Category Archives: Local Government

If You Know What You’re Talking About–You’re Out of Order

When does the General Assembly go home? It can’t be soon enough.

Not content with ethical lapses, efforts to control women’s bodies and protect homophobia   (aka “religious liberty”) and bring public education to its knees, the eager beavers at the Statehouse have filed three (count them–three!) bills intended to disable any efforts to protect Hoosier air and water, and to keep those smarty-pants scientific “experts” from making environmental rules.

SJR 12 would amend the Indiana Constitution (these guys just love to screw around with the Constitution) to add a guaranteed right to “employ effective agricultural technology and livestock production and ranching practices.” I’m sure you are as touched as I am by this proposal to give the same sacred protection to livestock production practices as we human animals have with our right to vote and freedoms of speech and religion, and I’m also sure it’s just coincidental that passage of this nonsense will make it very hard for state regulators to protect Hoosiers from factory farm pollution.

Then there’s SB 249. That little gem would prohibit local government from passing ordinances that would control or stop new construction or expansion of livestock operations, factory farms and their accompanying hazards and irritations. The bill is a handy reminder that in Indiana, the General Assembly gets to make the rules for cities and counties. We sure don’t have home rule or anything remotely like it.

Those two bills are bad enough, but the real OMG measure is HB 1351, which will be heard on Tuesday, February 3rd.  The Hoosier Environmental Council calls HB 1351 “arguably the most sweeping effort ever to weaken Indiana’s ability to act in protecting our environment.”

It would void any existing state regulations — whether environmental-related or not — that are not considered to be explicitly authorized by federal or state law. It would make it illegal for regulators (whether environmental regulators or not) from enacting any new regulation unless explicitly authorized by federal or state law. This eliminates the multi-decade discretionary authority that executive agencies have long had….

Stripping away the ability of Indiana’s environmental agency (IDEM) to deal with serious issues is irresponsible and leaves Indiana vulnerable to not being able to timely act to protect its citizens when the legislature is not in session. HB 1351 could have the added effect of paralyzing IDEM in carrying out its existing responsibilities under certain EPA programs out of fear of being sued for going beyond what those federal programs require.

The idea that adopting new environmental safeguards, through respected, technically trained regulatory boards, could hurt Indiana’s economy is also misplaced because there are existing laws that already prevent state agencies, including IDEM, from acting irresponsibly in crafting new regulations. And the Indiana legislature can always repeal or modify regulations that the legislature thinks pose a threat to Indiana’s economy.

I think I remember why Harrison Ullmann used to refer to the Indiana General Assembly as “The World’s Worst Legislature.”

Quack Quack

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck but the Governor says it’s a chicken…it’s Medicaid expansion!

On Tuesday, the Pence Administration announced that the federal government had approved the Governor’s “It’s not Medicaid It’s Healthy Indiana” plan to provide health insurance to additional numbers of Hoosiers. As Talking Points Memo noted,

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) agreed to expand Medicaid under Obamacare Tuesday, but you’d be forgiven for not catching that if you actually listened to what he had to say.

TPM noted that Indiana’s expansion was announced with much the same terminology as expansions in other states headed by Republican governors.

The emphasis is always on the “alternative” and “unique” elements of their expansion plans. To be fair, that’s true. Starting with Arkansas, which proposed using Medicaid dollars to pay for private coverage, states with conservatives in positions of power have pushed the Obama administration to accept a wider and wider range of alternative plans that are more palatable to Republicans.

They’ve branded those plans with names like Healthy Indiana or Healthy Utah. But that doesn’t change the fact that these are proposals authorized under and paid for by Obamacare…..

The article included carefully wordsmithed statements from several other Republican states that have expanded Medicaid while denying that they were doing so.

But Pence might have been the boldest yet. His office effectively portrayed his state’s plan as a blow to Medicaid and government-funded health care.

“With this approval, Indiana will end traditional Medicaid for all non-disabled Hoosiers between 19 and 64,” Pence’s office said, “and will continue to offer the first-ever consumer-driven health care plan for a low-income population.”

