For immediate release:
Jan. 16, 2015
INDIANAPOLIS - The following remarks were made by Indiana House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City as the State Legislature initiated its regular daily meeting schedule at the Statehouse:
“Speaker Bosma, members of the House, members of the media, fellow Hoosiers, welcome back.
“I first want to give a special welcome to our newer members. Some of you found an easy path to the Statehouse; some of you did not. In any case, despite any claims to the contrary, I'm not an ogre. In fact, some assert that I'm a fairly nice guy. If any of you find you want to confess to me that these are difficult jobs at times, I will be quick to validate your feelings and offer encouragement.
“As the leader of 29 Indiana House Democrats, I enjoy this occasion to explain the role of the minority in this process, to offer some helpful advice, and to illustrate our sometimes divergent vision for the people of Indiana. Mostly, I aim to serve as a reminder that not all mainstream Hoosiers think alike, want to solve the same problems, or agree on the same route to prosperity. Whenever you find yourself in a comfort zone, listening to only your friends, or becoming too confident that power lasts forever, my caucus and I will help save you from those mistakes.
“But before we illustrate some different ideas, let me stress that the first job of the minority is to help. In recent years, when we believed it in the people's interest, we have achieved bipartisan accomplishments in sentencing reform, child protection, and the way the Legislature acquires information. This is what distinguishes us from Washington, where they cannot join together even on matters of broad consensus.
“The second job of the minority is to critique you. We don’t do this to be contrarian. By exposing flaws in your initiatives, we help turn good policies into great ones, questionable policies into less worrisome ones, and terrible policies into merely bad ones. It is a service that makes more perfect the sacred concept of majority rule.
“Today, however, I will commence with the third historic task of a democratic minority. It is to provide alternatives. In that way, the people have choices and are able to judge among competing missions for Indiana.
“Let me begin by taking an inventory of our economic performance. For starters, one thing is unambiguous: our national economy is improving. Unemployment and fuel prices are down. Consumer confidence is at the highest level since 2007. Every day, fewer Americans face medical bankruptcy as they leave the ranks of the uninsured. Recently, the growth rate in our nation's economy reached 5-percent.
“Unfortunately, unearned pride in ourselves and our old-fashioned notions is keeping Indiana well below our economic zenith. We have invested a great deal in board rooms and very little in the Middle Class. We have clung to the belief that those with power and money will solve our problems, while blinding ourselves to the fact that workers and Middle Class consumers create the profits enjoyed by a shrinking few.
“Far too many of Indiana's jobs are low wage jobs. According to the Census Bureau, in 2002, our average household income was over $53,000. By the end of 2013, it had dipped under $47,000. Another recent Census Bureau report showed that Indiana was one of only 15 states where income inequality was on the rise. This is at a time when the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us is the largest since the Great Depression. So while we ignore our own problems, we're unwitting parties to a larger one.
“Too often, Indiana's leaders have sidestepped the matter of flagging incomes by denying it, dismissing it, or worst of all, exclaiming it as a positive good. It is not.
“Cavernous income inequality is the great challenge of our time. The fact is that low wages and incomes are bad for business. Consumers have less to spend in the marketplace. Workers cannot afford to acquire the new skills employers demand. Families cannot save what they need for times of trouble, and then find themselves reaching out to others for help.
“Fighting this problem starts with investing in our workforce. We have done plenty to invest in investors. Now our focus must change. The problem with flagging salaries and wages did not emerge in a day, and it will not be solved in a day. So let's begin by doing the next sensible things.
“The frenzy of tax cuts for the benefit of a few friends must end. We can no longer afford to deprive the public of shared resources that are necessary to educate our workforce, improve the health of salary and wage earners, rejuvenate the economic engines of our cities, and build the infrastructure people need to get to work.
“We already have one of the nation's best corporate tax climates, and the results speak for themselves. The life of the average citizen has not improved. Cities and towns across Indiana are struggling to remain vibrant.
“The cure to Indiana's income woes lies with growing, retaining, and attracting the world's finest workers. A world class workforce will attract the most innovative businesses, command the best earnings, and generate the most disposable income for families to freely spend and save.
“There is one middle class tax cut, however, that would characterize a new direction of investing in the Middle Class. Let us pledge to cut no other tax before the most egregious family tax is eliminated: the one that taxes textbooks for kids trying to learn. Let the parents of both public and private school kids reallocate the money they spend on textbooks toward tutoring, school supplies, or taking a child to the doctor. That's a real change for the Middle Class of Indiana.
