Tag Archives: Indianapolis

The Importance Of Local Politics

One of the reasons so many of us in today’s America feel angry and hopeless is the effect of what has been called the “nationalization of politics.’  That nationalization has been facilitated by the media we consume , which reports almost exclusively on national news– local newspapers that still exist increasingly confine their coverage to sports and crime and no longer regularly cover local government and politics.

As an article from Vox recently confirmed, America may have local political institutions, but it increasingly has a nationalized politics–and for a number of reasons, that needs to change.

If you own a home and pay local taxes, have children in the public schools (or depend in any way on an educated population and/or workforce), live in a neighborhood where public safety is a concern (and that’s pretty much every neighborhood), you have a big stake in what happens locally–and as I posted a couple of days ago, those local races also matter more politically than most people realize.

So why is participation in local electoral politics so anemic?

The overwhelming majority of Americans consume disproportionately more news about national politics than about state and local politics. In one analysis, 99 percent of respondents in a typical media market never visited websites dedicated to local news. In a typical local election, fewer than one in five citizens bother to vote.

The last several decades have seen the standardization of parties across state lines. I recently saw a website in which a Republican running for  a local office described herself as  “pro life, pro gun, pro God.” (I’m sure God is grateful…) There was no explanation why any of this should matter–I’m pretty sure she was running for a position where she would have little or nothing to say about any of those issues. She was just signaling her Trumpist “brand.”

I’m sure this “homogenization” of partisans makes it easier for voters, who can just vote based on the R or D next to a candidate’s name. But when everyone running for office is a clone, the individual candidates themselves don’t much matter.

But the short-term convenience of standardized brands comes at a long-term cost for democratic accountability: If local candidates know that they won’t be evaluated on anything more than the D or R after their name, it changes how they think of their role. What can they do if their electoral fate depends almost entirely on national tides? As Hopkins writes, “Today’s vote choices are simply too nationalized for politicians to build much of a reputation separate from their party’s.”

The thing is, in the cities we inhabit, candidates and local institutions do matter–a lot!– and local efforts to support good candidates are much more productive than a few dollars sent to Beto O’Rourke, et al (although I hasten to say I plan to do both and you should too.)

And we have some first-rate, “non-clone” candidates running for local offices.

I became interested in our local prosecutor’s race, for example, because my youngest granddaughter–a high-school senior–has been interning in his Conviction Integrity unit. He established that process to review past convictions, to ensure that they had been dealt with properly–to catch errors or miscarriages of justice. When he took office, he also announced that he would focus the (necessarily limited) resources of the office on the prosecution of serious threats to public safety–and those serious threats didn’t include cases involving small amounts of pot.( He got a lot of flak for that from our local culture warriors, but I applauded.)

I recently had a wide-ranging discussion with that Prosecutor–his name is Ryan Mears–  and I was impressed not just with his very thoughtful and informed approach to criminal justice issues, but with his commitment to Indianapolis. That commitment is based on a belief that positive change at the local level is both necessary and  possible–and that improving our city matters.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Most of us are not in a position to affect national politics, but we definitely are able to make a difference locally. We can work to elect people who genuinely care about their communities–and , not so incidentally, to defeat the local Trump clones who just want to wage culture war and are clearly uninterested in doing the day-to-day grunt work needed to make our communities better places to live. I’ve begun meeting with other candidates for local and state office, and I intend to lend my (somewhat wizened) hand to selected campaigns.

if nothing else, participating in local races will allow me to actually do something–something that potentially matters.

It’s my way of fighting my feelings of political impotence. And maybe it will keep me from being so grumpy…

 

 

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…

 

 

Private Prisons And Perverse Incentives

Every once in a while, my city gives me something to brag about. Most recently, that’s the current administration’s approach to Criminal Justice.

A recent article from Fortune Magazine, of all places, sets it out.

When the city heads to Wall Street Thursday to borrow $610 million to build a jail and criminal justice complex on the site of an old coking factory, it’s betting it can better house criminals and rehabilitate them on its own. That means CoreCivic, which has run a Marion County jail for two decades, will lose the contract when the new one opens.

The decision to sever ties with CoreCivic is part of a shift in policy-making that seeks to address a cycle of recidivism that keeps sending repeat offenders back to jail. It joins other governments nationwide, including California, that are reconsidering a reliance on the private companies that stepped in as the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing laws caused inmate populations to soar, leaving more than half of the states paying businesses to incarcerate their residents.

