State Rep. David Orentlicher's battle; Fighting for what's fair


"There’s a large marble plaque carved upon a wall near the Rotunda in the Indiana Statehouse. It proclaims the dates that construction on this proud edifice was begun (Oct. 12, 1878) and completed (Oct. 2, 1888). It also makes note of what the entire project cost Indiana’s taxpayers: $1,980,969.

The numbers speak for themselves. But, Indiana being Indiana, and Hoosiers being Hoosiers, one can safely assume that whatever the Statehouse cost, there were plenty of people who thought it was too much.

It is 8 a.m. of Organization Day, the day in November when state legislators come to the capital in order to, as the name suggests, get organized for the session beginning in January of the new year. It’s a time for members of both political parties in this part-time Legislature to get reacquainted, review the coming agenda and file bills to be considered.

A cleaning lady is doing some last-minute straightening up in the otherwise deserted House Chamber. Overhead, a mural depicts a phantasmagorical Indiana in which a woman who looks like she’s just come from a Meridian Street garden party climbs over a harp and a pot of burning money.

Although the day has barely begun, David Orentlicher is already in his shirtsleeves. Orentlicher, a Democrat, is representative for House District 86, a long, narrow wedge on the Northside of Indianapolis that follows Meridian Street from a point a few blocks north of 10th Street to above 86th. He’s carrying a stack of papers the size of a Manhattan phonebook — drafts of bills he thinks can resolve Indiana’s property tax debacle.

It’s hard to think of another issue that has cracked this state’s political skull like the recent increases in the property tax. People of otherwise incompatible political persuasions have taken to the streets in communities where the taxes on their homes have jumped as much as 300 percent in the past four years. Nowhere has the outrage been felt more deeply or been expressed with greater heat than in Indianapolis, where tax bills were delivered in July and where, as if by way of warning, a previously popular mayor, Bart Peterson, was trounced by a political unknown, Greg Ballard, in an election on Nov. 6.

David Orentlicher is a man whose seemingly frail appearance disguises a durable determination to draw people into a rational exploration of their self-interest — especially when they’re righteously pissed-off about having to pay three times what they’re used to for the privilege of owning a home. Orentlicher, who is the Samuel R. Rosen professor and co-director of the Center for Law and Health at Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, where he is also an adjunct professor in the School of Medicine, may be the most highly educated individual in Indiana state politics.

“As I was going along in high school and college, I wasn’t sure between law and medicine,” Orentlicher says matter of factly. So he split the difference, eventually graduating from both Harvard Medical School and Harvard Law.

Orentlicher carries his bills up a narrow, brightly lit staircase behind the House Chamber to a corner office overlooking Capitol Street. A man with a buzz cut and a blue dress shirt is waiting behind a counter. Two boxes of donuts, as yet untouched, are there for the taking.

Orentlicher delivers his bills and they are duly stamped — the first potential legislation received this morning. The clerk with the buzz cut hefts Orentlicher’s stack; it’s heavy. “Holy smokes, David,” he says.

Making society better

“I always thought I would be involved with working in government,” Orentlicher says. He grew up in a city where government is the chief industry: Washington, D.C. His father worked for the federal government and taught at George Washington University. “He really believed in the role of government and that it could make society better and provide a safety net that made sure everybody had what he called ‘a decent opportunity.’ So that was the kind of setting I grew up in.”

With his training in law and medicine, Orentlicher was readily attracted to the field of medical ethics. For six years he worked in Chicago as director of the American Medical Association’s ethics program.

“It was a great time to be there,” Orentlicher remembers, “because it was when the AMA decided to expand its ethics program.” Orentlicher helped draft the first patient’s bill of rights, developed conflict of interest regulations for physicians and dealt with end-of-life decisions, among many other issues. He issued guidelines, filed court briefs and offered expert testimony in court cases and before government bodies.

“These were core issues, with real impact,” Orentlicher says. “But after six years the issues were less compelling and I started to feel limits because while I could help shape the AMA’s positions, I was speaking for the institution and, sometimes, I disagreed with it … I realized I was either going to compromise my own principles or fail to meet my duties to the organization.”

Orentlicher decided that teaching might be the best path. “I could speak freely. I didn’t have to worry about being constrained by an organization.” And, at about the same time, he met his future wife, Judy Failer, a professor in the political science department at Indiana University, whose background was in moral philosophy, ethics and public policy. Before long, Orentlicher found a position at IUPUI. Indianapolis became his home.

A natural step

“One of the great things about Indianapolis is that it’s a big city but it still has a lot of the features of a smaller town,” says Orentlicher in describing his early experiences in Indy. “I felt welcomed. There are other cities where, if you’re not born there, it’s hard to become involved. This isn’t that kind of city.”

Indeed, in 1995 Orentlicher had been here less than a year and he was volunteering to work for Julia Carson in her first campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, advising her on health care and other issues. “Working for her, I got some real exposure to the political process and I liked being involved.

“If I’d stayed in Chicago, to call up somebody running for Congress and get involved the way I was able to get involved with Julia would have been much harder. In my first year here I was doing quite a bit for her on issues.”

But Orentlicher didn’t consider running for office himself until 2001, when the district he was living in was redrawn and he found himself being represented in the state Legislature by an incumbent with whom he differed on a number of issues.

“A lesson my father taught from the Great Depression is that a lot of people suffer misfortune, not because they made bad choices, but because of the environments they grow up in. That was true during the Great Depression, and it’s still true for different groups who are disfavored in our country. Government can help fix the disadvantages people have.”

For Orentlicher, running for office felt like a natural step — as a teacher and policy consultant he was used to proposing and advocating various ideas and initiatives. Winning a seat in the state Legislature would give him the chance to see if he could actually implement some of these things.

