Category Archives: Local Government

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.

Accentuating the Positive….

Some readers may be old enough to remember the Sammy Davis Jr. hit song, the one that advised listeners to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative…and don’t deal with Mister In-Between.”

I think Governor Pence took that advice too seriously.

A couple of days ago, an Indianapolis Star article trumpeted the governor’s “good news” that “From February to April, Indiana saw a .5% decline in the unemployment rate, from 5.9% to 5.4%. That’s the 5th largest decline in the nation in that time period.”

That sure was accentuating the positive. The negative–which certainly was eliminated by both the Governor and the Star’s coverage– was reported by  the Institute for Working Families, which noted that during that same time period, 18,800 Hoosiers had dropped out of the labor force.

Per Derek Thomas, senior researcher for the Institute:

As a percent of the labor force, that’s the second largest exodus from the labor market in the U.S. during that time period – just behind Wisconsin. This means that the unemployment rate decline can be explained – in part – by the number of Hoosiers leaving the labor force. Workers are only counted in the unemployment rate if they are actively seeking work. If someone finds no success in the job market, gives up the job search, and leaves the labor force, the unemployment rate goes down – but not for good reasons.

The Governor also took credit for GM’s recent decision to invest 1.2 billion dollars in upgrades to its Fort Wayne plant. During an interview on a local radio show, he attributed the decision to passage of Right to Work and repeal of the Common Wage, implying that Indiana’s efforts to neuter labor unions were the key to GM’s decision.

Ironically, not only is the GM plant unionized, but the company’s massive retooling will be done by union construction workers pursuant to precisely the sort of project labor agreement that Pence demonized in television ads this spring.

I understand accentuating the positive, but inventing the positive takes real chutzpah.

I wonder what the weather is like in the reality the Governor inhabits.

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.