David Hoppe

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:: The trouble with voting

It can actually work

by David Hoppe

As we contemplate the Indiana senate’s refusal to let the people of Marion County vote in a referendum on whether to support raising taxes for expanded public transit, let us take a spin in the WayBack machine…

The year was 2009. It was the lowest point during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The stock market crashed; the bottom fell out of the housing market. In Indianapolis, people were still smarting over a spike in property taxes that had yet to be capped.

It was not exactly the greatest time to ask voters to support a referendum for a new $700 million building project.

But that’s what the administrators in charge of Wishard, the city’s public hospital, did. Wishard had already managed to dig itself out of a deep financial hole. This turnaround kept the hospital afloat, but Wishard was still overextended and out of date. The Health and Hospital Corp. of Marion County, the board governing Wishard, said they had no choice but to call for a referendum asking the county’s citizens to allow them to issue bonds in order to cover the cost of a new $754 million facility.

Wishard promised the new hospital could be built without raising taxes. That was important because many people were wondering how they were going to find the dough to pay the duty on their homes.

Nevertheless, a couple of Republican members from the Indiana senate, Scott Schneider and Phil Hinkle, had their doubts. They showed up outside the downtown Central Library to express their opposition to Wishard’s referendum. They chose that location because the Central Library’s expansion project had been behind schedule and over budget. By the time Schneider and Hinkle showed up, the new, mightily improved and wildly popular Central Library had been completed for almost two years, but that didn’t keep the senators from using it as an example of what bugged them about government.

Government, proclaimed Schneider and Hinkle, standing in front of the city’s state-of-the-art public library, can’t build things on time or budget. “What they’re asking the voters and the taxpayers to do is to cosign on a $700 million loan,” said Schneider. “And there are risks to that.”

Voters went to the polls a week later. They gave Wishard a resounding vote of confidence. Eighty-five percent voted Yes, carrying all 522 of the county’s precincts. In 33 of those precincts, the approval was unanimous. As a result, the new Wishard, renamed Eskenazi Health, will open this December — on time, and on budget, by the way.

I’ve been thinking about the Wishard referendum lately; I suspect the Republican senators who say they need more time “to study” the proposal to expand mass transit in Marion county have been thinking of it too. Here’s the deal: they don’t want to see mass transit put to a vote because they’re afraid it, like the Wishard referendum, will pass. And if it passes, they’re afraid it might actually work.

If your entire political career is dedicated to the idea that the government you are a part of is an inept, trouble-making force that you are there to belittle and inhibit, then it must be hard to remember that our government is, in fact based on the consent of the governed. That government, in other words, is We the People.

And when government does, in fact, do something that We not only need, but like, well, that must be hard to compute. Maybe it’s even embarrassing.

Scott Schneider, predictably, is one those Republican senators who has expressed doubts about the mass transit proposal. He doesn’t like the idea of higher taxes and, as with Wishard, worries that we could be committing ourselves to a project whose costs could come back to bite us in the future.

Schneider prides himself on being a small businessman. On his web site he says that government “needs to create a positive, pro-growth environment.”

But when We the People (government, that is) make public investments, isn’t that a vital part of creating a positive, pro-growth environment? Tell me what is pro-growth about having an outdated public health system, an undernourished public transit system or, for that matter, a musty public library.

Under-performing, inefficient and antiquated public services perpetuate the idea that government can’t do anything right, that business solutions are always best. This puts government exactly where certain politicians, who are often the beneficiaries of corporate campaign contributions, want it to be. The result is that we are subjected to a politics aimed at undermining public institutions instead of public problem solving.

Although politicians like Scott Schneider might not think so, We the People were voting for growth and a greater degree of shared prosperity when we (with the blessing of the state Chamber of Commerce, no less) voted to invest in a new public hospital. It remains to be seen whether We will vote to pay for expanded transit. But, contrary to what some of Indiana’s senators say, what’s keeping us from this vote isn’t the need for more information. It’s that some of those politicians are afraid a public solution to our transportation challenges might actually work.