Tag Archives: state government

No News Isn’t Good News

When I first retired, I began casting around for projects I might do to occupy my newly-freed-up time. (I’m still looking, btw…) My youngest son wanted me to get credentialed as a reporter and focus my efforts on Indiana’s Statehouse, which he correctly noted is a gerrymandered, far-right mixture of self-dealing, arrogance, bad policy and general nuttiness.

It is, after all, a chamber that hasn’t come all that far since passing a bill to change the value of pi.

There hasn’t been decent reporting on the shenanigans of our legislature since Mary Beth Schneider retired from the Statehouse beat, back when the Indianapolis Star at least pretended to cover state and local government.  But–although I certainly agree with my son that the lack of reporting on state government is a huge problem–I didn’t agree that I was the person to address that information deficit. (My kids don’t seem to understand just how limited my skills are, or how old and tired I am…)

That said, it appears that Indiana’s isn’t the only state legislature to be operating without scrutiny from media watchdogs, and there is a new effort to turn that around. A friend recently sent me a report from the Washington Post about a nonprofit news organization that has been formed to fill that gap.

With funding from foundations and a variety of donors, States Newsroom formed two years ago to attempt to fill a void in what many government watchdogs and civil-society experts believe is one of the biggest manifestations of the local journalism crisis: the dire shortage of reporters covering state government.

On Monday, States Newsroom will announce plans to nearly double its presence, from its current 25 states to about 40 over the next two and a half years. It will open its next five outlets in Nebraska, Alaska, Arkansas, South Carolina and Kentucky. It’s also launching “News from the States,” a new online clearinghouse to showcase all their affiliates’ reporting.

Each of the bureaus is independent,  and most are managed by veteran journalists. The average staffs consist of four or five reporters. And importantly, each bureau allows other news organizations to republish its work for free.

“State government and politics and policy have the most impact on people’s lives and it’s covered the least,” said States Newsroom director and publisher Chris Fitzsimon. “That’s really why we exist.”

The number of newspaper reporters dedicated to covering statehouses has been declining for decades, dropping by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014 and outpacing overall newspaper job losses over that time, according to Pew Research Center survey. And that was before the more recent blows to the newspaper industry, with nearly 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers vanishing between 2018 and early 2020, according to a University of North Carolina study, even before the pandemic worsened their economic picture.

Can a nonprofit media organization survive financially? That’s the zillion-dollar question.

States Newsroom raised close to $10 million dollars in 2020. In the interests of transparency, it posts a list on its website of every donor who has contributed over $500–according to the article in the Post, the list currently includes individuals, foundations, and other entities like the Google News fund and a major union of public employees. A foundation established by Wyoming-based Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, who briefly entertained joining a bid to buy Tribune Publishing Company last year, gave an early $1 million dollar donation.

As the article noted, for many years smaller newspapers relied on wire services like the Associated Press to fill their pages with the kind of statehouse reporting that they didn’t have the personnel to produce themselves. But increasingly, small newspapers can’t afford to subscribe to the AP, and as the newsrooms of better-established papers have been emptied out by their rapacious corporate owners, those news organizations have simply lacked the wherewithal to cover state legislatures.

When I visited the States Newsroom website, I noted the absence of an Indiana operation. Maybe if a number of unhappy Hoosiers contribute, we can convince the project to add Indiana to its growing list of bureaus. After all, what’s our idiotic state motto? “Honest to Goodness, Indiana?”

Well, Honest to Goodness, we need a lot more light on our Indiana lawmakers!

A Timely Reminder

The most recent issue of the Harvard Law and Policy review was devoted to analyses of the “State of the States: Laboratories of Democracy.” The introductory essay, by Joel Rogers, made an important point that is all too often obscured by our focus on national issues, personalities and campaigns: the federal government really doesn’t run the country.

The federal government controls many public functions, some of them uniquely: macroeconomic policy and interstate commerce, the currency and its value, war and foreign policy. But on nearly everything else that government touches, state and local government play a far greater and more active role. Our national government is essentially a big insurance company, debtor, and gigantic military. Takeaway non-discretionary income transfers, debt service, and national defense, and its 2014 spending was only 0.7% of GDP, its total investment and consumption was only $472 billion, its total non-defense civilian employment was only 1.3 million. By comparison, in that same year, state and local governments spent 10.3% of GDP, did $1.9 trillion of investment and consumption, and employed 14.3 million people respectively, fifteen, four, and eleven times as much as the federal government.

Furthermore, he points out that the areas of our common lives that are subject to local control tend to be areas that are pretty important to most citizens.

That includes, inter alia, the quality of their public schools (where state and local governments not only provide ninety percent of funding, but also control what and who is taught, by whom, and how); environment (through state and local government control of energy use, transportation, most water, and waste disposal); neighborhoods (through their control of land use, zoning, housing, parks and other public spaces, police, and emergency response); and our democracy (through their control of voting rights, campaign and election administration, and decennial redis-
tricting). The power of the federal government is distant, and slight, com-
pared to this.

Take a close look at the list of decisions made by state and local government units, and then consider which candidates and/or parties are most likely to perform those tasks competently and in the public interest.

