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Meditation on Money as Political Heuristic

heuristic is a “rule of thumb,” usually derived from experience. For example, when I get an email telling me that my inbox is full and I should immediately click on this link to ask my “administrator” to expand its capacity, use of a heuristic tells me to delete the message as spam (or worse).

Heuristics are valuable time-savers, but they can also lead us to unwarranted conclusions, by oversimplifying complicated issues.

I’ve been thinking about the increasing use of campaign contributions as a heuristic in voting ever since the midterms. Full disclosure: our daughter was one of the three (successful) candidates for the Indianapolis Public School Board whose endorsement by an “out of state” organization and ability to raise money was the basis of assertions by opponents that they were somehow less committed to public education than candidates who were not endorsed and who raised very little money.

Suspicions about money are understandable in the wake of Citizens United, in an era when Super Pacs, 527s, “dark money” from people like the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Karl Rove and others regularly advance the prospects of special interests. But all endorsements and all funding sources aren’t equal.

If a candidate or campaign is endorsed by an organization with which you have significant policy disagreements, that’s obviously a legitimate reason to withhold your support, but the mere fact that an endorsement comes from a national group is not. Being national–even being “out of state”– is not in and of itself nefarious. Similarly, candidates who raise only trivial amounts of money either aren’t considered viable by most donors or aren’t working very hard–and neither is a positive sign.

Let’s take an example: When Freedom Indiana was fighting HJR 3, the ban on same-sex marriage, help from national organizations like Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Campaign was critical to that effort–and to the effort to raise essential campaign funds.

What is important is transparency.

We need rules and mechanisms that permit voters to know where candidates are getting their money and what it is those contributors stand for. (Also–although since Buckley v. Valeo the Supreme Court has consistently failed to recognize it– we need rules limiting the amount of money that any particular person or organization can contribute, directly or indirectly.)

I’ll be the first to agree that the current rules governing campaign funding–if one can even dignify them as “rules”–aren’t helpful.

Voters should be able to look at the sources of a candidate’s support, and make their own judgments about what that support means, and whether they agree or disagree with the positions of the endorser or contributor. In the school board race, voters had that information, but in far too many situations, they don’t know who is behind the “Grandmas and Kittens PAC.” We need far more–and more frequently reported– information than we currently have, and we need enforcement of the rules (few and weak as they are) that do exist.

That said, all money isn’t evil and all issues aren’t exclusively local. Rules of thumb have their place, but they need to be properly applied.




Love and Marriage…Even in Indiana

Talk about a surprise! Yesterday, the Supreme Court refused to hear any of the appeals of lower court same-sex marriage rulings. There were seven of them, and in all seven,  both sides had urged the Court to grant review — a rare occurrence and, as a Scotusblog post noted, one that almost never fails to assure review.

So–what are the consequences of the Court’s decision not to decide? Per Scotusblog again:

First, as a direct result of Monday’s action, same-sex marriages can occur when existing lower-court rulings against state bans go into effect in Virginia in the Fourth Circuit, Indiana and Wisconsin in the Seventh Circuit, and Oklahoma and Utah in the Tenth Circuit.

Second, such marriages can occur when the court of appeals rulings are implemented in federal district courts in three more states in the Fourth Circuit (North and South Carolina and West Virginia) and in three more states in the Tenth Circuit (Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming).  The other states in the three circuits where bans have been struck down had already permitted same-sex marriage, under new laws or court rulings (Illinois, Maryland, and New Mexico, which have been counted among the nineteen states in that category).

Third, four other circuits — the Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh — are currently considering the constitutionality of same-sex marriages.  Of those, the Ninth Circuit — which had earlier struck down California’s famous “Proposition 8″ ban and uses a very rigorous test of laws against gay equality — is considered most likely to strike down state bans.  If that happens, it would add five more states to the marriages-allowed column (Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and Nevada), which would bring the national total to thirty-five.

With thirty or more states recognizing same-sex marriages, the odds of the Court weighing in at some future time to uphold bans–to reverse the “facts on the ground”–is somewhere between nil and never.  We may never know what led to yesterday’s decision to abstain, but it was one of those times when not deciding is deciding.

Perhaps the conservatives on the Court preferred slowing the inevitable to issuing an opinion that would almost certainly have been pro-equality.

Even Micah Clark, Indiana’s pre-eminent culture warrior, conceded the inevitable; the Star quoted him as saying that  “socially conservative” advocacy groups will now focus their efforts on legislation intended to “protect churches, nonprofit groups, and businesses that deny services to gay couples on religious grounds.”

Since churches and most religious nonprofits are already “protected” by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment–something social conservatives seem to have trouble grasping–I assume Clark and his ilk will mostly try to “protect” merchants who want to discriminate against LGBT folks. That didn’t work for white southerners whose “religious beliefs” precluded offering services to black people, and it isn’t likely to work here, either.

Yesterday, love and real family values won a big one.


Time for Ballard to Go

The City of Indianapolis is seeking bids for a massively expensive Justice Center. This huge and complex project–which makes a lot of sense, conceptually–is being headed up by a twenty-something administrator on behalf of the Ballard Administration.

The Indianapolis Business Journal requested a copy of the Request for Proposals the City issued in July. Its request was denied, and the excuse for that denial was so ridiculous that even the Pence Administration’s public access counselor has protested.

The City is claiming that the information in a Request for Proposals is confidential. Think about that.

