There's a little Artest in all of us

David Hoppe

David Hoppe's Blog

Ron Artest upset people when he declared that he wanted the Indiana Pacers to trade him to another team. We live in a state that has been trying to attract and retain talented individuals. Artest's coming out and saying he thought he could better fulfill his potential by playing somewhere else was a low blow.

But given the way things have been going around here lately, I'll bet a lot of folks would demand a trade to a place where the grass looks greener - if they only could.

Take the case of our soon to be erstwhile secretary of commerce, Patricia Miller. It was just over a year ago - that's 12 whole months - that Mitch Daniels appointed Miller, the head of Vera Bradley Designs in Fort Wayne, to his Cabinet. Her job would be to revitalize the state's economy and, in particular, put more money in the wallets of working Hoosiers. Miller's business acumen, Daniels said, made her a great choice for what was arguably the most important post beside his own in state government.

Who would have guessed that Miller would pull her own version of an Artest and drop a letter of resignation in Daniels' Christmas stocking? In her case, of course, it's said that Miller had to get back to Fort Wayne in order to see to her handbag business. According to this version of events, Miller took off because, like Ron Artest, she wanted an opportunity to put more points on the scoreboard.

You have to wonder, though, if Miller's abrupt departure wasn't hastened by the thudding realization that turning Indiana's economy around is going to be tougher - a lot tougher - than she anticipated. This realization might have been clarified by figures released by the State Budget Agency in November showing individual income below projections. Employment figures haven't been anything to write home about, either.

In light of the mission Gov. Daniels assigned her, I have to wonder if Miller, for all her experience with handbags, also must have been confounded by her boss' attempt to turn the sow's ear of the Delphi bankruptcy into some kind of silk purse. Delphi, which makes automotive parts for GM, has filed for Chapter 11. Delphi has a plant in Kokomo that employs 5,000 people.

As part of its reorganization plan, Delphi's CEO, Steve Miller, wants to cut the wages of workers from $27 per hour to $10.50 per hour - a rate barely above the official U.S. poverty level of $19,197 for a family of four.

At the same time, Steve Miller has proposed a "Key Employee Compensation Plan" that will give $43 million in "incentive bonuses" to Delphi executives, plus another $88 million to the company's top 500 executives when the company emerges from bankruptcy in two years. Miller says he will take just $1 a year starting in January; but he received a $3 million signing bonus and made $750,000 in the past six months. At $10.50 an hour, a Delphi worker would have to work 171 years to match Miller's $3.75 million for his six months on the job.

In November, Daniels met with Steve Miller and offered him an incentive package to keep low-paid Delphi jobs in Indiana. "Of course you feel terrible about anybody who experiences a significant [pay] reduction," Daniels told The Star. "And I'm not defending it. But $9 an hour, plus a huge benefit package, is not a job we should turn up our nose at in Indiana. We've got a lot of folks for whom that would be a very acceptable job, or a step up."

Is that what Patricia Miller thought she was signing up to do? Battle for $9 an hour? Perhaps, like many of the rest of us, she thought Indiana was a state with something called a "middle class." Imagine her surprise at finding that a goal of this administration is to turn this place into a plantation. No wonder she decided to trade herself.

And Delphi appears to be the tip of what's looking like a very big iceberg. At Daniels' former employer, Eli Lilly and Co., the value of stock has dropped by more than half since 2000. This means that the value of the Lilly Endowment, the philanthropic foundation that has provided funds for everything in this town from neighborhood redevelopment to the building of museums, has fallen from $15.5 billion to $7.5 billion. Last year, its assets fell more than 20 percent, the steepest drop of any of the nation's top 10 foundations. Questions are now being raised about whether or not the Endowment, which is based entirely on Lilly stock, should diversify its holdings. But doing so could make Lilly Co. more vulnerable to a takeover.

Then there's Marsh. The local supermarket chain is $200 million in debt and up for sale. Marsh is the sixth largest employer in Indiana, with 14,900 workers. It operates 118 groceries and 160 convenience stores. Another important local employer, Thomson Consumer Electronics, may also be sold. One-thousand people work there.

All told, an awful lot of Hoosiers are facing uncertain futures in 2006. You think they wouldn't do like Ron Artest and demand a trade if they had the chance? Many of them say Artest's a turncoat, or worse. Maybe they're jealous.