Tag Archives: local government

Can We Grow Up?

I wrote my most recent IBJ column the weekend before the election, not knowing the results, or the sorts of national policies likely to be pursued over the next four years. I addressed the looming crises of state and local government funding.

Having relied upon the polling, I was significantly more optimistic than I have been since. But even assuming the restoration of more traditional and far less corrupt approaches to governance, the victors—at all levels–will be constrained by the prevailing, dishonest political culture.

At the state level, there’s quite a bit of variance in those cultures; nationally, and no matter which party has been in charge, it has been characterized by an immature focus on immediate gratification. Members of Congress have been fixated on policies that will be perceived as positive by their bases in the “here and now”—policies that will benefit them personally when the next election rolls around. When Republicans are in control, we can see the result in such things as huge subsidies for fossil fuels (despite their environmental impact); and so far, no matter who is in charge, there has been unforgivable neglect of infrastructure (let the next guy worry about the highways, bridges and national electrical grid).

Long term, as the political saying goes, is until the next election.The pandemic presents officials with an urgent challenge to this national disinclination to connect the dots, to recognize that enlightened self-interest must be both informed and defined long-term.

Nowhere is this challenge more dire than in America’s cities and states, where tax revenues are in the toilet.

Local governments depend heavily on sales taxes, but Americans aren’t spending as usual—which means they aren’t generating sales taxes. (Transit authorities are facing similar problems.) Businesses are hurting badly, translating into lower income taxes in jurisdictions that impose them. Dramatically declining income is forcing local governments to curtail vital services, lay off employees and postpone critical infrastructure repairs.

As Ryan Cooper pointed out in a recent article in The Week, the federal government could rescue states, cities and transit authorities with only a small fraction of the money that has been spent on rescuing businesses and individuals so far. That would help the national economy by keeping public employees in their jobs, and by maintaining those “socialist” public services that everyone relies on to some degree. As Cooper says, when local governments have to gut their budgets, potholes proliferate, garbage piles up, water mains break, already inadequate transit becomes worse. When state and city workers are laid off, they become part of the unprecedented burden being placed on our already insufficient social safety nets.

Despite the Child-in-Chief’s sneering disinclination to help “mismanaged blue cities,” the current crisis is a result of the pandemic, not incompetent governance. And as Cooper points out, this crisis isn’t limited to Democratic jurisdictions. Wyoming is evidently facing a budget deficit of a quarter-billion dollars, even after making severe cuts to public services. State governments in general are facing budgetary woes that are worse than at any time since the Great Depression.

If the federal government fails to help, we will see the effects for a generation or more. Three hundred and fifty thousand teachers were laid off in September alone. Bus drivers, sanitation workers, DMV clerks, road repair crews, public health nurses, food safety inspectors and thousands of others are truly essential workers; they make the country function.

Liberal and conservative economists alike confirm that austerity during a depression is the definition of insanity.  Failure to shore up city and state finances, like failure to pass another pandemic relief bill, will be far more costly long-term.

To pursue austerity now would be childish– the epitome of penny wise and pound foolish. But don’t count on Republicans in the Senate to understand that–or to act on it if they do.

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.

The Nationalization Of Politics

Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, Dan Hopkins makes one of those observations that seems so obvious once you’ve read it…

Hopkins addresses one of the troubling features of today’s political reality: the nationalization of our politics. As he notes, the actions of state and local elected officials have an important and immediate effect on our lives–why, then, do Americans seem  fixated on Washington, D.C. almost to the exclusion of local politics?

He attributes much of the change to the transformation of American media markets, and how that transformation has affected voters’ knowledge and participation levels.

According to Hopkins, Americans are increasingly turning away from media outlets that provide state and local coverage, substituting Fox News or MSNBC or other sources providing national coverage for their hometown newspapers and television news reports.

