Aaron Smith

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One man awake
Can awaken another.
The second can waken his next-door brother.
The three awake can rouse the town,
By turning the whole place upside down.
And the many awake, make such a fuss,
They finally awaken the rest of us.

One man up with the dawn in his eyes
Multiplies.

by Helen Kromer

 

I was born the first half of the preceding century (1949), and grew up in Macon, GA. 

I have been married to Jessica since 1971, and we moved to Lebanon, Indiana, on September 10, 2001. My son, Eric (a high school English teacher), my daughter-in-law, Joanne (a pediatrician), my granddaughter, Fiona (Fi-Bird), and my grandson, Garrett (G.J.) live in Westfield, Indiana. 

After my graduation from Georgia Tech in 1973 with a B.S. in Industrial Management, we moved to Richmond, Virginia, where we lived until 1975. From 1975 until 1979 we lived in Salem, Virginia. We moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1979 and lived there until 1982. We returned to Salem, Virginia, in 1982 and remained until 2001.

From 1974 to 2000, I worked in the Loss Prevention departments of three major property and casualty insurance companies as a risk management consultant to commercial policyowners (23 years), as a Special Agent with a major financial services firm (1 year), and as a Financial Specialist with a major regional bank (2 years). I was semi-retired until 2005 and then worked as a full-time pharmacy technician with a home care company until 2007, at which time I again retired.

Some of my professional qualifications are listed next.

Certified Safety Professional (CSP) 1993 - 1998

Associate in Loss Control Management (ALCM) 1993

Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU) 1996

Associate in Risk Management (ARM) 1997

Virginia Life and Health 45-hour study course completion 1997

National Association of Securities Dealers Exam 63 passed 1998

National Association of Securities Dealers Exam 6 passed 1998

Virginia Life and Health Insurance Agent 1998-1999

Virginia Life and Annuity Agent 1998-1999

Virginia Property and Casualty Insurance Agent 1998-1999

Certified Pharmacy Technician 2005

Politically, I am now a proud Independent who strives to make my decisions by respectfully analyzing all points of view. At one point in my political life I was a Democrat. I have since been turned off by the confusing vilification games of both Republicans and Democrats, who each extol the virtues of their positions while always presenting the opponent's positions as negatively as possible. 

Listed next are some highlights of my community involvement and civic activism over the years.

Devonshire Community (Charlotte, NC) Association Founder and Chairman 1980-1982

East Salem Scrappers (recreation soccer) Coach 1983-1984

East Salem Recreation Club President 1984-1985

East Salem Jayhawks (recreation baseball) Coach 1986

Salem High School PTSA President 1989-1990

Virginia Referendum Advocates Founder and Treasurer 1991-1995

Salem Taxpayers Association Founder and Treasurer 1994-1998

Roanoke (VA) Toastmasters Club Treasurer 1997-1998

Watchdog Salem Founder 2000-2001

Watchdog Indiana Founder 2001-present

Watchdog Lebanon Founder 2001-present

ReadUP substitute tutor at Hattie B. Stokes Elementary School 2012-2015

 

FEBRUARY 11, 2003

Piled on a table in the Rotunda of the Statehouse is a stack of slick color pamphlets explaining “Your Indiana General Assembly” in simple, childlike terms.

“They (legislators) come together to study, debate and pass laws that make Indiana a better place to live and raise a family,” it says in part. “If you’re like most Hoosiers, you’ll agree that the democratic process is alive and well in our state. The better day that we all strive for is coming. We, the people, must help it along.”

No one with a double-digit IQ believes that condescending fable, but at least one man is dedicated to helping along the- We the People- principle.

His name is Aaron Smith, a citizen, of the people.

The Public Health Committee of the Indiana House of Representatives was scheduled to begin its hearing at 10:30 a.m. but Citizen Smith arrived 30 minutes early to secure a front row seat to remind his elected representatives of the We, the People stuff.

“I always sit in the front row so they can see me and I can hear everything they say,” explained Citizen Smith as he opened his thick, spiral notebook, pulled a legal pad from his briefcase and lined up his note-taking pencils.

