Category Archives: Local Government

Indiana’s Economy–the Spin and the Reality

Indiana Governor Mike Pence has just bragged about the state’s surplus. We are supposed to consider the existence of that pot of money–that “rainy day” fund–as evidence of fiscal responsibility.

Not so much.

Assume I have a mortgage on my house, and I’m intent on building a savings account from which I can make future payments. Prudent fiscal management. Unless, of course, I have refused to repair the hole in the roof, because I’m saving the money for future house payments.

One of the biggest holes in the Hoosier roof is FSSA, which is being sued by caseworkers over huge caseloads that keep them from adequately protecting children. FSSA “reverted” 37 million dollars from its budget, so that the Governor could brag about his surplus. And it wasn’t just FSSA; here is a list of other “reversions” required by the Administration.

It’s amazing how much money you can save if you don’t deliver services.

And what about all those other “indicators” the Governor touts?

In the wake of the RFRA debacle and the subsequent hiring and firing of a PR firm that was supposed to repair the damage, there has been more interest than usual in what the numbers really say about Indiana’s economy.

Recently, the Indiana Democrat’s blog addressed what it called the Governor’s “Fuzzy Math.” It would be easy to dismiss its conclusions as partisan spin, and probably in anticipation of such dismissal, the posted article cited its source for each number.

The data is in table format, with the Governor’s statements on one side and the actual numbers on the other. There are several sections, but I was particularly struck by the response to Governor Pence’s assertions that Indiana is enjoying “historic” employment levels and that the Hoosier economy is “growing stronger every day.”

The blog shared the following data, from which we can all draw our own conclusions:

  • Since spring 2000, 500,000 more people have moved to Indiana while the employment participation rate has seen one of the largest declines in the nation.

[Indianapolis Star, 5.28.15]

  • New Indiana manufacturing jobs pay wages that are far lower than the national average – and are considered “lower-valued” in the manufacturing industry.

[Indianapolis Star, 6.10.15]

  • Indiana ranks 38th in the nation in per capita income.

[Indianapolis Star, 6.1.15]

  • Hoosiers make 86 cents to every one American dollar.

[Indianapolis Star, 6.1.15]

There are lots of ways to “slice and dice” economic data. It’s a question of focus–are we just trying to create an environment where business can keep costs down? Then the Governor is right:  Right to Work, a low minimum wage, and low business taxes are the way to go. (Although the numbers suggest those tactics aren’t producing many jobs.)

Do we want a state where workers can count on a living wage, a state where all workers, whatever their gender and/or ethnicity, are paid equally for equal work, a state where tax revenues are sufficient to provide a decent quality of life? If those are our goals, the numbers tell the story; we aren’t doing very well.

Do we want an Administration that provides essential public services in a businesslike fashion, or one presided over by a Governor who is focused upon image while ignoring the hole in the roof?

In case you hadn’t noticed, Mike, it’s raining.

What We Learn When Journalists Do Their Jobs

In my recent blog about the termination of the PR contract intended to repair the considerable damage to Indiana’s reputation inflicted by the RFRA debacle, I questioned Governor Pence’s assertion that Indiana was creating lots of jobs so the contract was no longer necessary.

I also noted that there has been considerable criticism of the way in which the state’s economic development agency reports job creation numbers. (In all fairness to Governor Pence, those concerns precede the current administration.)

I knew there had been allegations that the Indiana Economic Development Corporation routinely  and intentionally “cooked the books,” but I was unaware of the considerable evidence supporting those allegations until a regular reader sent me a link to a story done last year by WTHR.

The extensive report is pretty devastating. Among WTHR’s findings:

  • IEDC’s new transparency website is missing basic disclosure information that other states release to taxpayers.
  • The state agency is not releasing any information about hundreds of projects it previously announced.
  • IEDC is reporting official job statistics that exclude all failed economic development projects from its calculations.
  • Both IEDC and the governor are citing the state’s new job transparency law as justification to withhold information from public disclosure.

I encourage readers to click through and read the entire report. It documents misdirection and “gaming the system” by the Administration in great detail–and it should make taxpayers pretty angry.

It certainly made me angry, for two reasons: first, because our elected officials are playing fast and loose with the truth; and second, because this sort of investigative reporting about local government is all too rare.

The whole purpose of freedom of the press was to provide this sort of “watchdog” function–to allow the press to act on behalf of citizens who lack the time and expertise to keep tabs on those we’ve charged with managing our governing institutions. Kudos to WTHR–but where is the rest of the local media?

We get lots of coverage –indeed, I’d suggest overkill–of things like the Richmond Hill trial, the (thus far speculative) investigation of Subway spokesman Jared Fogle, and the most recent bar openings, but little or no oversight of the state and municipal government agencies that spend our tax dollars and regulate our behaviors. Figuring out what’s going on is admittedly more work than telling us about the opening of the latest restaurant–but it’s also a whole lot more important.

When I see a well-researched story like this one, it reminds me why journalism is so important–and makes me sad that we have so little of it.

Is It November Yet?

Every so often, our Accidental Mayor does something to remind us why it’s not a good idea to elect people who don’t understand how government is supposed to work.

