General Assembly puts self-interests ahead of Hoosiers’ best interests
One obvious answer to the rampant promotion of personal interests in the Indiana General Assembly is greater transparency.
Report all outside income and financial ties. Make clear exactly whom campaign contributions and other gifts come from, and stop allowing influence-seekers to hide their activities under surrogate names. End the insulting practice of letting meals bought by lobbyists for legislators go unreported unless they cost more than $50.
Common sense and basic ethics. Yet there’s no sign of movement into such sunlight, despite a flurry of media attention to the ingrained coziness between lawmakers and special interests.
Nor — and this may be the key — is there much embarrassment about conflicts even when they’re exposed.
Two egregious examples made the news last week.
The coal industry won protection, at the expense of consumers, thanks to two legislators who hold high-level jobs in coal and the railroads that haul it.
A lobbyist for a company seeking a multimillion-dollar state contract got help from her father, a House leader, just a week after the governor placed a hold on state aid the lawmaker reportedly helped obtain for his son’s company.
In both instances, the elected officials insisted they were objective stewards of the public’s will and wouldn’t dream of acting out of personal interest.
The stakes are especially high in the case of the Rockport coal-to-gas conversion project, a nearly $3 billion deal that will cost utility ratepayers dearly if the price of natural gas, now low by historical standards, does not rise over time.
State Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, chairman of the Senate Utility Committee, and Rep. Matt Ubelhor, R-Bloomfield, succeeded in turning back efforts by both parties to add consumer protections to the Rockport bill.
The Senate passed the bill; the House sponsor, Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville, declined to call it for a vote because she didn’t care for the watering-down. It is expected to resurface in conference committee.
The proposed safeguards just didn’t make good policy, insisted Merritt, who is a vice president with Indiana Rail Road Co., and Ubelhor, who is operations manager for Peabody Energy. Their employers echoed those sentiments to The Star’s Tony Cook.
That same proclamation of pure impartiality was expressed by House Speaker Pro Tempore Eric Turner, R-Cicero, regarding the company for which his daughter just happens to be a lobbyist and the company his son just happens to head.
In neither of these cases did the legislators involved broadcast their personal ties to the lobbies or offer to recuse themselves from the proceedings. In some states, potential conflicts such as these would raise red flags and force at least the consideration of recusal — and without having to be ferreted out by the press. In Indiana, the typical response to calls for these and other reforms is wounded indignation.
The primary defense offered for the Indiana situation is that a part-time legislature inevitably feels the intrusion of day jobs, and thus the challenge of staying neutral. The preponderance of evidence, particularly as detailed in a recent series of columns by The Star’s Matthew Tully, is that the challenge is not being met and the intrusions are a fact of Statehouse life. As Julia Vaughn of the citizens lobby Common Cause points out, many states manage to have citizen legislatures without cutting slack over conflict of interest.
Stringent rules, rather than blind trust, are a fact of life in other realms of government. Transparency. Money limits. Distancing from one’s employers, benefactors and family. Barring a change in human nature and a reversal of Indiana history, there is no excuse for not writing stronger protections, in all those areas, into law.
— The Indianapolis Star
Keep school security a local issue
The decision to provide armed security inside a schoolhouse should be made locally. The serious concerns raised by such a significant step are best aired and addressed by local school boards, administrators, parents, mental-health professionals and law enforcement officials who know the distinct characteristics of the community.
School districts serve distinct populations. Terre Haute is not Carmel. Corydon is not Gary. All communities, though, must now confront troubling choices over safety policies, tragically illuminated by the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
The Indiana Legislature wisely dropped a measure that would have required every Indiana public and charter school to arm an employee with a loaded gun while classes are in session. Lawmakers revised that bill to authorize armed employees in schools, but called on local school boards to decide each year whether to implement such a policy.
The concept stemmed from a predictable response by the National Rifle Association to the Sandy Hook shooting, proposing an armed security guard or staff member in every U.S. school. The like-minded bill with the armed-employee mandate that emerged in the Indiana House drew opposition and criticism for a smorgasbord of reasons from numerous state officials and education groups, including Gov. Mike Pence and state Senate President Pro-Tem David Long, both conservative Republicans.
Pence said, appropriately, “I have a strong bias for local control. I think decisions that are nearest and dearest to our hearts ought to be made by parents and local school officials. I believe that’s so in this case.”
Those decisions are big. The difference between arming a school worker — such as a teacher, principal, counselor — and hiring an armed school police officer is significant. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported last week that the Noble County sheriff reconsidered initial plans by his department to train volunteers from school staffs in firearms safety when confusion arose over which public entity — the county or the school district — would provide insurance coverage for those involved.
Also, the administrator of the workers’ comp plans for Noble County and the school corporations said it would cancel or not renew its coverage if the armed employee policy went forward.
The training of those school workers to engage an armed intruder would not match that of seasoned police officers.
The step by Vigo County schools to place an armed security officer in every local schoolhouse has been rightly regarded as a model response to the security dilemma. The investment required to implement and sustain that program may not, though, be feasible statewide or in many other communities. The county and the school corporation will split the $135,000 annual cost of staffing security in 10 schools in outlying parts of the county. The city and school district will similarly split the $353,000 yearly cost of placing armed officers in the 12 schools inside the Terre Haute city limits.
The Vigo plan is as thorough and encompassing as any could be. Other counties and cities have the same fears and considerations, but may have fewer resources. The difficult options must be weighed in those local school board meetings, with parents, teachers and community officials listening and deciding together.
— Tribune-Star (Terre Haute)