Scott Tibbs
Published by the Hoosier Project, 06-28-2001

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Is anybody minding the store?

The Sunday edition of the Indianapolis Star reported on June 24 that our State Legislature has distributed millions of dollars from the Build Indiana Fund in violation of state law.

Originally meant to help local governments finance capital projects without having to bond for them and raise property taxes, the Fund has become a bastion of often illegal pork-barrel spending that legislators are using to get re-elected. Legislators have used money from the Fund for projects like a "women's shelter" in East Chicago, which was never built. Instead, the money was used for a men's shelter.

This violates the law in two ways. First, Build Indiana funds are not to go to private organizations, they are to go to local government, and giving money to private charities is a violation of the law. Second, the funds must go to the project it is approved for, not funneled off into another project when the recipients decide they want to spend it in another way. This is not a block grant program, where the state gives money to be spent in whatever way the recipient feels best.

This is a program to fund specific projects, and if the recipient decides there is a better way to spend the money, they should re-apply. There is good reason for this, because we are talking about public dollars, and the people of Indiana have a right to know their dollars are being spent in a legal and practical way. Even though the money spent is from Lottery funds, as opposed to tax dollars, every dime the State Government spends is by definition public money. It doesn't matter if the people who play the Lottery gave their money to the state voluntarily or not. Both Lottery players and non-Lottery players alike should expect the State Government spend the money it is entrusted with in a legal and practical way. The government works for the people, not the other way around. This is what makes the statement by Democratic Rep. Patrick Bauer that spending $1 million illegally is "not a big deal" so infuriating. If one thinks that $1 million is not a big deal, then perhaps one has been in government far too long.

Senator Robert Garton, Republican leader in the Indiana Senate, was quoted in the Star as saying " If you step back, these projects are pretty doggone important to some local communities." This might be true, but there should still be accountability in how the money is spent, and our state government has a moral and legal responsibility to make sure the money is spent legally.

Rep. John Gregg, the Speaker of the Indiana House, received $720,000 to distribute in Build Indiana Funds, $220,000 more than his fellow House Democrats. Gregg said "I would hope as speaker of the House that I would get a little extra. I think my constituents expect that."

Ideally, this should be a fund for needed expenditures, and should not be allocated to Legislative leaders so that they can buy votes with pork-barrel spending. Out state government owes it to every citizen of Indiana to spend the money in the most responsible and needed way, not according to who happens to have the power to benefit himself politically. Then again, as Gregg has been a very poor leader in the Indiana House, we should not be surprised that he holds this attitude.

Many legislators don't even know that the funds are supposed to go to. The Herald-Times reported on June 25 that Rep. Peggy Welch, D-Bloomington, "said she was never told that the funds were required to go to government entities and she received little other information about the program." Here we have people who are in charge of formulating laws for the rest of us, and they don't even know the law themselves, so as to avoid breaking it. If this is not an example of a lack of responsible representation in Indianapolis, I don't know what is.

Where was Governor Frank O'Bannon while money was being spent in violation of state law, sometimes in more than one way? The Governor is supposed to be approving these projects, yet has not provided the oversight Hoosiers deserve.

It's time for an oversight committee to pick through this fund with a fine-toothed comb, and make sure that the only projects approved are projects that comply with the law. Given this breach of Hoosier trust, the state must also make the funding for every single project publicly available, preferably on the Internet. Our State Government owes us accountability, and it's time they delivered.