Aaron Smith is a lobbyist in the purest, best sense of the term. He lobbies on behalf of We, the People, residential homeowners specifically, whose taxes the legislature continues to raise in order to replace the taxes it eliminates for corporations.

Smith, 54, a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology and a retired insurance executive, formed Watchdog Indiana three years ago to monitor legislative double-talk and fiscal trickery. He is the founder, treasurer and only member of Watchdog Indiana, yet he is in the Statehouse nearly every day, testifying, taking notes, and issuing bulletins on his web site, www.watchdogindiana.org

His lobbying budget last year was $339.92, which came from his own pocket, except for a $45 contribution from his son, Eric. He spent $58 on Downtown parking, $61.02 on postage and the remainder on computer stuff. So far this year, he’s spent $30.

He’s not paid $400 an hour to seek tax breaks or weaken environmental regulations to benefit a corporation, which is a legal entity, not a person. He doesn’t wear a tailored dark suit, the uniform of the corporate lobbyists who congregate in the halls outside the House and Senate chambers whispering into cell phones and punching Palm Pilots. He’s paid nothing, wears a plaid shirt, tennis shoes and doesn’t have a Palm Pilot.

Unlike the dark-suit, corporate lobbyists, he can’t afford to take his elected representatives to Pacer games or lunch at the Skyline Club, buy them expensive gifts or make lavish campaign contributions in return for tax breaks and other favors. Smith’s group of one is non-partisan and wouldn’t make campaign contributions if it had money. Consequently, one ordinary citizen with no gifts to offer is largely ignored by the 150 legislators, despite the We, the People pamphlet platitudes.

“I know they laugh at me behind my back and think I’m an oddball,” said Smith, patiently waiting for the hearing to begin. “You have to have a thick skin to do what I do.”

In last year’s General Assembly professional lobbyists spent $18.9 million to influence legislation, an average of $126,000 per legislator. In many states that practice is called bribery. Massachusetts, Wisconsin and South Carolina prohibit lawmakers from taking anything from a lobbyist, even a candy bar. Iowa sets a $3 daily limit on gifts. In Indiana, there is no limit on on free dinners, gifts, or Pacer tickets a legislator can accept from a lobbyist. If the gift costs less than $100 the lobbyist doesn't even have to report it.

Maybe that’s why some candidates spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to win a seat in the General Assembly-a part time job that pays less than $50,000 a year.

The extraordinary amounts of special interest money produce predictable results. Indiana is among the most polluted, unhealthy states in the country and the tax burden is rapidly shifting from corporations to ordinary homeowners in the form of increased taxes.

“The average homeowner and taxpayer is not well-served by our elected representatives,” said Citizen Smith, who is remarkably optimistic, despite the daunting odds. “I just think the average person needs to be heard down here,” he said.

Julia Vaughn, executive director of Common Cause/Indiana, a citizens advocacy group, has vigorously urged legislative and lobbyist reform for 17 years, largely to no avail. She applauds Aaron Smith’s valiant efforts to change a system drenched in special interest money and driven by the black-suited professional lobbyists bearing expensive gifts.

“I wish there were more of him,” she said. “Legislators generally treat individuals like Mr. Smith as if they were the scum of the earth. I have great respect for anybody to show up, get in their face and say, ‘I’m not going away.’ The legislature shouldn’t belong to the professional law firm lobbyists and the Chamber of Commerce. The playing field is not level. The system is rotten. Indiana has some of the weakest lobbying laws in the country. You can hand cash to a legislator and it’s not called a bribe in Indiana.”

Vaughn represents 2,500 Common Cause members in Indiana.

The 10:30 a.m. hearing began promptly, which is unusual. Sometimes they begin three or four hours late, or are cancelled at the last minute, leaving ordinary citizens wandering around wondering what happened. Usually they are held in cramped, overheated basement rooms in the Statehouse. Usually there are no microphones, so people in the back can’t hear and there are no nameplates to identify individual legislators. Only the professional influence peddlers can follow this bewildering system.

