The 2011 session of the Indiana General Assembly got off to a tempestuous start last week. According to the front page of The Indianapolis Star, it took all of nine minutes for the first legislative battle to break out. The Star ran a banner headline to mark the event: "16 WEEKS OF THIS TO GO?"
In the days leading up to the session's opening, The Star editorialized about the pressing issues facing Indiana, from the need to draw up a two-year budget to reforming our antiquated township system. The Star seemed to hope that the magnitude of these issues would call forth the managerial angels of our elected officials.
This formulation was based on a flawed perception of our politics. It assumed that political differences are driven by the egos and competitive willfulness of politicians. If only these people would behave themselves, everything would be OK.
The Star's call for bipartisan cooperation also overlooked the fact that state government is now dominated by one party, the Republicans. On the one hand, you could say this represents a popular mandate but, it turns out, one hand leads to another. That other hand, Democrats, has reason to see itself as fighting for what's left of this state's standard of living.
Here's what started the ruckus last week: Republicans introduced legislation that would ban labor contracts requiring workers to pay union dues. This legislation is enthusiastically backed by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, whose president, Kevin Brinegar, calls it "the best, most impactful, profound thing we can do to grow jobs and improve our economy."
Indiana's jobs situation is dire. Unemployment is hovering around 10 percent. And things may actually be getting worse. The Brookings Institute found that between 2007 and 2010 the percentage of Hoosiers working dropped from 63.5 percent to 57.2 percent, the sixth-biggest drop among states during that time and the largest drop among our Midwestern neighbors. We need to do something to get people working in greater numbers.
But legislation aimed at undermining unions is, in effect, blaming workers for unemployment by saying they're making too much money. I thought the idea was to encourage people to make more money, not less. Enabling workers to effectively organize creates the platform that makes bargaining for better wages and benefits possible.
Workers aren't the cause of unemployment. Nor are the wages they are paid. One study after another shows that wages and salaries in this country have basically flat-lined for the past 30 years, while the cost of housing, education and healthcare have all increased. Meanwhile, the people who own companies are doing better than ever. In their The State of Working America, Jared Bernstein and Heidi Shierholz show that in 1973 the average American CEO was paid $27 for every buck paid to a typical worker; in 2007, that disparity swelled to 275-to-1.
So it's no wonder Democrats got up on their hind legs over a Republican move that would have further diminished the earning power of working Hoosiers. Far from being the "food fight" that Star reporters Mary Beth Schneider and Heather Gillers so fecklessly called it, the Democrats were responding not only to the state's unemployment situation, but to the drop experienced in our per capita incomes during the Daniels administration. As Norm Heikens reported in the IBJ, Hoosiers now earn 86 cents for every dollar earned by average Americans. That's down from 91 cents in 2004.
When you consider that Republican State Sen. Brandt Hershman is planning on filing a bill in this session aimed at cutting Indiana's corporate income tax rate – not to mention Gov. Daniels' full-speed-ahead attitude regarding the completion of the NAFTA highway, I-69, creating a straight shot from Canada to Mexico through Indiana – you have to wonder what economic success means to these guys.
For them, it seems, Indiana's future depends on how well we compete with Mexico.
Republicans, in other words, have all but admitted defeat regarding this state's economic future. Rather than using this moment to reimagine our economy – figuring out how we can use localized and organic agriculture, sustainable energy sources and the growing need for new forms of transportation and housing to reinvigorate our manufacturing base – Republicans appear to have resigned themselves (and us) to self-imposed impoverishment.
This is colonial thinking. It is based on the belief that Indiana's worth depends on what others are willing to take from us. Rather than using our collective intelligence and imagination to create attractive new forms of homegrown value, Republican proposals are based on the premise that Indiana's greatest competitive virtue is that we're a cheap date.
The biggest trouble with this approach is that we've already tried it. For generations, Indiana eased regulations, granted tax abatements and undercut public services in order to be more business-friendly. Somehow the next Silicon Valley eluded us.
As for the next 15 weeks of this General Assembly, fasten your seatbelts. It's bound to be a bumpy ride – and it needs to be.