While traveling the state this past year and considering an independent run for governor, Steve Bonney learned that his political agenda mirrors that of his fellow Hoosiers. What they spoke to him about most often were property taxes, the state of the economy, job losses and quality of life.
"Those are the issues that I always heard," Bonney said during a videotaped interview in The Bloomington Alternative studio on Feb. 15. "They're always the issues that I focus on anyway."
And as he expounded upon his political views and his efforts to get on the 2008 ballot, Bonney called for more than just new political leadership in Indianapolis. He proposed a new way of thinking.
"You cannot solve any single issue without a context," he said. "And the context is holistic thinking."
VIDEOS: Introduction - Interstate 69/Environment - Government Finance/Taxes - Energy/Agriculture
The environment, the economy and quality of life are all interrelated and must be approached as parts of an integrated whole, Bonney said. He also wants to abolish property taxes on residences and agricultural lands.
He said it is time for citizens to take their government back from the special interests.
"My idea in government is that, first of all, we start listening to the people," he said. "... Thomas Jefferson said that was the whole strategy, that government did not exist for those who govern, it existed for the governed."
Bonney is a West Lafayette resident and organic farmer who owns property in Tippecanoe and Greene counties. His political activism dates back to the Marble Hill nuclear power plant struggle of the 1970s and includes an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1982.
For the past 17 years, Bonney has directed Sustainable Earth, a nonprofit he founded that advocates for sustainable community farms. He has been a key player in organized citizen opposition to Interstate 69.
When Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2006 moved to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a global consortium for 75 years and a pittance, $500 million of which he earmarked for I-69, Bonney fought him all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court. The Toll Road, a.k.a. Interstate 90, spans the state from Ohio to Illinois in the far north.
"I had the time," he said. "... So I became the lead plaintiff in that lawsuit."
Bonney joined with Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, the Hoosier Environmental Council and others to argue, among other things, that the Toll Road lease was unconstitutional. Along the way he became the chief fundraiser, raising $120,000 in four months to pay legal fees and other expenses.
"I do have that activist component about me," he said with a grin.
The citizens ultimately lost their argument that the Toll Road lease violated the part of the Indiana Constitution that said, according to Bonney, that "all money from sale or lease of state assets had to go into the general fund and pay the debt."
Indiana may be a "non-debt state" under its constitution, he said. But Daniels set up a "quasi-public-private agency" called the Indiana Finance Authority to receive the Toll Road lease money and skirt the law.
"It was neither fish nor fowl, according to the supreme court," Bonney said. "Their ultimate ruling was that Article 10, Section 2 didn't apply because the state had no debt. The Indiana Finance Authority had debt. ... Now we have a state agency which is not a state agency."
The longstanding, bipartisan legislative support in Indiana for I-69 is more than just ill-conceived and corrupt public policy, he added. It symbolizes the impediments facing any transition to a sustainable future and better quality of life for Indiana citizens.
"Are we going to continue to build these massive roads through communities, dividing communities, dividing rural areas, eating up farmland, destroying forests and wetlands and karst terrain?" Bonney said. "It is time to make a stand against that, no matter what kind of development it is."
I-69 is just the most glaring example of the decay that permeates government and politics in Indiana, Bonney said. In particular, it is symptomatic of the dominance that special interests have in state lawmaking.
"In every case, there are tons of lobbyists around for every issue, everything that comes before the Legislature to be enacted into law," he said. "The legislators are besieged by lobbyists, paid lobbyists, who are there all day long."
One of Bonney's favorite descriptors for today's politics is the saying "rust never sleeps."
"When it comes to corporate power and influence, that is exactly right," he said. "Rust never sleeps. ... They're everywhere. They influence every piece of legislation. They influence the outcome of every legislation."
And given that Democrats are just as responsible for the corruption in the Statehouse, Bonney said his decision to not run as a major party candidate was a given.
"It was always a struggle to find somebody to vote for in the 45 years, or 50 years, that I've been voting," he said. "It just turns out that there's not a dime's worth of difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issues."
Bonney's goal is to assemble a government that is accessible to the people and not controlled by special interests. "The parties are," he said, "so there's not much choice but to run as an independent."
