Friday, August 7, 2009

Indianapolis Star Columnist Gives Health and Hospital Corporation a Pass On Biased Referendum Question

Today's Indianapolis Star contains a column by columnist Matthew Tulley in which he basically gives Matt Gutwein and Health and Hospital Corporation a pass when it comes to writing a dishonest and biased referendum question:

When I first saw the text of the Wishard Memorial Hospital ballot question -- the one that will determine the fate of a new $754 million complex -- I was bothered.

It seemed slanted, and written in a way that essentially guarantees it will pass on Nov. 3. Separate from the debate of the project's merits, I questioned the question itself, and worried that it lacked the neutrality expected from a referendum.

But the wording, while imperfect, accurately sums up the role Wishard plays in Marion County. As Matthew Gutwein, head of Marion County's Health and Hospital Corp., which runs Wishard, said: "Just because a project sounds like a good idea doesn't mean the question is biased."

He's right.

After all, as the question says, the project would allow the hospital to "provide access to care for all residents of Marion County, including people who are seniors, poor, uninsured or vulnerable, regardless of their ability to pay."

The project also would indeed "allow Wishard to provide specialized care, including to victims suffering from traumatic injuries or severe burns." And it would allow Wishard to continue working with universities and colleges to "teach future doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals."

"The only way the voters can evaluate whether they should be voting for something, and whether it is important to them and adds value to the community, is to know what this project is," Gutwein said.

In other words, he said, this is not just about bricks and mortar, but what goes on inside Wishard.

Critics argue the question has been written in a way that too favorably defines the project. Their complaints are not out of line. And there is validity to the argument that the overall cost of the project should be included in the question. That seems like a bottom-line detail.

Gutwein argued that there is another side to the financial issue. The question also leaves out one of the best arguments for the project -- that it will not increase property taxes. If the goal was a slanted question, he said, that would have been included.

Again, he's right.

But those are two crucial details. Why not include both?

House Minority Leader Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, supports the project. He said advocates should have included more financial detail in the question, but he doesn't intend to spend much time quibbling over it.

Neither will I. For three reasons.

1. The state law authorizing the referendum requires the Health and Hospital Corp. to write the question. If lawmakers wanted a different type of question, they should have written it themselves or given the job of writing it to another entity.

The broader issue of how to craft future ballot questions should be examined. But in this case, Health and Hospital has done nothing wrong.

2. Despite concern about the wording of the question, it is written in plain English. That's an improvement over many ballot questions, which can be so full of legalese that voters are left struggling to figure out what exactly it is they are voting on.

3. There are no candidate elections this year. So the Wishard issue will dominate the political debate. Turnout is expected to be low, and made up largely of people interested in the Wishard project. In short: Voters will be informed.

The Wishard project will generate much discussion over the next three months. That discussion -- and not the wording of the referendum -- will determine the project's fate.

Tully is wrong on several points. Let's address the last - that the wording of the question doesn't matter. Of course it matters. Any political scientist will tell you the No. 1 bias in polling is the wording of the question. The wording is extremely important. The notion that writing a biased question won't have any impact on the election results is wishful thinking on Tully's part. You can bet the folks who wrote the Wishard question don't share Tully's view. They know perfectly well the wording matters - quite a lot.

Tully says the referendum describes what Wishard supposedly does. Then he notes Gutwein's statement that, "[j]ust because a project sounds like a good idea doesn't mean the question is biased." Tully declares "He's right." Wait a second. The question does not describe the project and that's what the law requires. There is nothing in the question about Wishard building a new hospital, for example or floating bonds to do so. Gutwein doesn't connect the dots and Tully lets him get away with it.

Tully declares that Health and Hospital has "done nothing wrong" in formulating the question. I guess if you think breaking the law regarding describing the project in a referendum question and misrepresenting the issue to the voters of Marion County is not wrong, then Tully would be correct. I think though the voters deserve a little more honesty than they have thus far received from Gutwein and Health and Hospital Corporation.

Unlike some of my conservative friends, I actually like Matthew Tully. He stirs up debate about issues and that's his job as a columnist. But this column is not his finest. He listened to a snake oil salesman make a presentation and then bought the product.


Downtown Indy said...

I think a great modification to the referendum-writing law would be for the actual person that pens it to have to call a public press conference to read it aloud to us, prefaced with the statement 'These are my words:'

As for the 'legalese' in prior questions, at least that means there's SOME definitive content that a person with inititive can attempt to parse and make sense out of.

As to this referendum, you'd have an easier time explaining 'blue' to a blind person.

But for me the overriding issue here is that this is just another instance of people in high places screwing with those of us who are not. I think we all could get onboard with many of these projects and be almost 100% supportive if they'd cut out their omnipresent intent to deceive.

After all, if a project is great and good, why sneak around and be, or at least appear to be, cloaking it in deceit?

Paul K. Ogden said...

DI, your last paragraph is a home run. You are exactly right.

Margaret said...

Hello all, thanks for your comments. I am wondering if someone can help me clarify some information; I want to make sure I understand before making my opinion known to friends and colleagues.

Can you explain the differences between the funding set ups of the new Central Library, Lucas Oil Stadium, and what it proposed for Wishard? For example, I know food and beverage taxes were raised to fund LOS, and the Wishard propaganda says a new hospital would not require raising any kind of taxes, property or otherwise. I remember the library being a fiasco but I do not know how it was paid for.

Can someone give me the background on these? I think it would help me and others understand the fundamental issues and how this might impact me financially.