Category Archives: Local Government

Stop The World, Indiana Wants To Get Off

I have posted before about the Indiana Legislature’s rear-guard effort to protect the increasingly obsolescent coal industry.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a bill preventing Indiana utilities from switching from coal to cleaner, cheaper energy. The bill effectively blocked utilities in Indiana from closing any coal-fired power plant unless the closure had been mandated by the Trump administration – something that would never happen, given Trump’s repeated–and increasingly empty– promises to “bring back coal.”

The bill did contain one exception: a coal plant could be closed if the utility owning it could “prove” to state utility commissioners that it would be in the public interest. Even that  exception was framed to provide coal companies opposed to the closure a mechanism to drag the issue through the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission and the courts. That would cost utilities and ratepayers huge sums of money and further delay the transition to renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Indiana thus joined the rearguard action against the market forces that are making renewables and natural gas cheaper than coal. (So much for the vaunted Republican respect for the market.). A Democratic legislator memorably offered a snarky amendment to the bill that would have protected whale oil, too.

The state did convene a commission to study the situation, and that body has now issued its recommendations.

According to the IBJ,

Seven months after Indiana lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting utilities from shutting down coal-fired power plants before May 2021, a state energy task force is considering a sweeping array of measures that seem to favor existing large-scale utilities, many of which still burn coal, over providers of renewable energy.

The Indiana 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force, which was set up to guide lawmakers in crafting a long-term energy plan, released draft recommendations Wednesday after months of testimony.

Consumer advocates and environmental groups both sharply criticized the draft recommendations, charging that they would extend the life of coal plants and delay Indiana’s transition to renewable energy.

The draft didn’t include any recommendations on energy efficiency, net metering or on-site generation.

“The Task Force should resoundingly reject this draft report,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana. “It completely ignores substantial testimony given throughout the process and dismisses the current business plans Indiana utilities already have on file.”

A longer article from the Indianapolis Star included criticisms from the academic members of the commission and others who were especially concerned with the substantial areas of vagueness in the recommendations.

The vote to accept the draft report broke down along partisan lines, with the Democrats voting against and the Republicans voting to accept the draft.

It is notable that the Chair of the Commission, Ed Soliday, was the author of the above-referenced bill slowing the transition from coal (the “save whale oil” bill). Citizens Action Coalition, among others, gives him poor marks for consumer protection, and Follow the Money lists substantial contributions he has received from utilities, coal, mining, oil, natural gas, steel, and environmental services & equipment. 

Welcome to Indiana.

A historian friend of mine once characterized Indiana’s political culture as “quid pro quo.” Another friend–the late and much-lamented NUVO editor Harrison Ullmann– called the Indiana General Assembly “the world’s worst legislature.” (In all fairness, he didn’t live to see the U.S. Senate under the control of the vile Mitch McConnell.) It’s no wonder we share the distinction of being one of the 10 least environmentally friendly states with the likes of Kentucky and West Virginia.

But then, we rank near the bottom on all sorts of indices. Health, education, quality of life. And thanks to gerrymandering, those “good ole boys” who exemplify Indiana’s “quid pro quo” political culture fully intend to keep it that way.

Libraries

On yet another pandemic Sunday, I want to talk about anything but Trump and the transition. So…

At some point in history class, most of us learned about the fire that destroyed the library in Alexandria–a structure supposedly filled with all of the knowledge that humans had acquired by that point.

A few days ago, I came across an intriguing article about that story. Evidently, the great fire was mostly a legend–but the events that did lead to that monumental loss should stand as an even more significant warning about the dangers of anti-intellectualism.

The article began by quoting from Carl Sagan’s retelling of the conflagration that (legend tells us) destroyed the knowledge that had been acquired in the ancient world, all of which was thought to be within the library’s marble walls. Sagan warned that destruction of the library should be seen as a caution to those of us who are living some 1,600 years later.

Sagan stood in a line of writers who, for the last two or three hundred years, have made the word Alexandria conjure up not a place—a city in Egypt—but an image of a burning library. The term Alexandria has become shorthand for the triumph of ignorance over the very essence of civilization.