But despite all of those linguistic gymnastics, astute observers on the conservative side still recognized Pence’s plan, like others before it, for what it was.

Linguistics aside, Pence might have gotten some decent publicity for his Medicaid expansion, which (whatever he wants to call it) is welcome news, and will make coverage available to many more Hoosiers– but the Administration’s ham-handed, tone-deaf effort to create a state-run news service (called “Pravda on the Plains” by the Daily Beast) sucked all the air from the news cycle, and eclipsed the announcement.

He got national attention, all right, but it wasn’t for Healthy Indiana.

Hint: Governor, if you are going to provide us with our news coverage, you need to learn how not to “step on the lede.”

 

 

 

At Least We Aren’t Kansas….

States are often referred to as “laboratories of democracy,” a phrase coined by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Although we might debate the utility of a federalist system in our shrinking, ever-more-connected world, it is certainly the case that different states pursue different policies and that the experience of, say, State A may have useful lessons for State B.

It is also the case that Governors tend to portray their own states in rosy terms.  In Indiana, the last couple of administrations have certainly “accentuated the positive” and “eliminated the negative.” Scholars and policymakers seeking to evaluate the claims must go beyond the hype and ask inconvenient questions. (It’s wonderful that you brought the XYZ company to Indiana, but doesn’t it pay minimum wage and hire only part-time workers to avoid offering benefits?)

 Which brings me to a recent report issued by Indiana’s Institute for Working Families. (Full disclosure: I am on the Institute’s Advisory Board.)

The Institute’s focus is self-sufficiency for Hoosier families, and it conducts research and advocates policies that are calculated to achieve that goal. Every two years, it issues a report measuring the economic health of Hoosier families. This year’s report (available on its website) does not support the rosy claims made by the Administration, to put it mildly.

Despite an improving unemployment rate, the number of impoverished and low-income Hoosiers is still on the rise, median household income is
still declining and income inequality in Indiana is growing… Hoosier families have steadily lost ground, too often at clips greater than the nation and even our neighbors. The data make it clear that Hoosier families are not the fiscal envy of the nation.

The report is lengthy, thanks to copious documentation, but highlights from an accompanying Infographic tell the story: 1,015,127 Hoosiers are below the poverty level—a record high. Another 1,260, 419 live on the edge of poverty. That brings the total number of low-income Hoosiers to 2,275,546.  Indiana is home to approximately 6, 500,000 people, so slightly over a third of all Hoosier citizens are struggling.

 Since 2007, the number of low-income Hoosiers has increased 20.7%. Indiana’s number of middle and high income residents has fallen by 8.7%.

Median household income in Indiana in 2013 was $47,529—down sharply from 2000, when it was $55, 182.

Indiana’s performance cannot simply be shrugged off as a consequence of the recession. Certainly, the recession was a factor, but between 2007 and 2013, while the country as a whole experienced a 20% increase in the poverty rate, Indiana’s increase was 29.3%.

What accounts for Indiana’s dismal income figures? The Institute’s research suggests a couple of culprits. First of all, there is what the Institute calls “the jobs swap”—during the recession and its aftermath, the state steadily lost jobs in mid-and high-wage industries, while the jobs we added were low wage positions. The numbers tell that story: Indiana added 14,726 low-wage jobs between 2007 and 2013; we lost 35,814 mid-wage jobs and 23,369 high-wage jobs.

And then there was government.

 What was Indiana government doing to address the erosion of Hoosier wage levels? It was cutting public employment, trimming the social safety net–and bragging about how “right to work” and a low minimum wage had made Indiana “competitive.”

 If we are a “laboratory of democracy,” our lab experiment failed.

 On the other hand, I suppose we should be glad we aren’t Kansas…

Socializing Risk, Privatizing Profit and Evading Referenda

Let’s talk about the proposed Criminal Justice Center, shall we?

First: I think the project itself makes all kinds of sense.

Second: The way it is being planned, financed and constructed makes no sense at all–if by “making sense” we mean serving the public interest and creating a long-term public asset.

It’s the parking meter fiasco redux. The city could have upgraded the meters for a relatively reasonable sum, raised the rates as the vendor did, and retained additional millions of dollars to be used for public purposes. Instead, we enriched a private contractor and ceded control of our parking infrastructure for fifty years.

