Category Archives: Local Government

Guns, Gays and Greenhouse Gases…Welcome to Indiana’s Legislature

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when Indiana’s (mercifully part-time) legislature is in session, I tend to break out in hives. Thanks to our massively gerrymandered election map, a number of people who get elected to that august body tend to advocate measures that don’t reflect the opinions of most Hoosiers.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in many cases, Indiana’s lawmakers’ actual constituencies are the special interests–the NRA and gun manufacturers, the Christian Right, Big Agriculture….

A quick look at some of the bills being considered this year may illustrate the point:

Let’s start with guns. Every year, guns kill some 33,000 Americans. The Indiana General Assembly isn’t deterred by that number, or by repeated massacres of children and innocents. No siree. This year, bills have been introduced 1) to get rid of Indiana’s requirement of a license to carry a handgun, 2) to allow guns at public universities and state office buildings, and 3) to make it easier for repeat alcohol offenders to get a handgun license.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve posted previously about the reluctance of our lawmakers to just bite the bullet and admit that LGBT folks are citizens and taxpayers entitled to the same civil rights protections that apply to women, racial minorities and religious folks. (Although it has been sort of enjoyable to watch the discomfort of legislators who are used to doing the bidding of both the Religious Right and business interests—constituencies that are on opposite sides of this issue.)

Survey research has uniformly found a solid majority of Hoosiers favor adding “four words and a comma” to the state civil rights statute. Employers large and small are lobbying for that approach, and significant numbers of clergy and other representatives of faith communities have come out to support it–but our lawmakers have thus far been reluctant to incur the wrath of the small (but shrill and intensely homophobic) Christian Right.

Then there’s HB 1082, authored by Representative David Wolkins. Dubbed the “no more stringent than” bill, it would forbid Indiana agencies from making or enforcing any environmental rule that is more stringent than those established by the federal government. As the Palladium-Item noted

Indiana consistently ranks near the bottom of the states regarding environmental quality. If State Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, has his way, Indiana will stay there.

As the Hoosier Environmental Council points out, the situation in Flint illustrates precisely those gaps in federal regulation that Indiana would be prevented from addressing under HB 1082: For example, under federal regulations, drinking water systems can continue to deliver lead-tainted water to households and businesses for up to 24 months while a variety of fixes are attempted. In 24 months, children’s health and cognitive abilities can be permanently damaged.

In fact, there are a number of areas where EPA regulations are considered weak, among them pollution from fracking, factory farm manure pits, and outdoor wood boilers. There are probably others.

Why would we want to prevent Indiana from addressing areas where federal regulations may prove to be inadequate for our needs? It isn’t as if the absence of a “no more stringent” bill would require the state to act. Why tie the hands of those charged with citizens’ public health and safety?

I’m sure a closer examination of the bills that have been introduced would uncover still others belonging to the category that I call “good god, what were they thinking?”

Maybe I should just drink until they go home….

You Really Can’t Make This Shit Up….

Media coverage of the Flint water crisis continues to accelerate, as the release of additional information suggests that the Governor and his office actively discouraged testing that would have confirmed residents’ fears.

The situation has sparked national outrage. (One of the more…interesting…responses has come from a Michigan militia group that has threatened to “take up arms” to protect Flint’s citizens against poisoned water. I’m not sure who they plan to shoot, or how “arms” would help, but their righteous anger is duly noted…)

What is truly incomprehensible is the continued assault on environmental safety, even in the face of this horrific example of what can happen when those safeguards are ignored–or worse, eviscerated—and even in the midst of the media’s continued focus on the issue.

Yesterday, not long after I posted about Congressional Republicans’ effort to gut the Clean Water Act, I received the following advisory from the Hoosier Environmental Council:

“This morning, SB 366 passed out of the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee on a vote of 6-3. This bill would enable — by a simple vote of two county commissioners — a community to eliminate its Solid Waste Management District (SWMD); that elimination could happen anytime after June 30, 2017.

“SWMDs have been on the frontlines of protecting our drinking water sources. By working successfully to substantially increase collection of household hazardous waste as well as construction & demolition waste, SWMDs prevent serious contamination of our waters from improper disposal of such waste.” said Jesse Kharbanda, Executive Director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. health of a community, would be adequately replaced by other programs in the community….

