David Hoppe

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:: Cutting the budget, cutting safety

Suing the state for austerity

By David Hoppe

When Gov. Mitch Daniels bragged that Indiana has the same number of state workers today as it did in 1978 during his last State of the State speech, there was no way for him to predict the future. If Gov. Daniels could have seen the disaster coming at this year's Indiana State Fair, he would have done everything in his power to prevent it.

But the governor had no way of knowing that a blast of wind would cause a temporary stage at the State Fair to collapse. That seven people would be killed and many more injured.

The governor has called for an investigation into what happened. Paid professionals will sift through the wreckage at the State Fairgrounds. They will attempt to reconstruct the events leading up to the collapse. Eventually they will file a report that will probably play a part in many of the lawsuits now being filed by the victims of this disaster.

I doubt that the governor's boast about Indiana's lack of state employees will figure into these lawsuits. But it should.

In a time when politicians, the media and a large portion of the public have been obsessed with governmental red ink, Gov. Daniels has taken pride in Indiana's solvency. While other states are trying to navigate their ways through accumulating debts, Indiana has posted a $1.2 billion budget surplus. Indiana, it seems, is actually turning a profit.

This doesn't mean, however, that there's more money to put toward programs or positions that have been cut due to the governor's fixation on what he considers fiscal responsibility. No, Gov. Daniels says this money will be held in reserve, sequestered in what's called the state's "rainy day" fund.

All this sounds very prudent. Indeed, Indiana's finances are the envy of many state governments, and Gov. Daniels has become a hero to members of the Republican party and conservative pundits who are thrilled by the single-minded way he has gone about the business of reducing what amounts to Indiana's calorie intake.

Now this state is so skinny, if you put it in a swimming suit you could count every rib.

That may make Gov. Daniels seem like a genius to Washington, D.C. think tankers, but it's cold comfort for the families of people who were killed or injured at the State Fair. You see, one consequence of having the same number of state employees in 2011 as there were in 1978 is that certain kinds of work get short-changed. Inspections, for example.

The State of Indiana, which is responsible for what goes on at the State Fairgrounds, does not inspect outdoor concert stages. You don't need a state permit to set up a concert stage in Indiana. You don't have to submit an engineering plan for some bureaucrat to OK. And as for inspections, forget about 'em - at least as far as the state is concerned. John Erickson, a spokesperson for the state's Homeland Security Department was quoted in USA Today : "There is no permitting process. There is no regulation on it. We do not regulate putting up a scaffolding in a business or an entertainment setting or anything of that type."

No state employee inspected the stage at the State Fairgrounds to make sure it was built to withstand the hard kind of wind we're known to have in Indiana when a storm comes up.

But the fact Indiana doesn't assign people to inspect temporary stages shouldn't come as a surprise. In Indiana, the lack of inspections amounts to state policy. Inspectors cost money, which adds to the state budget. So not only do we not have inspectors to check on the safety of a temporary stage at the fairgrounds, we don't have enough of them to keep track of what's going on in nursing homes, or mines, or jails, or schools. The ranks of state inspectors are so thin that, in many cases, routine inspections don't occur. It takes a complaint - trouble that's already happened -- to get someone to come out.

So if nobody's complaining about the manure leaking into their creek, or the schoolkids having a hard time concentrating because of high levels of classroom carbon dioxide, or the lack of attendants to look after Mom in the nursing home, then everything's officially OK. We can all take pride in the way Indiana cuts red tape.

Until something goes wrong.

Then we hire investigators, to tell us what happened. They will analyze the scene, create detailed studies of all the elements, write reports and even testify before special commissions.

The state's Attorney General and his staff will spend their time reaching settlements with people who have been damaged. In the case of the State Fair collapse, lawyers for victims have up to 270 days after the incident to sue. Indiana could be on the hook for up to $5 million.

That sum, of course, seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the losses suffered by people who found themselves or their loved ones beneath the wreckage at the State Fair. But then Indiana can easily come up with $5 million. That's what our "rainy day" fund is for.