Wednesday, March 27, 2013

An Open Letter to Governor Mike Pence

An open letter to Governor Pence,
                My name is Matt Stone. I’m a lifelong Indianapolis resident, a former candidate for local office, and I dab a bit in political punditry as well. I feel as if I need to disclose that I didn’t vote for you, but I’m not writing this letter to tell you where I disagree with you. Just the opposite, I’m writing to tell you that you are a breath of fresh air to Indiana government and that now, more than ever, we need someone like you who hasn’t been wined and dined by the special interests that invade the State House the first few months of every year.
                Your recent comments on the mass transit and the Speedway bailout are what inspired me to write you this letter. As an Indianapolis resident, I believe that the city of Indianapolis and Marion County have had more revenue these past few years than they ever have had before.  And I believe Indy Go, our public bus system, is underfunded. But it is underfunded because of priorities, not because of a lack of revenue. We have chosen, through our local government, to fund business developments, parking garages, and sports stadiums over libraries, bus service, and public safety. I’d much rather have an extended bus service that goes beyond mostly downtown and the east side of Indianapolis, as well as a new police recruit class, over a bailout of the Indiana Pacers and a $15 million parking garage. But unfortunately, our elected and appointed officials have not decided that. So instead of asking for more revenue for stuff I favor, I believe we should advocate for better governance rather than more revenue. And maybe there is a role for state government to provide a hand in advocating better governance in that.
                Additionally, I think there are fine details in the mass transit proposal that are absolutely horrifying. Marion County property tax payers will continue to pay for the municipal corporation that is Indy Go, but that property tax money will be funneled into the new regional mass transit board. In addition, all working Marion County residents will pay an increased County Optional Income Tax to support the mass transit regional board. Hamilton County, which has no public transit at this time, will only be paying the County Optional Income Tax. I have concerns that Marion County property tax payers will be used to subsidize the more extravagant portions of mass transit, such as the lite rail line from Noblesville to Indianapolis. It is my belief that any lines that run from Hamilton County to Indianapolis will largely favor Hamilton County residents. There is a lot of incentive for those in Hamilton County to come to Indianapolis. But there isn’t nearly as much incentive for those in Indianapolis to go to Noblesville, Fishers, or Carmel.
                I also was absolutely supportive of you on what you said of the Speedway bailout. There is nothing in there that requires IMS to provide a single penny towards the improvements on the race track. And it is my understanding that a clause that’ll prevent IMS from selling the Speedway isn’t likely to be in the final bill.
                In both of these proposals, these respective special interests have been wining and dining state legislative representatives and the powers-that-be for a very long time. As someone who hasn’t been on their radar until recently, I believe that you have some independence that other leaders of state government do not. I urge you to use your influence to encourage responsible changes in these bills. And if they aren’t changed, then I urge you to use your veto pen.
                The other proposal I want you to keep an eye on is Senate Bill 621, which passed the Senate and is now being considered in the House. SB621, written by Senator Mike Young at the request of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, would greatly consolidate power that currently exists in the Indianapolis legislative body, the City-County Council, and put it under the Mayor’s office. He or she would have the authority not only to line-item veto budgets, but re-write budgets to his liking, essentially making the Council’s participation in the budget process an exercise in futility. SB621 would also eliminate the four At-Large positions on the City-County Council, leaving only councilors who have a limited interest in governance and doesn’t provide a single councilor who thinks about the entire county as a whole. Finally, one of the oddest bits of SB621 changes the residency requirements to run for Mayor of Indianapolis from five years to two years.  I don’t think someone who has only lived here for two years should be allowed that amount of power.
                As someone who generally leans to the right, I do believe that there is some smart consolidation and reform that can be done with Uni-Gov. But it needs to be done carefully and without regard to partisan power grabs. This bill is a blatant attempt to consolidate power under Mayor Greg Ballard and whoever Mike Young has in mind that currently resides in Fishers or Carmel who wants to run in 2015. I urge you to veto this bill, and issue a statement for a Marion County government reform study committee so that serious reforms can be drawn up in public, instead of behind closed doors.
                I also wanted to write to you on a more general topic: the condition of the Hoosier family. During your campaign, you said you wanted a family analysis on actions of state government. You’ve also spoken out against expanded gambling in Indiana. I believe that is key to protecting Hoosier families. And I hope you expand that same skepticism to the more wide-spread version of gambling that is the Hoosier Lottery.
                With the pseudo-privatization that has taken place, the Hoosier Lottery is poised to increase their presence further in mostly poor, working class neighborhoods and those who are retired but living on a fixed budget. While ultimately the decision to play the Lottery is an individual choice, putting them in convenience stores close to neighborhoods makes it more likely those residents in that area will play. Moving them just a few blocks out of the neighborhood, out of walking distance, or in large general stores where people have to wait in long lines regardless of how many items they’re purchasing, would dis-incentivize people from playing the Lottery who are only visiting to play it.
                In an ideal world, we would’ve ended the state-sanctioned Hoosier Lottery long ago. But politics is about the realm of the possible. So instead of wishing for something that isn’t going to happen, I hope you’ll keep a watchful eye on the Lottery. I know it brings a lot of revenue for state government, but I think it does more harm than good and I hope your administration can work on changing it so that it does more good than harm.
                                                    Matthew Stone

Friday, March 22, 2013

So Long, Steve Hammer, and Thanks For All The Fish

Longtime NUVO columnist Steve Hammer recently accepted a job offer in the Lone Star state of Texas. This means he'll be ending his weekly column in the weekly alternate paper. On that end, I wish him the best for him and his family.

