Tag Archives: Indiana General Assembly

Inexcusable

Policy debates are rarely one-sided. Even when I feel strongly that side A is obviously, clearly, self-evidently the right way to go, I know deep down that sides B and C have their points too. And as I tell my students, cases don’t get to the Supreme Court unless there are at least two sides (often more) to the issue.

But every rule has its exception, and the Indiana General Assembly periodically refuses to take an action that is self-evidently, obviously right. As Indiana Public Media has reported,

House Republicans this week voted down Democrats’ attempts to help ensure Indiana’s voting machines are more secure in the 2020 election.

More than half of Indiana’s 92 counties have voting machines without a paper backup. Election security experts say those backups are critical to electoral integrity.

The General Assembly budgeted $10 million last year to help upgrade. But that amount only covers about 10 percent of the machines that need it. And they plan to get to the rest of them by 2030.

Really? By 2030? How helpful!

Rep. Carey Hamilton (D-Indianapolis) says waiting 10 years to fully upgrade the machines is a mistake.

“Providing secure elections based on the best available technology that we know exists, that we know the Secretary [of State] could utilize in an efficient way before November elections is the right thing for us to do,” Hamilton says.

According to WFYI, Secretary of State Connie Lawson (a Republican, it should be noted) had asked the legislature for additional funds, but had been rebuffed

Lawson says she initially asked budget writers for more money.

“But they told us to get real,” Lawson says. “So, we got real and we tried to hone it down to where it was possible to get the dollars.”

Get real? “Real” is something our lawmakers know very little about–or choose to ignore.

What is “real” is the importance of public confidence in the integrity of the vote. What is “real” is the significant decline in the public’s trust in government. What is “real” is the growing cynicism and anger fed by blatant gerrymandering and multiple, visible Republican vote suppression efforts around the country.

Here in Indiana, what is also “real” is the legislature’s animus toward urban counties, and lawmakers’ continuing efforts to privilege both rural Hoosiers and the deep pockets of their contributors, constituencies that just happen to favor Republicans. (How else can we interpret efforts this session to protect coal and landlords, and to sabotage public transportation?)

Donald Trump may insist that American Intelligence operatives who continue to warn about Russian interference with our elections are part of some “deep state hoax,” but rational people know that those who work for our Intelligence agencies are far more credible than the buffoon who stands to benefit from that interference. Ensuring that our voting machines are tamper-proof, providing a paper trail, and taking other precautions against threatened interference (or for that matter, domestic game-playing and/or malfunction) is simply common sense.

Granted, common sense has never been the most obvious attribute of Indiana’s General Assembly.

If there is “another side” to providing proper election security, I don’t know what it is.

 

 

Games Indiana’s GOP Plays…

Oh, Indiana!

Ours is a state so gerrymandered that control of our legislature remains firmly in the hands of a Republican super-majority. To say that the lack of competition has given us state lawmakers who reflect the party’s ideological extremes would be an understatement.

So what is the “World’s Worst Legislature” (h/t to the late Harrison Ullmann) doing this year?

Well, our lawmakers are no longer trying to change the value of Pi, which I suppose is progress of a sort. What they are trying to do is keep Indiana utilities from phasing out their dependence upon coal;  persisting in their efforts to elevate the rights of fertilized eggs over the rights of women; refusing to fund election security measures; and demonstrating their ignorance of the separation of powers.

There has been a bill protecting religious mental health workers who deny emergency assistance to those they consider “sinners” and another prohibiting athletes who were born male from competing against cis women in sports. Another “protective” measure would prevent employers from implanting chips in their workers (a practice not currently occurring in the state, but hey! It might happen, so let’s talk about that rather than the very real problems we face.)

The majority is also moving new legislation to create a “cross-check” bill to facilitate the purging of (certain) voters, after a previous effort to do so was struck down by the courts as blatantly unconstitutional.

And of course our legislators are continuing to divert resources from the state’s public education system in order to prop up the religious institutions that make up some 95% of “voucher” schools.

But absolutely the most consistent legislative behavior, year after year, is the General Assembly’s adamant refusal to allow cities and towns to do–well, pretty much anything— unless and until their overlords in the legislature deign to give local elected officials their official blessing. (Especially Indianapolis, which the Republicans who represent mostly rural districts irrationally resent.) It took three sessions for Indianapolis to get permission to hold a referendum on whether to tax ourselves to improve public transit, and then only on condition that we not include light rail. Why no light rail? Who knows? And this session, legislators continue to offer roadblocks to planned expansion of the city’s rapid transit lines.

The most recent–and arguably this session’s most egregious–example is the legislature’s move to foreclose Indianapolis’ effort to protect tenants from landlord abuses. Even the Indianapolis Star was offended.

Mayor Joe Hogsett’s proposal to provide more protections to Indianapolis renters now faces an uncertain future.

