Category Archives: Local Government

Wow…Indianapolis Is Doing Something Right

A few years ago, my husband and I took a long-planned cruise around South America. Our point of embarkation was Buenos Aires, and we booked a small hotel that had been recommended to us for a few days before setting sail, to see a bit of the city. The street in front of the hotel was being repaved, and we were struck by how Argentinians approached that task –they weren’t “resurfacing” the street by putting a few inches of asphalt over the roadway, they were reconstructing it. We watched as they dug down at least two feet, and carefully prepared the substructure before repaving it (with granite, no less!)

When they were done, they expected it to last many, many years.

I don’t know how other cities in the U.S. approach street maintenance, but as long as I have lived in Indianapolis, I have seen the way our city “fixes” our potholed thoroughfares. City administrations have repeatedly  covered the crumbling substructures with thin coats of asphalt (at the same time confirming the old political adage that “long-term to a politician is until the next election.”)

I have not been all that happy with our city’s current, timid administration (for reasons not relevant to this post), but credit where credit is due: they are actually rebuilding city streets. Properly.

We moved in May to the downtown core, and realized we’d moved into a construction zone; the major thoroughfare running past the exit to our parking garage has been torn up for months. But we’re not complaining, because the City is actually repairing it the correct way–digging down and rebuilding, just like the street repair we’d seen in Argentina.

Now there is news that the city will take that same approach to other, formerly neglected streets in Indianapolis–not just those in the urban core.

As the Indianapolis Star recently reported

Ninety miles of residential streets throughout Indianapolis will get complete makeovers next year through a rare $25 million infusion of cash.

The streets will not simply be repaved, but entirely reconstructed, reflecting a shift in strategy for the Department of Public Works from surface-level fixes to more expensive, but more longterm, deeper fixes.

That “shift in strategy” is more than welcome. Indianapolis–and all of Indiana–has followed the “penny wise, pound foolish” method of infrastructure maintenance for far too long. The usual approach–visually paving over the problem and pretending it’s solved–saves dollars initially, rewarding politicians who then brag about doing more with less while ignoring the fact that those superficial “fixes” cost taxpayers much more over the longer term.

But hey–longer term, most of them intend to be occupying a different/higher position…Leave it for the next guy to deal with.

In all fairness to our short-term politicos–they think they are being responsive to the majority of constituents who insist on government services on the cheap, the citizens who want to drive on smooth roads, visit well-maintained parks, and depend on properly trained and equipped police and fire departments–but who definitely don’t want to pay an extra nickel in taxes in order to support those services.

This attitude is incredibly shortsighted. Not only do the quick fixes require more frequent resurfacing, driving on streets that are constantly pockmarked and potholed due to underlying structural failures causes flat tires and bent rims that those tax-averse citizens end up paying out-of-pocket.

The administration says that funds to do Indy’s streets properly are coming from savings that accumulated during the pandemic, when city departments instituted hiring freezes and cut discretionary spending. Those funds should be augmented by Biden’s massive infrastructure bill, allowing even more repairs.

Proper street re-construction will take more time, and will cause traffic problems, but I for one will be delighted to put up with those inconveniences.

Now, if we could only get our utilities to buy into that longer-term strategy and bury their poles and wires…think of how much money they’d save after the next storm takes their above-grade infrastructure down, causing widespread outages…

 

 

This Isn’t Governing–It’s Pandering

When he was alive, Harrison Ullmann, a former editor of NUVO, always referred to the Indiana General Assembly as “The World’s Worst Legislature.” I know a lot of states have been competing for the title lately, but he wasn’t far off.

When I was scanning the (embarrassingly thin) news covered by the Indianapolis Star, I saw that the Republicans who have gerrymandered a super-majority in Indiana’s General Assembly are preparing for the upcoming session by discussing plans to cut taxes. After all, thanks to the federal administration they routinely excoriate, the state is currently flush.

The House is considering both a reduction in business equipment property taxes and income tax rate reduction. Senate leaders have at least committed to evaluating whatever legislation the House sends their way. 

Indiana ended its 2021 fiscal year at the start of July with nearly $4 billion in reserves due in part to an influx of stimulus money, unintentionally triggering an automatic refund to taxpayers worth $545.3 million. Since then, revenues have exceeded April estimates by over $560 million…

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, wants to see a longer lasting tax cut — assuming revenues continue to exceed expectations —  instead of relying on another automatic refund to give taxpayers more money in their pockets.