There is a mountain of data detailing what’s wrong with private prisons. (When my graduate students choose to write their research papers on the subject of for-profit prisons, their conclusions range from highly critical to horrified, and for good reason.) Zach Adamson, Vice-President of the Indianapolis City-County Council is quoted in the article with what may be the best summary of the problem with prisons for profit:

“The idea that there would be profit to be made through the imprisonment of our neighbors is something that’s abhorrent to a number of people—many of our constituents cannot process that,” said Zach Adamson, vice president of the council that oversees the consolidated government of Indianapolis and Marion County. “Criminal justice is not getting better as long as our primary concern is looking to cut corners and save costs.” (emphasis supplied)

In 2016, the city convened a task force to consider ways Indianapolis could cut crime and address jail overcrowding. The task force recommended addressing “underlying causes,” in an effort to reduce both crime and the $440 million dollars Indianapolis spends on criminal justice each year–far and away the city’s biggest expense.

The issues facing Indianapolis are hardly unique: some 40% of people detained in the country’s jails are mentally ill and up to 85 percent suffer from substance abuse (with respect to those who are mentally ill, psychiatrists tell us that substance abuse is an effort at “self-medicating.”)

The complex will consolidate the courthouse, its jails, and rehabilitation operations in one modern site. The city-county council voted in April 2018 not to privatize the new lockup, dealing a blow to CoreCivic, which has managed a facility there since 1997.

“The goal of the jail system shouldn’t be to fill the beds,” said Andy Mallon, corporation counsel for the government. “We’re trying to reduce crime and reduce the number of people who are involved in crime.”

Mallon’s observation is at the heart of what’s wrong with privatizing these elements of the criminal justice system. Private prison companies are in business to fill beds, and to do so as cheaply as possible, not to rehabilitate offenders. Their lobbyists work to criminalize additional behaviors and increase prison terms for offenses already on the books–measures that feed their bottom lines.

Their goal isn’t public safety, it’s profit, and the big private prison companies donate generously to politicians in order to protect those profits.

During the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice and several state governments  responded to the research, recognized the existence of the perverse incentives, and began  terminating contracts with companies like GEO and CoreCivic. Then, of course, we got Trump, and headlines like these:”Trump’s First Year Has Been the Private Prison Industry’s Best.”  and “Trump’s Immigrant-Detention Plans Benefit Private Prison Operators.”

In Indianapolis, I am happy to say, the city has chosen to bring best practices to bear on its criminal justice problems, to evaluate those it incarcerates in order to determine appropriate interventions– and to stop paying for-profit companies to warehouse offenders.

 

 

It Isn’t About Moderates and Progressives

Democrats are constantly arguing about whether the party should support moderate or progressive politicians. It’s an argument that illustrates Americans’ tendency to prefer nice, neat labels to the messiness of reality: most people hold a variety of positions that can’t all be neatly shoved in a drawer marked “liberal” “conservative” “socialist” and so forth.

Thinking people are hard to pigeonhole.

A paragraph from a column written for the Indianapolis Recorder by my SPEA colleague Marshawn Wolley  illuminates the real issue. It’s leadership.

Voters deserve officeholders who are willing to lead–mayors and governors and Presidents who are willing to stake out reasoned positions on issues (most of which are actually ideologically neutral), willing to explain their reasoning to the public, and willing to go to bat for them.

The context of Marshawn’s column was the upcoming mayoral election in Indianapolis, where a reasonably popular Democratic incumbent will run for re-election in a city that is reliably blue. Here’s the paragraph that caught my attention.

Personally, I think the mayor’s popularity is deceptive, and perhaps even soft in the Black community, and our times do not favor political moderates. The mayor didn’t show up on mass transit, the IPS referendum and was late on living wages for city workers. Mass transit was the biggest policy issue that could impact social mobility in a generation. He didn’t lead here. IPS is not called Center Township Public Schools — it’s called “Indianapolis” Public Schools. When the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation is approving charter schools they are happening in the IPS district. He was wrong to not weigh in on the referendum. While he eventually got around to supporting living wages, Black Democrats, who really need to speak out more, argued that a balanced budget couldn’t happen on the backs of workers. Each of these issues were rallying cries within the community and he missed them — bipartisanship and a balanced budget don’t drive people to polls.

I think Marshawn has confused a fear of staking out a leadership position (and thus becoming a target for criticism) with philosophical “moderation,” but the rest of his indictment is spot on.

Reluctance to exercise leadership is a liability, and not just within the Black community.

Another excellent example of this mayor’s allergy to getting “out front” of important issues involves the State DOT announcement earlier this year of its plans to “repair” the interstates that carve up Indianapolis’ downtown. The state’s plan would double down on ungainly remnants of a fifty-year-old bad decision that  impacts walkability and intrudes on five historic neighborhoods. A significant number of residents and businesses have come together to make the case for rethinking those highways; I’ve previously posted about the details of the “rethink” arguments.

Favoring a particular configuration for downtown interstates is not politically conservative, liberal, progressive or moderate.

The Mayor was finally persuaded to write a letter to the state’s DOT, supporting the ReThink plan, but has otherwise been invisible on the subject–just as he was invisible on mass transit and the IPS referendum.

