As I said on Abdul in the Morning on Friday, I'm expecting the Wishard referendum to pass. I cast my vote weeks ago in favor. But I would be lying if I didn't tell you this process has made me a bit queasy.
On policy debates, there are two components: the policy merits and what I'll call the debate and information distribution process. Unfortunately, the latter can often overshadow or complicate the former, and this happened here.
Here's what I know.
First, nobody can read the Wishard referendum language without thinking that it is insanely one-sided in its phraseology. Perhaps this is just human nature, but I think most people assume when you have to bias so markedly the question that the drafter must think a fair phrasing would result in a different outcome to the question. That suggests fear, which makes people wonder, "What aren't you telling us?"
Second, nobody can guarantee that no taxes will need to be raised over the next thirty years to cover the bond service on a new Wishard. Nobody can even tell you no property taxes will need to be raised in the next thirty years. While I am reluctant to second-guess HHC CEO Matt Gutwein (after all, he is, by far, one of the smartest guys I know, and he's 4-0 before the United States Supreme Court), I think he did his cause a disservice by repeatedly stating with certainty something that can't be said with certainty. Fortunately, he has changed his approach. Though he repeatedly stated during his presentation to the Washington Township Democrat Club about six weeks ago that no tax increase would accompany the construction, here's what he said this week at the Rotary:
"The level of risk that the property taxpayers are taking in Marion County is a very small level of risk, and I don’t think at all it is disproportionate from what the county receives from Wishard."
Matt should have just said, "In life there are no absolutes. We will have the authority to tax you for this hospital. But it's not going to happen and here's why...."
Third, by the time we get to the time where any tax increase will be needed, none of the principals who helped push this will be in elected office or at HHC. For those who are so inclined, there will be nobody to "hold accountable," and I don't suspect saying "I told you so" through their dentures would be all that satisfying.Fourth, too many people in my party act like if we get money from the federal government, it's not really money. If we get to build a new Wishard because the government is subsidizing bonds, it's not like we found the money in a parking lot. Also, if IU has to absorb the cost of demolishing or renovating the the old hospital, that is a cost as well that will likely be passed on through even higher tuition for students.
Fifth, Wishard tells you that if something happens to its revenue stream, (which is likely during the lifespan of these bonds), that it can avoid a tax increase by diverting some of its operating budget. But Wishard never told us (nor could it at this point) what services it would have to cut that it is currently offering.
Sixth, I was not surprised that every other hospital in the city supports a new Wishard. This ensures that low-income or no income patients aren't in their pristine new buildings. If there is racism in this process, Amos Brown, it's not just that white guys don't want to pay to build a hospital for "the indigent" (code for "a lot of brown and black folk"). It's that the other hospitals don't want to live without a place where they can ship what they perceive as their undesirables.
Seventh, Wishard acts like if this referendum didn't pass, it would have to close. It acts like if the refendum doesn't pass, any police officer shot in the future will die. This isn't true. Wishard could continue to renovate by shifting some of its apparently easy to shift general revenue into incremental renovation.
Eighth, I really am starting to see the power of the "Indianapolis construction complex," an alliance of construction companies, engineers, architects, law firms, government agencies, and the building trades, that seems to always make sure there is a major construction project going on at every moment in Indianapolis. It is an unstoppable juggernaut.
So, why, you may ask, iPopa, do you support the hospital?
Because, without inking a deal now, we will pay more in the future to keep Wishard up and running. Because I do not believe any tax increase will occur for the first decade, and then it won't be more than a nominal increase for the value provided, even if the total cannot be capped, and because I strongly believe what I said about the other hospitals. They will not absorb a Wishard overflow.
Further, if HHC did divert revenues later to offset what would be lost by foregoing the Obama bonds, care would suffer. HHC has numerous community-based treatment centers that would probably be the first thing on the chopping block. Only through new construction will indigent care in Indianapolis stay strong, and I view it as an indicator of our humanity how well we care for our sick. Plus, this project will create desperately needed construction jobs.
Finally, though I love the Colts, I'm just glad this time the Indianapolis Construction Complex is on the side of something a bit more noble than grown men playing a game.