As reported on the IndyDemocrat blog, Council President Maggie Lewis recently issued the following statement:

“Very recently I was informed that Mayor Ballard unilaterally authorized a withdraw of $6.8 million dollars out of the IMPD general fund without consultation or approval from the Council. This is not how good municipal government works. The Council recently overrode the Mayor’s veto to add appropriations to fund critically needed pursuit rated vehicles and necessary upgrades to IMPD facilities. His decision means many IMPD officers will continue to operate substandard vehicles and train at outdated facilities. We have too few officers on the street to begin with and this action by the administration may put at risk the city’s ability to fund this Fall’s final recruit class of 2015. I call on the Mayor to immediately reverse course and follow both the letter and spirit of Indiana law by returning the money to IMPD now.”

The most important sentence in that statement is “This is not how good municipal government works.”

Perhaps the Mayor had a perfectly good reason for withdrawing those funds. Or perhaps he didn’t. The purpose is irrelevant; the “rules of the game” require the Mayor and Council to communicate, to work together, and to jointly authorize fiscal decisions. The fact that the Council is controlled by a different political party than the Administration does not eliminate that requirement. (I should note that, back in the days of the Hudnut Administration, factional disputes among the Republicans on the Council made relations every bit as testy as the partisan divisions today–but despite a lot of grousing,  the Administration didn’t try to “sneak” things past the Council.)

Process matters.

Government in a democratic system is not run like the military, or like business, where the person at the top of the pyramid makes decisions that others must follow. That’s one reason why calls to run government “like a business” are so misplaced–government isn’t a business. It should be run in a “business-like” fashion (meaning efficiently and cost-effectively), but we should never lose sight of the fact that government’s mission is not focused on the bottom line, and the rules by which it operates must meet democratic accountability standards.

Mayor Ballard isn’t in the Marines anymore. He doesn’t get to unilaterally call the shots.

Aside from the inappropriateness of the Mayor’s action, I can’t help wondering: what was the money used for? In a city with an unacceptably high crime rate, what was more important than (our already grossly  underfunded) public safety?

 

Public Transportation Matters

One of the more galling recent debates in Indiana’s dysfunctional General Assembly was over the question whether Indianapolis could ask its own citizens whether we want public transportation enough to tax ourselves to support it. The Grand Poobahs of our legislature were reluctant to allow us that measure of self-government, but after restricting the scope of our decision-making, they finally authorized a referendum.

There are lots of reasons why public transportation is essential to urban America’s economic vitality and quality of life. Frequent, reliable and attractive public transportation reduces traffic congestion, improves air quality and saves citizens’ money. Businesses that employ lots of entry-level workers rely on transit to get employees to and from work. And of course, low-income folks, the disabled and the elderly are particularly dependent upon public transportation.

A new study from Harvard adds social mobility to the list.

The research found that access to good, reliable transportation is “the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty.” In fact,

The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community, said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the researchers on the study.

For most middle-class folks, good public transportation is an amenity–an attractive convenience of urban life that is unfortunately missing in central Indiana.

For poor folks, it’s an escape route.

 

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Ah, democracy!

Like so many words echoing through today’s content-free political tantrums, “democracy” gets thrown around by folks who don’t seem to understand how it is supposed to work. (“Liberty” is similarly misused; in the recent RFRA debate, defenders of the law used it to mean retailers’ right to discriminate against customers whose identities or behaviors offended their religious beliefs.)

My observation about the misuse of “democracy” is prompted by a recent blog–diatribe, actually–posted by an Indianapolis school board member named Gail Cosby. (Full disclosure here: I wouldn’t have seen the post, nor would I be following the school board’s “inside baseball” disagreements if our daughter and a former graduate student of mine weren’t both members of that body. So while I am a constituent of Cosby’s, I come with a somewhat amplified point of view.)

In the wake of the most recent school board elections, Cosby has found herself in the minority (alone, actually) on several issues, and has taken to accusing those with whom she disagrees of bad faith, hostility and “undemocratic” behavior. She is absolutely entitled to her opinions, whatever one may think of the propriety or accuracy of these accusatory posts, but like too many other Americans, she quite clearly does not understand the democratic process.

And that leads me to my larger point.

When voters elect a legislative body–the General Assembly, the City-County Council, the School Board–the majority rules. Losing a vote, failing to have your opinion carry the day, or failing to have all your demands met is not evidence of anti-democratic behavior, or “failure to collaborate.” It is the way the system works. The obligation of those of us who find ourselves in a minority position–and believe me, I’ve been in minority positions a lot— is to persuade enough other people of the wisdom/prudence/soundness of your position that you become a majority.

Of course, that takes effort, and persistence, and a willingness to listen and to compromise.

One of the reasons American politics is so debased these days is that too many people share Cosby’s evident disinclination to participate in the hard work required by the democratic process. Too many legislators want to blame their inability to get their own way on other people’s bad faith, or ulterior motives, or “undemocratic” behavior.

To say that the majority isn’t always right is an understatement. But that doesn’t make majority rule undemocratic.