“It’s designed to discourage individuals from participating and it’s done on purpose,” says Vaughn.

“The average person is lost,” says Smith. “I’m just starting to figure it out after three years."

The hearing was held to discuss Gov. Frank’s O’Bannon’s Energize Indiana economic stimulus plan, most of which Citizen Smith says is a good idea. However, he disapproves of the governor’s plan to borrow against Indiana’s future tobacco company settlement money to finance non-health related portions of the plan.

After three hours of testimony by professional lobbyists, state officials and Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan, Committee Chairman Charlie Brown finally called Aaron Smith’s name. He stood up and read his prepared text.

“My name is Aaron Smith. I reside in Lebanon. I represent no one but myself,” he told committee members, most of whom paid no attention. One legislator removed his shoe and was scratching his foot. Smith presented his views. No one asked him any questions. He sat down and continued scribbling notes and studying his financial spreadsheets. When the hearing concluded two hours later, he drove 40 miles home to Lebanon to discuss the day’s activity with his wife, Jessica.

“It was a great day,” he told her.

The Smiths moved to Lebanon three years ago from Salem, Va., to be near their only child, Eric, and their only grandchild. Smith’s civic activism began in Salem 13 years ago when he formed the Salem Taxpayer’s Association.

“My ideas were unwelcome,” he recalled. “But I believed in what I was doing.”

Smith’s Watchdog Indiana office is in a corner of his modest Lebanon home. Four file cabinets are filled with government financial documents. He tracks and analyzes government spending on computer spreadsheets. His knowledge of complex state finances has attracted the attention of a few legislators who even know his name.

“Aaron knows his stuff,” concedes Republican State Rep. Jim Buck of Kokomo. “Some of his ideas are good.”

Smith doesn’t confine his good government activities to the Statehouse. He’s currently annoying Boone County officials who plan to build a library addition. Smith regularly appears at library board meetings to denounce the expansion as excessively lavish.

He recently rose before dawn to hear several state legislators address a 7:30 a.m. community meeting in a Lebanon hospital. Naturally, he arrived early bursting with good government enthusiasm, a prepared We, the People text, notebooks and pencils.

“Gotta sit in the front row,” he said, scrambling for his seat. “I want ‘em to see me.”

They saw him. State Sen. Jeff Drozda and Rep. Jeff Thompson, who represent Smith’s district, stopped by to pay respects. Not surprisingly, since Citizen Smith is a voting constituent, they praised his struggle and agreed good government is a good thing.

“Aaron has more influence than a paid lobbyist,” insisted Thompson. “Although I think the professional lobbyists are fine people, too.” Drozda muttered something along those lines, then rushed to the podium where he told the crowd, “We need to be vigilant in protecting our children” from sexual predators.

When it was Citizen Smith’s turn to speak, he read a statement railing against the 2002 legislature’s multi-year phasing out of the business inventory tax and replacing the lost revenue by jacking up taxes on residential homeowners.

“No Statehouse lobbyists represent residential homeowners. We must rely on you, our elected representatives to look after our interests,” he concluded. They nodded solemnly and repeated their support for good government and cracking down on sexual predators.

Later, Smith explained that most state legislators, if they even notice, view him as a puzzling curiosity, an intruder into their private, gilded club.

“First of all, they ignore me and wonder what kind of a nut I am, a citizen petitioning his government? How odd is that? Then they wonder what I really want,” he explained. “The corporate lobbyists in suits are down there working to shift more and more business taxes onto us individuals. If the average Hoosier understood this they’d be mad as a heck.”

So why bother? Why drive 80 miles round trip to the Statehouse, pay to park, wait, wait and wait some more to deliver a three-minute statement, be ignored and patronized by a system purposely designed to humiliate and lock out ordinary citizens and make a mockery out of We, the People?

Good question, says ordinary Citizen Smith, who leaned back in his chair and thought about that.

“Going back to Salem, Va., my failures greatly outnumbered my successes,” he said in his slow, deliberate voice. “When you’re a citizen activist, you fail constantly but you really only fail when you quit trying. When you quit trying, they win.”

