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Leadership Wanted

The legislative special session has an unenviable task. Times are tough, and we have long since stopped cutting government fat, and moved on to muscle and bone.


That said, one of the most monumental threats facing Indianapolis in this round of budget cuts is their potential to effectively destroy IPS—and thus deliver a mortal wound to economic and community development in Indianapolis.


The House/Senate budget proposal that failed in April would have meant a $47 million loss to IPS over the next two years. After the last revenue forecast, Governor Daniels told lawmakers to cut more; his numbers would mean an additional $11 million lost to IPS. (To add insult to injury, the House/Senate proposal cut IPS’ state formula funding while increasing state funding for 287 other school districts. Resentment of Indianapolis by legislators from elsewhere in Indiana is nothing new, of course, but this discrepancy seems rather blatant.)


The dollars IPS will lose cannot legally be replaced with stimulus money, which is one-time, tightly targeted money in any case. And the loss can’t be made up by closing more schools, although that will certainly happen. IPS says every program not legally required will be in jeopardy: Art and music programs, high school electives, field trips, magnet programs, and a variety of other alternative programs, many of which serve our most at-risk youngsters. IPS has made considerable progress over the past few years; a loss of this magnitude will wipe out those gains and cripple the system for years to come.


What the city’s leaders have given no indication of understanding, moreover, is the incalculable damage the evisceration of IPS will do to Indianapolis.


Whatever their other failings, Dick Lugar, Bill Hudnut, Steve Goldsmith and Bart Peterson all understood that efforts to make Indianapolis a world-class city depend first and foremost on quality of life—that our ability to lure employers and grow the tax base requires urban amenities like parks, museums, libraries, public safety, decent public transportation and above all, good public schools. Despite the best efforts of our political and business leaders, Indianapolis continues to lag other cities in many of these categories. To the extent we do, we lose our competitive edge. We lose employment and tax base—which means those of us who remain will pay higher taxes for fewer services. That, in turn, will encourage more out-migration. It’s a vicious cycle.


I don’t dismiss the civic benefits of major league sports teams, but I find it difficult to understand why so much more effort and attention has been lavished on the CIB’s troubles than on the threat facing IPS.


Bill Hudnut used to say that a successful city is like a cookie—solid clear through—and not like a doughnut with a hole in the middle. If IPS is allowed to disintegrate, we will have taken a giant step back to becoming a doughnut.


Mayor Ballard wrote a book about leadership. If he is ever going to demonstrate that leadership, now is the time.





The Hunt for Blue November

A few days ago, a politically savvy friend of mine asked if I’d seen the 1990 movie, “The Hunt for Red October.” I hadn’t. “You should rent it,” he said. “It explains the whole CIB situation perfectly.”


Intrigued, I rented the movie. In it, a Soviet submarine captain, played by Sean Connery, plans to defect to the United States with the Soviets’ newest, cutting-edge sub. The plot is discovered, and he is pursued by a significant portion of the Soviet submarine fleet, among whom is a Russian captain who is absolutely determined to blow him out of the water. So determined, in fact, that he risks arming a torpedo sooner than he should have, and ends up destroying his own ship.


It was hard to miss the analogy.


In  2005, Bart Peterson was Mayor of Indianapolis, and the then-conventional wisdom was that he would be easily re-elected. He had just concluded negotiations with the Colts, and was lobbying the General Assembly for the financial assistance needed to build the new stadium. He got his stadium, but—as Matt Tully recounted in a series of contemporaneous articles—not the way he’d wanted. Indiana’s newly elected governor, Mitch Daniels, forced Peterson to make a major concession: Peterson would get his stadium only if Daniels got total control (including the patronage that comes with big construction projects). The Mayor would get to choose only two of the members of the Capital Improvement Board; the rest would be chosen by Daniels and statehouse Republicans.


The Republicans insisted that the shift was necessary because Daniels knew how to run a big project, and the city didn’t. As Tully reported “Bosma said the mayor initially sought $72 million a year for the project. Luke Kenley said the gap made clear to many lawmakers that the state was better equipped to oversee the project. Daniels questioned the ‘financial acumen’ of Peterson’s financial advisors.”


At the time, Peterson’s “naïve” financial advisors protested that the state’s fiscal plan “could leave the city without the money to run or maintain the new venue.” Under the city’s plan, it would “set aside money from the taxes to operate the stadium. Fred Glass, president of the city’s Capital Improvement Board, said the state’s plan does not include money to run the stadium and will ‘bankrupt’ the Board.” [Star, April 27, 2005]


It is possible, of course, that the Daniels Administration simply miscalculated. But none of the players in this particular drama are dumb, so it is equally likely that a new Republican Governor decided to kneecap a popular Democratic mayor who was cruising to re-election and would then be his most likely opponent in 2008.  


Peterson would be faced with a massive deficit, and an array of unattractive options for fixing it.  His problems would confirm GOP accusations of fiscal fecklessness. It was a brilliant plan—except that Peterson lost in 2007, and a Republican won.


The missile was armed and deadly. The problem was, it hit the party that launched it.