Phil Gulley: Road To Ruin

Illustration by Ryan Snook

My sister works as a nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, helping children with bleeding disorders. Twice a year, she visits Eldoret, Kenya, to work with the Indiana University School of Medicine assisting patients in that country. She enjoys spending time in Kenya because the streets are better there than they are in Indianapolis. I was explaining this to a friend who said, “In all fairness, Kenya doesn’t have the freeze-and-thaw cycles that Indiana does.”

That’s a good point and no doubt part of the reason Indiana roads resemble a war zone, but it doesn’t explain why a person used to be able to drive for miles here without plunging through the Earth’s crust.

There’s another explanation for this state’s rotten roads—our aversion to taxes. It’s the same reason we rank 35th in education, 34th in crime, 40th in health care, 44th in internet access, and a whopping 48th in quality of life, according to a recent list published by U.S. News & World Report. There wasn’t a pothole category, but I imagine we wouldn’t shine there, either.

I’m as much to blame as anyone. When former Governor Mitch Daniels and the no-tax crowd passed a constitutional amendment in 2010 capping our property taxes, I was secretly delighted. I would have been publicly delighted, but I had just preached a sermon in support of taxes, so I did my celebrating like I do my praying—privately in the closet. It’s a hard life being a pastor, having to denounce your baser instincts every Sunday morning.

The tax-cap amendment is now lodged in our state’s constitution, not going anywhere, like an annoying relative who came for a meal and stayed for a year. There’ll be no getting rid of it anytime soon, not until enough of us grow weary of lousy services, failing schools, broken-down roads, out-of-reach health care, and a quality of life matching Somalia’s. (Not to knock Somalia, which in some regards is looking better every day.)

In 2009, Indiana ranked 21st in the nation in quality of education. Then came the tax cap, and now we’re 35th. By 2030, we’ll have the bottom spot safely secured, and can change our state motto to “The Pothole of America,” which will be both literally and figuratively true.

Nice things cost money. Sometimes, entire decades pass without us realizing that. By the time we do, the hole is so deep it takes just as long to dig ourselves out. Meanwhile, we vote Koch-brother cronies into office who rig the system, then remain safely ensconced on their estates, cushioned by their wealth, while the rest of us watch our children’s future swirl down the sewer. What’s most amazing is the grubby sum our leaders charge to auction off that future—a fistful of dollars and dinner at St. Elmo buys the loyalty of a soul-for-sale toady bent on the Statehouse.

If it were only Indiana, this problem could be remedied by moving to another state, but the no-tax pox has infected most of our nation. Google the phrase “trains in Japan,” study the images, and ask yourself why we’re still traveling on the train from Petticoat Junction. While you’re on Google, look up a hero of modern conservatism, Sam Brownback, and read what happened when he governed Kansas, a state once synonymous with economic common-sense, which he reduced to fiscal ruin after launching what he grandly called his “red state experiment” in 2012. His tax cuts blew a hole in the state’s budget, creating a deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars. Education was slashed to tatters, the first victim of the tax-axers, who don’t want us to wise up and realize we’ve been duped.

Don’t even get me started on the vast technological desert we call home. My friend Jim can make a cellphone call in the highlands of El Salvador, but I can’t get AT&T service sitting at Claddagh Irish Pub in Plainfield. And why, when the internet is now essential for business, education, and employment, can’t I find a reliable internet provider at my farm in Southern Indiana?

Why can’t all of us see what is painfully obvious to some of us—we are on a pot-holed, dead-end road. Yes, education is expensive, but ignorance more so.

It’s not just Republicans riding this train to nowhere. They’re accompanied by fickle Democrats, including Mayor Joe Hogsett, Indy’s own profile in courage, who refused to support last year’s school referendum, saying instead he wanted to “advocate for voter engagement.” That’s a high-minded way of saying he didn’t want to honk off potential donors. Mr. Mayor, voters get engaged when their leaders do. You were hired to help our children succeed. Preach! Cajole! Teach! If necessary, rant! Remind us that kids in thriving schools are less likely to kill one another and more likely to become happy, productive citizens. But parents and grandparents, if we wait for the politicians to do the right thing, it will be too late. Put down your phone, turn off the television, and read to your kids now, so you won’t have to bail them out later.

This penury of purse and passion is not new. I have seen it in our churches time and again. I know a local pastor who preached the gospel of apathy for more than three decades; not a shred of empathy, no concern for the other, no compassion for the beleaguered and beaten down, no reaching down to lift up—just shriveled, selfish sermons, trotted out year after year, until his congregation withered to a mean, little nub of calcified folks as hard-hearted and unimaginative as he was.

Pardon me for saying so, but that’s what living in Indiana feels like at the moment. Why can’t all of us see what is painfully obvious to some of us—we are on a pot-holed, dead-end road. Yes, education is expensive, but ignorance more so. Roads, sidewalks, trails, parks, music, art, museums, universities, elder care, childcare, health care, libraries, and schools are not optional fixtures in a civilized world. They are civilization itself.

When Mitch Daniels and our state legislators capped taxes, my family’s annual contribution for progress dropped about $50. For the price of a dinner out with my wife, instructional aides at our local schools were canned, sidewalk construction slowed, preschool rose to $750 a month, college tuition continued to skyrocket, roads deteriorated, and wages froze. As long as you’re pardoning me for saying so, let me say one more thing: What in God’s name were we thinking?

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.