 Communities need strong, stable, and effective SWMDs to continue making environmental improvements; such improvements are so clearly tied to the state’s overarching goal of improving quality of life — for the sake of people’s lives and our economic competitiveness.”

Reasonable people can differ about the propriety of many government activities, but—as the reaction to Flint demonstrates— very few citizens consider protection of our air and water frivolous or unnecessary. Individuals cannot insure the purity of their own drinking water; the private sector cannot sell us clean air. We depend upon government agencies to monitor and protect these essential resources.

A commenter on yesterday’s post suggested that the real beneficiaries of weakened oversight are the large corporate farming operations that generate much of the solid waste pollution that contaminates waterways. Proper disposal of solid waste is more expensive than discharging it into a nearby stream.

If SWMDs are not operating properly, we should fix them. Allowing local county commissioners to eliminate them is both an invitation to corruption and a threat to public health.

What is with the Fixation on Potties?

Oh, Indiana! You have so many virtues….and so many legislators with questionable reasoning abilities. The legislative session that just began promises to be a bonanza for those who enjoy black comedy and unintentional irony.

For those of us who want adult government, not so much.

A major focus of the upcoming session will be the effort to add four words and a comma to Indiana’s existing civil rights law.  In the aftermath of last year’s RFRA debacle, business and civic organizations have partnered with LGBT organizations and faith communities to lobby for the addition of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the existing list of things (race, religion, gender, etc.)that Hoosiers can’t use as reasons to discriminate against other people.

All of these characteristics should be totally irrelevant to an individual’s right to rent an apartment, enroll in an educational institution or buy goods and services in the marketplace.

Four words and a comma. It’s not rocket science.

Lawmakers who really do want to discriminate but want to pretend otherwise have come up with all manner of convoluted bills to allow disparate treatment to continue. Others have simply abandoned the pretense, offering proposals that, if passed, would tell the world that Hoosier Hospitality is a highly selective concept.

And the world has noticed. This is from Talking Points Memo:

An Indiana rep recently proposed a bill that would hit transgender individuals with a Class A misdemeanor if they used a public restroom that doesn’t conform to their gender at birth.

I can see the signs now: Before using this potty, please deposit your DNA sample with the attendant…..

The whole potty fixation is a mystery to me. I was just in New York—I know, a den of iniquity—and most of the public restrooms I used were “one at a time” facilities available to either gender. (If you’re really worried about who uses which toilet, I have a suggestion: Get a life!)

This bill should die a quick death. Last year, similar bills failed to pass in Kentucky, Florida, Nevada and Texas (hardly liberal bastions), and the Department of Justice has declared that restricting transgender students’ access to public restrooms amounts to sex discrimination under Title IX, but hey–this is Indiana.

Even Georgia doesn’t want to be “the next Indiana.” 

For a legislature dominated by self-described proponents of “limited government,” the bills submitted thus far certainly are a mixed bag. On the one hand, our “small government” Christian conservatives are proposing a bill that would effectively  outlaw abortions (no terminations after a heartbeat is detectable–about the same time most women find out they’re pregnant). On the other hand, it’s hard to square that “pro life” position with the bill allowing habitual drunks to buy guns, the bill removing the need to license guns, the bill to allow guns on college campuses…

Maybe they want to be able to shoot people they think are using the wrong potty?

In any case, if the “wrong toilet” and gun bills pass, I’m moving to a saner state….Evidently, there are a lot of them.


That Quaint Thing Called “Ethics”…

A recent article in New America Weekly argues that we Americans need to clean up our understanding of corruption. We tend to think of corruption as the sorts of outright bribery encountered in many other countries, where “doing business” has often required greasing the hands of public servants. If no money has changed hands, Americans tend not to see an ethical problem.

The author of the article—a social anthropologist— argues that we need to expand our definition of corruption to include “rigged systems.”

