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Self interest trumps rationality on mass transit

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Gridlock - COURTESY OF RGOOGIN VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Courtesy of Rgoogin via Wikimedia Commons
  • Gridlock

The Central Indiana mass transit plan hit a massive roadblock of Democratic and Republican making on Thursday in the Indiana House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee.

The committee, in a 10-11 vote, declined to advance the HB1073, a bill that would have endowed Central Indiana communities with the authority to vote on whether to approve a 0.02 percent tax increase to implement a regional mass transit plan.

The bill's demise can be linked to political posturing on both sides of the isle, little of which pertains to the substance of the bill itself.

Tax rhetoric unhinged

Republican opposition rests in the flawed logic that voting for the bill is akin to voting for a tax increase. In fact, it's a vote for local control. If the General Assembly passed the bill and the governor signed it, taxes would not increase.

It would take a referendum vote by each regional county that wants to participate to decide for itself – through a referendum vote — whether the enhanced design, connectivity and efficiency the plan offers is worth a fractional income tax increase.

The voters are free to vote no.

But this reality did nothing to dissuade lawmakers such as Rep. Matt Ubelhor, R- Bloomfield, from insisting that passing a bill that permits citizens to vote on a tax increase is the same thing as lawmakers raising taxes.

"It gives the people the right to vote, it also gives the city-county council a say," Ubelhor said in a brief interview following the committee meeting.

"I don't think that mass transit at this time is anything we need to be giving the authority to raise taxes on and vote on."

People not indoctrinated into the logic of political reality may wonder at what point it became problematic for people to have the right to vote or the city council to have a say on what happens in the city they were elected to represent.

But in a culture where the Americans for Tax Reform no-new-taxes pledge holds people captive to sound-bite mentality, General Assembly observers say it is too difficult for attacked Republicans to defend the fact that a vote for the mass transit bill is not a vote for a tax increase. It's easier for them to avoid having to explain anything.

Not all Republicans parroted the tax increase line, however. In fact, more Republicans than Democrats ­— by a 9-1 margin — voted in favor of HB1073.

One of them offered classic Hoosier philosophy to justify her vote:

"I feel that every district does what's best for their area," said Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R- Syracuse, before she cast her yes vote. "I'm not going to step in the way of progress in a community that wants to see this move forward."

Mayor Greg Ballard and Gov. Mitch Daniels, both Republicans, also advocate for locals' right to take the mass transit plan to a referendum vote. Ballard's first order of business following his Jan. 1 second-term inauguration was to head to the Statehouse to round up support for the plan.

Just over a week later, Daniels addressed the issue in his state of the state address: " ... we should trust the people of Central Indiana with the decision whether to raise local dollars for mass transit if they believe it crucial to their future quality of life."

The mysterious ways of the Ways and Means chair

The commitment of the bill's author, House Ways and Means Committee Chair and Rep. Jeff-Espich, R- Uniondale, is not as straightforward.

Espich, who has been a member of the Indiana House of Representatives since 1972, was the only lawmaker that took the legislative initiative to author a mass transit bill this session. But, if he were truly interested in allowing the locals to decide whether the regional mass transit plan was in the area's best interest, he made some curious decisions in the language he used in the bill.

First of all, the Central Indiana Transit Task Force projected a 0.03 percent increase on local income tax was necessary to actualize the regional mass transit plan. Espich's bill only extended the authority for a 0.02 percent increase.

Then, as the session progressed without action on the bill, he told reporters that he was having trouble finding support "because nobody wants to be associated with a tax increase."

Next, he included contentious labor language that — because federal labor law governs entities such as IndyGo that are dependent on federal transportation funds — served no other purpose than to rile up the Democrats.

Before calling a vote on his bill, Espich offered an amendment which, "in the spirit of compromise É does delete a portion of the labor language which is a concern to some."

But he left in language that a worker should not be forced to join a union as a condition of employment – a concept already addressed in the comprehensive right-to-work bill that House Republicans had passed just the night before after an epic legislative battle.

