Category Archives: Local Government

What’s The Matter With Indiana?

Remember Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Unfortunately, it’s not just Kansas. Indiana is governed by Republicans who refuse to believe science–and for that matter, routinely reject any reality inconsistent with an ideology firmly grounded in the 1950s.

Most recently, our embarrassing and self-aggrandizing Attorney General joined the state with others suing the Biden Administration for confronting the threat of climate change.The states we are joining are hardly economic powerhouses: Missouri, Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. (A recent study out of Yale describes “low road states” like these as those laboring under  legacies of “conservative governance,” characterized by lower minimum wages, anti-union policies, and underfunded education and infrastructure.)

The lawsuit was filed Monday in federal court in Missouri as a response to President Joe Biden’s sweeping environmental protection order called “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.”

Biden signed the order into action Jan. 20. It set in motion the reversal of a bevy of Trump administration-era policies that promoted economic growth over environmental regulations.

The lawsuit is a stark example of the refusal of far too many lawmakers in too many states to admit that climate change is real, and that it poses an existential threat to civilization–a threat that is daily becoming harder to ignore. It’s hard to know whether the group of Attorneys General who are participating in this lawsuit are truly among the “deniers” or simply pandering to state populations unwilling to confront reality.

It isn’t just our current, unfortunate Attorney General. This year’s session of the Indiana General Assembly offers evidence–if any was needed–that our lawmakers have absolutely no interest in America’s environment, or even in combatting their own state’s high levels of pollution.

Committees have been called the “workhorses” of the Indiana General Assembly, the places where Hoosiers can testify on bills and lawmakers can hash out their differences.

But one committee has been missing in action this year.

The House Environmental Affairs Committee has not met a single time. Not because it didn’t have any legislation assigned to it. Thirteen bills were filed, many dealing with weighty topics.

One would have required preschool and daycare facilities to test for lead and address any high levels that are found. One would have prohibited utilities from keeping contaminating coal ash in unlined ponds where it pollutes groundwater. One would have limited the amount of toxins known as “forever chemicals” in drinking water.

But since the deadline to hear bills from the House has now passed, all of them died without any consideration. And while it’s common for bills to die in committee — most do — it’s unusual for a committee not to meet at all.

As the linked article notes, lawmakers have found time to advance bills making popcorn the official state snack, providing protections for children’s lemonade stands and preventing Indianapolis from changing its name. They just couldn’t be bothered to address the state’s high levels of pollution.

According to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, using data from 2019, the most recent, Indiana releases more chemicals and pollutants per square mile compared to any other state. And those releases have health implications: EPA data also shows that pollution poses a higher risk to public health in Indiana than in most other states.

If there is one characteristic shared by Indiana’s GOP lawmakers, it is willful ignorance.

Gerrymandering explains why the state’s voters continue to install super-majorities of the retrograde, but there are other reasons so many Hoosiers have only the dimmest understanding of science, economics or the operation of government, including the allocation of governmental authority under federalism. Michael Hicks– director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University–recently pinned Indiana’s multiple problems on lawmakers’ refusal to adequately support education.

Indiana is failing at the single most important thing the state does to ensure a growing economy: educate our children and young adults. Our “Mississippi Strategy” of low taxes, declining educational attainment and huge tax incentives to businesses is finally having an effect. It is precisely what an economic model would predict; declining relative wages, declining productivity and the need to offer even larger incentives to lure employers into our state. That isn’t a strategy any Hoosier should be proud of supporting. But, it is certainly having an effect.

It sure is. What was the lyric in that great Tom Lehrer song about the environment? “Don’t drink the water and don’t breath the air.”

We Don’t Need No Damn Ethics…Or Cities

As the Indiana General Assembly continues its assault on the goose that lays the state’s golden eggs–aka Indianapolis–members also demonstrate their utter lack of concern for ethical government behavior–state or municipal.

According to the Indianapolis Star, State Senator Jack Sandlin is proposing to void an Indianapolis ethics ordinance that prohibits a county chairperson from doing business with the city. Sandlin’s bill would allow a city employee to serve as both the county party chair and an employee, despite the rather obvious potential for conflicts of interest. 

It just so happens Senate Bill 415 would benefit Cindy Mowery, one of four people who have filed to become chair of the Marion County Republican Party.

Welcome to Indiana, where any pesky ethics law that promises to erect a barrier to problematic behavior can be eliminated by your political buddies!

The legislature’s war on municipal ethics is just one aspect of its constant assault on local control and urban life. There’s a reason that, most years, out-migration in Indiana exceeds  in-migration, and we routinely lose the young people we’ve paid to educate in our universities.

A recent discussion with my youngest son is–unfortunately–illustrative.

My son grew up in Indianapolis, attended college in Chicago, then traveled & worked in Japan. He fell in love with an Indiana woman, and (somewhat reluctantly) returned home. As he tells it, he  was an urban kid who loved cities, and initially, he didn’t see much promise of a vibrant urban life in Indianapolis. But that changed as Indianapolis changed. After living and practicing law in Chicago, he saw the promise of a great quality of life and a reasonable cost of living.  (Needless to say, this made his mother very happy.)

He bought a house in the Old Northside neighborhood, had a family. He and his wife work downtown, their children have attended excellent public schools, they have a wide circle of friends and neighbors with whom they enjoy the urban amenities Indianapolis offers.

So why–as they near college age–is he urging his children to leave Indiana?

He says that, while Indianapolis still has many great things going for it, its future—and especially the future it might be able to offer his children—looks far less rosy,  thanks to the culture of the state. As he says,

Even modest efforts to improve the quality of residents’ lives is threatened by a hostile General Assembly and radicalized state electorate. In most places, cities enjoy a measure of local control, or “home rule.”  Not Indianapolis — at least not today… 

Indiana’s Republicans have gerrymandered electoral districts, with predictable effects on Indiana’s politics. It turned a “conservative” state into something else entirely; the party of “limited government” has become the party of “intrusive central control.” Republican legislators have stripped (or sought to strip) Indianapolis voters of the right to decide quintessentially local matters: to decide how much in local taxes it can raise to provide essential services, to elect local judges, to decide questions of educational funding for public schools, and most recently, even to regulate local matters like zoning, landlord-tenant relations and the issuance of gun permits. None of these limits are placed on rural, largely white counties; only on Marion County (Indianapolis).

My kids are approaching college-age, and I am encouraging them to leave Indiana. Why?

Because I don’t know what life holds for them. I don’t know if they will be fortunate, healthy, and financially secure; or whether they will be dealt setbacks that might make them need assistance or the support and protection of local government.  What I do know is that I want them to find a place—a community—that cares for all its people, not just the wealthy, and not just white people.  Which is why I am strongly encouraging my kids to find universities outside of Indiana and, thereafter, to find a place where people care for each other more than we do in this state. 

 I chose Indianapolis for a quality of life that is, piece by piece, being eliminated as the Indiana General Assembly decides that city folk can’t be trusted to govern themselves or to invest in people or a better quality of place. 

Ultimately, I want my kids to find a place that cares for its people, even if doing so costs a little more.  I want them to live in a place where their vote over purely local affairs matters at least as much as the vote of a rural Trump-loving farmer—and, importantly, where the politics are not animated so much by white grievance. 

Unfortunately, that place isn’t Indiana.

 

 

 

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….