• "Expansion" is the word for 2014, and the future

    In two days, 2014 will end. From what I’ve seen, most articles looking back on the year seem to think it was a bad one.

    Instead of jumping on that depressing bandwagon, I’ll take it upon myself to let everyone know it’s not all bad. For positives, one need not look further than right here in Northwest Indiana.

    The word for the Region in 2014, and probably into 2015 and beyond, is “expansion.” Seriously. Mainly it pertains our transportation infrastructure.

    Since I wrote about it this summer, the Gary Airport expansion plan is moving forward, while the proposal for a third Illinois Airport is still in limbo. The Illiana Expressway project got federal approval this year. And the proposed South Shore expansion is moving slowly, but forward nonetheless. All of these would mean more traffic and thus more people coming our way.

    True, any of these projects will take years to complete. The idea that the Region could be a major transportation hub is so far off that it seems like little more than a pipe dream right now. That doesn’t mean that such a goal is impossible to reach, however, or that we shouldn’t try.

    Many politicians and civic leaders have called for us to repair and upgrade the country’s dated infrastructure. Well, turning our corner of the state from just suburban sprawl to a major transportation hub sounds like a pretty good infrastructure project to me, one that an entire community could gather around and work toward. Potential benefits won’t be limited to the construction jobs needed to build one or all of these things. Should the Region one day become a major center of transportation, the additional travelers passing through would mean more customers for local businesses.

    Reaching such a goal will take time. It’ll take money. It’ll take a lot of work. But it might just be what Northwest Indiana is looking for. What better time to resolve to do it than the time of year people make resolutions to do better going forward?

  • A few facts on Common Construction Wages, labor policy in Indiana

    It seems that Indiana is about to repeal its Common Construction Wage law. You might be upset by the news, or you might be supportive of the idea. Or you might be thinking, “What the heck is the Common Construction Wage?”

    The law stipulates that most government construction contracts must have workers’ wages determined by a local committee comprised of union and government officials. The law was enacted in 1935 to ensure fair wages, and usually sets wages near union levels.

    Well, that’s probably not going to be the case anymore in Indiana, as a repeal has passed the State legislature, while Governor Mike Pence has yet to sign it but is a vocal supporter of it. They insist that it’s purely in the interests of lowering costs on public construction projects, despite detractors’ claims that it will bring lower wages to Indiana workers, attract out-of-state workers, and hurt unions.

    This comes a little more than three years after Indiana passed a right-to-work bill. For those who don’t know what right-to-work laws are, put simply, they allow workers in a workplace to receive the same terms and benefits of a union contract without having to join a union or pay its dues. Ostensibly about freedom of choice, these laws and their benefits to workplaces and local economies are controversial. There’s little argument, however, that unions have a much weaker presence in states with right-to-work laws.

    Pence has also spoken highly of Wisconsin Governor and 2016 Presidential candidate Scott Walker. Walker, you might remember, made a name for himself by outlawing collective bargaining by public employees in his state.

    So, is the repeal of the Common Construction Wage law really about the interests of the state and its taxpayers? Or is it about weakening unions and increasing the power of corporations while leaving workers at their mercy? You decide. I’m just stating the facts...

  • ACA case could be bad news for Indiana

    Before the month is over, the Supreme Court will issue its decision in King v. Burwell, a major case that will drastically affect healthcare in most states. One of those states is Indiana.

    The case is pretty tangled in legalese, so I’ll try to explain it as succinctly as possible: Under the Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as “Obamacare”), citizens without insurance from an employer or by family extension must sign up for insurance themselves or incur a tax penalty. To help them find their ideal insurance plan, the federal government set up an insurance marketplace, or exchange, where people can shop around. The law intended for each state to set up its own exchange, as well, but so far most states have not, leaving the federal exchange as the only option for millions of people.

    Federal subsidies and tax credits aid insurance buyers in affording their plan. However, a legal challenge contends that the language of the law stipulates only the states can offer such subsidies, not the federal government. If the Supreme Court should side with them, all federal subsidies in states without their own marketplace will end, resulting in millions of insurance enrollees being unable to afford their plan. Almost literally, it comes down to the interpretation of the words “the state” in the law.

