Another winter, another session of the Indiana General Assembly. And another round of pleading for a 21st-century mass transit system in Indianapolis.
Mass transit advocates are reasonable people. They are not asking for the moon and stars. At the moment, they're not even asking for buses and light rail, although this comes next.
No, what transit advocates need from this legislative session is permission to hold a vote on whether people in Indianapolis and nearby suburbs are willing to pay the extra taxes necessary to support expanded public transportation.
You'd think this would be the easy part.
Such a vote does not mean that a better transit system is a done deal. It simply means that you and I and everybody else will have the chance to vote on whether we want to pay for it. If you think you're hearing a lot about transit now, just wait. Should the time come for us to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a mass transit tax increase, you'll need ear plugs just to limit the volume to a dull roar.
So it's not as though some sort of mass transit boondoggle is being foisted on us. This isn't like going to a zoning meeting, where everyone complains about the plans for yet another oversized, boring building in a neighborhood trying to preserve what's left of its character and charm, only to find out said building is going up, no matter what the neighbors think.
What the legislature is being asked to do is approve a hoop for transit advocates to jump through. A rather wiggly hoop at that, given the all-too famous reluctance of voters in these parts to say yes to higher taxes.
In other words, this is about democracy, self-determination and local control. The kinds of principles every Hoosier politician who's ever stood up and barked in front of a crowd loves to champion.
But this sort of bow-wow oratory has its limits. Last year, the proposal to let us vote on a tax increase to fund transit was scuttled when a Republican added an anti-union rider to the bill. That made it politically radioactive as far as many local Democrats were concerned and the bill was voted down.
This year, Republicans have yet another kind of mischief up their sleeves. They don't like the Democrats' majority in the Indianapolis City-County Council. So, just as their peers are trying to rig state and national elections by rebooting the rules in their favor, Indiana Republicans have attached proposals to the transit legislation aimed at tipping the balance of power in Indianapolis toward our Republican mayor, Greg Ballard.
Republicans want to give Ballard greater control over the city-county budget, limit spending by elected county officials, and eliminate the council's ability to confirm mayoral appointments. Most of all, a bill sponsored by Indianapolis Sen. Michael Young would cut the council's four at-large seats, reducing the size of the City-County Council from 29 to 25.
Wouldn't you know those four at-large seats are what give Democrats their current council majority?
For his part, Ballard has been remarkably coy on this issue. Asked whether he supported Young's proposal, the mayor demurred, telling The Indianapolis Star, "I learned a long time ago not to comment on any state legislator's bills. É We'll let the process go on."
Thanks for your leadership, Mr. Mayor.
Young's poison pill could again make it impossible for Democrats to cast the votes necessary for a transit bill to succeed.
As mentioned above, this Republican game playing echoes the kind of anti-voter sentiment that seems to be the latest craze among Republican pols. Prior to the 2012 elections, Republicans did whatever they could to make voting as difficult as possible for people in traditionally Democrat-leaning districts. This resulted in achingly long lines at polling places in states like Florida, Virginia and Ohio. The expectation was that long waits would discourage voters who would give up and go home in frustration. Republicans would then have a better chance of winning, even though their numbers were, in fact, smaller.
This ploy didn't work. So now Republicans are floating an idea to rejigger the way states are counted in the electoral college. A state's electoral votes would not be based on the popular vote, but would be divided according to the number of districts won by a candidate. Since most states have more rural and suburban districts than urban districts, this would mean that large urban populations would be discounted. In the last election this would have made Mitt Romney president.
Anti-urban bias is already rampant in Indiana. Republican super-majorities in the House and Senate reflect this. We live in a state that looks with suspicion at city life and considers efforts to bolster and enhance urbanity, such as better mass transit, a self-indulgence.
That's a dangerous game. As Urbanophile blogger Aaron Renn has noted, the metro Indy area accounted for virtually all of the state's net economic growth during the past decade. Indiana's future is inextricably tied to our city's continued well-being.
But when it comes to that well-being, Republicans think they know what's best for us. They sure don't want us to vote.