Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Why Can’t We Be More Like Oregon?

As I’ve previously noted, early in the session, Indiana’s legislature moved quickly to kill a bill that would have kept our polling places open for two extra hours. (Indiana’s polls are the nation’s earliest to close). It was just one more effort to suppress the votes of people–mostly elderly, working poor and/or black–who might vote for the “wrong” party.

If we really wanted our citizens to vote (“we” clearly don’t), we’d take a leaf from Oregon’s book.

Call it “motor voter” on steroids.

New legislation signed into law today in Oregon paves the way for the state to one day have close to 100% voter registration. The new law takes the federal “motor voter” law to new levels and registers a person to vote when they obtain or renew a state driver’s license or ID – and it’s partially retroactive.

The law dictates that once residents interact with the state DMV – whether to get a license or ID for the first time, or renew an existing one – they’ll become registered to vote if they aren’t already. The registration will be provisional for 21 days, during which time applicants will be notified of their new status and be given a chance to become affiliated with a political party or to opt-out of the voting process altogether. In essence, Oregon will now be the first state to approach voting with an “opt-out” mindset, as opposed to “opt-in.”

I’ve written before about the virtues of Oregon’s vote by mail system, which is not only convenient, but allows time for thoughtful consideration of ballot choices. Every registered voter is automatically sent a ballot about two weeks before Election Day, and can either mail their ballots back or return them in person.

According to the Oregonian, 

Because of Oregon’s careful signature verification process, fraud and other electoral mischief are virtually nil.

Recounts in extremely close races are based on paper ballots of every vote — not receipts or electronic voting machines. So there’s no danger in Oregon of software hackers casting ersatz votes by the thousands — not to mention no electricity to operate electronic voting machines or impassable roads and polling places 3 feet underwater.

In the 2014 midterm election, 53.5% of Oregon’s registered voters actually voted. The state was fifth in voter turnout

Indiana was dead last. Gee–I wonder why.



I Bet You Thought This Song Was About You….

Remember that old song by Carly Simon, “You’re so vain”? I bet Ted Cruz thinks this blog is about him…but it isn’t, because really, what could I say that would be any more critical and dismissive than what you’re already thinking?

No, this is about Troy Woodruff, who was the subject of another actual news story in yesterday’s Star. (I’m getting kind of tingly…this is the second time in as many weeks that the Star  has done actual “watchdog” reporting. Could it be a trend??)

A former powerful state highway official, who was slammed last year by Indiana’s top ethics cop for repeatedly going “right up to the line,” appears to have exploited another ethics loophole.

Last July, members of the Indiana Ethics Commission told Troy Woodruff they would not grant him approval to quit his state job and became vice president of an Indianapolis engineering and architectural firm — because it would run afoul of state law.

The reason: As chief of staff for the Indiana Department of Transportation, Woodruff had recently signed several contracts that sent at least $500,000 in taxpayer money to the firm, RQAW.

Indiana’s ethics laws generally require former state employees to take a year off before working for companies with which they directly did state business.

The one-year cooling-off period is intended to prevent companies from dangling lucrative private jobs in front of state officials in exchange for regulatory favors or fat contracts.

This rule is what we might call a “no brainer.” It’s meant to keep public servants (that phrase is beginning to sound quaint) from throwing business to a firm in exchange for a cushy job. Quid pro quo.

So what did Woodruff do? Once again (he’s been caught violating ethical standards before), he followed the letter of the law while pissing on its spirit: he set himself up as an independent contractor, and entered into a contractual relationship with the firm, RQAW. In other words, he still got paid, but not as an “employee.” See–all nice and legal.

Woodruff may be the most blatant practitioner of legal brinkmanship, but he’s hardly alone. As is widely acknowledged, Indiana’s statehouse is rife with conflicts of interest and self-interested wheeling/dealing. Sanity would suggest that we are long past time for a housecleaning and an ethics bill with real teeth.

On the other hand, in a country where anyone seriously entertains the possibility of Ted Cruz as President, sanity may be too much to expect.


About “The Least of Us”….

Sunday sermon time…

Homeless people make most of us uncomfortable. The reasons vary: some people are frightened or intimidated, believing that unkempt and sometimes strange-acting street people pose a physical danger. Others feel guilt over a comparatively privileged status. Still others simply lack compassion and want “those people” to stop cluttering “their” landscape. A San Francisco Catholics Church evidently fell in the latter category.

First the water rained down, and then the condemnation rained down — and on Wednesday, San Francisco’s embarrassed Roman Catholic Archdiocese said it would tear out sprinklers that have been dousing homeless people sleeping in the doorways of its premier church in the city.

I’m sure Jesus would have been proud….

Here in Indianapolis, we haven’t been hosing down the homeless, but we’ve been hosing them in other ways.

