Tag Archives: home rule

The World’s Worst Legislature

Harrison Ullmann used to call the Indiana General Assembly “The World’s Worst Legislature.”

At the start of each legislative session, my husband used to warn everyone to watch their pocketbooks and count their spoons–“Like the shark in Jaws, they’re baaack…”

Yesterday, I linked to the Star article detailing the cozy relationships, conflicts of interest, and general lack of sensitivity to ethics that characterize the Indiana legislature. Today’s lesson involves a law that has been sailing through the process with little or no conversation–a measure that illustrates perfectly the perils of being a city in a state with no home rule in a state governed by a herd of petty dictators.

Senate Bill 213 would invalidate Indianapolis’ hard-won ordinance that protects gays and lesbians against job discrimination. By its terms, the law–which has passed both houses and awaits Mike Pence’s signature–denies cities and towns the right to pass employment measures inconsistent with state or federal law. The sponsors insist that their goal was to address the hodgepodge of wage and hour laws around the state, not to invalidate the grant of civil rights, and profess surprise that the measure could be interpreted to do so.

Either the sponsors are being disingenuous, or they are unbelievably naive. By its terms, the bill invalidates any provision of an employment contract that gives employees benefits not granted by the state or required by the federal government. Nowhere does the language limit its effect to wages.

Municipalities in Indiana whose own residents have engaged in the democratic process and passed civil rights protections for GLBT employees include Bloomington, Lafayette and West Lafayette, Michigan City, South Bend, Fort Wayne, Evansville and New Albany. But then, what do the citizens of those cities know? Why should they be allowed to make their own decisions about the requirements of fair treatment?

Even if you believe that this is a case of unintended consequences, the essential lesson remains: our arrogant lawmakers believe they know better than local folks what we should be able to pay workers and how we should be able to treat them. That attitude is manifest in the discussions about mass transit–why should we allow central Indiana residents to decide for themselves whether they want transit enough to pay for it?

I remember the political activism that preceded Indianapolis’ passage of the current ordinance. A lot of people worked very hard to pass the measure–exactly the sort of civic activism that all politicians claim to respect, and that teachers try to encourage.

Yesterday, during a discussion of political activism, several of my undergraduate students justified their political apathy by expressing a belief that individuals really can’t do anything that would change or otherwise affect “the system.”

Indiana’s legislators are working hard to prove them right.

Mother, May I?

Every so often, residents of Indiana’s cities and towns are forcibly reminded that we don’t have the right to govern ourselves—that we are not, to use the legal terminology, a “home rule” state. Instead, Indiana municipalities are creatures of state law, and absolutely subject to the whims, ideologies, policy preferences and egos of state lawmakers. We may vote for a mayor and City-County Council, but those holding such offices must go hat in hand to the state for permission to do anything not specifically authorized by state statute.

Repeated efforts over the years to make Indiana a home-rule state have failed, and thanks to the recent vote putting tax caps into the constitution, the situation will only get worse. Those who control the purse-strings control policy.

The most recent evidence of our local impotence is the legislative response to Indianapolis’ request to hold a referendum on mass transit. After years of studies and debate, a broad, bipartisan coalition of Indianapolis’ business, political and civic leaders has rolled out a plan to upgrade our inadequate transit system. That plan requires revenue not available from current taxes, and the local committee proposed to put the question to those of us who live within the area to be served; we would vote on whether to tax ourselves to provide better service.

The immediate legislative reaction was insufferably paternalistic: “we don’t think the time is right to allow you to decide this for yourselves.”

There are two issues here. First, improving transportation is critical to the economic health of central Indiana. Over the years, Indianapolis and central Indiana have generated more jobs, and attracted more residents, than other sections of the state. That good performance has been largely due to an attractive quality of life. Our transportation deficit threatens that quality of life, and the inability of workers to get to their places of employment conveniently and inexpensively threatens our ability to attract new employers and our continued economic health. This is hardly news; city leaders have spent years debating what sort of system we need. It is past time to fish or cut bait.

The second issue is our right to decide matters of local importance for ourselves.

It is ironic that the same state legislators and officeholders who complain bitterly when Indiana has to comply with regulations, programs and unfunded mandates from Washington see nothing wrong with telling local governments what they can and cannot do.

When a measure is proposed that concerns Indianapolis and central Indiana, that measure should be decided by the residents of Indianapolis and central Indiana. There is an argument to be made that an improved transit system, by generating economic growth, would also improve state tax revenues, but the benefits of the proposed system would basically be limited to those who live in central Indiana.  We are also the ones who would bear the costs.

We may make a good decision or a poor one, but it is a decision that should be ours to make.