that, annually, residents of Marion County send a net of more than $500 per person in tax revenues to residents of the rest of the state.

All told, 20 Hoosier counties pay more taxes to the state than they receive in tax revenues from the state. Five of those are in the Indianapolis metro area. So, just to summarize it clearly, Indianapolis, and the Indianapolis region as a whole, are growing leaps and bounds faster than the rest of the state. At the same time, they bear a greater state tax burden, of which a significant share is sent to other counties. They get far less back in tax dollars than they spend.

In the World’s Worst Legislature–coming to citizens courtesy of extreme gerrymandering–resentful representatives of dwindling rural areas are intent upon killing the goose that sends them the golden eggs.

 

Another Assumption Bites The Dust

Sometimes, evidence proves seemingly logical arguments and analyses wrong.

I used to be a critic of prevailing wage laws–I was persuaded that such laws interfered with the market for construction services and added unnecessary costs to the public projects financed with taxpayer dollars.  I agreed with those who argued for repeal of such laws by contending that if we did away with prevailing wage,  taxpayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars on public projects, because non-union contractors who didn’t pay prevailing wage would begin bidding on those jobs, generating more competition.

Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t support that theory, logical as it seemed.

In 2017, the Wisconsin state Legislature repealed prevailing wage. The state’s prevailing wage laws established local market-based minimum wages on the construction of schools, roads and other taxpayer-funded projects. It ensured that contractors were paying their workers fair market wages while also investing in training and apprenticeship programs that ensure the state has a stable supply of skilled craft workers to perform dangerous and demanding jobs.

Evidently, available peer-reviewed research as well as an analysis from Wisconsin’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau warned at the time that there was no conclusive evidence to support the claims being made by proponents of repeal. However, the state’s lawmakers ignored the nay-sayers, and  voted for repeal on a largely party line vote.

In early October of this year, Dr. Kevin Duncan, Professor of Economics at Colorado State University –Pueblo published a study of the results. It was the first study that examined how the claims made by Wisconsin repeal proponents stacked up against actual economic data. It wasn’t pretty.

Here are just a few of the topline findings.

Repeal has produced a 6% wage cut for skilled construction workers (about $3,000 per year, on average) and a 4% drop in construction health insurance coverage.
Repeal has led to a 60% increase in public projects going to out-of-state contractors.
Apprenticeship completion in Wisconsin is lagging neighboring states with prevailing wage laws.
Bid competition on Wisconsin Department of Transportation projects has decreased by 16%.
There have been no project savings. In fact, the per-mile cost of highway resurfacing projects has actually gone up slightly, as have “cost overruns” on road construction projects.

The obvious question is: why? And the not-so-obvious answer is a variant of what I used to tell my students about real-life policy: it’s more complicated than it looks!

The issue boils down to skill levels. When governments and companies invest in higher-skilled workers, the higher quality of the work, higher levels of productivity and better safety metrics combine to minimize waste and avoid costly mistakes.

More highly skilled workforces also experience lower employee turnover, which reduces costs to contractors.

But repeal imposes other costs that don’t show up in project bids. For example, when the wages are slashed, it means more workers are forced to rely on Medicaid, food stamps and other government assistance programs to support their families. Those costs are borne by taxpayers…. And, when policy is distorted to advantage lower-skilled workers from out-of-town, it also means the benefits of job creation and consumer spending that would otherwise be stimulating Wisconsin’s economy are now going to other states.

Wisconsin was not the only state that repealed its prevailing wage law. Indiana did so several years ago, and West Virginia, Michigan, Kentucky and Arkansas all did the same thing within the past decade.

Interestingly, according to the linked newspaper report, the Assistant Republican Leader in the Indiana House of Representatives (the story did not further identify him) “famously told a Wisconsin audience in 2017 that repeal ‘hasn’t saved us a penny.’ And study after study has shown him to be right.”

The Midwest Economic Policy Institute found that after repeal of the common wage, “Hoosiers working in the construction industry are earning less than they were before, with no meaningful cost savings for Indiana taxpayers.”

Consider this example number umpty-zillion that public policy should be based on evidence rather than ideology….

 

 

How To “Gentrify”

Urban planners’ debates about gentrification have been going on for many years. How does a well-meaning local government encourage neighborhood improvement without inadvertently pricing longtime residents out?

If you are reading this in hopes that I have a suggested solution to that dilemma, you’re in the wrong place, although there are certainly some intriguing theories floating about. But there is one approach to upgrading deteriorating neighborhoods that I enthusiastically support. It’s an insight I owe to my husband, from his years as Indianapolis’ Director of Metropolitan Development.

The typical downward trajectory of lower-middle and working class neighborhoods starts with a lack of visible maintenance–houses with peeling paint, unkempt yards, perhaps even broken windows. Lack of maintenance is evidence that leads many disapproving observers to conclude that “those people” just don’t care. My husband’s conclusion was rather different: “those people” were   applying their inadequate incomes to “frivolities” like food, utilities and transportation to work.

What would those neighborhoods look like if we raised the minimum wage to $15/hour? What if desperately poor people, or those on the cusp of poverty, had some disposable income?

There is an often-overlooked connection between economic health and neighborhood revitalization. Regular readers of this blog have read my rants about job creation before, and are aware of my absolute conviction that jobs are created by demand.  The owner of the widget factory isn’t going to hire more people to manufacture his widgets if there aren’t more people willing and able to buy them.