“My biggest fear is if we keep it, we’ll spend it,”  Huston said Monday during the Indiana Chamber’s Legislative Preview.

Well, goodness gracious Mr. Huston–we taxpaying citizens sure wouldn’t want that! We wouldn’t want to see you use any of those dollars to patch a few of the gaping holes in Indiana’s pathetic social safety net (TANF pays a munificent $130 per month to households with one parent and one child).

We Hoosiers know it would be too picky to expect you to earmark some of those funds to maintain any of the roads and bridges that the federal infrastructure bill will finally repair–you know, the infrastructure you “fiscal conservatives” have ignored for years.

For that matter, it is highly unlikely that the federal bill will provide Indiana with monies to repair all the crumbling roads and dangerously deteriorated bridges that need such repair. In a state served by a less irresponsible legislature, those “extra” funds might actually be put to that use. (There are 19,327 bridges in the state, and over 1100 of them are classified as structurally deficient. The state has identified 3,198 that need repairs, and has estimated the cost of doing those repairs at $2.3 billion. The feds are highly unlikely to cover all of that–even with a Hoosier as Transportation Secretary.)

We also wouldn’t want to use that money to improve public education, or to replace any of the education funding that Indiana’s legislature has siphoned off and sent to private, mostly religious schools. After all, we aren’t (yet) the worst–Indiana ranks 47th among the states for per pupil spending. That means there are three states worse than us, so no worries, right? And we do even better in teacher pay–why, we are way up there at 38th!

I hate to break it to you, GOP legislators, but “fiscally conservative”lawmakers don’t continue to ignore the multiple needs of the state in order to use an obviously temporary influx of dollars to reward the business interests that donate to their campaigns. They don’t cut taxes so that they can plead poverty when urban areas need added funds for public safety or public works, and so they can keep telling teachers the state can’t afford to pay them competitively. 

Fiscally prudent lawmakers establish sinking funds to retire bonds, plan for the ongoing maintenance of infrastructure, and pay TANF recipients enough to buy food and diapers. They fund education adequately, recognizing the importance of an educated workforce and polity. They don’t act like pigs in slop, “spending” a temporary windfall to curry favor with their donors and supporters while shortchanging everyone else.

Honest to goodness, Indiana! Stop proving Harrison Ullmann’s point!

 

 

 

What We Need To Know–And HOW We Need To Know It

As regular readers of this blog know, I have a couple of abiding preoccupations. Civic literacy is one, and an allied anxiety is the loss of local journalism.

Please understand: when social scientists and bloggers bewail the death spiral of America’s newspapers, we aren’t talking about physical paper. We are talking about a lack of journalism. If reporters are covering local news adequately, digital delivery doesn’t equate to loss–and the continuing presence of a print edition is not evidence that journalism is occurring.

I’m hardly the only person expressing considerable concern over the emerging consequences of this loss. A friend recently shared with me some preliminary findings from a study of Indiana journalism currently being funded by folks who are equally worried. It’s proprietary, so I can’t share it, but I can share one set of observations that I think sum up what might accurately be called our local news deserts.

The researchers identified six areas of coverage that most people would consider important: crime, governance, economic development, environment and public health, business and education. They then surveyed the local media in order to identify what was currently being covered in each of those areas–and followed up by interviewing a number of residents, people who live in the area served (or not) by that media. In those interviews, they asked people what sorts of information they think they need in each category.

You will not be surprised to learn that there was not a good fit between what people feel they need to know and the information they are actually getting.

In the category of government, for example, the research found “intermittent enterprise coverage” and “sporadic, stenography-style local and county coverage” that is often simply repetitive of public announcements. The announcements themselves received little scrutiny, and even that occurred only in certain areas. They found that statehouse coverage was “fragmented” and “not well distributed.” (My own description would have been considerably more critical…)

When they asked people to identify information that would make them more informed voters and citizens–they evidently got an earful. People wanted “more accessible, relevant explanations” of what is going on in all levels of governance; reporting, for example, on the planning processes that determine how millions of dollars of federal assistance will be applied, as well as much more information about government budgeting in general. And not surprisingly, people wanted more investigative reporting that would uncover and highlight corruption.