Then he thought some more, adjusted his thick glasses and thought some more. He always thinks before speaking.

“I like to remind them about We, the People.”

 

One-man watchdog keeps eye on taxes, spending

By ANDREA NEAL

OCTOBER 18, 2006
The Indianapolis Star

Aaron Smith, semi-official watchdog of Indiana taxation and spending habits, sent an eight-item survey to legislative candidates running in the Nov. 7 election.

The questions were simple and straightforward: Should the state's budget expenditures be no more than total revenues for the next biennium? Should the state pay for full-day kindergarten? Do you anticipate the need for any state gas tax increases the next 10 years?

Smith e-mailed or mailed the survey to 220 legislative candidates. The response rate as of last weekend: 9.5 percent. If that sounds low, Smith says it's not surprising: "The last thing a candidate wants to do is go on record in a substantive way."

Whether he receives a survey back or not, Smith posts what he knows about incumbents and challengers on his Web site: www.watchdogindiana.org. Each candidate is labeled as taxpayer friendly, taxpayer unfriendly or uncertain. Only 18 of 220 candidates received the taxpayer-friendly label, and 132 are listed as uncertain because of limited or mixed public records. Smith also distributes his material to an e-mail list of 7,527. Smith is the prototype of the new citizen activist: a one-person shop who, thanks to the Internet, can influence political happenings from his desktop computer. He admits his impact is limited, but he takes some credit for the May 2 primary election defeat of Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton, R-Columbus.

Smith considered Garton an enemy of family-friendly taxation policies and regularly publicized his views. In March 2006, Watchdog Indiana sent an e-mail to 790 Bartholomew County residents opposing local income tax language in a budget bill Garton backed. "Any property tax relief promised by (Garton) must be viewed with skepticism," the e-mail said. "The real truth is that Sen. Garton and his General Assembly cronies, along with the last two governors, through their betrayal and incompetence, have already laid plans to turn a promised 16.3 percent homeowner property tax reduction into a 26.3 percent increase in just four years."

Smith backs up his strong language with research. He carefully studies revenue, spending and long-term debt numbers and analyzes the effect of any proposed tax policy changes.

Smith played a similar activist role in Virginia before moving to Lebanon in 2001 so he could be closer to his grandchildren. Age 57 and a political independent, Smith is employed as a pharmacy technician. But his passion is taxation and finance, and how government policies affect working families.

When he assesses candidates, he looks for three things: Are they results-oriented, compassionate, fiscally responsible? He wants politicians to "take no more money than they need because families need the money we make to live our lives as fully as possible."

Control of the House may come down to election results in just 12 districts on Nov. 7, and Smith would like to influence three of them. In House District 86, he's urging a vote against taxpayer unfriendly incumbent, David Orentlicher, D-Indianapolis; in House District 69, he's urging support for the taxpayer-friendly challenger David Cheatham, Democrat of North Vernon; and in House District 31, he's promoting incumbent Timothy Harris, R-Marion, even though he labels him as uncertain on his Web site.

He's targeted two Senate districts as well. He's hoping to defeat taxpayer-unfriendly incumbent Johnny Nugent, R-Lawrenceburg, in District 43 and elect taxpayer-friendly Libertarian Kenn Gividen in District 41, where Garton lost the primary.

Smith's Web site doesn't attach party labels to candidate names. "Voters need the discipline to consider what the candidates stand for, separate from the parties," he says. "Every Libertarian is not taxpayer friendly. Every Democrat is not taxpayer unfriendly."

Cheatham, a Democrat favored by Watchdog Indiana, said he was aware of Smith's organization before he received the survey, and filled it out as a matter of course. "I get a lot of candidate questionnaires in the mail. I try to respond to as many as I can."

It's an attitude Smith wishes more candidates shared. But he holds citizens equally responsible. "The low response rate is a result of our apathy," he says. "People need to take time out of their lives to contact their candidates and say, 'Look, respond to these questions.' ''

NEAL is a teacher at St. Richard's School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review.

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This page was last updated on 09/20/16.