Will the real crisis please stand up? 

Notes from the Statehouse

Notes from the Statehouse
It's finally over. The forced march toward the semi-rural suburb Republicans seem determined to make of Indiana concluded last Friday night. I'm talking about the state's most recent legislative session, the first since 1988 in which Republicans controlled the Senate, House and Governor's Office.
For Bart Peterson, this session was a scourging. Perhaps his biggest mistake was to underestimate the level of anti-urban hostility in the Legislature. Not only was he a Democrat, he represented a city - and that was worse.
The session opened with Gov. Mitch Daniels, in a twangy Churchillian cry, claiming that this was an historic moment, that Indiana was in crisis. He invoked the image of a barn raising and called for everyone to pull together. He had reason to be concerned. Indiana, it was widely reported, was $800 million in the red. After taking office, the Daniels team suggested that the state's level of debt was actually over a billion. The situation, they said, was worse than they thought. Daniels proposed a temporary 1 percent tax on Hoosiers earning over $100,000 a year to deal with this. He promised to balance the state's budget in one year. Meanwhile, here in Indianapolis, Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson was steeling himself to approach the Republican barricades at the Statehouse with the most ambitious proposals of his career. One, a major downtown redevelopment scheme, would expand the city's convention center and build a major sports stadium using not tax dollars, but revenue generated by electronic slot machines. The other was a plan to consolidate city and township services and offices called Indy Works. This plan, Peterson said, could save the city $35 million a year. But Peterson went further, saying that the city was on the verge of its own fiscal crisis and that failure to pass his plan would result in severe cuts to city services, from police and fire to parks and streets and sanitation. Adding to the air of crisis were the calls of many state legislators to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Matrimony itself needed defending they said. Without an amendment to the state's Constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman, the very bedrock of our society would be up for grabs. So what happened? Daniels' 1 percent tax idea was so quickly dismissed by his Republican "colleagues" that one had to wonder whether he was really serious about it, or if the idea was some kind of ploy. Mitch, we learned, was given to public tantrums when he was vexed by the shenanigans of his fellow politicians - it was the way he signaled his earnestness. Not in this case. Indeed, it turns out that the budget crisis wasn't such a crisis after all. How else is one to read the two-year budget that was eventually passed and that Daniels says he is happy to sign. It's a patchwork of cuts here, business incentives there. Locally levied property taxes will go up (again). Health services to low income folks will be cut. Funding for education will go down. Income taxes won't be touched. Not exactly the call to arms or, for that matter, the barn raising Daniels called for. Oh, and the budget won't be balanced in a year. That will come in two years - so they say. We'll see. For Bart Peterson, this session was a scourging. Perhaps his biggest mistake was to underestimate the level of anti-urban hostility in the Legislature. Not only was he a Democrat, he represented a city - and that was worse. Urban animus expressed itself in various ways. Although most schools will see some funding increases, urban districts will actually see cuts. A new voter ID bill will probably discriminate against low income minority urban dwellers. The losing legislators who voted for tolerance and against the amendment banning gay marriage were virtually all from Indiana cities or college towns. Peterson's slot machine idea was nixed because legislators said it would sully the city's "family friendly" image. This meant that taxes on restaurants would be needed for the downtown building projects. Never mind that instituting taxes like these wouldn't be considered to help sick Hoosiers pay for health care. Not only that, Daniels and Co. declared Indianapolis unfit to manage the stadium and convention center projects and took control of them, with Daniels testily saying the state wasn't about to write the city "a blank check for $900 million." And with regard to Indy Works: Republicans chided Peterson for not doing his homework. Even though the plan had consensus support from the city's business leaders, academics and the media, it was found wanting. State-approved savings will amount to about $10 million a year - $25 million less than the mayor says he needs. Peterson will now be in the awkward position of presiding over a civic meltdown - or preventing it and looking like the boy who cried wolf. Thus a legislative session that began with dire warnings and proclamations of urgency ends in a shambles of partisan self-congratulation. But life as we have come to know it in Indiana goes on. The sanctity of marriage and the wealthiest among us have been defended. The big city has been taught a lesson. And, in the Hoosier lexicon, a deciding vote for daylight-saving time is called a profile in political courage.

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David Hoppe

David Hoppe

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