When the subject shifts to property taxes, Bonney parts company with many of his more natural allies on the progressive side of the political continuum. Second on his list of priorities, behind confronting corporate influence over public policy, is overhauling Indiana's tax structure.
"I'm calling for the abolition of property taxes," he said. "Now, that doesn't seem like a very progressive idea, but it is something I believe in deeply."
Noting that he owes nothing on his properties in Greene and Tippecanoe counties, Bonney called his annual tax obligation a debt and the property tax system "regressive."
"I have this debt every year called my property tax," he said. "I have to pay property taxes."
If he didn't, the state could take his land and his home. "That's the most regressive tax there is," he said.
How to fund schools and local government, which are largely supported by property taxes, is a matter of choice, Bonney said. Property taxes aren't the only possible revenue source for them.
"I say we have a progressive income tax in the state, for one thing," he said. "You have to pay taxes. I'm not an anti-tax person."
Indeed, Bonney advocates the abolition of property taxes on residences and agricultural land only.
"I'm not calling for the abolition of property tax on businesses," he said. "I think businesses need to pay their fair share.
"And we need to quit abating those taxes. We need to let fair competition exist. If people want to use the word free market, then it needs to be a free market."
Bonney scoffs at what passes for government-backed economic development in Indiana today. Giving taxpayer money to "questionable" companies to locate here is neither sustainable nor sincere, he said.
Take state leaders' emphasis on the life sciences, which Bonney says isn't a bad idea. But to think that the state will ever be a major player in biosciences is defies logic.
National Public Radio recently reported that 1,400 bioscience companies operate in the Bay Area alone, Bonney said, and every six to 12 days a new one forms.
"That's not our future," he said. "We can't compete with Boston; Austin, Texas; Research Triangle Park; the Bay Area; because people don't want to live here."
Quality economic development happens in places that emphasize the environment and quality of life, Bonney said, and that's not Indiana.
"It's polluted," he said. "That's what Forbes Magazine said. It's full of toxic waste, the air and water is polluted, and it's not likely to change. Forbes Magazine, that's a business magazine. It's not some bastion of liberalism that's speaking out about the environment."
Indiana ranked 49th in a 2007 Forbes comparison of state-by-state environmental quality. Only West Virginia, known for blowing the tops off mountains to mine coal, ranked worse.
"We're in that category," Bonney said. "We're not going to attract top-level businesses and people until we clean up our environment. It is the most important issue, as far as I'm concerned."
All one needs to understand is to look at the "Indiana Fish Consumption Advisory," an annual study of toxic contamination in Hoosier fish published by the Indiana State Department of Health.
"All of our streams are polluted with mercury," Bonney said. "You can't eat the fish in Indiana. Here you are, at Turkey Run, Shades (state parks) and some of our most beautiful places in the state, and there's a polluted stream running down through the middle of it. So that's the condition of our public lands that we're faced with."
Bonney is running with Lori Olivier, an Indianapolis nurse who formerly directed the renal unit at the Mayo Clinic and who has worked with the Hoosier Environmental Council in a number of capacities.
"She'll make a great lieutenant governor," Bonney said.
But he isn't naive about the uphill battle they have against the entrenched corruption in state government. Indiana has one of the most restrictive ballot access laws in the United States.
"We need 32,742 signatures," Bonney said. That's 2 percent of vote received by the Secretary of State candidates in the last election. And they must be turned in by June 30, months before citizens are focused on the election.
"The fact is, the major parties don't want the competition," Bonney said. "We're struggling really hard to make sure we get on the ballot."
Volunteers have fanned out across the state collecting signatures, but not many have come back in, so Bonney isn't sure of how well the petition drive is going.
But he is confident that Indiana citizens are fed up with politics as usual and understand that fundamental change is required and what is needed to effect it.
"It's like Einstein said, 'We can't solve problems by using the same thinking we used to create,'" he said. "That's the most difficult task we all face is to try to get people out of their paradigm and start think about real change and how do we make that transition. The transition is always the killer in any kind of strategy toward sustainability."
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