Across all of the categories, the research found a lack of context, and a lack of explanatory material connecting the dots between decisions made and the probable or demonstrated effects of those decisions on individuals and communities. Words like “unscrutinized” and phrases like “no follow-up” were frequent in the description of current coverage.

There is a lot to criticize about the media environment in which we find ourselves. Right now, Americans have access to a large number of sources covering national governance and politics. Several of those sources are solid and informative–others are closer to propaganda outlets–but adequate, even insightful news coverage of government at the federal level is available. The hole–the empty space–is local, and the research tells us that the consequences of that vacuum are both negative and serious.

A recent article from Governing detailed some of those consequences.

Recent academic studies show that newspaper closures and declining coverage of state and local government in general have led to more partisan polarization, fewer candidates running for office, higher municipal borrowing costs and increased pollution.

“Inarguably, no matter what side of the political fence you sit, [in the absence of] a decent robust newspaper, politicians are going to do bad things,” said Brian Tucker, a former newspaper executive and current director of corporate affairs for Dollar Bank in Cleveland, in response to the most recent Plain Dealer layoffs. “Nobody is going to be watching. No one is holding your feet to the fire.”

To which I would add my recurring concern that, in the absence of a common, widely-read source of local news, it is all too easy for neighbors to occupy wildly different realities–to live in what are effectively different communities.

One out of five Americans currently lives in a “news desert” with little to no access to reliable local media coverage, and that doesn’t even count the many areas with “ghost” newspapers like the Indianapolis Star.

We desperately need a rebirth of local journalism, so I am rooting for the success of the Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit digital upstart launched by a Baltimore businessman, that will be dedicated to local coverage of the city. He must agree with me about the importance of local news–he has committed $50 million of his own fortune to the enterprise.

Lots of us will be watching. With bated breath.

Gerrymandering–One More Time

Can you stand one more diatribe about gerrymandering? I’m returning to the issue because states across the U.S. are busily engaged in the electoral “rigging” that Republicans claim to abhor…and because– unless the voting rights act passes– Congress will succeed in protecting the process into the future.

Talk about “voter fraud”–how about the process, beloved by the GOP, of defrauding literally millions of voters of meaningful participation in the selection of their representatives?

Here’s my last column for the Indiana Business Journal, where–for the umpteenth time–I tried to explain what is so very pernicious about the process, and why it is more destructive of democratic representation than even most of its critics seem to recognize.

____________

With the (tardy) release of the last census, states are embarking on redistricting. In states where the party controlling the legislature draws the lines, that means gerrymandering—creating districts favoring the party currently in control. In some states, that’s the Democrats; in Indiana, it’s Republicans.

The results of gerrymandering are pernicious.

Gerrymandering gives rural voters (who reliably vote Republican) disproportionate influence. Thanks to gerrymandering, most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural voices are vastly overrepresented. (The last Republican Senate “majority” was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic “minority.”) State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas.

Gerrymandering allows the GOP to control state legislatures with supermajorities even when voters prefer Democratic candidates by hundreds of thousands of votes. It thus nullifies elections and insulates lawmakers from democratic accountability.
Last year, the Cook Report calculated that one out of twenty Americans currently lives in a competitive Congressional District.

That lack of electoral competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why vote at all?

It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it is very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the general election ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal candidate who offers no new ideas, no energy, and no genuine challenge. And in increasing numbers of statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed by even a token candidate.

Credit where credit is due: Republicans are much better at gerrymandering than Democrats. In 2011, the GOP’s “RedMap” project was wildly successful, with Republicans winning many more seats than their vote totals would otherwise have produced. (One unanticipated consequence of that success has been especially damaging: The people elected to Congress from deep-red districts that mapmakers had created don’t feel any allegiance to the leaders of their party, or to reasonable policymaking. They are only interested in doing the bidding of the rabid voters to whom they are beholden, and avoiding a primary battle that–thanks to the gerrymander–can only come from the right. They have brought government to a halt.)

Here in Indiana, as legislators once again prepare to choose their voters, rather than allowing voters to choose their representatives, continuing disenfranchisement of city dwellers will have very practical consequences. Just one example: the connection between gerrymandering and the thousands of potholes residents of Indianapolis dodge every spring.