The article set out what historians do and don’t know about the actual library and its destruction. Although there are competing theories, it is most likely that the library met its end gradually–not in one big blaze, but over years and decades of neglect and growing ignorance. Although it is probable that there were fires during those years, accounting for the loss of many books, the “institution of the library” was destroyed more gradually– through organizational neglect and the growing obsolescence of the papyrus scrolls themselves.

And therein lies the real moral of the story.

Alexandria is, in that telling, a cautionary tale of the danger of creeping decline, through the underfunding, low prioritization and general disregard for the institutions that preserve and share knowledge: libraries and archives. Today, we must remember that war is not the only way an Alexandria can be destroyed.

The long history of attacks on knowledge includes not just deliberate violence—during the Holocaust or China’s Cultural Revolution, for example—but also the wilful deprioritization of support for these institutions, which we are witnessing in Western societies today. The impact that these various acts of destruction of libraries and archives has had on communities and on society as a whole is profound. Communities in places like Iraq and Mali have seen Islamic extremists target libraries for attack, and in the U.K. over the past decade, more than 800 public libraries have closed through lack of support from local Government.

The movement of human archives to internet servers (or the Web or the Cloud or other digital storage venues) has been just one of the numerous dislocations we humans are experiencing in our bumpy transition to a digital age. As various legislative bodies wrestle with the issues presented by that transition and by the emergence and dominance of huge digital enterprises, the protection of knowledge–and the ability to distinguish knowledge from disinformation, fantasy and conspiracy theory–has to be a primary goal.

Libraries and librarians are immensely more important guardians of that goal than Google.

Neglect of libraries is part and parcel what Isaac Asimov called the “cult of ignorance,” a phenomenon that we see in contemporary dismissals of expertise as “elitism”and the cyclical eruptions of anti-intellectualism in the United States. Asimov’s famous quote probably says it best:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

If the story of Alexandria stands for anything, it’s the importance of libraries–national and local. Those libraries are our gatekeepers, safeguarding our ability to access practical information as well as hard-won wisdom that has been built up over centuries. If we fail to adequately fund, maintain and protect them, we will suffer a setback not unlike the years following the legendary loss of the Library at Alexandria.

 

 

Skinning That Cat

There’s an old adage to the effect that there is more than one way to skin a cat. I thought about that when I read a recent opinion column in the New York Times, focusing on Mitch McConnell’s packing of the federal bench with rightwing judges.

The article began by acknowledging that McConnell and Trump–enabled by their allies in the Senate– have packed the federal courts with more than 200 conservative judges over the last four years. Their remaking of the federal judiciary includes three Supreme Court justices, and is part and parcel of the rightwing effort to achieve what it could never manage to achieve through legislation– “including eliminating health care for millions and undermining what remains of the Voting Rights Act.”

The authors of the essay remind readers that we are not entirely helpless in the face of this ideological takeover; they advocate taking a page from the conservatives and forging “a new form of progressive federalism.” 

First, state elected officials must be ready to respond quickly to, or act in advance of, rulings from the Supreme Court. If, for example, the Affordable Care Act is weakened or struck down, Democratic state legislatures should have bills drafted to introduce that day to protect people who will lose coverage. And officials must act now to protect and expand access to reproductive health care — especially for poor women and women of color — given the clear threat to Roe v. Wade.

Are excessively business-friendly federal courts making it easier for companies to pollute? Harder for government agencies to address racism? Progressive states can pass policies “to patch holes ripped open” by those courts.

if the Supreme Court further constrains the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, states can go after corporations for violations of state securities and consumer protection statutes. If the court adopts cramped readings of federal environmental statutes, state regulators must use their tools to go after the country’s largest polluters. And if the court continues to undermine federal bribery laws, state attorneys general can bring corrupt politicians to justice under state criminal law.

What about states like Indiana, deep red and highly unlikely to follow that prescription? In those states, progressive advocacy groups and lawyers outside government can bring lawsuits to enforce rights protected by state constitutions. When I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, our affiliate brought such suits, and several were successful. And in the early days of the gay rights movement, organizations like Lambda Legal and the ACLU achieved state-by-state victories that ultimately helped change a nationally homophobic legal environment.

