Shaw Friedman: Regional Cities? How about regional cage matches?
Thursday, September 10, 2015 10:20 AM
LaPORTE – First off, let’s be clear this column isn’t directed at Victor Smith, Indiana’s energetic director of commerce, or the state’s new IEDC chairman, Jim Schellinger, both of whom are disciplined and capable cheerleaders for our state, genuinely seeking to aid Indiana’s business attraction efforts. Frankly, their time and inestimable talents would be much better spent focused on inducing new business to locate here, rather than being forced to decide which five regions are “losers” in the competition for ever more scarce state dollars earmarked for local economic development.
It’s just they’ve got the unenviable job of presiding over grant awards, as a result of legislation backed by the governor and his brain trust who think it’s a good idea to pit regions of our state against one other. Both Smith and Schellinger have to put “lipstick on this pig” and make the competition sound somewhat fair, because IEDC is given the job of deciding two winners in this insane competition.
In an age when the legislature continues starving cities, towns and counties in Indiana of the revenues needed to provide basic services, much less expand and initiate creative measures, the Regional Cities legislation was a lousy idea designed to divert Hoosiers from the notion that their state government should support all regions of our state. Instead we are pitting one region against another, fighting for scraps from the state’s table.
Look at what’s involved here: Rather than develop a much-needed revenue-sharing formula for cities, towns and counties to do infrastructure and develop 21st century technology, GOP super majorities pushed through legislation with a one-time funding burst of $84 million (from a once-in-a-decade tax amnesty) that will be split into two $42 million grants to a winning Regional Development Authority. Only one-third of Indiana’s counties chose to participate in an RDA, meaning that two-thirds, like my county, took a hard look at the legislation and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Rather than deal with the fact that there are entire regions of this state, like Northwest and Southwest Indiana, that have been badly neglected in the allotment of state highway and economic development funds over the past 10 years, the Darwinian leaders in the GOP super majority thought it funny to set up “law of the jungle” cage matches between competing RDA’s. So, for the privilege of competing for a one-time shot of $42 million, counties were forced to join together and expend massive amounts of time and expertise putting together proposals so that a stacked committee from Indianapolis could choose two winners from seven competing RDA’s.
So fundamentally flawed and undemocratic was the legislation that elected officials were specifically barred from sitting on the RDA boards. That’s right, only non-elected officials will be appointed to regional RDA boards. There is no guarantee of equal representation and losing RDA’s that don’t win any state money still have the ability to embark on joint projects and potentially demand cash calls from participating counties (with the state authorized to withhold tax dollars from counties delinquent in their RDA dues) without any taxpayer input or representation.
Furthermore, development experts like Dr. Michael Hicks of Ball State have questioned whether development dollars shouldn’t be targeted to areas of the state other than the Indianapolis suburbs that have traditionally benefited by state largesse. Worse yet, the 10-member board picking the “winners” is largely composed of what the Times of Northwest Indiana called “the usual suspects from the Indianapolis business community” and had no representation from elsewhere until former Lt. Gov. John Mutz, who sits on the panel, lobbied for appointment of a couple of members from outside our capital city.
Just how stacked is the deck? Why did so many counties “just say no” to the notion of a RDA to go after these funds? Many cited the reasons given by Floyd County officials who said “giving a non-elected board the ability to enforce eminent domain and incur debt” was justification alone to oppose an RDA, according to the Aug. 11 News & Tribune article. Floyd County resident Joseph Moore spoke for many who are concerned that minimum participation in an RDA under the statute is eight years and “once authority is granted to the RDA board, you can’t do a darn thing to change it. This would be more of a competition for projects, not a partnership.” Floyd County Councilman Jim Wathen put it best when said if the state simply divided up the $84 million among the 92 counties, that’s nearly $1 million to “make jail repairs, and fix roads and potholes.”
Rather than pit regions of our state against each other, why not use the time and brain power involved in judging this competition and improve our historically anemic return in federal funds, Gov. Pence?
The $80 million in one-time funds from the tax amnesty that you are using to fund these cage matches could have been equalled in one fell swoop had you agreed to go forward with that $80 million federal grant for early childhood education you took a pass on, fearing “too many strings from the feds.”
Or why not improve our collection of state tax revenues from multi-state corporations, which is estimated to cost the state $400 million a year in lost revenue from corporations using gimmicks like tax shelters and offshore funds to hide Indiana tax revenues, and share those revenues instead with cities and towns starved for funds?
Nah. Better to divert the time and attention of regional and city planners, with this breathless race to outdo each other in competing for the two grants where at least five regions will come away empty-handed. How does your “select panel” fairly pick among proposals that are all worthy, like double-tracking the South Shore Railroad, revitalizing Muncie’s downtown or the food innovation center in Bluffton or the Warrick County Wellness Trail or developing New Castle’s art district, all of which are among proposals by the competing RDA’s?
Why not come up with a way to help fund all these worthy projects around the state rather than designing a competition that’s more befitting of a Mark Burnett reality show like the “the Apprentice” rather than good government? You’ve done nothing to enhance overall quality of life throughout our state with this competition, but have ensured regional rivalries remain intense.This does nothing to bring Hoosiers rowing together for a common goal.
Maybe these cage matches are great entertainment on Monday Night Raw, but this doesn’t make for good public policy, Governor.
Shaw Friedman is former legal counsel for the Indiana Democratic Party.