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NOTIONS: Must we pay the painful price of Hoosier incivility?

March 12, 2007

One of the most effective advertisements I ever created never had to be published. The mere fear it instilled via private showings to Connecticut state legislators was enough to undo the havoc they were threatening to wreak.

At the time, lawmakers were contemplating what they called a "business services tax," a tax that would be imposed on the services one division of a corporation provided to another, so long as both operated within the state.

For example, if an Aetna division in Middletown provided data processing for corporate headquarters in Hartford, it would have to pay state tax. If, on the other hand, the data division operated across the state line in Albany, there would be no tax. This would have created a powerful incentive to move jobs out of state.

To make the threat clear, my ad agency colleagues and I renamed the legislators' concept. Instead of the "business services tax," we dubbed it "the jobs tax."

The resulting ad featured a big photograph of a man's hand aiming a snub-nosed revolver at his wing-tip shoe. The headline read: "There's Something You Should Know About The Jobs Tax."

Our client showed the ready-to-run ad to select legislators in private meetings. Within days, the jobs tax was dead.

I still have the photograph of the gun aimed at the shoe. Every once in a while, I'm tempted to use it. Now is one of those times.

Over the past few months, I've commented in this space on issues affecting people's civil liberties and health. Time and again, I've heard from readers who are so fed up by what they see as prejudice, intolerance and incivility-along with political pandering to such notions-that they fear it will drive them or those important to them out of state.

When I've written about secondhand smoke, I've heard from Hoosiers whose children have asthma or other lung ailments. They say the indoor air in Indiana can get so bad that it threatens their kids' health and lives. They tell me they don't want to pack up and move to Ohio or some other place with a statewide smoking ban, but they say they might have to if Indiana doesn't clean up its indoor air. When 50 percent of this nation, and many foreign nations, have gone smoke-free, these Hoosiers wonder why their home state always has to be last.

When I've written about the Legislature's court fight to legitimize sectarian prayer in the Statehouse, I've heard from Hoosiers of Christian and non-Christian faiths, from some professing no faith and from some who consider themselves civil libertarians. They say they don't understand why some Indiana legislators and citizens believe that majority beliefs trump individual liberties. They tell me they've experienced or witnessed other kinds of faith-based prejudice here. They tell me if it continues, they might move elsewhere, just to be among more welcoming souls.

When I've written about equal rights for people who are gay, I've heard from gay and straight Hoosiers. They tell me they don't understand how denying gay people the right to marry or enter into civil unions could possibly strengthen marriage for heterosexuals. They tell me it's no different than discrimination against interracial marriage. Just last week, several people told me they might leave Indiana if the General Assembly perpetuates such discrimination by supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

"I hate to admit that because of this ugly beast, I knowingly have made decisions to accept and leave jobs because of [an employer's] position or lack of position on this topic," said one correspondent, "and I'm afraid I'll have to make a decision one day to stay or leave Indiana based on its politics."

And lest any narrow-minded Hoosier think, Scrooge-like, that such departures would merely "reduce the surplus population" of children with chronic diseases; faithless heathens; and homosexuals, then listen to the shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot impact expressed in an e-mail from a straight, church-going Fort Wayne family man.

"While there is much attention given to jobs and economic opportunity as the issue behind Hoosier brain drain," he said, "the social ignorance and intolerance so prevalent throughout this state are bigger problems.

"I make no apology," he concluded, "that I am encouraging my very own children to seek their adult professional lives and higher education somewhere else."

Therein lies the rub. Our economic development professionals, our universities and our employers run about saying, "We're all about retaining our young people," and "We're creating a life sciences economy," and "This is a great state for knowledge workers."

Yet to see through the scrim the too-prevalent incivility toward those beyond the mainstream, one need only read the morning paper, watch the evening news or stop by the Statehouse when the Legislature's in session.

The resulting shot to the foot leaves us all limping badly.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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