I am a liberal Democrat.
The first time I went to the microphone in the State Senate 32 years ago, it was to repeal the death penalty.
I introduced gay rights legislation in the State Senate almost 30 years ago. I supported the Equal Rights Amendment, tenants' rights legislation and the successful bill to allow developmentally disabled citizens to live in group homes in middle-class neighborhoods.
I highlight these issues to establish my Democratic Party bona finds because I am deeply embarrassed by my party's performance in this year's session of the General Assembly.
The biggest issue facing Indiana today is how to control property taxes without cutting vital public services -- services that are in even greater demand in today's economic downturn.
Hoosiers made it quite clear last year that they wanted a lid on property taxes. The General Assembly responded with alacrity and imposed very tough controls.
Now comes the second and much harder part -- "without cutting vital public services."
Unless we can figure out how to run local government much more efficiently, we will see public services cut once the property tax controls are fully implemented next year.
The Kernan-Shepard Commission, on which I served, issued a list of 27 recommendations as to how local government could be run more efficiently, more transparently and more effectively. Make no mistake, these recommendations are not easy and do call for shaking up the established order at the local level. But they are crucial if we are to preserve public services.
Yet with a few exceptions, Democrats in the State Senate have chosen to defend the status quo and turn their backs on the very constituencies they have traditionally defended. Just last week, 15 of 17 Senate Democrats voted against moving mayoral elections to even-numbered years despite support from the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns.
Moving the mayoral election to an even-numbered year would save local units of government $22 million every four years statewide -- more than $2 million in Marion County alone. These are dollars that could be used to avoid public safety layoffs and library branch closings, dollars that could be used to keep public swimming pools and parks open.
What part of Democratic philosophy holds that we should continue to have separate mayoral elections in odd-numbered years at the expense of other vital public services?
Democrats in the State Senate have opposed the elimination of townships despite the fact that in many townships, the cost of administering poor relief far exceeds the actual relief dispensed. In Pierson Township, Vigo County, the administrative cost of poor relief is $6.42 for every dollar in actual relief.
In Newbury Township, LaGrange County, it is $11.46. In Lovett Township, Jennings County, it is $18.45. It almost makes you proud of Center Township, Marion County, where the administrative cost is only $1.69 for every dollar in actual relief.
What part of Democratic philosophy holds that it is OK to spend more tax dollars on poor relief bureaucrats than on poor relief recipients?
What part of Democratic philosophy holds that it is OK for some rural trustees to hide from poor people by refusing to post their addresses or phone numbers/ What part of Democratic philosophy holds that it is OK for almost two-thirds of all townships in Indiana to squirrel away in their bank accounts balances that exceed their annual budgets? Either give it to the poor or give it back to the taxpayer!
Yet, every Democrat in the State Senate voted against legislation that would have required trustees to post their contact information in at least one phone book, would have given county councils fiscal oversight on trustee budgets and would have imposed anti-nepotism restrictions.
What part of Democratic philosophy holds that it is OK for Marion County to have seven different fire departments? The firefighters' union has estimated that we could staff every necessary piece of fire equipment in Marion County with 100 fewer firefighters if we were to consolidate. Let's see a show of hands of those who think we might be able to use 100 more police officers instead. Yet, 12 out of 16 Democrats in the State Senate voted against consolidating Marion County fire departments. Marion County fire consolidation failed in the Senate by one vote.
What part of Democratic philosophy holds that Allen County needs 80 -- that's right, 80 -- elected township officials to provide fire protection and poor relief? Or that Marion County needs 72 elected township officials? The five smallest counties in Indiana have a combined population of 40,000 and 156 elected township officials to provide fire protection and poor relief. That's one elected official for every 256 residents. Couldn't those dollars be put to better use in our schools, libraries, parks and public safety?
Maybe at age 67, I'm na*ve to think that Democrats remain concerned about those who need public schools, libraries, public parks or a little financial help from time to time and those who suffer disproportionally from inner-city crime.
Do I hold Democrats to a higher standard when it comes to these issues? Yes, I do.
These issues go to the very heart of why I am a Democrat.
Maybe I've lost touch with the current thinking of the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy and Barack Obama. I certainly hope not, but I am beginning to wonder.
Editor's Note: Louis Mahern, who represented Indianapolis in the State Senate for 16 years, was a member of the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform, also known as the Kernan-Shepard Commission.