Indiana’s urban areas have been “carved up” and the “carved up” portions married to larger rural areas in a purposeful effort to dilute the voices and votes of city-dwellers, who have a tendency to vote Democratic. As a result, when the legislature allocates money through distribution formulas for the state’s streets and roads, it is far more generous to the thinly populated rural areas of the state than to cities like Indianapolis, where the majority of Indiana’s citizens live.

If you don’t care about the connection between gerrymandering and democracy, think about the connection between fair and equal representation and state distribution formulas the next time you hit one of Indy’s ubiquitous potholes and bend a rim.

 

 

Preparing For Climate Change

A week or so ago, I suggested that it was time–past time, actually–to rethink federalism. Not to dispense with it, but to reconsider which governance tasks should be left to state and local governments and which must be tackled at the federal (or even global) level.

The problem with nationalizing too many issues is that sending authority to Washington effectively demoralizes local activists working on those issues. If the only people who have authority to do X or Y are far removed, the result is likely to be those feelings of powerlessness I’ve been writing about.

The problems with keeping too much local control over issues more properly addressed at the federal level include lack of impact and incentives for all sorts of mischief–see vote suppression..

There are also an increasing number of issues where we need all hands on deck. When it comes to overwhelming problems like climate change, even enlightened national/global efforts will require equally enlightened local measures. And individuals really can affect local decision-making.

A recent report from Inverse highlighted the resilience efforts of five cities, providing an “instruction manual” of sorts–a delineation of local measures that can make a positive difference. As the article noted, despite the grim evidence of impending climate catastrophe,

 there are a few cities whose leaders have taken proactive measures to adapt their cities and protect their residents from the climate crisis. These cities serve as models for how we can modify and strengthen our built environments, reduce human suffering, and protect urban centers from the effects of a warming planet.

Fukuoka, Japan has been adding green spaces, including parks, community gardens and green roofs. It decides where to site those spaces based on surveys of windflow through the city and other measurements to determine the most effective places to plant trees and maintain parks. These green spaces reduce extreme heat and help absorb water runoff during periods of intense rainfall.

Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is growing plants along railways to absorb flooding and reduce heat, and developing ‘water squares’ that can absorb rainfall and ease the stress on sewage systems.

Ahmedabad, India (a city of 7.2 million that I’d never heard of) was included for its “cool roofs” initiative.

This entails using eco-friendly building materials — such as coconut husk and paper waste — and cheap lime-white paint to deflect sunlight away from buildings. This keeps residents cool. According to Madan, cool roofs reduce indoor temperatures lower by 3.6 – 9° F.

Copenhagen, Denmark has pledged to become the first city to go fully carbon neutral by 2025. It has made substantial progress toward that goal: 49 percent of all trips in the city are by bike, and 98 percent of the city’s heating comes from waste heat from electricity production. Seawater cooling measures have removed an estimated 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the city’s atmosphere.

Here in the United States, Chicago, believe it or not, was one of the five cities cited in the report. Chicago made the list because is was an early adopter of green stormwater infrastructure, and a developer of urban vertical farms.

In 2014, under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city developed a $50-million, five-year green stormwater infrastructure plan with the aim of reducing basement flooding and water pollution and improving environmental quality and climate resilience.

Some of the key features of Chicago’s plan included capturing, storing, and filtering water through green techniques rather than channeling it into storm drains; investing in permeable, or more water-absorbent, pavement to reduce flooding; compiling rainfall frequency data to better predict flooding; and offering resources on green design to maintain water runoff and reduce flooding through rain gardens and natural landscaping.

The city also plays host to one of the world’s largest urban vertical farms, which grows vegetables in a 90,000-square-foot facility. Chicago made this urban vertical farm possible by changing its zoning laws.

The linked article not only highlights these cities, but includes suggestions for how other urban centers might emulate them.

We are finally, if belatedly, recognizing the threat posed by climate change, and large numbers of citizens–especially but not exclusively young ones–are coming together to combat it. Working at the local level on measures targeted to the specific threats faced by those localities can not only help ameliorate the effects of an over-heating world, it can give citizens an opportunity to work together to effect important changes.

Ultimately, the ability to actually do something–something that clearly matters– to work with our neighbors to ameliorate a threat we all face (and that, increasingly, we all recognize) can help us overcome the extreme polarization that has paralyzed our government.

After all, there’s nothing like a common enemy to bring people together.