Category Archives: Local Government

Speaking Of Thought Crimes…

Or, in this case, a crime against thought.

A couple of readers alerted me to a rambling, incoherent and profoundly inaccurate “op ed”opposing hate crimes legislation that was sent to a number of smaller Indiana newspapers by four members of the Indiana House of Representatives: Bruce Borders, Matt Hostettler, Christopher Judy and Curt Nisly. I don’t know any of them, but I do know that if students of mine displayed so profound a disconnect from reality, they’d get failing grades.

The letter began by asserting that the proposed hate crimes bill is “an attack on Western Civilization,” and they ramp up the hysteria from there.

They do make one valid point: in our legal system, we punish behavior, not ideas. If the legislation proposed to sanction hate speech, they’d be correct to oppose it. But that isn’t what a hate crimes bill does–and contrary to their assertion that passage would usher in an Orwellian world of thought control (and no, I am not making that up, that’s part of their screed), that thought control has yet to emerge in the 45 states that have had similar laws on their books for a number of years.

Indiana’s version has yet to be finalized, but here’s the general way these measures operate: let’s say person X beats up person Y. Let’s further assume that the crime of battery carries a statutory sentence of 2-4 years. The judge must decide what portion of that time X will serve, and will make that determination after weighing what lawyers call mitigating and aggravating circumstances.

Let’s say X had previously been law-abiding, had too much to drink, and Y insulted his wife. Those are mitigating circumstances, and the Judge is likely to give him the minimum sentence called for by the statute.

But what if X had previous arrests or convictions, showed no remorse, and attacked Y out of the blue? The judge would consider those facts to be “aggravating,” and would undoubtedly hand down a sentence at the high end of the statutory range.

The judicial system recognizes a number of specific elements that are considered mitigating or aggravating, and that Judges should take into account in determining the punishment for a criminal act. Currently, in Indiana, motivation due to bigotry is not one of those standard elements. A hate crimes bill will add it.

Battery is a crime, a criminal act. In my hypothetical, it carries a sentence of 2 to 4 years. (I have no idea what the statutory range really is, this is for illustration.) If Indiana passes a hate crimes act, and X beats the you-know-what out of Y while shouting racist or anti-semitic or homophobic epithets, the Judge will be required to take that evidence into account when determining the length of X’s sentence.

In all probability, some judges would consider the hateful motivation even in the absence of a law, but there is no requirement that they do so. Having such a law on the books is recognition that criminal acts prompted by bigotry are not only unAmerican, but cause fear and anxiety in members of the victim’s targeted group.

Please note, we are talking about criminal acts. If Representatives Borders, Hostettler, Judy and Nisly want to tell the world they hate gay people or Jewish people or black people, they remain free to do so. If they want to “hold beliefs contrary to governing authorities,” this measure will not unleash the “Thought Police,” despite their hysterical assertions to the contrary.

They just can’t communicate those thoughts through anti-semitic graffiti on a synagogue wall–because that would be an act— the crime of vandalism.

I don’t know whether the letter is evidence of a lack of candor or a lack of basic understanding of the legal system, but if its authors are representative of our representatives, it explains a lot about the Indiana General Assembly.

 

 

 

It Isn’t About Moderates and Progressives

Democrats are constantly arguing about whether the party should support moderate or progressive politicians. It’s an argument that illustrates Americans’ tendency to prefer nice, neat labels to the messiness of reality: most people hold a variety of positions that can’t all be neatly shoved in a drawer marked “liberal” “conservative” “socialist” and so forth.

Thinking people are hard to pigeonhole.

A paragraph from a column written for the Indianapolis Recorder by my SPEA colleague Marshawn Wolley  illuminates the real issue. It’s leadership.

Voters deserve officeholders who are willing to lead–mayors and governors and Presidents who are willing to stake out reasoned positions on issues (most of which are actually ideologically neutral), willing to explain their reasoning to the public, and willing to go to bat for them.

The context of Marshawn’s column was the upcoming mayoral election in Indianapolis, where a reasonably popular Democratic incumbent will run for re-election in a city that is reliably blue. Here’s the paragraph that caught my attention.

Personally, I think the mayor’s popularity is deceptive, and perhaps even soft in the Black community, and our times do not favor political moderates. The mayor didn’t show up on mass transit, the IPS referendum and was late on living wages for city workers. Mass transit was the biggest policy issue that could impact social mobility in a generation. He didn’t lead here. IPS is not called Center Township Public Schools — it’s called “Indianapolis” Public Schools. When the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation is approving charter schools they are happening in the IPS district. He was wrong to not weigh in on the referendum. While he eventually got around to supporting living wages, Black Democrats, who really need to speak out more, argued that a balanced budget couldn’t happen on the backs of workers. Each of these issues were rallying cries within the community and he missed them — bipartisanship and a balanced budget don’t drive people to polls.

