Category Archives: Local Government

Corruption Comes in Many Flavors

One of the elements of the recent McCutcheon decision that has had many lawyers shaking their heads is the majority’s airy dismissal of concerns about the many ways dollars corrupt the system.

The majority limited the definition of corruption to the receipt of a quid pro quo.

Now, obviously, the exchange of money for a legislator’s vote is a corrupt act. It is also illegal. The majority seems to believe that only such blatant and illegal acts–outright bribes–are unethical.

If that cramped understanding of the ethical obligations of citizens and public servants carries the day, it won’t take long until we inhabit a society that has lost whatever is left of its moral center.

Let’s look at a couple of examples that are currently playing locally.

State Representative Eric Turner is currently being investigated for working feverishly behind the scenes to derail a law that would have hurt his son’s nursing home business. (According to the Indianapolis Star last Sunday, Turner also had significant personal investments that would have been negatively affected by the legislation.) If the allegations are proven, Turner is probably guilty of breaking a law, although that isn’t entirely clear–but even if his behavior didn’t actually violate a statute, is there any doubt that such actions were unethical?

Then there’s the smoke alarm ordinance that I blogged about awhile back. Counselor Scales (who seems to be the only City-County Counselor at all concerned about the fact that it would hand one vendor a probable monopoly) asked for and received an opinion from legal counsel. She was told that an offer–a quid pro quo, actually–that didn’t enrich anyone personally isn’t a violation of the City’s ethics ordinance.

If you’ll recall, the ordinance would require property owners to purchase smoke alarms with non-removable, non-replaceable “sealed” batteries with a ten-year life.  The company that manufactures those alarms, and would benefit from the requirement, promised IFD “free smoke detectors, payment for TV and radio public-service announcements, press events and donations to IFD-favored charities” in exchange for IFD’s support for the ordinance.

No firefighter was bribed, but the department would certainly benefit from the “generosity” of the vendor–and needless to say, the vendor would benefit financially from passage of that ordinance. IFD didn’t solicit “bids” and didn’t give other smoke alarm companies an opportunity to match the “gifts.” That said, no law was broken. The Ethics ordinance wasn’t violated.

The McCutcheon majority would dismiss these–and countless similar examples–as mere persuasion. Free speech. The prerogative of those who are engaged in commerce.

The fact that such behaviors take place behind closed doors is a pretty good indication that the people involved know that such activities–legal or not–aren’t kosher. Legal doesn’t equal ethical, no matter how disconnected from reality the Court’s majority remains.

An Ethics Question

In yesterday’s Star, Matt Tully reminded readers of a longstanding problem in the Indiana General Assembly–the multiple conflicts of interest that influence lawmaking in the Hoosier state, and the disinclination to do anything about it.

In fact, if quotes from state lawmakers are any indication, we’ve elected a fair number of people who wouldn’t recognize a conflict if it bit them on the you-know-what.

City government is evidently not exempt from that problem.

City-County Councilor Christine Scales has raised an question about the ethics of a proposal that certainly deserves more consideration than it has gotten thus far: a pending ordinance would require property owners to purchase smoke alarms with non-removable, non-replaceable “sealed” batteries with a ten-year life. On the surface, this is a reasonable safety measure, since many homeowners fail to replace shorter-lived batteries, and are thus unprotected if a fire occurs.

However, according to Counselor Scales, not only are the smoke alarms in question relatively expensive, the technology that would be required by the ordinance (a) has some safety issues of its own, which have been the subject of previous televised investigative reports; and (b) is proprietary to one company, which means the ordinance would have the effect of giving that company a monopoly on sales in Indianapolis. It further appears that the company in question has promised IFD “free smoke detectors, payment for TV and radio public-service announcements, press events and donations to IFD-favored charities” in exchange for IFD’s support for the ordinance.

I know absolutely nothing about smoke alarm technology. Perhaps the Councilor’s safety concerns are unfounded. But the ethics questions she raises are troubling and entirely legitimate, and deserve airing, and they aren’t being addressed. Instead, she reports that her questions have been met with stonewalling and silence.

Is Marion County proposing to hand a manufacturer a monopoly in return for a quid pro quo? 

 

 

Some Facebook Wisdom

I’ve been mulling over a Facebook comment to my post a week or so ago about the insanity of Indiana’s single-minded focus on low taxes as the magic medicine for everything and anything that ails us.

A reader named Brian wrote

“I left low tax indianapolis for high-tax Madison, WI. My property taxes for my little suburban ranch are more than double what my parents back in Indy pay for their 2 story in an awesome neighborhood. But, those high taxes pay for good police, good schools and good services. My residential street gets plowed every time it snows. I can send my kid to a public school and not have to worry about the quality of her education- there are some private schools here, but not many, because mostly, they aren’t needed. My family back in Indy all have security systems on their homes. Meanwhile, I’ve gone 3 days forgetting to lock the front door. I have a city that cares about my quality of life. My taxes pay for lake access, bike paths and more parks than I’ve ever seen. I could save money on taxes moving back to Indy. But I’d lose every bit of my savings paying for private versions of the services I get here. And I get the extra satisfaction in knowing that everyone has access to these services, not just suburbanites like me.”

