Category Archives: Local Government

Arguing Responsibly

In Sunday’s Indianapolis Star, John Guy took critics of the proposed justice center (of whom I am one) to task. His arguments boiled down to three: a new Justice Center is badly needed; it has been studied for a long time; and critics have not offered alternatives to the proposal.

None of the critics, to the best of my knowledge, have debated the need for a new facility. And it is true that moving the jail and criminal courts has been studied (or at least discussed) since the early 1990’s, although those studies have been limited in one way or another. So that leaves us with the charge–implicit, but unmistakable–that criticisms that do not offer detailed alternative proposals should be ignored.

Let me say up front that I am very sympathetic to Guy’s impatience with nay-sayers, with knee-jerk opposition to proposals advanced by government voiced by people who have no constructive suggestions to offer. That said, however, it is equally unreasonable to dismiss very specific concerns raised by a wide variety of citizens without specifically addressing or rebutting those concerns.

My own criticisms have included the lack of transparency in the planning process, and the current back-and-forth illuminates why such transparency is important: had the City-County Council and the public been included earlier in the process, rather than being presented with a “take it or leave it” package, concerns could have been aired then and–if good answers were available–rebutted. This is particularly true of the financing mechanism, which the administration acknowledges has rarely been used in this sort of project, but it also applies to issues raised by architects, city planners and real estate brokers. If the city has hard data to support its contentions that the project as envisioned will not adversely affect a downtown market that five administrations have spent 30 plus years developing, that data should be shared.

Criminal justice experts have pointed out that systemic reforms currently being discussed in Congress (for which, amazingly enough, there is bipartisan support) would likely require changes in the size and function of parts of the planned facility. An open process would allow the city and/or the successful bidder to explain whether such policy changes could be accommodated, and if so, how.

I understand impatience (indeed, I tend to share it), but when you are spending huge sums and making decisions that will have an enormous impact on the city–decisions that we will have to live with for decades to come–getting it right is more important than getting it done quickly.

Why Hoosiers Don’t Vote

Yesterday, I took part in a “Pancakes and Politics” discussion hosted by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. There were three of us on the panel–yours truly, Beth White (former Marion County Clerk) and Abdul Shabazz (local radio personality and commentator/provocateur).

Abdul has actually posted the whole thing, so if you like beating your head against the wall, you can click here.

The panel was focused on civic engagement–especially voting–and as one might expect, there were a number of explanations offered for Indiana’s continaully abysmal turnout. (A pathetic 7% turned out for yesterday’s Indianapolis primary.) I’ll leave most of those for another day, but today I want to talk about a comment made by Beth White, because it really struck me.

Beth ticked off the numerous barriers that Indiana erects and noted that voting here is thus more difficult than it is elsewhere. Abdul disagreed. (Any election law expert will tell you Beth was right. Sorry, Abdul.) Her response was perfect: she pointed out that Indiana makes it easy to pay taxes, to get your auto license, and to do other things that policymakers want to encourage. It’s pretty clear– given the fact that our Voter ID law is the nation’s strictest, our polls are the first to close, we refuse to establish convenient voting centers or to allow vote-by-mail–that state government is not interested in encouraging people to vote.

Especially egregious is the refusal to allow the use of government-issued picture IDs to verify identity if those IDs don’t have an expiration date.

As Beth noted, it’s perfectly appropriate to ensure that voters are who they say they are–but that interest in preventing (virtually non-existent) voter fraud doesn’t require disallowing identification issued by government agencies that is widely accepted elsewhere. (According to the Secretary of State’s webpage, “noncompliant” identifications  include “An ID issued by the US Department of Defense, a branch of the uniformed services, the Merchant Marine, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (or Veterans Administration), or the Indiana National Guard.”)

It’s just another petty annoyance for those of us with drivers licenses (like Abdul), but a hassle–and a message–for the elderly or disabled or others who don’t drive.

The message? Stay home. (Thanks to the safe districts created by gerrymandering, there’s no contest in most parts of the state anyway.)

After all, if God had intended us to vote, She’d have given us candidates.

 

Who Thought Letting Him on TV Was a Good Idea?

Dear lord, where were his handlers?

In the firestorm that has erupted over SB 101, and in a ham-handed effort to ameliorate the immense economic damage he and his party have inflicted on the state, Governor Mike Pence took to a Sunday talk show, with disastrous results.

According to Daily Kos (and multiple members of my family who watched):

In the annals of damage control that did more harm than good, Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence has truly set the new standard. Appearing on today’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” to defend and “clarify” Indiana’s new right to discriminate law that he eagerly signed last week, Pence—and this is putting it kindly—crashed and burned.
Six times Stephanopoulos asked if, under the law, it would be legal to refuse service to gay customers and six times Pence refused to answer. And when asked outright if “you [Pence] think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays or lesbians … it’s a yes or no question,” Pence’s astonishing (and eye roll-inducing) answer was, “Hoosiers don’t believe in discrimination.” So there you go.

And while Pence continued to peddle the notion that he’d support efforts by the Indiana legislature to “clarify” their new license to discriminate, when asked if making the LGBT community a protected class would be considered, Pence said no, that he wouldn’t push for that, that it’s not on his agenda and that it’s “not an objective of the people of the state of Indiana,” and then flat-out said, “We’re not going to change the law” and that “I stand by this law.”

I was actually looking forward to a Pence bid for higher office, stocking up on popcorn in anticipation of watching our “Not ready for prime time” Governor embarrass himself on the “circuit.” But in this context, his persistent cluelessness is doing incredible economic damage to my city and state.

