Morton Marcus: Cities, towns unable to get traction in Statehouse

Morton Marcus

In his muckraking 1904 book, “The Shame of the Cities,” Lincoln Steffens spoke, not exclusively of corruption by the political bosses, but also of the shame of the people who tolerated that corruption. A reporter today might easily write on the same theme.

Today, Hoosier citizens tolerate, virtually without protest, the political corruption of power. Today’s officeholders, whether elected or appointed, at the state or local level, do not seek wealth as much as they covet power.

Our shame is clearly the shame of the cities. Although the 2010 Census identified 72.4 percent of Indiana’s population as “urban,” we and the world think of Indiana as a rural state.

No Indiana mayor has ever been elected governor of the state. That’s right. The route to the statehouse is not through city hall. Power in the Hoosier Holyland rests with a rural identity.

Remember the Bayhs, father and son? Both wanted to be known for their Shirkieville roots. It’s a bi-partisan pleasantry; Dick Lugar listed a farm as his Indiana address.

But the problems and concerns of Indiana are urban issues that Hoosiers try to evade by moving to urban suburbs. The three E’s: (economics, education and the environment) are left to state decision-makers. Mayors and town officials are impotent players in the games of the General Assembly.

Our largest cities are strangled by suburban politicians drunk on the power they derive from their narcissistic fiefdoms. Why does the Indianapolis transit system stop at the county lines? Why do weak transit efforts within Lake County not combine into a unified service to include the burgeoning suburbs?

We know the answers. Urban areas are dirty, dangerous places where people who did not go to high school with us tend to live. Urbanites are foreigners who were not baptized in Wabash River waters.

The result is rational 21st century proposals to recognize the realities of the 20th century are blocked by 19th century thinking in the General Assembly.

We won’t tax vehicles by their weight as well as by where and when they are driven. Potholes are the diseased pockmarks of our sick older cities. They cannot be filled because the state (rural) legislature has denied cities and towns permission to manage their own fiscal affairs.

Local officials must be inferior and immoral when compared with the virtuous members of the General Assembly. The state rules on the budgets of localities. The state controls the levies of local governments. The state assesses the properties of businesses whose voices are sweeter in the Rotunda of the Statehouse than in the corridors of the County Building. And the state gives us a constitutional amendment capping local property taxes.

Who is to blame? The people who live in our cities and towns. It is they who submit to their own disenfranchisement. They who elect those who fail to address urban urgencies.

Morton Marcus is an economist. You can contact him at [email protected]. You also can follow his and those of John Guy on “Who Gets What?” wherever podcasts are available. Send comments to [email protected]on Marcus is an economist. You can contact him at [email protected]. You also can follow his and those of John Guy on “Who Gets What?” wherever podcasts are available. Send comments to [email protected].

Morton Marcus is an economist, formerly with the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Send comments to [email protected].