I think this comment highlights a reality that all too often gets buried in the zealotry of the Left/Right debate: the fundamental question we face, especially in cities, isn’t whether we will pay for services. It’s how.

Most of us are unwilling to forgo police and fire protection, garbage collection, paved streets, and schools for our children. Most of us, if survey data is to be believed, also want convenient and reliable public transportation, parks and bike paths.  Many of us are undoubtedly willing to forgo sports arenas and cricket fields, but we all want and need  museums and libraries, as well as the more basic necessities and amenities that make life in urban areas attractive.

Those necessities and amenities cost money, but they cost less when we provide them collectively.

Some day, when time permits, I want to do an experiment. I want to calculate what it would cost to procure these services in the private marketplace. How much would I have to spend to hire private security, contract for fire protection, find a scavenger service to pick up my trash, etc.? (I don’t know how I would even arrange street paving and snow removal–perhaps through a cooperative with my neighbors? And what about sewers? Would private providers charge to hook in, or would we all further damage the environment with private septic systems?) I could pay to use private parks–or join a country club if I could afford that–and of course I’d have no option but to have the considerable expense of a car.

That sort of transactional existence doesn’t sound very attractive, and it would significantly disadvantage poor folks, but let’s assume those considerations aren’t relevant. (They sure aren’t to many of our lawmakers.) One thing seems clear: the costs involved would be far in excess of what I pay in property taxes.

The point is, our interminable debate about “taxes” and “tax rates” is profoundly misleading. We have no choice but to provide local governments with the funds needed to provide a reasonable quality of communal life.

We can legitimately argue about cronyism, whether a given administration is operating efficiently, and about whether obvious “extras” like sports arenas are justified, but when we make a virtue of starving the public sector of basic operating income, we shouldn’t be shocked when local politicians rob Peter to pay Paul by selling off public goods and trading our long-term interests for short-term cash.

Think about that the next time you flush.

 

 

PLEASE Make Them Stop!

It’s no longer possible for us mere mortals to keep up with the craziness in the Indiana General Assembly.

Yesterday, Doug Masson posted about House Bill 1123.

It prohibits a health insurance policy from covering abortion services provided by a medical provider except that it can provide such coverage if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or if an abortion is necessary “to avert the pregnant woman’s death or a substantial an irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.” However such coverage may be provided through an endorsement or rider.

The paternalism and anti-abortion zealotry that led to this particular effort to tell insurance companies what they can and cannot cover, and how, joins a raft of other equally high-handed measures.

Does your local government want to ask its citizens what modes of transportation they want –and what they’re willing to pay? Tough. We know better than you what’s good for you.

Does your local sheriff want to sponsor a gun buy-back to get weapons off the street? Don’t try it. Our gun freaks will not only forbid it, they’ll add a measure letting  you bring a gun to school.

Who do you businesses and local governments think you are, anyway–trying to make your own decisions?

Whatever happened to the self-described legislative champions of free enterprise–the pro-business folks who advocate limiting regulations to those absolutely necessary to protect the public? Where are all the staunch defenders of local control–the legislators so protective of their prerogatives that they deep-sixed Common Core? (How dare anyone suggest that Indiana schoolchildren learn the same math and history as kids in other states?)

I guess when the General Assembly talks about “liberty” and “local control,” it means liberty from federal rules and the right to control everything else.

From Accidental to Delusional

When Greg Ballard was first elected, many people dubbed him the “accidental Mayor,” in recognition of the fact that virtually no one had voted for him; they had voted against Bart Peterson, who had the bad luck to be in office when the General Assembly raised property taxes. (When voters don’t know that there’s this thing called federalism, they also don’t know who raised their taxes.)

Subsequently, Ballard actually won an election, and we are stuck with him for at least the next couple of years–perhaps more, if the Democrats can’t find a viable candidate pretty soon.

On the one hand, it’s hard not to feel sorry for this or any Hoosier mayor. There is no money to do much of anything. The brutal winter has exhausted snow-removal budgets. The Department of Metropolitan Development is down to three planners. The police force is seriously understaffed. The list goes on.

The problem is, this Mayor came into office not knowing anything about urban policy or administration, and he has not proved to be a quick learner. So we have watched his numerous “economic development” junkets, his enthusiasm for cricket, his lack of enthusiasm for the legislative battles over measures that adversely affect a city in a state with no home rule…again, the list is lengthy.

Now we are told how the Mayor wants to solve the systemic problems that are strangling our city and depriving us of needed revenues: we’ll do it by encouraging higher-income folks to move to Indianapolis and grow our tax base.

Can you spell delusional?

Read my lips: people with the means to decide where they want to live make those choices based upon quality of life. They don’t move to cities with horrendous and growing homicide rates, poorly-maintained parks and streets, badly managed snow removal, struggling schools, abysmal public transportation and dwindling city services. They don’t wake up one morning and say, “Wow, I hear Indianapolis has a cricket field. Let’s move there.”

We’ll be lucky if local people who can decide where they want to live don’t continue to leave Indianapolis. (Marion County had Indiana’s largest absolute net outflow of population over the past decade.)

Our city faces truly monumental challenges. It would be nice if we had an administration capable of understanding those challenges.