Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 18, 2007

The Seven Deadly Sins of State Government

I’ve been convinced for years that the old adage, “All politics are local”, is much more true than we generally acknowledge. Despite all our water-cooler political talk about wars, presidents, gay/not-gay senators, hurricanes and Medicare, most of us say very little about the state and local government issues that more directly impact our daily lives. And why is that? Because we can’t talk about what we don’t know!

It’s a cruel irony that, even as communication technology has become so widespread and powerful over the past century, it has generally become less and less relevant. Frankly, I don’t care about Paris Hilton in jail, but apparently I’m in the minority, because Larry King bumped Michael Moore (and a relevant conversation about healthcare funding) when he landed Paris’ first post-prison interview.

Using the same warped values, detailed coverage of most state government news gets pushed to the back pages of newspapers — newspapers being read by fewer and fewer people every year. And unless there’s a fire, a fistfight or a cute little doggie costume ball to fund some good cause, we can’t count on the local news stations to cover statewide issues in any depth, either. Budget debates make for really bad entertainment, which is the primary role of most local news shows (except for public television, occasionally).

Now I’m no dummy. I know the real reason we pay so little attention to state and local government: IT’S BORING. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, the two-party bickering is often just as petty and silly as on the national level. And yes, the level of detail needed to understand what’s at stake is often hard to come by. But we are grownups, aren’t we? We can do this. We manage our own household budgets, school PTAs, and grocery runs  (on increasingly crowded, overdeveloped streets). So why can’t we see how decisions made about taxes and environmental initiatives and education on the statewide level affect the kind of actual context we live in everday?

Therefore, despite the tedium of local issues,we still should be paying attention, and our news outlets should do more to help, lest we or our children be sold out yet again, while we’re not looking.

Take, for example, the matter of public transportation. Here’s an excerpt of a news item (from last June) on Illinois state representative Julie Hamos’ website:

In addition to leaving uncertain the fate of Blagojevich’s “Illinois Covered” health-care proposal, the legislature’s inaction also left unresolved efforts by the Regional Transportation Authority to seek state help to fund city and suburban commuter rail and bus operations and improve its infrastructure.

Earlier … a House panel advanced RTA-backed legislation that would allow sales tax increases in Cook County and the collar counties and impose a new real-estate transfer tax in Chicago to raise an estimated $452.5 million for regional mass transit. Blagojevich has vowed to veto any legislation to increase sales taxes. But sponsoring Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston) said she hoped to convince the governor and other lawmakers that it was a “regional tax” for a “regional issue.”

So apparently Ms. Hamos was on the case way back in June, whereas the rest of us, and the news outlets, only caught up on this sticky issue in mid-September. But now is the last-minute crisis point when CTA/RTA service is about to be drastically cut. What’s up with that? Can’t we get our homework done on time?

Now I’m not even taking a position on the actual issue of how to fund the need. What I’m bothered about is the sensationalist coverage (TV news loves a fight, as we’ve said), and our public inattentiveness to detail. Not to mention the two-faced nature of a Democratic majority that says it cares about the environment but never gets serious about reducing the number of cars on the road.

As for the September transit proposals, one of which involves putting casinos in Chicago to fund the transit system, I’m pretty disgusted.  Gone are the days when gambling was considered a vice. Gone is the common sense of building the infrastructure because it’s the right thing to do (Roosevelt’s WPA-type thinking). Now it’s all about trading favors and making compromises, figuring out what will sell and then selling it, and ultimately pandering to our most basic instincts: self-interest, competitive edge, maintaining alliances, gluttony, laziness, and greed greed greed.

I’m moving to Canada. Call me when you figure it out, guys…

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