Morris: Governing ‘Emergencies’
by Leo Morris
Early in my stint on the News-Sentinel’s editorial board, county officials came to lobby for the newspaper’s support of a proposed new tax.
They knew we had a conservative editorial page, so they gave us their best sound arguments based on fiscal prudence.
The impact on individuals would be minimal – a “dining out” tax of a mere 1 percent on food and beverages. The use of the revenue would be strictly targeted – going to fund a reconstruction project of the War Memorial Coliseum, at the time the county’s main entertainment complex. Best of all, the tax would not be permanent. When the coliseum project was finished, the tax would end.
After much discussion, members of the editorial board reluctantly agreed to endorse the food-and-beverage tax.
And guess what?
The project ended, but the county decided to build itself a minor league baseball stadium, and there was that shiny tax, still collecting money. Naturally, they used it for the new project. Some years later, that stadium was demolished, before it was even paid for, so the city could build a brand-new stadium with a whole new tax scheme.
And more than 30 years later, diners in our county are still paying a food-and-beverage tax, and probably will be until the revenue is tapped to fund a public transit shuttle to the Mars colony. That was the last tax I ever supported.
It brought home a lesson about government we should never forget: Inertia works both ways.
We all remember that a body at rest tends to stay at rest, but forget the part about a body in motion tending to stay in motion. The next time we complain about a gridlocked government not getting anything done, we should remind ourselves we probably won’t like it if they finally do something, and the less we like it the greater the chance it will never stop.
Government is forever.
Unfair taxes don’t go away. Pointless laws stay on the books. Contingency plans somehow become public policy with no debate or official notice.
And power, once it has been wielded by hall monitors turned elected officials, does not wither away and die. It turns out that hall monitors live to tell people where and when they may and may not go.
It’s hard to say which was more appalling about Gov. Eric Holcomb’s announced mandate of a state mask policy to fight a new spike in COVID-19 cases: his plan to declare, on his own authority, that disobedience would be a misdemeanor carrying a potential penalty of $1,000 in fines and 180 days in jail, or his simultaneous announcement that, well, the penalties would not be enforced.
In one breathtaking act of hubris, he would have imposed an unconstitutional edict and added another layer of cynicism for people who already thought the law was more a whim of the privileged than a reasonable rulebook for society.
But happily for us, he apparently listened to the widespread complaints, including many from fellow Republican officeholders, and dropped the idea that an executive can create laws instead of merely enforcing them. The mandate will now be “educational,” not a criminalized offense.
Or perhaps he listened to outgoing Attorney General Curtis Hill, who left us with a parting word of common sense: It is one thing for the governor to declare an emergency and take arbitrary action. In’s another to keep acting unilaterally, without calling the General Assembly into special session, long past the time when urgency was called for. “Emergencies” do not last for months on end.
However, he ignored the part about a special legislative session. He is still out there, a Capt. Jean-Luc Picard madly directing the United Federation Starship Indiana into unknown galaxies by flicking his wrist and commanding his underlings to “Make it so.”
The issue is not how deadly COVID-19 is or whether things like masks and social distancing are appropriate responses to it. The issue is whether the government can and will deal with a perceived crisis within a system designed to protect the best interests of all citizens. The need to maintain the public’s fragile trust in government will remain long after the pandemic has passed.
Speaking of emergencies, it has just been reported that state government will soon face a budget crisis. It seems that crashing an economy and putting millions of Hoosiers in a financial hole will necessarily mean a drastic decrease in funding for state government.
There has been a 23 percent drop in state revenues, which has decreased the state’s $2.3 billion in reserves by $850 million. There is the prospect of drastic cutbacks in government spending, massive layoffs, reduction or elimination of certain services.
Cutting back on waste, fraud and abuse? Always has been and always will be a pipe dream.
So, any day now, expect hints about the need for additional revenues, and we all know what that means.
To which there is only one reasonable response from the beleaguered taxpaying public. Well, yeah, we’ll get back to you on that.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.