Indiana lawmakers added language to a bill Monday that would prevent any city from regulating landlord-tenant relations without approval by the General Assembly, including at least two key items in Hogsett’s proposal: requiring landlords to notify renters of their rights and responsibilities, and fining landlords who retaliate against renters for reporting problematic housing.

Senate Bill 340 initially moved through the Indiana Senate as a bill addressing laws about condemned properties. An amendment added at the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee, though, would undercut a legislative priority of Hogsett, a Democrat, now in his second term as Indianapolis mayor.

The Hogsett administration saw its proposal as a way to balance the scales against unscrupulous landlords, many out of state, who take advantage of lax government oversight in Indiana to prey on desperate renters.

Any lawyer who has practiced real estate law in Indiana– I am one–is aware that Indiana law is heavily weighted in favor of landlords. (I’m sure this favoritism has nothing to do with the fact that the tenants who are disadvantaged by our legal framework are far less likely to be political contributors than their landlords.)

When this year’s (mercifully short) session comes to an end, we’ll see what passed and what didn’t. But one thing we can predict with confidence: local jurisdictions still won’t have anything that looks remotely like home rule.

 

Speaking Of The Legislature…

Indiana’s legislature is in session, demonstrating that it isn’t only Republicans in Washington who are more interested in protecting favored industries (aka donors)than the public or the environment. (I know, you’re shocked!)

Hoosiers and regular readers of this blog may remember the 2017 bill that made it much less advantageous for homeowners in Indiana to install solar.

Homeowners selling excess power generated by their solar panels back to the utility lost most of the benefit of doing so under Senate Bill 309. Prior to its passage, if you had rooftop solar, “net metering” allowed you to send any excess energy you generated back into the grid, with the utility crediting you for that excess at the same rate that you pay the utility for power when you aren’t generating enough to cover your needs.

Even if it was an even swap, however, you still had to pay the utility an amount sufficient to cover its overhead costs–billing, meter reading, etc. Fair enough.

After passage of SB 309, you were forced to sell all the electricity you generated to the utility at a much lower price than the utility charged you, and then buy back what you need at their substantially higher “retail” price.

Solar energy may be good for the environment, and good for consumers’ pocketbooks, but it had begun to cut into the profit margins of the big electrical utilities. Friends at the legislature to the rescue!

This year, the legislature is showing its solicitude for coal.

Credit where credit is due; the Indianapolis Star, which rarely covers government these days, had the story:

Hoosiers’ electricity bills could rise and several state utilities may face obstacles in their plans to phase out coal-based power generation in the coming years under politically charged legislation that would help a struggling Indiana industry.

House Bill 1414, filed last week by state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, would require Indiana utilities to prove that any plans to shut down a power plant are either required by a federal mandate or otherwise in the public interest.

But not just any plants. Though the word “coal” does not appear once in the language of the bill, advocates and analysts say the legislation specifically targets coal-burning plants.

Utilities in the United States have been responding to market forces and (to a lesser extent) environmental concerns, and have been transitioning from the use of coal as an energy source in favor of natural gas and various renewables. In the past few weeks, at least two utilities in Indiana have announced their intention to shut down coal generating plants.

One state utility–northern Indiana’s NIPSCO– predicts that the shift could save customers billions of dollars in coming decades. NIPSCO is one of the Indiana utilities that has announced its intent to significantly diminish its use of coal and substitute renewable resources.

Typically, utilities have made their own decisions about their energy use, but Soliday’s House Bill 1414 allows the state to override those decisions. (I thought Republicans wanted government to “get out of the way” of business–silly me!)

Keeping coal plants running comes with a huge cost, according to Citizens Action Coalition’s Kermit Olson.

If coal plants are not able to be retired and if they have to be maintained — as another part of the bill suggests — then those costs will be passed down to customers.

“The idea that we are trying to, as a state, to undo a utility like NIPSCO’s current business plan, which is based on economics and least costs of service to customers is just absurd if not downright unethical,” Olson said.

He is referring to NIPSCO’s planning process in the last few years that determined accelerating the closure of all its coal plants and a transition to renewable energy sources, particularly wind, would save its customers nearly $4 billion over a few decades.

The utilities oppose this bill. Environmentalists oppose this bill. Consumers get screwed by this bill. But yesterday, it emerged from committee.

Coal companies– unable to compete in the marketplace– are lobbying hard, hoping their friends in Indiana’s General Assembly will put a very heavy thumb on the policy scale….

 

A Good Try, Fort Wayne

A recent newspaper article reported on the demise of a “controversial” Fort Wayne ordinance–another victim of Indiana’s lack of genuine (or even pretended) home rule.

The ordinance (which in a fair and honest world should not have been controversial) addressed the common political practice called “pay to play,” the cynical shakedown of people who want to do business with local government.