Here in Indiana, at the state level, the Pence administration has a truly deplorable record on education (what some have characterized as a “war” on public schools). It has fought environmental regulations to the point of suing to avoid compliance. And the Indiana legislature has an equally deplorable record, especially when it comes to democracy: not just redistricting, which has allowed legislators to choose their voters, rather than the other way around, but refusing to extend voting hours  or to consider other measures to encourage, rather than discourage, voting.

We need to remember the importance of our “down-ticket” choices when we go to the polls in November. Donald Trump may pose a more existential threat, but that’s no excuse for failing to appreciate the importance of offices closer to home.

Contrary to Popular Belief

Contrary to Popular Belief is the title of the just-issued book based on Michael Leppert’s blog about Indiana government, for which I was honored to write the Foreward. As he does in his blog, Leppert offers a thoughtful and informed window into state government.

If timing is really everything, the book should hit the big time, because (among other things), there are numerous observations of Indiana’s Governor, who is now a Vice-Presidential candidate on the “Mango Mussolini” ticket. (I stole that description from John Oliver.)

There are insights into Pence’s contract with Real Alternatives, observations about the departure of Lieutenant Governor Ellspermann (arguably the only truly competent member of the administration), about the Governor’s efforts to prevent resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana, the “news” bureau disaster dubbed Pravda on the Prairie, the anti-abortion bill funeral requirement that sparked “Periods for Pence,” and of course, RFRA. Among others.

As I wrote in the Forward, Contrary to Popular Belief is an effort by one of Indiana’s most thoughtful, perceptive and informed observers to break through our cynicism, to avoid the constant hype and agitprop coming from entrenched interests, and to engage in what has come to be seen as an almost subversive act –actual communication about the ways in which our state and local governments function. Such communication, unfortunately, has become rare in our polarized age, especially when its focus is at the state level.

There are many valuable observations in the pages of this book, but there are three insights that I think are especially worth emphasizing. First, and perhaps most obvious, is a very personal and candid look at the reality of lobbying—a reality far removed from the popular image of nefarious characters in pin-striped suits working to subvert democracy in order to enrich their corporate masters. Such individuals undoubtedly exist, but they do not represent the legions of policy advocates who see their job as informing the legislative process and ensuring that contending points of view are adequately represented.

The second observation is related to the first: to the extent our democratic system fails to work, it is because all points of view are not equally or even adequately represented—and the reason that is so, the reason democratic institutions do not work as well as they should—is less likely to be the result of individual malfeasance than it is of systemic influences. One of the great virtues of this book is its author’s rejection of the impulse to paint “them” (insert your preferred nemesis here) as the source of all our problems, and his illumination of the ways in which our state and local governments actually work.

It turns out that there are many diligent and well-intentioned political actors on both sides of the aisle who actually want to improve the lives of Indiana citizens. Sometimes they agree on the best way to do so; sometimes they don’t. Making good policy, it turns out, is more complicated than simply electing those you believe to be the “good guys.”

And that brings me to what I personally believe is the most important insight Leppert shares: the fact that “the average person in Indiana now knows far too many trivial tidbits about high profile government types in Washington, D.C. and less and less about their state legislators, mayors and city councilors.” Americans—and Hoosiers—are dangerously ignorant of the governing systems within which they live and work, and the ways in which those institutions structure and affect their own daily lives.

The book is available on Amazon.





What We Learn When Journalists Do Their Jobs

In my recent blog about the termination of the PR contract intended to repair the considerable damage to Indiana’s reputation inflicted by the RFRA debacle, I questioned Governor Pence’s assertion that Indiana was creating lots of jobs so the contract was no longer necessary.

I also noted that there has been considerable criticism of the way in which the state’s economic development agency reports job creation numbers. (In all fairness to Governor Pence, those concerns precede the current administration.)

I knew there had been allegations that the Indiana Economic Development Corporation routinely  and intentionally “cooked the books,” but I was unaware of the considerable evidence supporting those allegations until a regular reader sent me a link to a story done last year by WTHR.

The extensive report is pretty devastating. Among WTHR’s findings:

  • IEDC’s new transparency website is missing basic disclosure information that other states release to taxpayers.
  • The state agency is not releasing any information about hundreds of projects it previously announced.
  • IEDC is reporting official job statistics that exclude all failed economic development projects from its calculations.
  • Both IEDC and the governor are citing the state’s new job transparency law as justification to withhold information from public disclosure.

I encourage readers to click through and read the entire report. It documents misdirection and “gaming the system” by the Administration in great detail–and it should make taxpayers pretty angry.

It certainly made me angry, for two reasons: first, because our elected officials are playing fast and loose with the truth; and second, because this sort of investigative reporting about local government is all too rare.

The whole purpose of freedom of the press was to provide this sort of “watchdog” function–to allow the press to act on behalf of citizens who lack the time and expertise to keep tabs on those we’ve charged with managing our governing institutions. Kudos to WTHR–but where is the rest of the local media?

We get lots of coverage –indeed, I’d suggest overkill–of things like the Richmond Hill trial, the (thus far speculative) investigation of Subway spokesman Jared Fogle, and the most recent bar openings, but little or no oversight of the state and municipal government agencies that spend our tax dollars and regulate our behaviors. Figuring out what’s going on is admittedly more work than telling us about the opening of the latest restaurant–but it’s also a whole lot more important.

When I see a well-researched story like this one, it reminds me why journalism is so important–and makes me sad that we have so little of it.