The effects are felt in turnout numbers:

It’s not exactly news that turnout for state and local races is lower than turnout for presidential races. But this pattern’s very familiarity may have obscured just how surprising it is. After all, states and localities take primary responsibility for schools, transportation and criminal justice, three policy areas that can have a major effect on people’s day-to-day lives. And if people were motivated to vote primarily by the idea that their vote might decide the outcome, they would be far more likely to cast a ballot in a small local elections, where their odds of being the decisive vote are much higher, than in a national one.

In a federalist system, it is always noteworthy when national politics draw a disproportionate level of attention — and all the more so when the gap between national politics and state and local politics has been growing sharply. That’s exactly what has been happening in the past few decades: Voter turnout for president has remained roughly constant while turnout for state and local races has fallen.

Hopkins is correct in noting that, since 1980, Americans have increasingly turned to national media to learn about politics.  Where I find his analysis wanting, however, is his attribution of that change to a perceived advantage that these national content providers have over what he calls “older, spatially bound media sources.”

I think Hopkins misses a far more compelling explanation: local news has become dramatically less newsworthy, when it has survived at all.

Television news has always been more superficial than newspaper reporting–it also has depended on local newspapers more than most viewers appreciate. And we’ve lost local newspaper journalism.

Not long before the Internet became ubiquitous, major chains like Gannett were busily buying up local newspapers. When Internet competition cut dramatically into the profits generated by those local papers (Craig’s List alone cost them billions annually in classified advertising revenue), those papers became far less profitable. Many were still saddled with the debt incurred when they purchased the local papers, many of which had been bought at a premium justified by pre-Internet profit margins.

Most papers responded as our local newspaper did– by drastically cutting editorial staff.  Today, our daily paper has little to no news content other than sports and entertainment. No one is regularly covering the statehouse or city hall. There are no beat reporters assigned to school board meetings, or city-county council meetings, and on the rare occasion when a reporter is sent to cover some government activity, he or she lacks the background knowledge needed to ask the pertinent questions, or to really understand what is going on.

State and local government has become less visible and accountable because we have no local journalists devoted to making making them visible or holding them accountable. (And speaking of accountability–a recent study conducted by a Notre Dame professor has confirmed a direct correlation between a rise in the cost of local government and the loss of local newspapers.)

We aren’t reading the local paper any more because there is very little actual news to read.

Encouraging Signs

Doctors and psychologists are reporting spikes in depression and other psychosomatic responses among the general citizenry in response to the daily reports of dysfunction, corruption and regression in Washington.

Those responses are understandable. But as I keep reminding myself, the news isn’t all bad. We are seeing a genuine resurgence of civic engagement at a level I have never previously seen, and there are growing indications that announcements of the death of journalism may also have been premature.

Despite concerns that “outrage fatigue” would cause activism to dwindle, groups opposed to Trumpism have continued to proliferate–even in red states like Indiana.

For example, Women4Change Indiana was formed immediately after the election. It has four task forces, focused upon guaranteeing the dignity and safety of all women, especially in regard to sexual assault, reproductive health, and LGBTQ rights; mentoring and empowering women to achieve greater political leadership; fighting racism and promoting civility in political discourse; fighting against gerrymandering and voter suppression and improving civics education.

Formed just five months ago, it currently has 14,000 members across the state. In Indiana.

In even more good news from Indiana; “old school” Republicans (not old chronologically, just advocates for what used to be Republican values) have formed a group called “Enterprise Republicans,” which they describe as “diverse and inclusive” and devoted to protecting the human rights of all Hoosiers. I’m told they plan to primary selected Republican culture warriors, a welcome tactic in Indiana, where gerrymandering has created so many safe Republican seats that there has been no politically realistic way to effectively counter the most rabid rightwing zealots.

Then there’s journalism. According to the Washington Post,

The philanthropy established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar will contribute $100 million to support investigative journalism, fight misinformation and counteract hate speech around the world…

“We think it’s really important to act now to keep dangerous trends from becoming the norm,” Stephen King, who heads the Omidyar Network’s civic engagement initiative, told The Washington Post in the philanthropic group’s first public comments on the three-year funding commitment….

The newly announced funding is intended to address “a worrying resurgence of authoritarian politics that is undermining progress toward a more open and inclusive society,” said Omidyar Network managing partner Matt Bannick.