I think Marshawn has confused a fear of staking out a leadership position (and thus becoming a target for criticism) with philosophical “moderation,” but the rest of his indictment is spot on.

Reluctance to exercise leadership is a liability, and not just within the Black community.

Another excellent example of this mayor’s allergy to getting “out front” of important issues involves the State DOT announcement earlier this year of its plans to “repair” the interstates that carve up Indianapolis’ downtown. The state’s plan would double down on ungainly remnants of a fifty-year-old bad decision that  impacts walkability and intrudes on five historic neighborhoods. A significant number of residents and businesses have come together to make the case for rethinking those highways; I’ve previously posted about the details of the “rethink” arguments.

Favoring a particular configuration for downtown interstates is not politically conservative, liberal, progressive or moderate.

The Mayor was finally persuaded to write a letter to the state’s DOT, supporting the ReThink plan, but has otherwise been invisible on the subject–just as he was invisible on mass transit and the IPS referendum.

It’s highly likely that political calculation drives this reluctance to engage; after all, when you take a stand, someone will disagree. Why take a chance of pissing people off when the political landscape looks advantageous–when the odds of re-election are in your favor?

On the other hand, that impulse to win office by “laying low” raises a question: why do politicians run for offices like mayor and governor if they don’t have a vision for improving their city or state? Why do they seek office if they aren’t interested in leading their communities in a particular direction? Do they view these offices merely as stepping-stones to something else?

Timidity isn’t the same thing as bipartisanship. It isn’t the same thing as moderation, either. Inaccurate labels just confuse the situation.

 

 

Home Advantage

I’m not ready to move on from the subject of yesterday’s post, which was triggered by the efforts of numerous cities to lure Amazon’s second headquarters.

Let me just share two additional observations, one from a recent study reported in Governing, and one emerging from a recent argument in Indianapolis’ City-County Council.

The Governing article shared a study done by the Urban Institute.

In choosing New York and D.C., Amazon opted for two cities that have led the economic expansion since the end of the last recession in 2009, far outpacing the rest of the nation in job growth. The decision drew the ire of politicians at the state and federal levels, along with others who had called on the tech giant to place its second headquarters in a city where it could play a more transformative role in the economy.

Yet a new study from the Urban Institute suggests that landing such a large corporation isn’t actually the best way to build a local economy and spur job growth.

If give-aways massive enough to “steal” large employers–to lure them from City A to City B (in what certainly seems to be a national zero-sum game) isn’t a sound growth strategy, what is?

Instead, the report says, cities should focus on growing existing local firms, not trying to lure out-of-town companies and poaching firms from other cities. “Most job expansion and contractions come from birth and deaths of homegrown businesses or expansion or contractions of existing home-based businesses,” says Megan Randall, a research analyst with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and a co-author of the report.

According to Randall, when so-called “marquee companies” locate in a new city, they tend to displace existing businesses, especially mom-and-pop stores. Supporting and expanding homegrown enterprises has been a more successful strategy for adding job growth.

Worse, giving up tax revenues to lure a new company puts a strain on local services, particularly schools.

As New York University business professor Scott Galloway put it in an email to Barron’s on Tuesday, the tax incentives from New York amount to “an elegant transfer of funds from municipal school/fire/police districts to Amazon shareholders.”

Cutting into services and school budgets makes the local workforce less attractive in the long run, and the location less alluring, the Urban Institute report notes….

Cities would be better served, according to Randall and other economic policy analysts, by improving schools and public services, and focusing on nurturing their existing network of businesses.

When a city offers tax giveaways to lure a company, the government goes into the negotiation with a marked disadvantage because of what economists call “information asymmetry.” The city doesn’t have all the information about what the company is looking for. In some cases, a company may choose a city it would have moved to anyway, pocketing the tax incentives even though they weren’t a deciding factor.

“Firms are in a advantageous position,” Randall says. “They know cities want to attract jobs and create opportunities for their residents. They know they are in the position to leverage a public benefit from what they have to offer.”

What the article calls “negotiation” is more often–and more accurately–described as extortion. And that brings me to a recent dispute in Indianapolis’ City-County Council.