But as a columnist often representing the liberal viewpoint, and as the former editor of the music section of Nuvo, I can't say he'll be missed.

My criticism of Hammer isn't that he's liberal. But that there isn't much thought put into what he writes about. When Governor Mitch Daniels was still in office, he'd often criticize Daniels for privatization efforts and praise Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard within the same column, even though their policies on privatization often were similar (and sometimes using the same contractors).

I don't think anyone would hold Hammer up as the best representative of the liberal viewpoint in Indianapolis print media. That honor should go to Star columnist Dan Carpenter or former Star/current Indianapolis Business Journal columnist Sheila Suess Kennedy.

As the former editor of the music pages of Nuvo, Hammer left much to be desired. A Facebook discussion mentioned an all-girl rock group he often promoted that never amounted to much. The general consensus was they weren't bad, but they weren't the goddesses of music that Hammer made them out to be and probably didn't warrant the several front-page stories they got.

In my time as a contributor to Indianapolis Music Net, some of the writers, editors, and photographers had a much more contentious relationship with Hammer. I went to a concert at The Emerson Theater and had a photographer with me. My review, and the photographer's photographs, were up the next day on the web site. The next time Nuvo came out, the photographer's photographs appeared in Nuvo with no attribution to him. Hammer also wrote a very critical review of the concert. The photographer I was with claimed that he was all over the venue and stage that night and never saw Hammer at the show.

This incident happened several years ago, and I don't remember if an apology was issued or if a correction was made in the online version of the story. But even if there was, there were still thousands of printed Nuvo copies that made it out that the photographer did not give permission for and received no proper attribution.

Hammer's consistency in turning in thousands of articles on time should be admired. But much else as a columnist and an editor leaves much to be desired. So long, Steve, and thanks for all the fish.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Marion County Property Taxpayers Will Be Paying For Mass Transit

In the much talked about effort to allow a mass transit referendum within Marion and Hamilton Counties, one of the more interesting aspects of the proposed legislation is what will happen to the current Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation, which runs Indy Go.

Like many parts of city and county government, Indy Go relies heavily on property taxes to fund their operations. Currently, Hamilton County does not have any public transpiration so they won't be paying property taxes to establish any public transit within Hamilton County or the central Indiana region. Their contribution will exclusively come from an increase in the County Optional Income Tax.

However, Marion County property tax payers do pay for Indy Go. And they'll continue to pay that property tax even though it'll no longer go to the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation. Instead, it'll go to the brand new, regional board.

(2) The Indianapolis public transportation corporation is abolished upon the transfer of powers and duties to the metropolitan transit district as provided in subdivision (1). However, the taxing district established for the public transportation corporation continues in existence for purposes of any property taxes imposed by the county fiscal body for transfer to the metropolitan transit district to pay the district's costs of carrying out the powers and duties of a public transportation corporation.
As a Marion County resident, I have to ask why we have a tax burden that Hamilton County won't also share? We at least have a bus system to base any extended transit options on. Hamilton County doesn't. Surely their upstart costs for a bus system, or the fabled rail line from Noblesville and/or Fishers (this seems to change a lot) to Indianapolis will cost a lot more than adding buses and adding new routes to an already established system.

Now, I am not dead-set against expanded transit options, especially when it comes to bus service. Bus service is very poor and spotty, even in the parts of town with the most routes. For better or for worse, we're in a service-based economy with a lot of jobs that don't pay a lot. The least we can do, as a society, is try to help the people who work these jobs get around.

So what can we do with this property tax money? Ideally, we should eliminate it. If Hamilton County can fund their contributions to regional transit with less of a tax burden, we probably can as well. But at the very least, Marion County property tax money should be earmarked to be used only in Marion County for projects that'll help those most in need. And no, a fantasy rail line is not going to help those most in need.

Unfortunately, I doubt anyone in the State House will be reading this. It is my understanding that a lot of local blogs are now blocked. So my apologies to my frequent readers from the State of Indiana's IT Department. You will be missed.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Destroy the Lottery

Here's an idea our esteemed legislators and elected officials should consider, as we ponder ways to cut costs in government and make government more accountable to the citizens that it represents.

Let's get rid of the Hoosier Lottery.

No, I do not mean sell it off to a private company.

No, I don't mean give a vendor a long-term lease on running the operations while retaining some control over the overall operations.

I mean, let's just get rid of it altogether.

