Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Can We Define “Liberty”–Before Someone Gets Shot?

For a bunch of lawmakers who just love to talk about liberty, the cowboys at the Indiana General Assembly seem to have embraced a very odd definition of that term. In their view, “liberty” means their right to make decisions for everyone else.

Funny, I thought that was a description of autocracy.

Case in point: A bill is proceeding through the General Assembly that will allow guns to be brought to schools and school events. The measure also says that no school board (public or private) can enact a policy forbidding legally authorized persons to have guns in their cars on school property.

The NRA must be so proud.

Ignore, for a moment, the lunacy of encouraging people to bring weapons to schools. Pretend that 26 children weren’t gunned down last year in Connecticut. Ignore the fact that gun violence is an epidemic in this city, state and country. Those arguments–while important– really are beside the point. (Although for a pointed and effective, albeit snarky, takedown of the “let’s arm the world” lunatics, you really should read this Op Ed about an Idaho bill permitting guns on campus..)

The real question is: Why in the world does the Indiana General Assembly get to tell public and private schools what safety precautions they may not choose to employ?

Municipalities have long complained about the lack of home rule in Indiana, but as the years have gone on, it has only gotten worse. The micromanaging and increasing high-handedness of the General Assembly is hard enough to stomach; the undeniable fact that campaign donors and special interests are all too often served at the expense of both sound policy and Indiana’s citizens is getting intolerable.

At what point do we ordinary Hoosiers demand some “liberty” of our own?

 

 

Discriminating with Your Tax Dollars

I guess one person’s discrimination is another’s religious liberty.

The most contentious provisions of George W. Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiative” were those that proposed to allow organizations doing business with government to discriminate on the basis of religion. The Initiative has largely faded away, but the debate –as we saw yesterday in the Indiana General Assembly–keeps popping up.

Here’s a scenario that may help illuminate the issue: Church X feeds the hungry in a soup kitchen in its basement. If local government pays for both the soup and an employee hired to ladle the soup, can Church X refuse to hire a soup ladler who does not live in accordance with Church X’s beliefs? i.e., an unwed mother, a GLBT person, a Jew?

If Church X were using its own money to run the soup kitchen, it could hire who it wants. It could even require the hungry to pray over their soup. The Free Exercise Clause protects churches from anti-discrimination laws inconsistent with their teachings (it would be ludicrous to insist that Baptists consider hiring an atheist Sunday School teacher). Free Exercise protects Eric Miller’s pastors no matter how extreme their anti-gay rhetoric.

But (you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?) that’s when they are using their own money. 

When a religious organization has a contract with government–when it accepts tax dollars to provide a secular service–citizens have the right to expect that the service will be provided in a non-discriminatory way. We have a right to insist that people whose salaries we are paying with our tax dollars be protected against discrimination–including discrimination based upon religious dogma.

Most states agree, and most have laws providing that when governments contract with private or nonprofit organizations–including religious organizations–the contractor must agree to abide by the state’s civil rights laws.

Yesterday, Eric Turner tried to change that longstanding practice. Perhaps he was “getting even” for losing the second sentence of HJR 3. Perhaps–as one reporter suggested–he was trying to rescue  Indiana Wesleyan University‘s workforce training contract.  (Turner filed the measure shortly after the state rejected a longstanding workforce training contract with Wesleyan. The attorney general’s office determined language allowing the Christian university to hire in part based on religion violated state law.)

Whatever his motive, Turner proposed amending Indiana’s civil rights law to allow religious institutions doing business with the state to hire and fire employees for religious reasons.

The measure narrowly passed the House Ways and Means Committee, but Speaker Brian Bosma killed the measure shortly after it sparked a heated debate on Twitter. (His experience with HJR 3 may have dampened his enthusiasm for culture war politics.)

Look, if despising GLBT people, or Jews or Muslims or whoever, is really, really important to your religious organization, go for it! Hire people based upon religious criteria, provide services only to people who agree with you, preach your dogma to whoever will listen. No problem.

Just don’t demand tax dollars to subsidize those activities.

No one is interfering with your freedom to discriminate. We’re simply declining to finance it.

 

Back Home in Indiana…

If our legislature paid half as much attention to job creation and economic realities as it does to time zones, same-sex marriage and teaching cursive, Indiana’s economy might actually improve, and state agencies might not have to lie about their performance.

If our lawmakers took an honest look at the results of ideologically-driven measures like tax reductions, constitutionalizing the tax caps and “right to work” legislation–we might  encourage the kinds of economic activity that would work for everyone.

Honest to goodness.

Instead, Indiana continues to underperform on a wide range of measures. In a recent column, Morton Marcus highlighted one of those– a significant increase in the gap between the average weekly earnings of a Hoosier worker and that of the average American worker– and he asked a pertinent (and impertinent) question:

 In Dec.’07 that gap was $20.74; by Dec.’13 the gap between Indiana and the nation grew to $58.99 per week. Is this the economic progress our elected legislative and executive leaders travel the world to advance? Is this consistent with those boastful press releases we read about how well Indiana is doing because of our low business taxes and slack regulation?