A recent study has added to the already ample evidence for this conclusion–and to the also-ample evidence that “supply-side” economics is, and has always been (as George H.W. Bush memorably labeled it) “voodoo” economics.

“Supply-side” is the economic theory embraced by Reagan and others in the 1980s. That theory dismisses the importance of wages at the bottom of the economy—the demand side. Instead, it rests on the theory that if we “free up” capital at the top—the supply side—wealthy entrepreneurs will create new jobs and a rising tide will lift all boats.

This is the theory that has justified Republicans’ forty-year commitment to tax cuts for the rich. The theory never made sense, and during the past forty years, all evidence has rebutted it. Tax cuts for the rich have never sparked economic growth, although they have certainly made the rich richer.

And that’s what the most recent study has found.

In their study of 18 countries over 50 years,  scholars at the London School of Economics and Kings College concluded that tax cuts do not “trickle down.” In fact, they do little to promote growth or create jobs. Instead, they drive up inequality, by limiting their effects to the people who get the tax cuts.

Focusing on the bottom of the income distribution–ensuring that low-wage workers don’t sink into poverty, that they can afford to put food on their tables, buy diapers for the baby, and see a doctor when necessary (a different but equally pressing issue) and still have funds to fix that broken window and repair the lawn-mower–would do more to “revitalize” neighborhoods than many if not most of well-intentioned government programs. 

Would there still be people who don’t keep their properties up? Sure. Would there still be landlords who are basically stingy slumlords? Yes. But investments in real estate represent a considerable asset to most owners, and the fiscal incentives to protect those investments  by maintaining the properties are strong.

The real lesson behind my husband’s long-ago insight, however, is the holistic nature of our communities, and the importance of not limiting our focus when trying to improve one aspect of our common lives.  We need to recognize the inter-relationships of such things as economic development, job creation and neighborhood improvement.

And “bottoms up” isn’t a phrase limited solely to alcohol consumption.

Another Embarrassing Indiana AG

Indiana has a habit of elevating legal embarrassments to the position of Attorney General. I still remember pompous Theodore Sendak, who made people call him “General.” Sendak led the fight against revamping Indiana’s archaic criminal code, arguing that modernization would “just make defense attorneys rich,” and he was a major proponent of capital punishment.

Curtis Hill, our outgoing AG, was initially known for his Elvis impersonations and more recently for groping female legislators and staffers. When he did take legal positions, they were equally embarrassing: the sorts of anti-choice, anti-gay, last century arguments we’ve come to expect from Republican officeholders playing to the GOP’s base “base.”

Todd Rokita, who will assume the office in January, is arguably even worse. There has never been a Republican derriere Rokita wouldn’t kiss in his ongoing efforts to feed at the public trough.

As Secretary of State, Rokita helped to write the nation’s first Voter ID bill–despite the fact that, like the rest of the country, Indiana had never experienced a problem with in-person voter fraud. (In Rokita’s worldview, we do have a problem with “urban” people actually being allowed to vote…)

More recently, he enthused over Texas’ bonkers lawsuit, insisting that measures in other states making it easier to vote during the pandemic somehow diluted the votes of Indiana citizens. (Presumably, he sees no problem with the state’s “winner take all” allocations of Electoral Votes, which totally erase Democratic ballots cast in the state..)

What else has Rokita opposed or supported? Let us count the ways:

  • He has compared African Americans who vote Democratic to slaves., and ran an ad against Colin Kaepernick that was widely considered racist.

  • He has opposed allowing migrant children to be placed in American homes, claiming they carried Ebola.

  • He’s certainly no friend to women: he opposes abortion even in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, and NUVO has reported that Rokita does not support equal wages for equal work for women.

  • He doesn’t believe in climate change, and he doesn’t believe that immigration reform should include a path to citizenship.

There’s much more. When he was in Congress, ten former staffers accused him of maintaining a “toxic work environment,” abusing staff members and insisting that they perform menial tasks like cleaning his car and emptying his trash.

The Chicago Tribune accused Rokita of violating ethics laws during his tenure as Secretary of State. And for truly bizarre positions, it’s hard to beat his insistence that the FAA should be privatized (because, he asserted, the federal government cannot do anything as well as private-sector businesses), and his opposition to rules requiring pilots to get periodic medical exams. (He said he trusted the pilots to decide whether they were medically-fit to fly.)

In Congress, Rokita authored a bill that would have reduced the availability of subsidized lunches for public school students. But he sure supported “feeding” students his brand of “Americanism.” According to the Chicago Tribune,

A Jasper County teacher asked Rokita to leave his high school civics class in November 2016 after a talk that was supposed to be about the Constitution got off on the wrong foot, according to two students. Rokita had asked the class if they were taught about ‘American Exceptionalism.’ But when a number of students seemed puzzled by the concept, he had a testy exchange with their teacher, Paul Norwine, whom he criticized for not including it in the curriculum, the students said. Tensions eased and the talk proceeded, but the class was dumbfounded, the students said. ‘Mr. Rokita got very angry and said, ‘You have an American congressman in your class, what are you doing?’ said Marcus Kidwell, 19, a Donald Trump supporter who was a senior at the time. ’He seems like a pretty hot-headed guy. That disappointed me because he’s a Republican and I was pretty excited to meet him.’” 

Sources for the foregoing–and much more–are at the link. The organization, Restore Public  Trust, says his past behaviors disqualify Rokita for public office.

But not in Indiana, a state that is getting steadily closer to its goal of displacing Mississippi as the laughingstock of states.