Corteva is a company formed last year, as part of Dow Chemical’s mega-merger with DuPont. Delaware-based Corteva—which includes the local operations of Dow AgroSciences—is set to be spun off as a public company in June 2019, and it employs about 1,400 workers in Indianapolis.

The City-County Council approved 30 million dollars to “incentivize” the company to maintain operations in Indianapolis.  Most Councilors weren’t happy about it.

The incentive deal authorizes the issuance of $30 million in economic development revenue notes to Corteva from the city of Indianapolis, which would be paid back with about $5 million annually in tax increment financing funds that the city had been passing through to government units such as schools, libraries, parks, police and fire protection. Those entities would no longer receive those funds while the notes are being paid off.

The council voted 18-7 to approve the deal. Democrats Zach Adamson and Stephen Clay voted against the plan as did Republicans Jeff Coats, Danielle Coulter, Janice McHenry, Jefferson Shreve and John Wesseler.

Even council members voting yes weren’t happy.

“It’s not the best deal; I’m not excited about it,” said Democrat Jared Evans. But he said the long-term benefit of keeping the jobs in the community outweighed the short-term harm to the taxing units.

Zach Adamson characterized the incentives as “nothing short of extortion;” he was exactly right. Far too much of what passes for “economic development” is better described as bribery and/or blackmail. “What will you pay us to come?” and “What will you pay us to stay?”

These deals steal money that would otherwise be used to improve the local quality of life. And as the Urban Institute study reaffirmed, the quality of life–good schools, good parks, convenient transportation, effective public safety, etc.–is what really drives job growth and economic development.

When you rob Peter to pay Paul, you just make both of them poorer.

 

Blue City, Red State, Home Rule

In the wake of Amazon’s choice of location for headquarters #2 (and the announcement that it was breaking the choice into two, one to be located in Queens and one in Crystal City–essentially, Washington, D.C.), Robert Reich wrote a provocative essay for Newsweek.

What does Amazon’s decision have to do with America’s political tumult? Turns out, quite a lot.

Amazon’s main headquarters is in Seattle, one of the bluest cities in the bluest of states. New York and metropolitan Washington are true-blue, too.

Amazon could have decided to locate its second headquarters in, say,  Indianapolis, Indiana. Indianapolis vigorously courted the firm. It’s also a Republican city in a bright red state.

Actually, Indianapolis–like every other sizable city in the country–is unambiguously blue. But we are located in a very, very red state.

Reich’s main point was that technology is a process of “group learning,” and it advances best in geographical clusters. Those clusters are primarily found along the coasts, where the digital economy has been a real boon. But Reich says that economy has left behind much of the rest of the country, with the result that we are facing what he calls “the widening inequalities of place.”

As money pours into these hubs, so do service jobs that cater to the new wealth—pricey lawyers, wealth managers, and management consultants, as well as cooks, baristas, and pilates instructors.

Between 2010 and 2017, according to Brookings, nearly half of the America’s employment growth centered in just 20 large metro areas, now home to about a third of the U.S. population.

Relative to these booming hubs, America’s heartland is becoming older, less well-educated, and poorer.

I think the reality of “America’s heartland” is more complicated than Reich recognizes. And that takes me back to his mistaken assumption that Indianapolis is a Republican city.

Cities in even the brightest red states have been blue for some time. We form what has been dubbed an “urban archipelago.” Furthermore, the inhabitants of these cities are engaged in a multitude of creative place-making, job-creating and poverty-reducing efforts.

Here in Indianapolis, for example, Community Development Corporations partner with the City, the Chamber of Commerce and a variety of nonprofit organizations to improve transit, health, education and job training, and to remove barriers to self-sufficiency. People may disagree about the likely efficacy or unintended consequences of this or that initiative, but the range of activity–and the good will motivating it–is impressive.

Indianapolis’ problem (which is not shared by every blue island swimming in a rural sea of red) can be found in Reich’s second descriptor: our red state. It isn’t Republican control of Indiana that’s the problem; it’s the fact that we are a state in which there is no meaningful home rule. Public officials in Indiana cities must go hat-in-hand to the state legislature (currently governed by an unimaginative GOP super-majority) to pursue many of the policy initiatives that other cities have authority to pursue as a matter of course.

Want to charge extra for plastic bags? No can do, sayeth our legislative overlords. In just the last few years, the Indiana legislature has also prevented cities from setting local minimum wages, and  from regulating housing, agricultural operations and worker schedules, among other things.