Recently, Nevada became the first state in the country to officially protect same-sex marriage in its Constitution. As the essay reminds us, several states have refused to allow their police take part in the federal government’s immigration crackdown. States

can rely on conservative decisions that promote state independence from the heavy hand of Washington. The very jurisprudential tools that make it harder for Washington to achieve progressive aims can empower states to do so instead.

Ironically, the same federalism that facilitated slavery and Jim Crow under the veil of “states’ rights” can be turned to progressive ends.

It’s slower and will take more work, but there’s more than one way to skin that cat.

 

The Problem Isn’t “Fake” News–It’s No News

The Indianapolis Business Journal reports that former Indiana Lieutenant Governor John Mutz has made a two million dollar gift to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The gift will establish a Chair in Local News that will focus on local news sustainability–a focus that is desperately needed. 

The article quoted Mutz’ reasoning:

My political experience has dramatically shown me how important reliable local news sources are to local governments and economies,” Mutz, 85, told IBJ. “Without it we may lose our democratic society and that would be a tragedy. I’m greatly concerned about local communities that are essentially news deserts. 

I have frequently posted about the dire consequences of this lack of local news. Not only do communities lose a necessary government watchdog, they lose an essential aspect of being a community.

In October, the Washington Post ran an article exploring one such “news desert”–following the loss of a small community’s only newspaper. Ashley Spinks had been the managing editor, and most recently the only journalist, at a weekly newspaper in a rural community in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. As the article noted,

Spinks took photos of the first day of school, laid out the newspaper and edited freelance pieces. She attended Floyd town council meetings, covered Confederate monument debates, did award-winning reporting on the water system problems and wrote news-you-can-use pieces, like the one helpfully headlined “Don’t feed the bears!”

Spinks had been interviewed by a local public radio outlet about cuts made to the paper after it was acquired by a corporate owner, Lee Enterprises. When she responded candidly, she was summarily fired, and Floyd lost its local news. As the report notes, Floyd is not alone. A recent study found that some 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers have simply vanished since 2018, and more outlets are disappearing since the onset of the pandemic-related recession.

Floyd’s Mayor told the Post that the newspaper had been the primary source of information on what’s happening in local government, and shared his concerns about citizens turning to unvetted social media posts for information.

Washington Monthly recently ran a series titled “Can Journalism be saved?”After repeating the statistics on journalism jobs lost and newspapers lost, the first article in the series reminded readers that the losses were industry-wide.

The damage ranges from the shutting-down of quality national magazines like Governing and Pacific Standard to large layoffs at online outlets like BuzzFeed and VICE. But the greatest shrinkage is happening at the local level, among large metropolitan dailies, neighborhood and small-town weeklies, and outlets that have long covered Black, Hispanic, and other minority and ethnic communities. As of last year, two-thirds of counties in America lacked a local daily newspaper. Half had only one newspaper, often just a weekly. And more than 200—mostly poor, rural counties—had none at all. Those news outlets that remain are often what are referred to as ghost papers, with few staff and little local reporting. (Local TV news has declined far less, but tends to cover stories that newspapers originate, and with less depth.)

The only remaining newspaper in Indianapolis, The Indianapolis Star, is one of those “ghost” papers. The Star was never a great newspaper, but years of corporate ownership have decimated editorial staff and stripped it of what reporting depth it may once have had.

The decline in what one scholar has called “the journalism of verification’ has been toxic to the functioning of American democracy.

One study found that in communities where newspapers close and there are no reporters keeping an eye on the decisions of local officials, municipal government wages, deficits, and borrowing costs rise. Local news outlets tend to be far more trusted by readers on both sides of the political aisle than national publications. When they disappear, citizens turn to national news sources, often partisan ones, or rely on social media for information. The result is more party-line voting and small-town residents mobilizing against mythical antifa infiltrations. Indeed, as this magazine has reported, the rise of authoritarian politics in America correlates to an alarming degree with the waning of local news.