As I’ve previously written, last year, a local group of independent filmmakers documented the City’s embarrassing treatment of homeless individuals (and the fact that NO public dollars are spent on programs to help them). The film actually motivated citizens to demand action by the City County Council–and the Council responded by passing a “Homeless Bill of Rights.” (Can we spell “democracy in action”? Very encouraging.)

Then the Mayor vetoed the ordinance.

The “usual subjects” defended the Mayor’s veto, because (wait for it) the constitution already gives homeless folks these rights. (Which were being so carefully observed by local authorities…)

The Huffington Post has an interesting report on the veto, under the headline: Hoosier Reputation Taking a Beating. (That’s a bit unfair–thanks to our legislature, our reputation is already pretty badly damaged….)

Prior to the historic vote and once humanitarian arguments were set aside, both sides debated the cost of granting equal rights to persons without housing. Opponents of the HBR feared high litigation costs should persons experiencing homelessness file lawsuits demanding equal access to public places.

I hate to point out an inconsistency here, but if homeless folks already have these rights, then they also already have the right to sue. And I haven’t noticed any “flood of litigation” over the City’s constant violation of those rights.

Proponents of the HBR cited statistics proving the cost of incarcerating the persons experiencing homelessness — something that is done now because homelessness is effectively illegal in Indianapolis — makes the HBR a cost saving measure.

We can argue costs and abstract rights until the cows come home, but I can’t get one scene from the documentary out of my head: the police trashing the pathetically few possessions of homeless people in an encampment that had become a sad but supportive “community”–throwing into dumpsters the books, chairs, tents and other items that these down-and-out folks had managed to hold onto, and telling them to scatter, to “go somewhere else.”

But not telling them where, because in Indianapolis, there are few, if any, places to go.



Why News Matters

Regular readers of this blog know that I am semi-obsessed with civic literacy–with the level of civic knowledge necessary to the operation of a representative democracy. And it could hardly have escaped notice that I’ve been pretty hard on what passes for media these days.

The two issues are inextricably entwined. We depend upon verifiable, credible journalism to inform us about our government and to allow us to hold our elected officials accountable.

My belief about the importance of this relationship has recently been confirmed by Pew.

The relative decline of local news — a result of slashed budgets and staffs at newspapers, where the majority of original reporting is still generated — has been an area of grave concern for members of the media as well as everyone who cares about civic health, from policymakers and social scientists to community groups and citizens. A lot of inputs are required to keep communities vibrant, and widely disseminated factual information — a common set of issues and understandings — turns out to be a key ingredient. The Federal Communications Commission spelled out some of these dynamics in its comprehensive 2011 report “Information Needs of Communities.
Academic research backs up these concerns, too. A 2014 study by Lee Shaker of Portland State University, “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement,” finds that at the national and local level there is a positive relationship between newspaper readership and civic engagement as measured by contacting or visiting a public official; buying or boycotting certain products or services because of political or social values; and participating in local groups or civic organizations such as the PTA or neighborhood watch. Likewise, a recent paper by Danny Hayes of George Washington University and Jennifer L. Lawless of American University, “As Local News Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement: Media, Knowledge and Participation in U.S. House Elections,” notes important implications for democracy: “Citizens exposed to a lower volume of coverage are less able to evaluate their member of Congress, less likely to express opinions about the House candidates in their districts, and less likely to vote.”
The million-dollar question, of course, is: What do we do about this situation?


Paradigm Shift

I see where Lindsay Graham–the new Chair of the Senate Committee on Technology–has never used email. And of course, I’ve posted before about James Inhofe, the climate-change denier and evolution skeptic who inexplicably heads up the Senate Committee on the Environment.

Shades of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who described the Internet as a “series of tubes.”

Perhaps the most penetrating description of John McCain during his campaign for President was “An analog candidate for a digital age.” It summed up a problem we encounter in times of paradigm shift, when people living in a rapidly vanishing world can no longer communicate with inhabitants of the emerging reality.

We have lawmakers who might just as well occupy different planets, so different are their frames of reference and worldviews. No matter how well intentioned, no matter that they have some abstract understanding that new technologies are creating new cultural norms, it is simply not possible for such people to make rational decisions about realities with which they have no firsthand experience. (Think Ted Cruz’ embarrassing comments about net neutrality–comments that clearly demonstrated his total ignorance of what the issue actually was about. Or Presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who demonstrated his lack of comprehension by saying  “The idea of regulating access to the internet with a 1934 law is one of the craziest ideas I’ve ever heard”–then multiply that cluelessness by the number of elected officials who are similarly rooted in another era.)

As a site called “The Big Blue Gumball” noted in a discussion of paradigms and paradigm shift:

Among the biggest paradigm shifts of the last 10 years have been the transitions from analog to digital, and from wired to wireless. These revolutionary technological changes have led to major sociological and behavioral modifications that impact our everyday lives – from the way we live and work, to the ways we entertain ourselves and engage with others.

But not the way all too many lawmakers understand the world.

We’re in big trouble.