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HETRICK: Lamenting our slow-motion political sausage factory

April 6, 2013

Years ago, I was scheduled to speak before an Indiana House of Representatives committee hearing on a smoke-free workplace bill. The room was packed with doctors, nurses, health-organization advocates and citizens from all over the state—people affected by cancer, heart disease, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome and more.

On the other side of the issue were tobacco companies, bar owners, gambling advocates and a few libertarians. They and their lobbyists packed the room, too.

Only one person got to speak that day before the committee ran out of time, killing the bill for another year.

I stood, dejected, in the hallway. The committee chairman came up to me. He said he was sorry. He said they’d try again the following year.

I said something about all the people who die each year from smoking and secondhand smoke, and how the Legislature’s delay and inaction had sentenced thousands more to death.

He said he understood, but that I needed to understand that issues introduced in the Legislature often take 10 years to move from concept to law.

I wanted to cry.

“There are two things you don’t want to see being made—sausage and legislation,” German Chancellor Otto von Bismark said more than a century ago.

While the sausage-factory comparison is familiar, many legislative bodies, including Indiana’s, equally deserve the moniker “slow-motion hypocrisy factory.”

Take local government reform.

One highlight of my consulting career was working with former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan and then-Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randy Shepard on a public/private commission appointed by then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. The charge: Reform bloated, inefficient, less-than-transparent local government.

The simple premise: Many aspects of Indiana’s local government structure date to the 1850s. They don’t work well. Yet reform efforts have failed for nearly a century.

So commission members weighed decades of ideas from Indiana and best practices from other states. They arrived unanimously at 27 recommendations.

“In concert and quickly implemented,” says the commission report, “[the 27 reforms] will achieve their intended aim. Taken piecemeal or prolonged, we’ll be doing this again many years and many dollars from now.”

Predictably, the suggested reforms have been taken piecemeal, prolonged or dumped altogether. One common legislative lament was that local communities—not state legislators in Indianapolis—should determine local government policies and structure on a case-by-case basis.

Fast forward to 2013.

State legislators, without apparent support from the local community, introduced legislation to reform Indianapolis-Marion County government—giving more power to the mayor and eliminating four at-large City-County Council seats. The bill passed the Senate and cleared a House committee on April 2, with language giving the mayor extra power left in but the at-large council seat language stripped out.

Local government reform, it seems, is meddling when legislators don’t like it and meritorious when they do.

Asked if Marion County voters should decide instead of legislators from outside the city, the bill’s sponsor told The Indianapolis Star he opposes referendums.

“Legislators,” he said, “are elected to represent people and decide these issues.”

In that same legislators-know-best spirit, an Indiana Senate committee has punted on a measure that would have allowed central Indiana residents to conduct a referendum on expanded mass transit. The committee, instead, relegated the studied-to-death issue to a study committee.

On the other hand, a referendum was the General Assembly’s magic wand when it wanted to freeze property taxes statewide while allowing local school districts to raise additional dollars if their citizens approved the increases at the ballot box.

Referendums, apparently, are bad except when they’re good.

Education in general is fair game for the legislative hypocrite’s oath. On the one hand, elected officials are applying increased pressure on colleges and universities to graduate bachelor’s-level students within four years and to do so at lower cost.

On the other hand, the General Assembly fails to fund the early-childhood education programs that have proven the most cost-effective means to prepare children to learn. Lawmakers also refuse to mandate kindergarten for all Indiana children, and insist that colleges and universities handle the remediation for poorly prepared students.

In other words, legislators don’t want to pay to get kids ready to learn, but they sure want colleges to have them ready to earn.

Finally, speaking of earning, wasn’t it just a few months ago that all the politicians were saying jobs are job one?

I remember the headlines:

“Mike Pence wins governor’s race centered on jobs, economy.”

“Pence declares focus is jobs.”

“Pence to tackle jobs, economic rebound.”

Yet at the slow-motion hypocrisy factory, we spend most of our time on issues that have nothing to do with job creation and that, on the contrary, damage our state’s reputation as a place to live and work.

It’s enough to make you cry—or at least appoint a study committee.•

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Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
 

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