INDIANAPOLIS — “Everywhere I look, people from both parties are working hard to create a livable future for their kids and grandkids,” mused a friend, who directs a local environmental non-profit. “It would be one thing if the Statehouse just stayed out of the way as municipalities, counties, businesses, churches, neighborhoods did this work.”

Indeed, many citizens are doing the heavy lifting of democracy, in contrast to the contemptuous themes of marquee bills in the 2021 Indiana General Assembly. 

Point #1: In 2016, 59% of Marion County voters agreed to a tax to improve the city’s transit system with a new 15-mile line from Lawrence to downtown, and a 24-mile line from Cumberland to the airport, each bringing with it improvements to sidewalks and drainage – and links to jobs. Although he sang the praises of infrastructure in a 2017 interview in TheStatehouseFile.com, Sen. Aaron Freeman (R-Indianapolis) authored SB141, the much-discussed vengeful bill that retracts funding for Indy’s public transit. 

Point #2: Another Indianapolis lawmaker, Sen. R. Michael Young (R), has put forth SB198, the anti-free speech bill that criminalizes protests by broadening the definition of rioting. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been peddling versions of this bill across the country since the Standing Rock pipeline protests; how convenient to repurpose it for Black Lives Matter gatherings, the great majority of them peaceful. 

Point #3: Last summer, Black Lives Matter South Bend rallied hundreds in marches for justice. But Rep. Jake Teshka (R-Mishawaka) authored HB1367, a bill that deepens segregation in the region by redrawing lines that make a white school district even whiter.

To top it all off, a bill to fund private school vouchers with public dollars, SB413, authored by Sens. Jeff Raatz (R-Richmond) and Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn), is another link in the chain slowly strangling public education.

You don’t need special glasses to see the pattern. The safety, speech, education and mobility of Black and urban Hoosiers is at best, disregarded, and at worst, sabotaged with legislation like this. And to state the obvious: House Republicans and their leaders should be ashamed of their national-newsmaking behavior against Reps. Greg Porter, Vanessa Summers and Vernon Smith last month.

When it feels like a majority of leaders our fellow Hoosiers have elected are pulling us backward, stories of citizen-led proactivity abound. Southern Indiana residents should kick up their heels at the news of Duke Energy’s planned early closure of its New Albany coal plant. Lower demand for power during the pandemic and the high cost of burning coal are the reasons for the plant’s closure. Some might argue that that’s exactly how it should have been: The company decides, not the legislative branch. Well, two of its units were shut down in 2012, only because a federal judge ruled that Duke was violating the Clean Air Act. The Sierra Club’s statewide Beyond Coal Campaign has been holding the utilities accountable for years.

When lawmakers don’t act for the public good, citizens must. Two mothers in Franklin, Indiana, started If It Was Your Child, a non-profit that sounds the alarm to government officials about the connection between environment and health, especially the cancer clusters in Johnson County. When IDEM didn’t act to investigate, the moms took the lead, in another case that thrust Indiana into the national news.

Similarly, a band of concerned citizens, including medical professionals and academic scientists, have been running a multi-year public campaign and triple legal challenge against a coal-to-diesel project proposed for Dale, Indiana. This hulking plant would pile on the pollution in one of the nation’s five most polluted regions, Southwestern Indiana. Valley Watch, along with Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life, are party to three lawsuits to halt the project. Rep. Stephen Bartels (R-Eckerty), predictably, supports the plant.

No issue has higher stakes than redistricting. The League of Women Voters of Indiana, Indiana NAACP, and Common Cause Indiana have formed the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, comprising three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents. Public testimony is now being solicited on the redistricting criteria that should guide the map-drawing process. If there’s any governmental process that needs to stay close to the ground, it’s this one. 

They say that in a free society, government reflects the soul of its people. That doesn’t feel true in Indiana right now. We need laws and policies that expand possibilities, not governance by cynicism and distrust.

Kudos to the many citizens and non-profits toiling each day to forge a more livable future. Government needs to follow their lead. 

A consultant and grant writer, Laker is principal of Laker Verbal LLC.