By Scott Pelath
House Minority Leader
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City
When the deadlines imposed by state law brought this year’s session of the Indiana General Assembly to a close on April 29, Hoosiers were more justified than ever in letting loose a huge sigh of relief.
These past four months demonstrated what happens when a Republican governor and legislative leadership have agendas drastically at odds with the needs of the people who hired them. While most of us want our state to move forward, we are led by those intent upon dragging us backward.
Despite their best efforts at verbal gymnastics from our leaders, what will linger in the mind for most people will not be what the single party rulers got right, but what they got so wrong.
At a time when Indiana strives to be a welcoming and tolerant state, we were forced to see Statehouse powers fan the flames of cultural division. The result was economic calamity and national embarrassment.
That shame continued when our governor tried to put a happy face on a plan to use taxpayer dollars to create his own Prairie Pravda news service. Fortunately, even that was too much to endure and the plug was pulled.
These are the things that people will remember from the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly, in part because so little of worth was actually accomplished.
That’s not to say that Indiana House Democrats didn’t try their best to do something for hard-working Hoosiers. Here are a few things our caucus tried to do this year to make fiscally responsible reinvestments in Indiana:
– Reverse plummeting wages and salaries. Increase the state’s minimum wage. Give the people of Indiana the right to choose if they wanted to increase the state’s minimum wage.
– Eliminate the cost of textbooks for all schoolchildren, regardless of background. Freeze tuition for all new undergraduates at our public universities. Give parents a break on their taxes to help pay for the cost of textbooks and other education expenses.
– Pass a state budget that ensured increases in state support for all public schools. Help those same public schools by restoring $300 million in funding that had been cut by the Daniels Administration.
– Make it clear to everyone just how many of their tax dollars are going to public schools, charter schools, virtual charters, and vouchers.
– Demand greater accountability from that scandal-plagued agency, the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV), by having more frequent public and private audits to prevent the blizzard of overcharges that have taken place in recent years.
– Improve our state’s abysmal showing in voter turnout by keeping polls open until 8 p.m. on Election Day, allowing voter registration on Election Day, providing no-excuse absentee voting, allowing qualified people to vote by mail or absentee ballot, and allowing absentee voting on the four Saturdays before Election Day.
All of these things were rejected by Indiana House Republicans.
What did we get instead?
Hoosiers who pleaded for better wages, salaries, and opportunities were met with indifference. On the worst days, the governor and his supermajorities actively forced policies – like the repeal of minimum construction wages – that will make people work harder for less.
Those in charge have forgotten that prosperity depends on workers paying bills, saving for an education, and buying things that others have made. They are adrift in a haze of antique notions of getting more money into the hands of those who already have it.
Such attitudes are clouding even the basics of governing. They largely negated the free election of our state’s education leader. They continued the risky course of funding a growing number of different school systems – traditional schools, voucher schools, charter schools, and virtual charters – without any real sense of where the dollars are flowing. Misplaced priorities are causing roads to crumble and discouraging workers from gaining new skills.
Even in the most trying circumstances, there are always bright spots. Bipartisan ethics reforms were worthwhile and necessary. But these improvements must soon inspire changes beyond the Statehouse.
Indiana cannot reach its potential until our government sets aside old ideas, reinvests in those willing to work hard, and grows and retains the brightest young Hoosiers. We can do much, much better.
Rep. Scott Pelath is a Democrat from Michigan City and the leader of the chamber’s Democratic caucus.