The proposed approach to the construction of the Justice Center promises to be far, far worse, because all of the incentives are perverse. The current plan (to the extent the Administration has shared any information, which it has been largely unwilling to do) has private developers designing, constructing and financing the center, then leasing it to the city.

The “virtue” of this approach is simple: the Administration has devised a clever financing mechanism that allows it to avoid the pesky requirement of a public referendum and the level of public scrutiny such a referendum would require. (Any project that would result in taxes exceeding the now-constitutional tax cap must be submitted to public vote.)

The defects of this approach are numerous.

  • It will cost more. Cities with excellent credit ratings (Indy’s is triple A) can borrow money at lower rates than private entities.  I’m told the interest rate spread is at least 2%; on 500 million dollars, that’s a chunk of change. Furthermore, private entities must include a profit (and usually cover taxes) in the quoted price.
  • That need to build in a profit margin is a powerful incentive to cut corners on design and construction–decisions will be based on return on investment considerations rather than quality and/or the long-term value of what will eventually be a public asset. (As my husband says, public financing gives us buildings like the old Federal Courthouse; leasebacks give us buildings like the post office on South Street.)
  • Public projects of this size and scale provide lots of opportunities for crony capitalism–for spreading the goodies among one’s political donors and friends.

And there remain important unanswered questions.

For example, what happens if the City defaults, or finds future revenues insufficient to make lease payments high enough to cover those higher costs? The Administration’s estimate of available revenues includes some highly problematic “savings” it anticipates by reason of the new construction. Which City services will be sacrificed to ensure that the required payments are made? Will our already underfunded public safety budget be cut? Will even more roads go uncleared or unrepaired? Will our public parks be even more neglected?

The problem with “deals” like this one– delivered to the City Council as “take it or leave it” propositions with no meaningful opportunity to ask tough questions or consider potentially superior approaches–is that we taxpayers get stuck with decades-long liabilities agreed to in the dark by people who will be long gone when the bills come due.

 

Ennobling the Poor

Could Mike Pence be any more embarrassing?

Federal SNAP benefits–food stamps, in everyday parlance–average about 1.40 per meal. Not exactly filet mignon level benefits. But Indiana’s delusional Governor (who is running for President and who will be eviscerated by a national spotlight that doesn’t suffer fools gladly) has announced that he plans to “ennoble” SNAP recipients by cutting off those who can work. As he explained to Faux News

“I’m someone that believes there’s nothing more ennobling to a person than a job,” Pence insisted. “And to make sure that able-bodied adults without dependents at home know that here in the state of Indiana, we want to partner with them in their success.”

“You know, it’s the old story,” he continued. “Give someone a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Where to start?

First of all, SNAP recipients who are “able-bodied adults without dependents at home” are a small percentage of the total.  I’m sure the Governor’s rhetoric plays well with the GOP base he is targeting, but the vast majority of SNAP recipients are elderly, disabled or children–not the “welfare queens” of the Right’s fetid imaginings.

Second, there aren’t jobs available in low-wage Indiana that allow people to put food on the table. If our Pastor Governor wants to “ennoble” Hoosiers, he might consider changing his economic development efforts to concentrate on bringing good jobs to the state, rather than boasting over the poverty-level ones he actually attracts. As the United Ways’ ALICE report (more on that tomorrow) documents, basic household expenses in Indiana cost more than most Hoosier jobs can support.

Third, even poverty-level jobs aren’t widely available. Things are better than they were–thanks primarily to President Obama, not the Governor or our do-nothing Congress–but they’re far from good.

Tell you what, Mike: if you really want to “ennoble” struggling Hoosiers, stay out of Iowa, pass up the cozy get-togethers with the Koch brothers, and start doing the job you were (barely) elected to do. And just as a reminder–that job didn’t include suing the President, harassing the Superintendent of Public Instruction, marginalizing LGBT folks, preaching against reproductive choice or pontificating about the “nobility” of going hungry.

If you want to “teach a man to fish,” maybe you should consider stocking the lake.