Orentlicher won his race and was re-elected in 2006. The biggest thing, he says, that surprised him about being a state representative was the sheer volume of work to be done. Indiana has a part-time Legislature, but there’s always a year’s worth of work. “I could spend all my time on it,” he says of the workload that includes having to consider over 100 bills in any given session. But legislators work only a few months of every year and don’t have staff people to assist them. “It really is impossible to know every aspect of every bill,” Orentlicher admits. “This enhances the role of lobbyists.”

Taking recommendations on issues like a physicians’ code of ethics to the AMA’s House of Delegates proved useful preparation for dealing with the legislative process, and the balancing act elected officials must perform in finding the proper relation between their particular vision, the views of their constituents and the greater good. In explaining his approach, Orentlicher quotes the Talmudic scholar Hillel, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

“I need to represent myself,” Orentlicher says. “I need to try and persuade others about my proposals. If I’m not going to advocate for myself or my constituents, who will? But I can’t just advocate for myself and my constituents. I need to take a broader picture and think about what’s good for Indiana.”

His AMA experience also taught him about the art of compromise — as well as the importance of sticking to what he calls “core principles.”

First among those principles is equality. “In America, we all have the same rights to vote and to serve and to speak and be heard. And making sure we maintain that equality — that we don’t have second-class citizens — are issues that always come up, and continue to come up in this country.”

A fair deal

As David Orentlicher sees it, inequality — a fundamental lack of fairness — is the fire burning at the heart of voter anger over recent jumps in the property tax. “I think there is a sense that it’s just not fair,” he says. “I think people understand that if we’re going to have police, fire, schools, it costs money and we’ll pay our share. But I think there’s a sense it’s become so arbitrary that you are no longer confident that you are paying your fair share and the person next door is paying their fair share. Some of us are paying more and others are paying less. I think a fundamental principle of equality is that we be treated fairly.”

Public outrage in Marion County was still set at HIGH last summer when Orentlicher began working on a plan he thought could solve what people were calling a tax “crisis.” Orentlicher’s goals were twofold: to save people money while achieving a greater sense of fairness. To do this, he developed proposals that would, first, cap homeowners’ property taxes in 2007, then provide a property tax cut in 2008 and for the years thereafter of more than 60 percent — an amount almost double that of any other proposal on the table.

To get there, Orentlicher (who, it should be noted, majored in economics during his undergrad years at Brandeis, and has the fourth highest rating among House Democrats by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce) reviewed tax structures in other states and then, through the fall, spent his evenings brainstorming his ideas at neighborhood association meetings like the one held in Indianapolis’ Old Northside neighborhood.

That session took place at the historic Propylaeum house on a cold and blustery November night. People gathered in a first floor parlor room whose walls and high ceiling were elaborately painted with pictures of cherubim and distinguished looking Victorian gentlemen. There were two tables of eight and a couple of rows of folding chairs. People poured themselves glasses of apple cider and chatted amiably about their houses and neighbors.

David Orentlicher came in from the cold and looked up at the angels overhead with a bemused smile. The lady in charge of the meeting called for “a strong man” to help her set up a portable movie screen for Orentlicher’s PowerPoint presentation. Meanwhile, Orentlicher got down on hands and knees to make sure his projector was hooked up properly. A screen-saver flashed into view showing two smiling kids — Orentlicher’s son and daughter.

Over the next half hour, Orentlicher provided an outline of his tax reform proposals. In the first place, he said, he thought we could cap homeowners’ 2007 property taxes at 1.5 percent of assessed value. In Marion County, where there was already a property tax freeze, this relief would show up as a credit against the amount due in the third 2007 tax bill. Orentlicher said this circuit breaker would cost approximately $72 million, which, he said, could be covered by the state’s billion-dollar budget surplus. This would prevent a tax shift to other property taxpayers and would ensure that schools, Police and Fire Departments wouldn’t lose revenues.

As for long-term tax relief, the plan outlined by Orentlicher included $400 million in immediate spending cuts by absorbing child welfare and other local costs into the state budget. He pointed out that, in recent years, corporations have been carrying substantially less of the tax burden than homeowners. Orentlicher called for restoring the balance of the tax burdens between homeowners and corporations by increasing corporate property taxes by $300 million. For the sake of fairness, he also proposed providing the same 62 percent cut in property tax to both homeowners and renters. Again, in the name of fairness, he called for replacing $2.1 billion in property taxes with state income and sales taxes. This, he said, would solve the problem of disparities in tax rates from township to township. Finally, Orentlicher said people on low or fixed incomes could have property taxes capped when they reached a certain percentage of the homeowner’s income — preventing anyone from being forced out of their home due to high taxes.

Orentlicher didn’t seem like someone trying to make a pitch. Rather, his efforts to solicit the “public input,” so often given lip service by politicians, appeared sincere and collaborative. Orentlicher asked questions and listened carefully to what people had to say. At one point, when someone pushed him on a particular point, he readily conceded, “I haven’t figured out how to do that …”

Statewide vision

In spite of recent increases, Indiana is in the bottom third of states when it comes to property taxes. The problem, though, is that some communities, like Indianapolis, pay a disproportionate amount because of unique circumstances. Indy, for example has an exceptional amount of tax-exempt real estate — think of all those state-owned buildings, from the Statehouse to IUPUI. This is why Orentlicher doesn’t think Gov. Daniels’ tax reform will solve our problems.

Daniels’ plan falls back on local income taxes, which Orentlicher predicts will go up as property taxes go down. Orentlicher argues that relying on state t"