“But we know that our most daunting problems are seldom solved by tax changes alone. Every citizen from pre-school through retirement deserves a fair opportunity to reach his or her potential through hard work. And that means funding a world class education system of lifelong learning that begins in pre-school and finishes when a worker acquires the skills for his or her final job.
“Every family must invest in its own education, either through hard work or saved resources. But for the good of us all, the State of Indiana must be their partner.
“That is why I call on this body and the Governor to pursue every last available resource for preschoolers to begin learning. We must advance from the Nineteenth to the 21st Century at long last and make kindergarten mandatory for all children. And full-day kindergarten should at long last be available in every public school and funded through a simplified way of distributing school resources that folks understand.
“Now, in the past several years, you have made a lot of changes in our schools. You have put them through the wringer in the name of reform. You have placed schools and educators under strict standards of evaluation followed by stricter consequences.
“We cannot promptly change many of these things. But in the interest of building the best workforce, we can turn these standards on ourselves. Let us be honest and transparent about what we are funding, who we are funding, and why.
“In recent years we have heard boasting about greater commitments to education. Where many of us live, we wonder what you're talking about.
“But in this budget year, let us end the misleading practice of funding traditional public schools, charter schools, and private school vouchers out of the same pot of money. Let them be separate, and let our budget reflect that we are funding them separately, cutting them separately, and reviewing them separately.
“Only then can the people judge if we are on the right path toward every Hoosier reaching his or her God-given potential.
“And then comes the pinnacle of our lifelong learning pursuits. For both younger and older adults, the price of acquiring world class skills at our institutions of higher learning must become more affordable and predictable. When a Hoosier begins paying for an adult education, let the price remain the same until the degree is finished or the skills are earned.
“Years of indentured servitude to educational debts must end. The first chain to break is the lack of predictability, and to stop discouraging workers from pursuing new skills in the first place.
“But make no mistake, these immediately achievable changes are but the first steps toward a more prosperous Indiana that allows women and men, blacks and whites, Latinos and Asians, and newcomers and natives the chance to work hard for a better life.
“But my friends, the people will have no faith in anything we do here until we change the political system that traps us all and brings to the surface the fallen angels of our nature.
“This session, I look forward to working with Speaker Bosma to improve the ethical standards of this chamber. Under the leadership of Representatives Steuerwald and Kersey, I have every confidence that we will correct shortcomings in the expectations we have of ourselves.
“I regret, however, that these things are but symptoms of a sick electoral system that we all decry, and from which no one can unilaterally disarm. This past election, some reputable measures showed Indiana was last in voter turnout. You can deny or rationalize that exact measure if you choose. But by any metric, it was a disgrace.
“The problem is not who is here, but how we get here.
“The people deserve more choices and more competition in elections. There should be less money and more information. Fewer politicians and more citizens should determine electoral outcomes. Voters are entitled to less fundraising and more thinking.
“Let us start by getting the party leaders out of the business of gerrymandering. We are now halfway through the current decade. In preparation for the next census, let us commit this year to a system of non-partisan redistricting. Our neighbors in Ohio already are choosing such a system. Let us build a family of districts that reinforce communities, maximize competitiveness, and most of all, engage the people.
“Finally, let's demonstrate that we want big money out of politics. This month, I will ask every member to help petition our federal government to make campaign finance reform legal and constitutional. If it takes an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in this one instance, so be it.
“And let me add one more thing. It has been truly heartening to see both sides of the aisle in this chamber play a significant role in putting an end to the seemingly endless debate over who can marry whom in Indiana. As I said from this very spot two years ago, the people of this state no longer need to be subjected to divisive debates that serve only to enflame rather than enlighten.
“I would hope those sentiments remain true this session. I know there are some who would try to stoke the flames under the guise of ‘discrimination,’ but these issues are pointless and irrelevant and do nothing to address the core matters that need to be handled by this body for the good of all.
“My friends, the results of an election are not evidence of our success or our brilliance or that supermajorities of the people agree with us. We can and must do better.
“When we agree on our future, may we act in concert. When we disagree, let us do so with empathy and mutual respect. And let us never forget that this chamber must strive to be the perfect manifestation of the people's will.
“It is good to be here again as one of many humble servants. Let's get to work.”