Politics as Usual

Contemporary politics has a lot in common with tantrums in a nursery school classroom. So it is understandable, although not very helpful, to see every dispute between the City-County Council and the Ballard Administration characterized–and dismissed–by local pundits as “politics as usual.”

Not every difference of opinion between the Council and the Mayor–or between Congress and the President–can be dismissed as “playing politics.” Some reflect genuine disputes over what constitutes good policy.

Take the current dispute between the Mayor and Council over funding for expanded preschool. That dispute is not over the value of preschool or the need for expansion; it is about identifying a funding mechanism that is both reliable and fiscally responsible. It is about how, not whether. Both sides have principled arguments worth weighing; it would be nice if we had local journalists willing and able to help readers understand the different perspectives.

Instead, we get naive admonitions to “play nice.”

Which brings me to yet another unfortunate consequence of lawmakers’ decision to constitutionalize property tax caps.

A couple of weeks ago, this particular dispute sparked a friendly argument. I didn’t understand the Council’s reluctance to approve the Mayor’s funding proposal by eliminating a local property-tax credit. Why not? I asked. It’s not a biggie, and if it would fund preschool, great. My friend insisted that elimination of the credit would cause a revenue shift that would end up costing both IPS and the Library significant revenues, and would cost township schools nearly 3.9 million. But he couldn’t explain why.

I couldn’t see how that would be true, and refused to believe him, so he sent me an analysis by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute that confirmed those shifts, which are a result of whether individual property owners have or have not hit the cap.

Here’s the thing: I read the analysis, and another posted by Ed Delaney, several times. Call me dense (many do), but the operation of the tax caps on local property taxes is so complicated, I am still at a loss to understand precisely how it works. I gave the analyses to a colleague whose area is Public Finance, and he patiently explained it–but only after even he’d struggled to work through the formula.

When the operation of tax law is so complicated that even former lawyers and professors of public finance have trouble figuring it all out, you have a prescription for mischief–and worse. Transparency in government doesn’t only mean that citizens need to know what their elected officials are doing, it also requires rules that are comprehensible to most of us.

Until I looked at the issue, I simply did not believe the Councilors who said the proposed funding mechanism would shift money–would create winners and losers. Now, it may be that funding preschool expansion is worth doing even if it does take revenue from other units of local government, but that is a very different argument than the “should we/ shouldn’t we have preschool” debate portrayed by local media.

The moral(s) of the story:

In the absence of clear and understandable laws, We the People simply cannot make intelligent decisions about policy and policymakers.

In the absence of a local media capable of analyzing and reporting on the reasons for disagreements, we lack any basis upon which to render democratic judgments. We the People are not well-served by a media that characterizes even legitimate differences over policy as “playing politics,” and fails to do the hard work needed to understand and explain the arguments .


  1. Transparency, transparency…we don’t need no stinkin’ transparency!” Or so the GOP believes. I moved back here from Florida in August 2001, not here long enough to become familiar with Mayor Peterson’s administration and/or policies. It was long enough to know that on mayoral election night, both candidates must have been sitting, scratching their heads and asking themselves, “What the hell just happened?” Do you believe the administration fully understands the facts and figures of issues they act on or bills they enact – or table? The lack of transparency under Goldsmith was a major problem; was this a problem under Mayor Peterson? When tax laws are not understandable by those who act on them – or attempt to change them – they certainly do not want the public to be aware of this. Politics and politicians always need close scrutiny; but those who are scrutinizing need to fully understand what they are looking at and every possible outcome resulting from their action – or inaction – on all issues. Read two front page articles in the Star this morning, “Justice center details emerge” (but not all details have yet emerged) and “Pence exposes pre-K rift” – his view of the rift so we are still lacking transparency on that issue.

    Sorry folks, I really must relate these two personal stories from the Goldsmith era regarding transparency or the lack thereof – it does involve a little breast-beating and maybe an accompanying Tarzan yell. When Goldsmith enacted Imminent Domain to obtain properties along the canal to lengthen Canal Walk; this was met with much hostility and many law suits. It was my job in Dept. of Metropolitan Development to find time to research all requested information by all parties, copy and turn over to those needing the information. The only fee Goldsmith was legally allowed to charge for this was .35 per page for copywork. This was happily agreed to by all. I was called to the front dest one day and handed official documents, signed by a judge, appointing me records secretary for one law firm fighting the Imminent Domain action because I provided needed documents. I panicked but our legal rep in City Legal just laughed and took care of it. At the same time, a reporter from the Star and newscaster from one of the local news channels had filed suit because they had been refused access to information and copies of documents available to them under the “sunshine law.” The Deputy Director of DMD had to attend the meeting in City Legal. When he returned he told me that my name had come up 5-6 times during this very official meeting. A scary minute, believe me. He then explained that the reporter and the newscaster repeated several times that, “JoAnn Green seems to be the only person in this building who knows where information is and that we have a right to it. We always get what we need from her.” I was not a favorite employee during that administration.

  2. The set-up and funding for Pre-K should be via the Public School System and through the State Department of Education. Pence and his Republican controlled House and Senate should establish the parameters and reliable funding sources. If this is what the Republicans including Ballard want to do. Education is not the responsibility of cities and towns. There is a Political apparatus that exists for Education.

  3. It turns out that good, professional journalism is essential to democracy and freedom. Who knew?

    We all did.

    Professional means that the good of the client is the highest calling. That’s the difference between professions and businesses. Business is based on making more money regardless of the cost to others (externalities).

    Let’s face it. Journalism is now merely a business. We were warned about this turn of events when Rupert Murdoch came to the US shopping. We ignored the warnings.

    Journalism loses it’s value to democracy both if it’s a business or a government function. It has to be independent of both.

    Now what?

    In the global warming business we are fortunate to have efforts like skepticalscience.com that is an ad hoc professional site that has taken on the responsibility for reporting what’s real. Fortunately with science the difference between real and self serving is pretty robust thanks to the scientific method. The challenge is obtaining a science literate guide for those who have chosen to devote their educational lives to other pursuits.

    Especially in these days and times science is a major ingredient in much progress, but not all. What can guide us through problems that are not scientific but also beyond our personal expertise?

    Sheila has access to experts that allowed her to understand this issue given an investment of her, and their, time.

    What resources are available to the rest of us in similar situations?

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