The Hoosier Lottery has the typical corruption that Hoosiers have come to expect from our state government. WTHR reporter Bob Segall broke the news of the Hoosier Lottery offices being moved into a new, expensive space that could cost more than $2 million in rent a year compared to the old space. Subsequent investigations from Segall revealed that the Lottery Commission didn't even bother reviewing the extravagant purchases being made for the new space. Eventually, the director of the Hoosier Lottery resigned.

An analysis from The Indianapolis Star, backed by academic studies and information requests from state government as well as their own research, revealed that Hoosier Lottery players 67% of those playing have household incomes less than $50,000 a year. Comparing that data with census data, they found that the lower an area's per capita income, the more lottery retailers it has. The analysis also discovered that Lottery revenue is disproportional received by higher income counties based on the value of vehicle registration. So counties with a lot of expensive cars and RVs will get a lot of money, whereas counties with used cars won't get as much. In other words, neighborhoods with a lot of poor (And let's just say it, also a lot of minorities) are subsidizing the rich (mostly white) neighborhoods.

On top of all that, the Hoosier Lottery has launched a new, deceptive ad campaign that sinks even lower than where it has previously gone. A private vendor has been charged with operations in hopes that revenue will increase, so the new ad campaign talks about life goals that can be achieved with lottery winnings, such as paying for a child's college. Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully further critiques the ad campaign, saying it is "preying on emotions in a downright despicable way."

So why not just end the lottery altogether?

People might say that'll create a revenue gap in state budgeting. I don't buy it.

In economics, one's income becomes discretionary income after taxes paid and after all necessary bills are paid. What is left over is discretionary. And, for better or for worse, most people are going to spend their discretionary income rather than save it. Just because they won't be playing the Hoosier Lottery doesn't mean that won't go into the economy somehow. They're going to go out and spend it, and local and state governments will collect the sales tax. And if they choose to invest it again, good for them. I'd be fine with a slight drop in revenue if that means more people are stashing away money in their savings account or 401(k).

Governor Pence has taken a valiant stand against expanding gambling in the state. He should take it one step further and use the bully pulpit to put us on a path so that the state of Indiana will be out of the state-sponsored gambling institution known as the Hoosier Lottery.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Evans' Party Switch Still Raises Eyebrows

Councilor José Evans switched from being a Democrat to a Republican. Evans, who represents District 1 on the northwest side of Indianapolis, has narrowed the Democratic majority from 16-13 to 15-14. Evans held a press conference with state GOP Chairman Eric Hoclomb and Marion County GOP Chairman Kyle Walker announcing the party switch. At the press conference, it was also said that Evans was going to be able to meet with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus later in the day.

In an exclusive interview with radio personality Amos Brown, Evans doesn't shed a lot of light on why he switched or what pushed him to the Republican side of the isle.

Evans' repeatedly says he'll "have a seat at the table", but on what? Evans recently voted against several charter school expansions on the council, all of which passed with wide support from councilors. Is he going to have a seat at the table with education reform both at the city and state level which he has very different views on then most elected GOP officials?

Will he "have a seat at the table" in labor issues? Council Democrats were heavily supported by organized labor in 2007, and it is one of the few larger issues that does come into municipal governance with so many facilities in the downtown area that use low wage labor to support the sports and convention industries. Several proposals to support hotel workers in the downtown area have been shot down, either by past GOP council majorities or by the veto pen of Mayor Greg Ballard. In the larger landscape of Indiana, a group of pro-labor Republicans called the Lunchpail Republicans were largely unsuccessful in primarying legislatures who were proponents of the 2011 Right-to-Work law.

Will he "have a seat at the table" when it comes to government reform in Marion County? Evans was very non-descript on how he felt of the Indiana legislature's proposed consolidation, which would give Acting Mayor Ryan Vaughn unprecedented control over the budget of the county without any meaningful legislative oversight. And a provision in the Senate version of the bill would take away the At-Large council seats in time for the 2019 municipal elections.

An issue he cited at both the GOP press conference and in the Brown interview was the Meadows TIF. The Meadows, which is the neighborhood roughly around 38th and Keystone, was proposed to be put into a TIF so that development, specifically a grocery store, could be put in the area. The initial measure was sponsored by Councilor Steve Talley and Councilor Christine Scales. The TIF did not have support from either the Democrats or Republicans and never made it to a vote on the full council or committees. But Evans still could've co-sponsored the proposal, but he didn't. The substitute proposal for the Meadows, which would've taken $3 million in RebuildIndy funds to support a grocery store and other projects, also didn't have Evans as a co-sponsor.

During Brown's interview, he said that if Broad Ripple gets a TIF, then so should the Meadows. He voted for the so-called Midtown TIF.

I understand that Evans doesn't want to air "dirty laundry" from Democratic caucuses. And because of that, perhaps we'll never really know why Evans' has these issues he's super passionate about, but seemingly never got his voice heard on, or why he never made any public declaration of them.

I would like to revise one stance I took on Twitter the other day. I don't think this is a purely political decision made by Evans. I have my doubts that he'll actually run for re-election. It just leaves me scratching my head and I wonder who does this benefit, and I really don't see any individual or group benefiting from this party-switch in either the short or long term.