It’s highly likely that political calculation drives this reluctance to engage; after all, when you take a stand, someone will disagree. Why take a chance of pissing people off when the political landscape looks advantageous–when the odds of re-election are in your favor?

On the other hand, that impulse to win office by “laying low” raises a question: why do politicians run for offices like mayor and governor if they don’t have a vision for improving their city or state? Why do they seek office if they aren’t interested in leading their communities in a particular direction? Do they view these offices merely as stepping-stones to something else?

Timidity isn’t the same thing as bipartisanship. It isn’t the same thing as moderation, either. Inaccurate labels just confuse the situation.

 

 

Home Advantage

I’m not ready to move on from the subject of yesterday’s post, which was triggered by the efforts of numerous cities to lure Amazon’s second headquarters.

Let me just share two additional observations, one from a recent study reported in Governing, and one emerging from a recent argument in Indianapolis’ City-County Council.

The Governing article shared a study done by the Urban Institute.

In choosing New York and D.C., Amazon opted for two cities that have led the economic expansion since the end of the last recession in 2009, far outpacing the rest of the nation in job growth. The decision drew the ire of politicians at the state and federal levels, along with others who had called on the tech giant to place its second headquarters in a city where it could play a more transformative role in the economy.

Yet a new study from the Urban Institute suggests that landing such a large corporation isn’t actually the best way to build a local economy and spur job growth.

If give-aways massive enough to “steal” large employers–to lure them from City A to City B (in what certainly seems to be a national zero-sum game) isn’t a sound growth strategy, what is?

Instead, the report says, cities should focus on growing existing local firms, not trying to lure out-of-town companies and poaching firms from other cities. “Most job expansion and contractions come from birth and deaths of homegrown businesses or expansion or contractions of existing home-based businesses,” says Megan Randall, a research analyst with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and a co-author of the report.

According to Randall, when so-called “marquee companies” locate in a new city, they tend to displace existing businesses, especially mom-and-pop stores. Supporting and expanding homegrown enterprises has been a more successful strategy for adding job growth.

Worse, giving up tax revenues to lure a new company puts a strain on local services, particularly schools.

As New York University business professor Scott Galloway put it in an email to Barron’s on Tuesday, the tax incentives from New York amount to “an elegant transfer of funds from municipal school/fire/police districts to Amazon shareholders.”

Cutting into services and school budgets makes the local workforce less attractive in the long run, and the location less alluring, the Urban Institute report notes….

Cities would be better served, according to Randall and other economic policy analysts, by improving schools and public services, and focusing on nurturing their existing network of businesses.

When a city offers tax giveaways to lure a company, the government goes into the negotiation with a marked disadvantage because of what economists call “information asymmetry.” The city doesn’t have all the information about what the company is looking for. In some cases, a company may choose a city it would have moved to anyway, pocketing the tax incentives even though they weren’t a deciding factor.

“Firms are in a advantageous position,” Randall says. “They know cities want to attract jobs and create opportunities for their residents. They know they are in the position to leverage a public benefit from what they have to offer.”

What the article calls “negotiation” is more often–and more accurately–described as extortion. And that brings me to a recent dispute in Indianapolis’ City-County Council.

Corteva is a company formed last year, as part of Dow Chemical’s mega-merger with DuPont. Delaware-based Corteva—which includes the local operations of Dow AgroSciences—is set to be spun off as a public company in June 2019, and it employs about 1,400 workers in Indianapolis.

The City-County Council approved 30 million dollars to “incentivize” the company to maintain operations in Indianapolis.  Most Councilors weren’t happy about it.

The incentive deal authorizes the issuance of $30 million in economic development revenue notes to Corteva from the city of Indianapolis, which would be paid back with about $5 million annually in tax increment financing funds that the city had been passing through to government units such as schools, libraries, parks, police and fire protection. Those entities would no longer receive those funds while the notes are being paid off.

The council voted 18-7 to approve the deal. Democrats Zach Adamson and Stephen Clay voted against the plan as did Republicans Jeff Coats, Danielle Coulter, Janice McHenry, Jefferson Shreve and John Wesseler.

Even council members voting yes weren’t happy.

“It’s not the best deal; I’m not excited about it,” said Democrat Jared Evans. But he said the long-term benefit of keeping the jobs in the community outweighed the short-term harm to the taxing units.

Zach Adamson characterized the incentives as “nothing short of extortion;” he was exactly right. Far too much of what passes for “economic development” is better described as bribery and/or blackmail. “What will you pay us to come?” and “What will you pay us to stay?”

These deals steal money that would otherwise be used to improve the local quality of life. And as the Urban Institute study reaffirmed, the quality of life–good schools, good parks, convenient transportation, effective public safety, etc.–is what really drives job growth and economic development.

When you rob Peter to pay Paul, you just make both of them poorer.