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Discussion of state policy missing

As the editor of something that dares call itself the Indiana Policy Review, it is important to me that Indiana policy is actually being discussed so it can be reviewed. I fear it is not.

Doubts began to surface several years ago during an early hearing on the Indiana inheritance tax. A senior Republican was pressed to explain “revenue neutrality,” a concept that to my free-market mind needs a lot of explaining, a lot of discussion.

In this instance, he meant that a tax, even though admittedly unfair and regressive, would have to stand until a countervailing revenue stream could be found. Government must never get smaller, by this rule, it can only stay the same (vote Republican) or get bigger (vote Democrat).

Selling this kind of stuff on the political stage requires creativity and extreme moral dexterity. And yet, you could program your laptop for the same purpose. It is an algebraic discussion, after all, not a policy discussion.

Consider the recent strain on the state transportation budget. The new super majority at the Statehouse is not debating proposals to scale back maintenance of Indiana roadways until revenue rises to meet costs. Nor is the leadership exploring better command-and-control systems, less wasteful labor contracts or more efficient bidding strategies.

Well, not right off at least. First, the Republicans would adjust the equation by ordering a new tax on license plates. Again, mathematics and not policy.

It’s too much for The Journal Gazette: “Less than seven years after legislators approved the Indiana Toll Road lease that was supposed to generate enough money for a 10-year road plan, one of the state’s conservative fiscal leaders last week floated the idea of adding a $20 to $50 ‘license plate tax’ on every Hoosier vehicle” (Tracy Warner column, Dec. 26).

“That, of course, is in addition to the license fees and excise taxes and wheel taxes Hoosier already pay. … Much of the money could go to road projects that would greatly benefit – you guessed it – Indianapolis.”

That’s the problem with “revenue-neutral”; it’s never “politically neutral.” It makes for a complex legislative equation because some constituencies are more neutral than others; that and modern government, Republican or Democrat, insists on addressing even the most intractable social problems. The result is a constantly shifting data set.

Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal sees this complexity as the end of any true policy discussion: “Government, for the past 80 years or so, has seen its purpose as mainly to ‘respond’ to society’s failures the moment they occur or whenever they are imagined. Whether that law will accomplish its goal is irrelevant.

“Policy making has become an activity that supports the genetic and financial needs of policymakers and their follower tribes. The community’s role, we’ve lately learned, is to provide revenue.”

In Indiana, we have had our share of such discussion-free policy:

•A high court ruling limiting property taxes results not in a cap on state spending but on local spending, the more accountable of the two.

•A concern about the loss of jobs morphs into a statewide system of quasi-governmental economic-development councils that are little more than “crony capitalists next door,” as one of our adjuncts puts it.

•The bureaucratic inefficiencies of operating infrastructure (a state toll road) are “solved” by selling the road and all future revenues.

•The inarguable need to reform public education is reduced to a voucher system that extends corruption and centralized command to private schools without addressing the source of the problem, a ruinous collective-bargaining law.

One more example. Indeed, it may be the most wondrous government application since the parking meter – nay, since the guillotine.

It is the adjustable stoplight camera. The thing can be installed at the bottom of a hill, at a blind intersection or anywhere known to put hapless citizens at the mercy of the traffic courts. The mechanism can be set to record more “offenses” and thereby collect more fines by merely shortening the duration of the amber warning signal – all without having to show a meaningful difference in vehicular safety.

Presto – public policy without mess or fuss. There’s no floor debate, press conference, serious discussion or, alas, beneficial effect.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the Indiana Policy Review. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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