Perhaps the most egregious example of legislative arrogance involved Indianapolis’ proposal to tax ourselves to upgrade our inadequate transit system. It took three years just to get the legislature’s permission to hold a vote on the matter, and even then, the enabling legislation prohibited us from considering light rail. Why? Who knows?

As a column in the Indianapolis Star noted,  

A move to preempt local rules for services like Airbnb failed to get out of the Indiana House, but it was a rare setback for the never-ending march to scale back home rule. This year legislators successfully banned local zoning rules for certain utility poles and undermined so-called “good neighbor ordinances.”

(“Good neighbor” ordinances hold tenants accountable when they repeatedly inflict crimes and nuisances on their neighbors.)

The attorney who authored the column shared a number of other examples, and made a compelling case for giving greater authority to the people elected to govern municipalities.

The lack of ability to make our own decisions, based on the needs of our own residents, isn’t just making us less competitive for Amazon-sized sweepstakes.It is preventing us from improving everything from education to infrastructure to the quality of life in our city. Legislators who mostly represent the Indiana hinterlands consistently prevent us from reaching our full potential as a thriving urban oasis in a rural state that isn’t doing so well.

Urban residents of Indianapolis suspect that’s intentional.

 

Local Journalism Matters–And We’re Losing It

Ever since the 2016 Presidential election, most Americans who follow the news have been fixated on Washington, D.C., and the antics of our increasingly surreal federal government. That’s entirely understandable–but while we’ve been tuning in to the national soap-opera, we have continued to lose track of equally important matters closer to home.

Americans depend upon local news sources–newspapers, broadcast news organizations–to tell us what is happening in our communities. How is local government responding to challenges from potholes to policing? How is the local school board addressing deficits in civics education? Is the Secretary of State purging voter rolls, and if so, is that process being handled properly or with partisan intent?

The measures taken by our state legislatures and City Councils affect us more dramatically and immediately than even Trump’s disasters (assuming he doesn’t blow up the world). Recently, the Shorenstein Center held a symposium exploring the continued loss of local news and the consequences of that loss.

When Setti Warren first took office as mayor of Newton, Massachusetts in 2010, the local paper, the Newton Tab, had an editor, a publisher and two reporters dedicated to covering the mayor’s office.  When he left office after his second term in 2018, the paper had lost its editor; its one remaining reporter covered multiple cities. Also during this time, the Boston Globe eliminated its regional editions, including the Globe West, which covered Newton and other parts of the MetroWest region.

The problem isn’t limited to Newton, Massachusetts.

Nationwide, many local news outlets have shuttered entirely – a March 2018 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal finds that from 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost over 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers. As Warren suggested, this portends danger — studies show that areas with fewer local news outlets and declining coverage also have lower levels of civic engagement and voter turnout.

Lack of local news can occur without the complete shuttering of a local newspaper; here in Indianapolis, the Star now devotes its (dwindling) column inches primarily to sports and “the bar beat.” Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is sporadic and woefully inadequate.

As I noted in a previous blog, lack of local journalism doesn’t simply frustrate accountability; it even translates into higher costs for taxpayers. “Due diligence” by institutions that purchase municipal bonds  includes investigation of the fiscal probity of the issuer. When no local journalists are covering city hall, buyers demand a higher interest rate to offset the increased risk of the unknown.

At the symposium, Mayor Warren was blunt:

I am gravely concerned about the fact that we don’t have journalists covering city hall, policy decisions, political decisions in an in-depth way, because the citizenry of my own hometown, Newton, Mass., as well as the citizens of the Commonwealth, if they don’t have the facts, they can’t make sound decisions on what directions they want their politicians to go in. So if there’s an absence of good investigative journalism, and there’s a vacuum of having data and facts and reporting, what could get filled into that vacuum is information that is not accurate. Misinformation, disinformation and opinions, not straight reporting. So we are in danger, at the local level, at the state level, and certainly at the national level if we don’t have journalists on the ground doing the interviews, double, triple checking sources. We’re not going to make sound decisions on our policy, whether it’s housing, education, transportation or the ability to protect.

In the absence of good information, a dangerous combination of social media, special interests and people who simply have an ax to grind will fill the void, making it nearly impossible to deliver genuinely responsive governance.

Without legitimate journalism–what has been called the “journalism of verification”–we can’t hold elected or appointed officials accountable.

When no one is watching the store, it’s easy to rob.

When no one is watching government, taxpayers, too, can be robbed. Even under the “best case” scenario, however, if no one is watching, it won’t function properly.