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January 22, 2013

Letter to the editor - Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013

Time to be citizen 1st, politician 2nd

Republicans in the Legislature are reordering their relationship with their constituency. They are either becoming more a citizen legislator or more a governing representative.

In normal times the two roles co-mingle even in the best of them. The most conscientious have found themselves in moments when they had to be just a bit of a mandarin to effectively meet the electorate’s expectations. Those most comfortable with that duplicity floated to the top and leadership. The least comfortable dropped to the bottom and ignominy.

Not so much any more. Hoosiers are focused on their own little budgets at their own little statehouses (in my case, the kitchen table). And they have become expert in the economics of our times — as expert as are their legislators, arguably more so in that they are dealing with their own money. And with the stakes so high, they are looking for representation that is above all authentic and trustworthy.

As a result, we are returning to a time when Hoosiers send legislators to the Statehouse as friends and neighbors, not as lawyers to court. The difference being that the former is expected to sincerely share our political, religious and philosophical beliefs, the later only to win the next case on the docket.

Earlier this month, coincidental to this trend, the governor’s office put down a uncommonly straightforward budget. It is surprisingly flat and thereby unassailable by the usual political means. Moreover, it appears to build on the fiscal structure of the Daniels administration but in a compounding way that begins to reduce the size of Indiana government.

That could mean surpluses, tax cuts and eventually the increase in private investment and jobs that economic historians tell us accompanies such policy decisions. At the least, it would send an economic message to the nation that Indiana “gets it.”

So who could be against that?

Yes, well, liberal Democrats of course, which is pretty much all Democrats these days. It threatens their core philosophy that governments, good times or bad, should grow larger to keep pace with the continuing advance of Homo sapiens toward the Utopia of moment.

Opposition also has come from the GOP leadership, at least initially. The body language is clear that attempts by any governor to make the Statehouse less palatine are unappreciated. Who will cut the deals, make the exceptions, apply the realpolitik so that everything comes out fair, balanced and neutral? Who will guide this historic supermajority? Who, in sum, will make the sausage we call state government?

“[The governor’s budget] puts transportation funding totally in the hands of the economy; if the economy tanks, there’s no transportation dollars,” complains House Speaker Brian Bosma.

To understand the difficulty of that position, ask your spouse to take a second job because you spent the grocery budget on beer. Under such calculation, the laws of economics don’t apply to government itself. And even past accounting and spending errors do not carry over to the next page. The leadership maintains it is supremely exempt from the rules the rest of us must live by, an expression of hubris that is always fatal.

So let’s hope the speaker and his friends take a step back in coming weeks. They need to listen to friendly advice that this is no longer about them. The state, the nation, is in full crises. Practically every issue headed their way will not be “politically survivable” in the old sense of the words.

Leadership being leadership will disagree. The tea party, it hopes, can be co-opted. The warning signs in the polling data are cyclical. Issues can be muddied, incongruity explained, embarrassments covered, the unruly disciplined, facts disputed, reportage skewed. Power always thinks it will hold.

More and more, though, the legislative rank and file recognize that it is time — time to do the right thing, to reorder that relationship with friends and neighbors, time to be a citizen first and a politician second.

The governor’s budget would be a great place to start, and the leadership be damned.

Craig Ladwig, Fort Wayne

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