According to Gallup, the notion that corruption is widespread has gained enormous traction in recent years. With results like this, it’s not hard to see why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have so much appeal. When so many people see the system as rigged and corruption as endemic, citizens are naturally attracted to outsiders, because they themselves feel like outsiders in a game they were set up to lose.

This state of affairs—with so many people self-defining as outsiders in a democratic society—makes it all the more urgent that we redefine corruption. Because unlike communist and many post-communist countries, where few believe(d) in either the system’s version of itself or its ability to deliver on it, the United States has traditionally been a country of believers—where people largely bought into the promise of their system. That is how it should be in democratic society.

The article lists several examples of systemic corruption—from the banking practices that cratered the economy, to the conflicts of interest of military figures who sit on corporate boards while advising the Pentagon on procurement—and the failure of mechanisms to insure accountability.

We need to understand how corruption manifests itself in America in 2015. We need to ground accountability in the ethics of the broader society. Democratic societies run on trust. A civic society can flourish only when the public believes the system is accountable in a real, not performative, way. Without that trust, perception of corruption will only worsen and the ranks of outsiders will swell.

As I have repeatedly noted, a major contributor to this lack of accountability is the current absence of genuine journalism, especially what we used to call “investigative journalism,” and particularly at the local level.

When local media report only on the “what” (new parking meters, new development projects, new public purchases) and ignore the “who” and “how” (dealmaking, cronyism, procedural shortcuts)—when columnists and reporters dismiss legitimate concerns about the “how” as partisan bickering unworthy of investigation—we fail to hold our elected officials accountable, and we feed the growing distrust that acts like sand in government’s gears.

Rigged systems are complicated, and a lot more difficult to combat than bribery and other, more blatant forms of self-dealing. It’s easy to shrug and conclude that “this is just how things get done.” But the integrity of the democratic system is ultimately far more important —and its absence far more consequential—than individual acts of dishonesty.

Quaint as it may sound, ethics matter. And ethical public behavior requires a culture of ethical accountability. “Trust me” doesn’t cut it.

The State of Our State

Welcome to a new year, fellow Hoosiers.

Given that 2016 will be an election year, Hoosiers will hear lots of rhetoric about Indiana’s economic performance, both from the incumbent administration and those seeking to replace it; a credible analysis of that performance is thus essential if we are to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Morton Marcus is an economist who spent nearly 40 years at IU’s Kelley School of Business,  where he presided over a center that generated data about Indiana’s business climate. He is now retired (but by no means retiring), and he still writes a column carried by a number of newspapers around the state.

A recent Marcus column measured Indiana’s economic performance.

Let’s start with Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which Marcus defines as  “the value (adjusted for inflation) of all the goods and services produced in a nation or a state, over the course of a year or a quarter of the year.”  “

And how has the Hoosier state done by this measure?

The United States’ Real GDP has grown by about 13 percent in the last decade, while Indiana has added only 7 percent….If you look at the nation’s Real GDP each spring (the second quarter of the year), the progress made by Indiana every year since 2012 lags the growth of the nation. Indiana ranked 32nd with 2.8 percent compared with 5.8 percent for the U.S.

Then there is the question of jobs and wages.

The total of wages and salaries takes into account both how many people are working and what they make for their labors. Nationally, from the third quarter of 2005 to 2015 and after adjusting for price changes, wages and salaries grew by 13.2 percent. Here, in the Hoosier Holyland, the growth was 5.5 percent.

The news isn’t unremittingly negative: as Marcus tells us, “Non-durable goods were a winner; Indiana up one percent while nationally that sector was off by seven percent.”

But in durable goods, like autos, RVs and steel, the news was less cheery: “Indiana was down eight percent at the same time the country slipped six percent.”

All in all,

Over the past decade, the nation’s output and wages both grew by about 13 percent. In Indiana, however, they both trailed the U.S.; Hoosier output (Real GDP) grew by only 7.1 percent and wages by a mere 5.5 percent. Why aren’t Hoosier businesses and workers keeping pace?

As we head into 2016 and the inevitable political spin, it may be worth revisiting this analysis of actual economic performance—and considering whether we’d be better served by replacing our current Governor with someone less fixated on protecting retailers who want to refuse service to same-sex couples, and more committed to conventional economic development.