In her 13-page ruling, Judge Jennifer DeGroote blocked the city from enforcing the ordinance that restricted how much money the owners of a company could give elected officials and still bid on city contracts.

The ordinance forbid any company from bidding on a city contract if any owner, partner or principal who owns more than 10% of that company gave more than $2,000 to the political campaign of a person with responsibility for awarding contracts.

“The city of Fort Wayne attempted to address legitimate concerns regarding quid pro quo exchanges or pay to play arrangements that tie contracts for professional services to contributions made to elected government officials who have authority to influence the awards of such business,” DeGroote wrote. “However, the court finds that efforts by Fort Wayne, as well-intentioned as they may be, to address such practices in the 2018 ordinance is not permitted under current Indiana law as no such authority has been extended to municipalities.”

Specifically, DeGroote’s ruling stated that the ordinance was superseded by state law, specifically the Home Rule Act, which grants municipalities the ability to self-govern in areas not covered by the state. Elections, under state law, are the domain of the Indiana Election Commission.

Every time I see a reference to Indiana’s “Home Rule Act,” I snicker. The title belongs with other dishonest efforts to turn sows’ ears into silk purses. (George W’s “Clear Skies Act” comes to mind.) In reality, Indiana’s cities and towns operate under numerous onerous restrictions, forcing municipal policymakers to “kiss the rings” of state lawmakers in order to do much of anything.

One recent example: Indianapolis had to beg the General Assembly for permission to hold a referendum to determine whether we could tax ourselves to improve our mass transit system. It took three years, and even then, our state overlords prescribed permitted and forbidden modes of transit that they would allow us to consider paying for.

Fort Wayne’s effort to clean up an unsavory and unethical fundraising practice ran afoul of the reality that governance in Indiana operates under the heavy hand of an excessively gerrymandered state legislature.

There are two lessons here: First–as many of us have said repeatedly– Indiana really, really needs genuine home rule. And second, laws patterned after Fort Wayne’s rejected ordinance should be statewide. (Nationwide, actually.)

Perhaps a legislator from Fort Wayne–or anywhere– could introduce a similar measure during the next session of the General Assembly. It wouldn’t pass, of course, but it might shine a light on just how corrupted the process has become.

 

 

 

What The NRA Hath Wrought…

When I saw this headline, “Owner of stolen handgun not liable for child’s death even when weapon is kept loaded and visible on car seat,” I couldn’t believe a court would rule this way on so obvious a case of negligence.

When I read the article, I understood.

Matthew Kendall, 16, of Huntingburg, died July 22, 2016, after he was shot in the head with a Glock 9 mm handgun that was taken earlier that day by a 15-year-old boy who was showing the weapon to Kendall when it discharged, according to court records.

Kendall’s mother, Shelley Nicholson, sued Christopher Lee, of Huntingburg, seeking damages for negligence in connection with Lee leaving his loaded handgun visible through the windows of Lee’s unlocked and unattended truck.

However, both the Dubois Circuit Court and a unanimous three-judge Court of Appeals panel said Nicholson’s case cannot proceed because Indiana law immunizes gun owners from civil liability for any subsequent use of their stolen firearms.

The court quoted the law as providing immunity from civil liability based on “an act or omission” of the owner, if the weapon was stolen and later used to commit a crime or harm someone.

Judge John Baker, writing for the Court of Appeals, said the plain language of House Enrolled Act 1349 required the court rule in favor of Lee, because regardless of how Lee stores his handgun, if the handgun is stolen, he is statutorily immune from liability for any resulting harm.

The Judge considered himself bound by what he called “the clear intent of the General Assembly,” which was to shield gun owners from liability even in situations like this, when an owner failed to take even the most minimal precautions to safely store his gun.

It’s hard to imagine anything more negligent than leaving a loaded gun on the passenger seat of an unlocked car. Absent the statute enacted by the Indiana legislature–undoubtedly under the influence of the NRA–the owner would be liable for his own careless behavior, as he should be.

Americans who own homes or other properties are routinely sued by folks who fall on steps or sidewalks that have been negligently maintained, or who are harmed by other obvious hazards that a normal person knows or should know are capable of  causing harm to a visitor. Laws that punish us for our own neglect or irresponsibility are there for a reason: to remind us that we have a duty of care, and should avoid negligent behaviors that can cause harm to innocent others.

It is absolutely scandalous that lawmakers (presumably in thrall to the clout of the NRA’s gun nut lobby) decided that a standard of behavior that has informed tort law pretty much forever just needn’t apply to people who might be careless with an inherently dangerous possession–a weapon that has one use and one use only–to injure or kill.

If you have a tree with a loose limb in your yard, you need to take care that it doesn’t fall and hurt someone who might sue you. But if you have a loaded gun available to whoever walks by, no worries.

The Indiana General Assembly has protected you. And gerrymandering protects them.