NUVO contacted Espich's media liaison repeatedly for clarification on whether his labor language accomplished something outside the scope of the right-to-work bill passed by the House or the federal law that already governs contract negotiations of IndyGo workers. No response.

One additional mystery on the GOP side of the equation: If Ballard and Daniels support the referendum, why has House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, not rallied behind the cause?

Democrats take the bait

What happened next might come as a shock to those who assume that Democrats elected to represent Indianapolis might fight for any possible improvement to the city's mass transportation system.

Rep. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis, was the first to respond to Espich's "compromise." He called the labor provisions "superfluous verbiage É (that) has no impact on the functioning of the metro transportation system."

Superfluous, maybe, but consequential enough for Crawford to conclude, "I will vote against the bill if that language remains in the bill."

The language remained in and Crawford, and five of his Democratic colleagues voted against the bill.

By virtue of the fact that mass transit in Indy currently runs on unionized labor, Rep. Win Moses, D-Ft. Wayne, formerly the mayor of that city, argued that "moving forward with a bill with this labor language is effectively saying we don't support mass transit."

Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, offered up both Espich's lower-than-necessary funding language and the right-to-work labor provisions as justification for her no vote.

"If we're thinking regionally É (point zero) 2 percent does not get us to a mass transit system," she said.

"I've spoken to various (city-county council) members and they've clearly expressed to me that they would not vote for a mass transit referendum if there's labor language in the bill," Pryor added. "This bill still has part of the right-to-work language in there. Effectively, we didn't give the locals the opportunity to vote for the bill because we put language in there that they were not going to be supportive of."

It's strangely reminiscent of the tax rhetoric. The fact that the right-to-work language would have no baring on the workers affected by the plan is not important — what is important is that Democrats can't go on record as supporting right-to-work language.

The bill's co-author and the only Democrat to support it, Peggy Welch, of Bloomington, said that she might suffer political consequences for her stance.

Despite her distaste for the right-to-work language, she said, "I try to look at things globally the best I can; I see the value of this bill. É Even in Bloomington they see the value in terms of moving forward in the State of Indiana."

Easy riders

Even after watching political infighting destroy the bill in which they'd placed so much hope, the broad-based lobbying coalition backing the regional mass transit plan exited the hearing not in indignant huff, but with the calm patience of experienced parents who had witnessed such childish antics countless times.

Their resolve could be heard throughout the hallways, "every legislative idea has nine lives ... the session is not over ..."

Here's a sampling of the post-hearing reaction:

"We were surprised that it died. ... If right-to-work had been voted on why do we have to muddy the mass transit bill? Mass transit is important to move this city forward. We don't need to politicize it; it affects everyone at some point or another." – Maggie Lewis, president, Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council

"Community consensus won't go away; this won't slake the thirst of the public for mass transportation." – Ron Gifford, executive vice president, Central Indiana Corporate Partnership

"We've got to keep working ... and play a role in promoting the spirit of compromise." – Ehren Bingaman, executive director, Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority

"We believe to be a first-class city we really need to think about mass transit — we support the mayor's initiative." – Jennifer Thuma, associate general counsel, Indianapolis Airport Authority

"Those who voted for it understood they're giving voters the right to choose." – Tim Maloney, senior policy director, Hoosier Environmental Council

"I am disappointed that our Central Indiana regional mass transit plan didn't make it out of committee in the General Assembly. I am hopeful we can find a way to move forward on the discussion before this session of the General Assembly adjourns. Investing in a modern, efficient regional mass transit plan is vitally important to the future growth of Indianapolis and Central Indiana." – Mayor Greg Ballard

"We understand this is a process. Hopefully further discussion and a clearer understanding of the importance this legislation has to central Indiana will result in a path to allow residents to decide their priorities relating to mass transit through a public referendum." – Jessica Mitchell, communications manager, Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation

The Indiana Citizens' Alliance for Transportation is collecting signatures in support for the Regional Mass Transit Plan at www.indianacat.org

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