An RFP is supposed to be publicly distributed to any and all developers or development teams that might conceivably be interested in bidding on the project. By definition, the information it contains is public, and the IBJ–not to mention members of the City-County Council who have also been kept in the dark–are entitled to see it.

Marc Lotter, the Mayor’s spokesman, responded that the RFP was released to “three qualified bidders,” and that it would not be made public until after a successful bidder has been chosen.

Why would an honest, aboveboard administration hand-pick three bidders, and proceed to share information only with those developers? Why would it keep the terms of the proposed project secret until the City is legally committed to proceed?

The whole purpose of an RFP is to cast a wide net; to encourage genuinely competitive proposals from anyone or any team qualified to perform. “Pre-selecting” those who will be permitted to respond undercuts the entire purpose of the exercise.

At best, pre-selection of a small group of developers makes it likely that responses will be less competitive and the project will be more expensive. At worst, secrecy and pre-selection are intended to ensure that the “right” people get the City’s business.

The Justice Center is estimated to cost over $500 million dollars. Quite a plum project. When that much tax money is being spent, the need for transparency–the need for public assurance that the project is being handled ethically and in a fiscally-responsible manner– is obvious.

The City says that the RFP contained “trade secrets” necessitating secrecy. As the public access counselor noted, “If an RFP sent out into the marketplace does indeed contain trade secrets, it stands to reason that the secret is out once it goes to potential contractors.”

Unless, of course, those “secrets” are only going to one’s cronies.

Up to this point, I have attributed the many ethically dubious decisions of the Ballard Administration (the 50-year lease of our parking infrastructure, the garage no one uses in Broad Ripple, etc.) to those advising our “accidental’ Mayor, who has always seemed in over his head.

Maybe I  have underrated him. Maybe he really does know what he’s doing.

Either way–puppet or puppet master–he needs to go.


An Interesting ‘Factoid’

According to Wallet Hub, a personal finance site

When Barack Obama won Indiana’s electoral votes in 2008, it was an anomaly: Indiana, which went Republican in every presidential election from 1968-2004, is one of the most conservative states in the Midwest and is much more Republican than Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois or Michigan. Pundits have often said that when it comes to politics, Indiana is “more southern than the South.” But the disdain that Indiana Republicans often express for “big government” rings false because according to Wallet Hub, Indiana receives $2.01 from the federal government for every federal tax dollar it contributes and receives 33% of its funding from Uncle Sam. Indiana Republicans can hate coastal Democrats all they want, but without the federal tax revenue Democratic areas generate, Indiana would have a hard time functioning.

It reminded me of this exchange from The West Wing (a show that has to rank as one of the all-time greats), during a Presidential campaign debate:

Governor Robert Ritchie, R-FL: My view of this is simple: we don’t need a Federal Department of Education telling us our children have to learn Esperanto, they have to learn Eskimo poetry. Let the states decide, let the communities decide on health care, on education, on lower taxes, not higher taxes. Now, he’s going to throw a big word at you – “unfunded mandate.” He’s going to say if Washington lets the states do it, it’s an unfunded mandate. But what he doesn’t like is the federal government losing power. But I call it the ingenuity of the American people.

Moderator: President Bartlet, you have 60 seconds for a question and an answer.

President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet: Well, first of all, let’s clear up a couple of things. “Unfunded mandate” is two words, not one big word. There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we’re one country, and have national needs. And the way I know this is that Florida didn’t fight Germany in World War II or establish civil rights. You think states should do the governing wall-to-wall. That’s a perfectly valid opinion. But your state of Florida got $12.6 billion in federal money last year – from Nebraskans, and Virginians, and New Yorkers, and Alaskans, with their Eskimo poetry. 12.6 out of a state budget of $50 billion. I’m supposed to be using this time for a question, so here it is: Can we have it back, please?

If Hoosiers had to give back the excess funds we get from the Feds, we’d be up that proverbial creek without that equally proverbial paddle….



For the past several years, I have asked the following question on my Law and Policy midterm examination:

Town officials in Whitebread, Indiana, became concerned by the number of “undesirables” who were “hanging out” in Whitebread. They passed an ordinance against loitering, defined as “Three or more persons congregating in a manner annoying to passersby.” Is this ordinance enforceable? Why or why not?

The correct answer is that the ordinance is unenforceable, because its language is unconstitutionally vague. What is “annoying” is very subjective–what annoys me may not bother you at all. The rule of law requires far more specificity–any statute, to be enforceable, must be sufficiently clear and specific to allow citizens to know what sorts of behaviors cross the line.

Most of my students answer this correctly.  I discovered that Indiana’s lawmakers know less than my students when I read this about a challenge to our public intoxication law in the Indianapolis Star.

 It takes more than just being drunk to get convicted of public intoxication in Indiana. The law says you also have to be annoying.

As the lawyer challenging the standard correctly pointed out, this language doesn’t tell the public what conduct may annoy another person.

“There needs to be some standard,” she told the justices, “so a person can read the law and know what (conduct) is prohibited.”

A three-judge panel from the court of appeals agreed when it found the “annoying” standard unconstitutionally vague.

The requirement that laws be sufficiently specific to allow citizens to understand what they can and cannot do is fundamental to the rule of law. Any of my former students could have told the General Assembly that “annoying” wasn’t a constitutionally-compliant standard.

I find it very annoying that Hoosier lawmakers evidently don’t know the most basic requirements of the constitution and rule of law.