The network is also concerned about the declining trust in democratic institutions around the world, including the news media, he said.

“Increasingly, facts are being devalued, misinformation spread, accountability ignored and channels that give citizens a voice withdrawn,” he said. “These trends cannot become the norm.”

The story–which is very encouraging–ended with a recitation of other philanthropic efforts to bolster legitimate journalism and combat “alternative facts.”

On Monday, a group including Facebook and Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, announced the News Integrity Initiative, a $14 million effort to advance news literacy and increase trust in journalism. It will be based at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism in Manhattan.

And last month, the Democracy Fund and First Look Media, both founded by Omidyar, announced that they would award $12 million to news organizations including the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica.

We can only hope that these efforts reach the Indianapolis Star at some point….

There are also encouraging signs that local governments are stepping up to address pressing issues. Cities across the globe have increased their efforts to protect the environment and advance social justice.  Cityscope reports that in Toronto, for example, the city is using its contracting clout to encourage the employment of disadvantaged populations, and cities in the U.S. are looking to follow suit. Cities are protecting immigrants, addressing police misconduct (even as Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department retreats from Obama-era oversight agreements), and investigating  other ways to compensate for the damage being done in Washington.

The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question, of course, is whether these efforts, and the many other promising movements and activism tools that are emerging, will be able to turn a very threatening tide of authoritarian incompetence.

As David Brooks wrote this week, in a scathing (and laugh-out-loud funny) column,

The human imagination is not capacious enough to comprehend all the many ways the Trumpians can find to screw this thing up.

It’s We the People versus the Trumpians, and I wouldn’t count us out.

 

 

Can We Make You Care?

Yesterday, I argued that local elections are important, and that the many people who only bother going to the polls in Presidential years should care about the people running state and local government.

As Indianapolis gears up for municipal elections this fall, the Center for Civic Literacy is trying to get that message out.

In a collaborative project with NUVO, WFYI and a number of civic organizations, we plan to identify individuals who are Marion County residents and registered to vote, but who do not vote in off-year elections; people who only go to the polls in national elections. Through interviews, relationship building, and educational events we will try to persuade these voters that they should  care about local issues and that they should vote in the upcoming municipal election.

The slogan of this effort is: Make them care!

The initiative is modeled after a similar effort in California, called “Make Al Care.”

In addition, we are working with those same civic organizations to put together a series of forums to be held in September and October titled, “Electing Our Future: What You Need to Know in Order to Cast an Informed Vote.” The goal is to increase informed engagement in the civic and political life of our city.

The programs will take place from 6-8pm at the Indianapolis Public Library’s Central location on St. Clair St. Current officeholders and candidates for public office will not participate–this is to be a nonpartisan educational effort.

Mon, Sept. 21stHow does Indianapolis Work? The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce will take responsibility for this initial presentation, and will include a brief description of where we are in the federal/state/local scheme of things; a discussion of home rule/state authority; and a description of city structure: Mayor, Council, Departments, Municipal Corporations and what each does. The forum will explain how Unigov makes Indianapolis different from other cities, and will describe how we finance city services.

Tues, Oct. 6thWhat are the issues we face? The Center for Civic Literacy and the League of Women Voters will be lead partners for this forum. How does Indianapolis deal with change? With diversity? What do citizens need to know to make informed decisions on quality of life issues: environmental, public health, education, transportation, arts and culture, civic life? How do we identify and allocate dwindling resources—with resources broadly defined to include civic, corporate and religious organizations and nonprofits, sources of expertise, & civic energy.

Tues, Oct. 20thWhat do we want Indianapolis to look like 5, 10, 15 years from now? If we want a city that is healthy, wealthy & wise, how do we get there? The Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee will share insights from its Indy 2020 project.

These efforts to increase civic knowledge and engagement will have no effect unless we can enlist people who already care in the effort to make their children, colleagues, co-workers and others understand why local government matters, and why their votes are vitally important.

How do we make them care?