Politics, Budgets and Taxes

The other day, an advocate for the homeless asked me why the needs of the most vulnerable citizens always seem to take a back seat to the demands of sports teams, developers, and bright shiny objects like cricket fields. He attributed this state of affairs to animus against the needy, but–as I told him–I don’t think that’s it. It’s just that politicians respond to pressure from people who show up–people who contact them, who vote and especially people who donate.

The problem we face when allocating public resources is that very few of us who benefit from inequities that unfairly burden others are willing to graciously concede those advantages. It’s too easy to convince ourselves that we are entitled to them.

When the Indiana Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that the system that had yielded grossly unequal property tax assessments for years had to be fixed,  the homeowners who had benefitted from artificially low assessments–and whose taxes had accordingly been  lower than those of folks with far less valuable properties–screamed bloody murder. Rather than sheepishly acknowledging that they’d made out like bandits for years, and that perhaps it was time to pay their fair shares, they saw themselves as victims of a rapacious government and took their revenge by ousting a hapless Mayor who’d had nothing to do with that particular decision.

Fast forward to Mayor Ballard’s proposed budget.

I’ve not been a fan of this Mayor, but his proposed equalization of the tax rate for IMPD is both fair and overdue. For decades, center city folks were taxed to support both the sheriff’s department (which has county-wide jurisdiction) and IPD (which patrolled only the old city limits). When the two departments were combined into IMPD, apparently the tax rates were not adjusted accordingly. As a result, those residing within the old city limits continued to pay more for police protection than those living outside those limits. As I understand it, Ballard’s proposal would equalize the tax and end what has effectively been an unfair subsidy of some citizens by others–and those who’ve benefitted are (predictably) whining about having to pay their fair share.

Since this post is likely to make me even more unpopular than I already am, I will add that I also support the Mayor’s proposal to eliminate the homestead credit in order to pay for the addition of desperately needed police.

Would I prefer that we shift funds from cricket fields and sports teams and too-generous subsidies to the Mayor’s developer buddies instead? Of course.  Is that likely to happen? Not in my lifetime.  Let’s recognize that politics is the art of the possible, and address our public safety deficit before crime rates that approach Detroit’s undermine every other thing we are trying to do in our city.

Speaking of homestead credits, we really should invest in efforts to ameliorate the plight of the people who don’t have a homestead. There are steps we could take now that would actually save tax dollars in the long run.

But we probably won’t because they don’t scream and vote, and they aren’t in a position to make campaign contributions. And because, to our politicians, the “long run” is the next election.


  1. Your article contains a major faulty assumption, i.e. that additional tax revenue will be used for basic government services. That’s been proven over and over again to not be the case under the Ballard administration. In 2007, we had a 65% increase in the county option income tax most of which was to hire new police officers. We have considerably fewer police officers today than we did in 2007 before the tax increase. A review by Pat Andrews showed that Ballard has over $100 million more to spend than Peterson. The problem is we’re having so many tax dollars siphoned off now going to developers and private businesses, including for sports. One of the big problems is the creation of all of the TIF districts which are siphoning off property taxes from basic services.. Most are running in the red.

    I don’t agree that these public subsidies of private interests are going to continue on for the foreseeable future.. Conservatives and liberals alike are fed up with our tax dollars continually ending up in the pockets of every developer who knocks on the mayor’s doors. Likewise giving tax dollars to billionaire sports owners is also extremely unpopular, much more than it was say 10 years ago. It’s only a matter of time for politicians start listening and responding to the united conservative and liberal opposition to corporate welfare.

    We are taxed plenty. The problem is we need to get back to using those tax dollars for basic government services, not doing things like building a cricket park on the east side of Indianapolis or giving Simons $21 million for the Pacers this year or giving Keystone Construction $6.35 million to build a garage in Broad Ripple for which we get zero ownership and zero revenue.

  2. We have now placed 15% of the city’s property tax base in a TIF district. We continue to award hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax abatements to favored business owners. Why blame ordinary taxpayers for not paying enough taxes when it’s the tax-shifting choices (i.e., picking winners and losers) made by our elected leaders that is the real culprit?

  3. Here is a crazy thought:
    Can we get an opportunity to VOTE on ending ALL public spending on Private enterprise?
    Can we VOTE on ending all public spending to support Millionaire sports thugs?

  4. I am always wary of declaring that any group is “taxed plenty.” It leads people who haven’t studied the issue to assume that their “beliefs” are correct. (See, for example, the Taxed Enough Already Party.) I think the only way to know whether taxation is fair is to start with an honest discussion of what we want our government to do. At the local level, for example, we as a community need to decide whether we want:

    • Police protection
    • Fire protection
    • Trash removal
    • Streets maintained
    • Parks maintained
    • “Making things pretty”
    • etc.

    Then we have to look at how much each of those will cost to provide the level of service we think we need. Next we have to look at how we can raise the tax revenues to pay for the services. None of this type of discussion happens because government budgeting is extremely complicated on any level, and very few of us have the time to dig into the data. We elect people to do this for us, but we’ve lost faith that their final decisions are based on the notion of the common good (common-weal) and not some developer’s pet projects (to cite but one example).

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