This, children, is what happens when grownups don’t participate in the political process.

 

Sending a Message–Updated

Back in 2000, I wrote a column for the Indiana Word about the use of legislation to “send a message.” Following passage of the so-called “Religious Freedom” bill, it seemed appropriate to revisit the points raised.

After all, hateful Hoosiers who want to discriminate against their LGBT neighbors can already do so with impunity–Indiana’s civil rights laws do not protect gay citizens. Same-sex marriages may be legal in Indiana, but gay Hoosiers can still be denied services, refused employment and/or fired just for being gay. So to the extent that SB 101 is aimed at permitting discrimination against members of the gay community, it’s totally unnecessary. Unless, of course, our lawmakers want to “send a message.”

As I pointed out back in 2000:

With all due respect to all the folks who want to use the General Assembly instead of Western Union, such an approach to lawmaking is wrongheaded and dangerous for a number of reasons.

1.) It trivializes the law. When the legislature passed measures to criminalize private sexual behavior, for example, no one seriously believed that the local constable was going to come into every bedroom to check for violations. Such measures were justified because they “sent a message.” And indeed they do, which brings us to the next problem. See Paragraph 2.

2.) Such laws send different messages to different people. Before they were struck down, sodomy laws “sent a message” to gays that they are second-class citizens. Laws making women submit to multiple “counseling sessions” or vaginal probes in order to obtain abortions signal legislative contempt for women, not respect for life. See Paragraph 3.

3.) They promote pandering. When lawmakers know perfectly well that they are engaging in a meaningless gesture, the urge to satisfy extremist constituencies can easily be justified; after all, where’s the harm?  Indiana, like many states, passed the Defense of Marriage Act to “send a message” that satisfied the Christian Right; lawmakers defended their actions to rational folks by pointing out, quite correctly, that the law hurt no one, because at the time there was no gay marriage to refuse to recognize. It was a model example of “Law as an Empty Gesture.” Of course, to gay citizens, it sent a different message. See paragraph two.

4.) “Messages” inconsistent with Constitutional values distort the balance of power in our legal system. When this original column was written, in 2000, lawmakers had just authorized posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings. Of course, that was patently unconstitutional, and lawmakers knew it. When I asked a State Representative why he and others were voting for a measure they knew would be struck down, his answer was candid: “We all have to go back and justify ourselves to the voters in Mayberry. Let the Courts take the heat.”

When lawmakers engage in this sort of unethical game playing, it feeds hostility to the judicial system, which must protect individual rights by voiding such improper and cynical measures. That hostility further erodes respect for law, and that brings us full circle. See Paragraph 1.

In the case of SB 101, we might add another likely consequence: although the measure doesn’t change Indiana laws that apply to gay folks, it may well encourage “religious” refusals to serve or employ Muslims or blacks or other Hoosiers who currently are protected under the state civil rights laws. It will almost certainly spawn expensive litigation. And it seems likely to cost Indianapolis (whose citizens by and large opposed the measure) several conventions and the economic benefits that those conventions bring.

Because the General Assembly did, indeed, “send a message.” And a lot of people received it.

It Depends

Early each semester, I tell my students that–after taking my class–they should find themselves using two terms more frequently than they did before: it depends, and it’s more complicated than that.

For example, in recent posts, I have pointed to significant problems with two proposed public-private projects: a Justice Center and a soccer stadium. In the case of the Justice Center, my qualms aren’t with the project itself, but with the secrecy surrounding it, the important questions that remain unanswered, and the potential for both poor design and unnecessary expense. In the case of the soccer stadium, i’m flat-out opposed to putting scarce tax dollars in a project that’s unlikely to do anything but enrich its politically-connected developer.

But just because some projects raise red flags doesn’t mean taxpayers should never support local business efforts. It simply means we need to be savvy about which ones.

Take the recent proposal from Angie’s List. The company has asked the city to create a TIF to secure approximately 18 million in bonds. In return it has promised to invest $44 million of its own– to retain a thousand jobs on its near-Eastside campus, to relocate another existing 800 employees to that campus, and to grow the workforce there by yet another 1000– all by the end of 2019. In addition to those jobs (paying an average of 50,000), the company will purchase and redevelop an existing building and construct a parking garage.

Obviously, adding 1,800 well-paid workers to the near Eastside of downtown would be very good for the city. But what if Angie’s List defaults–what if it cannot grow its workforce, or even honor the “clawback” penalties for failure to do so?  What will the city have to show for its investment?

Several things, actually:

  • A contaminated property, the Ford Building, that has been redeveloped and returned to the tax rolls.
  • A new parking garage and street level retail on 3 acres of currently undeveloped property added to the property tax base.
  • Physical improvements that should spur redevelopment east of the interstate towards Irvington.
  • Creation of 500 construction jobs that will generate COIT and sales tax revenue.
  • Facilitation of IPS’ relocation of operations from the former Coca-Cola building on Massachusetts Avenue – something both the city and IPS have long desired.

Note that these aspects of the project will benefit taxpayers whether or not Angie’s List can fulfill its employment promises. If it can, the city will obviously see many other benefits.

The point is, every proposed project, every proposed TIF district, every “partnership” must be independently evaluated. Hard questions must be asked, and “what ifs?” must be considered. If rosy projections don’t materialize, will taxpayers still come out ahead? If not (soccer stadium), we shouldn’t proceed. If we don’t have enough information (Justice Center), we shouldn’t proceed until we have that information. If a project has been thoroughly vetted, however, and the downside is still acceptable, it’s a prudent investment.

In other words, it depends.