Politics Magazine

Richard Lugar

Posted on the 11 May 2012 by Erictheblue

Richard Lugar, who was pilloried by Tea-party candidate Richard Mourdock for being "Obama's favorite Republican," was one of my favorite Republicans, too.  I formerly bestowed that honor upon Chuck Hagel, but he then left the Senate, and now Lugar, having lost a Republican primary to Mourdock, will also be gone.  It's getting harder and harder to think of a Republican holding high office who could be called, in an irony-free zone, statesmanlike.  Think of the Republican candidates for president, add in the party leadership in the Congress to get this list: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, John Boehner, Eric Kantor, Mitch McConnell, John Kyl.  Maybe some people, grasping at straws, would name the last standard-bearer and current senator--the guy who elevated to national prominence Sarah Palin.  Good grief!

Lugar was elected to the US Senate so long ago--1976--that hardly anyone remembers his time as the boy-wonder mayor of Indianapolis.  He was first elected to that office in 1968, when he was 37, and served with distinction until his election to the Senate eight years later.  His principal achievement was "Unigov," the de facto annexation of all of Marion County into the city of Indianapolis.  This had the beneficial effect of wiping off the political map all sorts of useless boundaries that nevertheless wreak havoc with the goal of sharing burdens and creating healthy metro areas. 

Lugar reasoned that as people in Marion County prosecuted their daily routines, they kept crossing municipal boundaries without even realizing it.  For example, they might live in one suburb, shop for groceries in a second, go to church in a third, bowl in a bowling league in a fourth, and work "downtown."  It's really one metropolitan community, but the town you happen to live in is decisive for determining your tax burden.  All the different venues rely upon the property tax to provide basic services, but of course the available tax base correlates very closely to the value of the real property in the community.  Firetrucks cost whatever they cost, so a suburb in which the typical home is worth $300,000 can, compared to one in which the typical home is worth only $150,000, raise the needed funds by taxing at a lower rate.  Moreover, the pricey homes tend to filter out people most apt to use government services.  The most affluent citizens therefore tend to enjoy high service levels and low local tax rates.  Over time, it gets worse, because the people who can leave less prosperous communities do so.  Metro areas sort themselves into enclaves of prosperity and desperation.

Here in Minnesota, we have recognized the problem and tried to address it with "local aid" distributed by the state to local units of government according to excruciatingly complicated formulae.  We recently learned that if you have a budget crunch and an ambitious Republican governor, this local aid is too tempting a target.  Forty years ago, Lugar extirpated the root problem, which is the existence of all these artificial boundaries whose only real significance is to define different taxing zones within a single metropolitan area.  But it required feats of leadership and persuasion to achieve this worthy end.  After all, the quilt system has been in operation for a long time, and was working well for a lot of people. 

Since Lugar served six terms in the Senate, his political obituaries have usually glossed lightly over his mayoral career, which however was distinguished.  He achieved as mayor of Indianapolis a signature good-government reform and as a six-term Republican senator earned an F rating from both the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America.  If current trends persist, he will be the last winner of the My Favorite Republican Award.

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