When there isn’t a trusted source of local news that also carries some verified national reporting, it becomes much easier to construct an information bubble from social media posts and internet conspiracy sites.

The Washington Monthly series identifies several ways government might reinvigorate journalism without jeopardizing editorial independence–much as the Founders did by establishing favorable postal rates for newspapers.

Whatever the mechanism, a solution is  critical and overdue. 

 

Pandemics And Parking Meters

Back in 2011,  Indianapolis (under  then-Mayor Ballard) entered into a  fifty-year agreement with  a consortium called Park Indy  to upgrade and manage the city’s parking meters. At the time, I was  among those who argued strenuously against that agreement.

I  had  two major objections  and two never-answered questions.

The first objection was to the fifty-year length of the contract. Even if the deal had been less one-sided fiscally, decisions about where to place meters, how to price them, what lengths of time to allow and so on have an enormous impact on local businesses and residential neighborhoods. As I said at  the time, these are decisions requiring flexibility in the face of changing circumstances; they are most definitely not decisions that should be held hostage to contracting provisions aimed at protecting a vendor’s profits.

My  second objection was that, under the terms of the contract, downtown developments and civic events would become more costly. More often than not, new  construction interrupts adjacent parking. If the city is managing its own meters, it can choose to ignore that loss of parking revenue, or decide to charge the developer, based upon the City’s best interests. Street festivals and other civic celebrations also require  that meters be bagged, and usually there are good reasons not to charge the not-for-profit or civic organization running the event. The ParkIndy contract required the City to pay ACS whenever  interruptions require bagging the meters and disrupting projected revenues from those meters.

No one could have foreseen a pandemic, of course. That’s the point. When you contract away your  flexibility, your authority to make decisions that are responsive  to  unforeseen events, you end up owing a lot  of money to the private  vendor. Indianapolis closed certain streets to  traffic,  in order to allow restaurants to serve customers outdoors, a move that probably kept some of them afloat during a very difficult time. That required bagging  the meters  on those streets. WISH reports that the city  has already had to pay Park Indy 450,000 under the contract–at a time when the pandemic is wreaking  havoc with city and state finances.

File that  payment under “adding insult to injury,” since, according to periodic reports, the city has never come close to receiving the income it projected when this ill-conceived privatization agreement was negotiated. In May of 2016, the Indianapolis Star reported that the city was reaping only about a quarter of the dollars ParkIndy projected when it paid $20 million for the right to operate the meters until 2061.

Then there  are  my two questions.

As I wrote at the time, why privatize at all? Parking isn’t rocket science. There was never a satisfactory response to the obvious question “why can’t we do this ourselves, and keep all the money?” Why couldn’t Indianapolis retain control of its infrastructure, and issue revenue bonds to cover the costs of the necessary improvements? Interest rates were at a historic low at the time, making it even more advantageous to do so. If the Ballard administration was too inept to manage parking, it could have created a Municipal Parking Authority, as Councilor Jackie Nytes  suggested at the time.

What was the compelling reason to enrich private contractors and reduce (desperately needed) City revenues.

And finally,  why ACS –the company that is the primary partner of ParkIndy. There had already been extensive publicity about ACS’ performance problems in Chicago; there was also troubling information about the company’s track record in Washington, D.C., where an audit documented mismanagement, overcharging, over-counting of meters, and the issuance of bogus tickets (ACS got all the revenue for tickets). The audit  found  that Washington had lost $8,823,447 in revenue and experienced a twenty-fold increase in complaints from the public.

The  only answer I  could  come up with was that the Ballard Administration got an  up-front infusion of cash which helped it hold  the line on taxes while Ballard was  in office–and who cares about the future? 

This was actually something of a modus operandi for Ballard.  An academic paper I co-authored  with a colleague  shared the results of our investigation into the convoluted structure of  the city’s sale of its water and sewer utilities. The highly sophisticated financing scheme for the sale had the effect of shifting costs to utility rate-payers that should properly have been assumed by taxpayers.

There’s a saying among politicians: to elected officials, “long-term” means  “until the next election.” 

And I  used to think that “fiscally responsible” meant “pay as you go.” I was  so naive…