Elsewhere in the country, it is dawning on elected officials that it is quality of life, not tax rates, that drives relocation decisions. A state that boasts of its “slack regulation” is advertising its resemblance to West Virginia, where  drinking the water has gotten hazardous.  A state touting its low taxes is communicating where its priorities lie; increasingly, when businesses being courted are told “we have low taxes,” they hear “we have substandard education, poorly-maintained roads and parks, and not enough police officers to protect you.” And they’re right.

Amazing as it may seem, people smart enough to run a successful business are smart enough to know that states, like people,  get what we pay for. And back home in Indiana, we aren’t willing to pay for much of anything.

Honest to goodness, Indiana.

Looking for the Right Word…

I’m looking for a word. Irresponsible doesn’t quite convey what I’m after. Despicable and corrupt come closer. Bat-shit crazy is a bit too inelegant, and besides, being crazy lets people off the hook–it implies that they don’t really know what they’re doing.

Here’s what generated my search for that perfect word: Yesterday, when the House of Representatives voted to raise the debt ceiling, two Democrats and 199 Republicans voted no.

In other words, 201 Representatives favored an American default on its obligations that would probably trigger a worldwide financial meltdown, because….? Because they don’t approve of debt that the House of Representatives ran up? Because they don’t like the President? (There were 19 bipartisan, no-controversy votes to raise the ceiling when George W. Bush was President.) Because they’re pandering to people who are too stupid or uninformed to know what the debt ceiling is? Because they are too stupid or uninformed to know what it is?

Let me spell this out.

The Constitution requires that Congress make all spending decisions—the President proposes, but Congress disposes. Sometimes–okay, a lot of the time–Congress authorizes more spending than the government collects in revenue. That requires government to borrow the difference, in order to cover the deficit that Congress has already authorized.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Congress also votes to authorize that necessary borrowing to the extent that it will exceed the previously-set debt limit, or ceiling.

To many of us, this seems a bit silly, since the debt ceiling vote comes from the same Congress that has already voted for the spending that requires the borrowing, but this practice of raising the debt ceiling has generally been uncontroversial, and for years the ceiling has been routinely raised by votes from large, bipartisan majorities. 

Routinely, that is, until the unthinkable happened, and Barack Obama became President.

Dishonest rhetoric to the contrary, failing to raise the debt ceiling would not do anything to reduce the national debt. Congress has already authorized the spending. Instead, it would be a vote for the U.S. to default on what it already owes.

Even using the threat of nonpayment of the nation’s bills as a bargaining chip sends a chilling message to world financial markets and undermines America’s reputation as a sound place to invest.

If Congress actually refused to raise the ceiling, the results would be catastrophic; such a refusal would require the United States to stop paying many of its bills—including amounts owed to senior citizens for social security, defense contractors and members of the military who defend the country, and many others. Economists warn that such a failure to pay our bills could precipitate a worldwide economic collapse.  That’s why John Boehner–who periodically visits reality– ignored the suicide contingent in his caucus, and brought a so-called “clean” bill to the House floor.

I’m still looking for the word that adequately describes the House members who voted not to raise the debt ceiling. Those who knew what they were doing are beneath contempt; those who didn’t understand the implications of their votes are intellectually unfit to hold office.

Whatever you call them, they need to be sent home.

When Success is Failure…

There are lies, damn lies and (misrepresentation of) statistics.

Before the Affordable Care Act passed–when the country was debating the whys and wherefores of reform–proponents of major change (of whom I was one) pointed to the undeniable problems with America’s patchwork health delivery: the fact that we spent more per-person than any other country (by massive amounts) with significantly worse outcomes; that millions of Americans couldn’t obtain coverage either because they couldn’t afford it or due to pre-existing conditions; and that millions of people were stuck in jobs they hated because they’d lose coverage if they quit. 

How many new businesses, we asked, weren’t started because the would-be entrepreneur had a child with a pre-existing condition? How many people of a “certain age” wanted to cut back, but couldn’t because they’d lose their health coverage? How many Americans were effectively “slaves” to a job they didn’t want, staying solely for the health insurance?

Eliminating that “slavery” was a major goal of reform. It was one reason that many of us argued for decoupling health insurance from employment entirely, and making it part of social security, as it is elsewhere. We didn’t get that done, but the ACA is at least a step in the right direction.

A couple of days ago, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report showing real progress toward that goal of freeing people from jobs they hated:

With the expansion of insurance coverage, more workers will choose not to work and others will choose to work fewer hours than they might have otherwise, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The usual suspects immediately went into propaganda mode. “See,” they screamed, “Obamacare is killing jobs.”

Of course, that isn’t what the CBO said. It said people were voluntarily leaving jobs. The jobs are still there, and will need to be filled when the newly-freed depart–which should be good news to unemployed folks looking for work.

Somehow, in the fevered imaginations of the uninformed–and the dishonest rhetoric of the politically self-serving–meeting one of the original goals of health reform is evidence that it doesn’t work.

I’m getting dizzy from the spin cycle.