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NOTIONS: Will the change bandwagon ever roll our way?

January 14, 2008

On the presidential campaign trail these past few weeks, the dominant exit-polling insight seems to be that Americans are hungry for change. Voters have told interviewers they're weary of the direction we're headed, tired of the politics of the past and eager to forego the status quo. And so the presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat alike, have jumped on the change bandwagon, ridden it from Iowa to New Hampshire, and tried to explain why they've been, are, or could be the best-possible change agents. Which begs the question: Do we in Indiana share this craving for change? Stereotype and history suggest not. Years ago, I found myself at a client meeting with an out-of-state consultant. The fellow asked our mutual client: "What's a Hoosier?" Without blinking, I quipped, "It's a synonym for stubborn." In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone say, in response to some creative proposal or another, "You know, we don't handle change very well in these parts," well, let's just say I wouldn't have to write for my supper. That's not to say we're satisfied where we sit. To be sure, we whine as well as other folks about our plights and predicaments-especially when it comes to government. "Taxes are too high," we say. "The bureaucrats cost too much." "The lunatics are running the asylum."

But abandon all hope ye who'd address such complaints by dangling or, heaven forbid, implementing an alternative.

Switch Indiana to daylight-saving time to catch up with the nation, lease a toll road to raise tens of millions of dollars for road projects, increase taxes to prevent crime or cancer and one risks political crucifixion.

There's an old definition for insanity: applying the same failed methods and expecting different results.

I'd offer an Indiana variation: insisting on the same failed methods, cutting the funding, and expecting different results.

In such a climate, the Indiana General Assembly gathered last week for its biennial short session. The issue du jour: Reduce or eliminate property taxes.

While wrestling this bear is, and should be, Priority One, what we've heard loudly and clearly from legislative leaders is that the beast is so burdensome it's likely to be Priority Only.

The "we-won't-have-time-for-that" mantra has been applied to local government reform proposals submitted by the so-called Shepard-Kernan Commission and a statewide smoking ban advanced by the Indiana Health Finance Commission.

In both cases, the implied pipe dream seems to be: We're going to cut the revenue available to government, but we won't have time to cut its costs.

That, of course, is a sure-fire formula for putting select anatomical parts of local and state administrators in a vise grip.

My colleagues and I have long served as communications consultants to Indiana University's Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, the researchers who staffed the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform.

In that capacity, we had the opportunity to encourage public input and discussion statewide so that former Gov. Joe Kernan, Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randy Shepard and their fellow commissioners would have plenty of fodder to consider.

Having participated in that process and having witnessed, firsthand, the commission's deliberations, I know better than many citizens how fraught Indiana local government is with cost-saving, efficiency-generating, accountability-improving opportunities.

And having followed closely the self-serving, vested-interest-preserving office-holder opposition that instantly and loudly materialized in response to the commission's recommendations, I know that my elected state representatives and my fellow citizens will once again be pushed, prodded and persuaded to cling to a costly, confusing, outdated government that binds and, yes, taxes us.

And the longer we delay repair of the root cause, the more we'll pay-even as tax-cutting fever boils over.

The same applies to smoking.

Year after year, citizens and politicians bemoan the high cost of health care and health coverage. Year after year, they berate doctors, drug companies and health insurers for their contribution to the problem.

But the real fiscal culprit is our unhealthy lifestyles and costly addictions-smoking foremost among them.

All over America and around the world, state and national governments have applied a three-pronged approach that saves millions of lives and millions of dollars by discouraging smoking. They've raised taxes, funded education and cessation, and mandated smoke-free workplaces.

In jurisdictions where tobacco taxes are highest, education programs strongest and smoking bans toughest, health benefits are greatest and health costs lowest.

But despite being surrounded by comprehensive statewide smoking bans in Ohio and Illinois, we're too busy in Indiana to cut health costs and health risks. We only have time to cut taxes.

Oh well, maybe some day-after we've wasted millions more tax dollars on bloated bureaucracy and preventable illness-the change bandwagon will finally roll through the Hoosierland.

I hope my grandkids live to see the day.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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