News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

February 5, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Toxic victories

Political atmosphere elevates ideological battles over truly pressing issues

When the Super Bowl ends tonight in Indianapolis, most of the Giants and Patriots will shake hands, despite their competitive fire, win or lose.

Oh, some dejected receiver or jubilant linebacker might get in one last dig, but the adults among them will make peace, knowing they’re all pretty much in the same boat.

But if the game pitted the Republicans against the Democrats, they’d bypass such camaraderie. In fact, their duel would go beyond those 60 minutes on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf. They’d be forming strategies to disrupt traffic at the other’s home games next season, extend tax breaks to everyone but the opponent’s season-ticket holders, add a surtax on any local purchase of the rival club’s memorabilia (and require a photo ID), and run TV ads insinuating that anyone wearing the foe’s team colors is un-American.

Divide. Conquer. Maim. At all costs. Don’t just score more touchdowns; force the other franchise into bankruptcy.

Yes, these days, it’s doubtful lawmakers would prioritize any idea that doesn’t represent a wounding, moral defeat for their political opponents. Compromise and the public good have been abandoned in favor of racking up ideological victories. The result isn’t merely maddening for average people who want to live in peace and prosperity. The extremism neglects broader progress on issues with fewer clear winners and losers.

The annual Groundhog Day Economic Forecast breakfast Thursday morning at Indiana State University gave a large crowd of Terre Haute business and industry leaders, managers and employees a state-of-the-economy view from several guest speakers. Each gave helpful explanations of the positives and negatives behind statistics on gross domestic product, median housing prices, and the consumer and business confidence indexes. There were signs of hope, including locally through an expansion at ThyssenKrupp Presta and the purchase of the old Pfizer plant by pharmaceutical maker NantWorks.

As ISU economist Robert Guell closed his forecast for a “fair” 2012 economically, he added a brief but frank commentary.

Emphasizing that he is “a pro-business, establishment Republican,” Guell criticized “toxic politics and the impact on economics.” He zeroed in on his party’s drive to enact the immensely contentious right-to-work law, with the backing of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. The majority Republicans in the Indiana House and Senate made their top priority a piece of legislation with, as Guell put it, an “only marginal” upside for business. The law, passed last week by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Mitch Daniels, makes Indiana the only state in the industrial Midwest to prohibit labor unions from collecting mandatory representation fees from workers. As Guell pointed out, “private employment in Indiana in closed shops is less than one-tenth of that employment.”

The Republicans’ focus on winning that political battle may inspire a backlash that could jeopardize the party’s hold on both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s seat through the November election. “Every labor union dollar in the country that is not pointed at Wisconsin is going to be pointed at Indiana and electing representatives (and perhaps a governor) sympathetic to labor rather than business,” Guell told the crowd.

The prioritization of right-to-work was also costly to the state overall, Guell said, “because instead of focusing on fixing, in a permanent way, the unfunded public pension liability problem, or the unemployment insurance problem, the entire political capital of business was devoted to a cause of insignificant consequence that will only spoil the political environment.

“I say this as a failed politician who was soundly booed at the [local] labor hall,” he added, referring to his unsuccessful bid for the District 2 City Council seat in 2007. “I am a pro-business, establishment Republican who (like our governor once thought) would have left well enough alone” concerning right-to-work.

The two less-prioritized situations Guell mentioned are not small, and affect Hoosier workers, employers and taxpayers. The state’s unfunded public pension liabilities for its pre-1996 Teachers Retirement Fund total approximately $11 billion, according to the governor’s office, and will take 20 to 25 years to pay off. Also, like many states, Indiana owes the federal government a debt of about $2 billion for covering unemployment insurance paid to Hoosier workers.

From a fiscal standpoint, those two complex issues seem more verifiably pressing and significant. But that’s not how things work (or don’t work) in the Statehouse or in Congress.

“We have forgotten in the country that politics is about joint progress and not just about winning,” Guell concluded. “Winning at all costs has become an economically costly activity. Measured in terms of opportunity costs, it is what the state could have accomplished with a joint effort focused on serious problems. As long as this type of behavior is at the center of our state and national politics, we will all be stuck in the mud for a very long time while our debt and unfunded Social Security, Medicare and pension issues grow out of control.”

Democrats in Washington were just as guilty of one-sided tactics in passage of the national health-care act, Guell said moments after his address.

So, is this dysfunctional government destined to just go on and on?

“Somebody,” Guell said, “is going to have to come to the conclusion that winning isn’t enough.”

Until then, we’ll keep our chinstraps buckled.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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