Friday, January 27th, 2012
If there’s one thing you can count on in state government, it is complaints about federal red tape, unfunded mandates, and general over reach. Witness, for example, the battle royale over the health care law, with many states suing to overturn it. I think in many ways it is totally justifiable for states to be upset that the federal government takes money from their citizens, then just sends parts of it back with string attached.
So when dealing with local governments inside of their states, you would think state level politicians would remember how it feels to be on the receiving end and avoid tangling up their localities with red tape and mandates, instead empowering them by devolving power as much as possible and not meddling.
If you think that, you think wrong.
Another example is happening before our eyes in Indiana. After years of local study and consensus building, metro Indianapolis finally came up with a consensus transit plan called Indy Connect. It is a bus centric system that, while not exactly cheap, is certainly more cost efficient than many cities’ grandiose rail plans.
Unfortunately, Indiana doesn’t allow localities to impose taxes without specific state authorization and has a long tradition of keeping municipalities on a tight leash. Legislators complain when places like Indy keep coming to the well, but the reality is they don’t have the powers they need to do things without specific state approval.
So it is with transit. In order to fund the transit system, a special local tax levy would be required. So the backers of Indy Connect went to the General Assembly to ask, not for any taxes to be imposed, but only for permission to put a referendum on the ballot that would allow locals to decide for themselves whether or not to pay for a transit system. That’s it.
Unfortunately, that was too much for the legislature, which killed the transit bill in committee. This is the same legislature that, by the way, on the very same day passed a bill out of committee allowing “creation science” to be taught in schools. Glad to see they have their priorities straight.
Lest you think this is all evil anti-transit Republicans, the transit measure failed because Democrats voted against it. The Republican committee chair insisted that the transit bill include a “right to work” provision that prohibited mandatory unionization of transit workers. Now, I think right to work is a sideshow myself. And I don’t think that Republicans should have insisted on what is clearly an ancillary matter and one they know would tweak Democrats. I would have removed the provision, especially as I believe it conflicts with federal law anyway. But for Democrats to throw transit under the bus because of it exposes the extent to which at the state level, the Democratic party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the unions. They’d rather have no transit system at all than a non-union transit system. The died in the wool blue urbanist crowd in Indy has expressed some surprise that Democrats opposed it – including, incidentally, Rep. Bill Crawford, who represents an Indianapolis inner city district that would benefit enormously from improved transit – but that’s only because they are naive about how politics works at this level. They should keep that in mind going forward.
In any case, there are still ways to pass the law, such as by inserting it into another bill that then passes. This happens routinely in Indiana and elsewhere. But this recent vote is part of a pattern of dis-empowerment of localities in recent years. Tax caps (which I support, incidentally) were one – but the rules go well beyond that to impose de fact spending caps on local government. The state has stepped up increasing control over school districts and now basically dictates per pupil funding around the state. Other busybody bills include proposals this year to limit the power of redevelopment commissions, strip state universities of their ability to set tuition, and to mandate a return to single class high school basketball. A lawmaker from Cedar Lake, 150 miles away from Indianapolis, wants to eliminate Indy’s at large council seats. If there’s one common theme, it’s that this legislature has been more about taking away the ability of others to make their own decisions rather than doing much positive themselves.
It should come as no surprise that this is showing up in the state’s economy. For example, Gov. Mitch Daniels has said of Indianapolis, “The Indy metro’s our star cylinder in the engine.” Indeed, during the 2000s metro Indy outperformed all peer regions in population and job growth.
But recently it has taken a stumble. Between December 2010 and December 2011, metro Indy lost jobs. It was the only metro with over a million people in the Midwest to lose jobs other than Cleveland. That’s right, even Detroit gained jobs. A recent Brookings Global MetroMonitor report report ranked Indianapolis 183rd out of 200 global metros and dead last in the Midwest. The recent Milken Institute top performing cities index ranked Indianapolis 121 out of 200 large US metros, down from 81 a few years ago. Obviously in the Great Recession there are complex dynamics affecting how cities perform, but I don’t think it’s any accident this stumble has occurred against a backdrop of progressive local dis-empowerment in Indiana.
I appreciate the need for lean government, particularly today. But while the logic of minimalistic government spending as a road to success makes sense in some cases, it clearly doesn’t in central Indianapolis. There we have a city burdened with legacy costs and problems. As a result, central Indianapolis is always going to have higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools than other regional areas. Always, no matter how much it cuts. It cannot make itself competitive by cost cutting alone, as the exodus from Center Township shown in the last Census illustrates. Instead, it has to built a differentiated environment that is not in direct cost competition with suburbs. Obviously it has to keep a keen eye on the bottom line, but it can’t simply rely on cost cutting alone to drive success.
Transit is a big part of trying to do that. There’s no guarantee of success. But given the history, more of same is highly unlikely to work. The heart of the proposal is a quality urban bus system for the central core. This creates a more differentiated environment, better serves the mobility needs of carless residents, and links central city residents with emerging suburban job centers (which is one reason business has been so on board with the plan). It’s also comparatively cost efficient.
Let’s hope the legislature comes to its senses on this one. The idea that what happens to the urban core of Indy doesn’t matter to the state is ludicrous. The fate of Indianapolis and Indiana are bi-directionally linked. There can’t be a successful Indianapolis without a successful Indiana – but also vice versa.
Some have reported that Indianapolis has accounted for something like 80% of the economic growth in the state. Contrary to popular belief, it sends far more to state government than it gets back in taxes. Indianapolis, as the governor noted, is the economic engine of the state. But that engine is sputtering. Given that there’s no precedent for a region to thrive with an urban core that dies, we can expect that if central Indianapolis ultimately fails, it will take the region with it, and with that likely the state. The trajectory of the state economically, especially the central 2/3rd that are in Indy’s economic area, would be quite different indeed even if metro Indy merely regresses to say a Cincinnati level of growth.
Who knows what the state will ultimately do, but the micro-management of localities that occurs all too often not just in Indiana, but across America, is crippling the metro areas that are the economic drivers of our economy.
Indiana’s legislature ought to take a hard look in the mirror and ask why they have to try to act like the city council for the whole state. Given that there’s no federalism at the state-local level, that’s certainly their constitutional right. But if they want to be in that business, they, like the ungrateful servant, deserve every drop of torment the federal government chooses to inflict on them.