    Indiana, unfortunately, is one of those states without its own exchange, so things could get pretty bad for Hoosier ACA enrollees. Lower-income residents at least have the option of the Healthy Indiana Plan, but those who don't qualify will either be left with extreme sticker shock, or even worse, have no choice but to pay the penalty for being uninsured. Make no mistake, it’ll be bad if the Court strikes down those subsidies.

    The ACA isn’t the political hot potato it was as little as two years ago, and people everywhere are using it. For this reason, some are anticipating that some sort of fix could be made at the state or federal level, but so far the Republican Congress and state legislatures have been pretty vague on the subject. Here in Indiana, Governor Mike Pence has said he’ll wait for the Court’s decision to decide his course of action.

    It might seem hard to imagine an ideologue like Pence doing much to fix the situation. However, he did set up the Healthy Indiana Plan amidst pressure from the state and its healthcare workers over his party's orthodoxy. He could have more easily just taken the ACA’s guaranteed Medicaid expansion, sure, but instituting HIP as an alternative is better than simply leaving residents who could use such a program with nothing, which is what several Republican states have done. Also, several recent polls show his popularity has tanked in the wake of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Saving peoples’ healthcare and looking like the good guy on the eve of next year’s reelection campaign could be the shrewd political move he's looking for.

    But that’s all speculation. For the time being, all Hoosiers should keep an eye on the Supreme Court and their health insurance. Brace yourselves. This could get ugly.

  • Alfredo Estrada | Lake County Young Democrats

    Lake County Indiana Young DemocratsThe 2016 elections are a year-and-a-half away. To the average citizen, that may seem like a while. To the Lake County Young Democrats, that makes now the ideal time to start getting people involved.

    The organization is aiming to energize young voters in Lake County. Chairman Alfredo Estrada, who has held his position since February, sees getting the youngest generation interested and involved as a top priority.

    Alfredo Estrada Lake County Indiana“We want to let them know there’s people their age who care about politics,” Estrada said. “It’s important for us to take responsibility in the political process, because the state might be moving in a direction that’s not healthy for them or their families.”

    Estrada was mum on potential 2016 candidates, as party bylaws stipulate Lake County Young Democrats must stay out of primaries. However, he offered some insight on what issues could be in play in 2016. For the state of Indiana, he named education and the economy as potentially big talking points.

    “There’s been an assault on Hoosier families through school funding and wages and jobs,” he said.

    On the national level, he described immigration as an issue that keeps becoming more difficult to ignore.

    “It hasn’t really been addressed,” he said. “It’s something that eventually is just going to boil over.”

    Estrada also stated a desire to move away from the concept of voting Democratic simply because Republicans are the alternative.

    “We want to move away from this anti-Republican message," he said. “We want to speak about who we are, what our ideas are. We feel that if voters really look at the issues, they’ll see that they’re more Democratic than they believe.”

    To that end, the focus right now is on reaching out to voters and finding what’s important to them.

    “The plan until this summer is to reach to those from 14 to 35 and to talk to them,” Estrada said. “By 2016, we hope those issues develop into talking points in Lake County. If we can get candidates and governors to come here and talk about those issues, we know we’ve done our job.”

    Lake County Indiana Young Democrats LogoAs part of that outreach, the organization held its first official gathering at Wildrose Brewing in Griffith on May 22. Despite the "young" part of the group’s name, the evening was attended by local residents of all ages, both longtime Democratic Party members and those who’ve only reached voting age in the last election cycle or two.

    Allowing in such a diverse range of people and viewpoints is essential, according to Estrada. It’s through such debate and discussion that the party finds a platform that’s the most beneficial to everyone.

    “We’re the party that debates within ourselves to figure out the answers to difficult questions,” Estrada said.

    While Estrada stresses the importance of voting, he’s quick to point out that fundamental change requires more than just casting a vote every election. It also involves getting the community energized and letting their voice be heard.

    Estrada, who's married with three children and recently earned a law degree from Valparaiso University, understands how life can be busy. However, he emphasized that every little bit of work helps the party and its cause.

    “Everybody’s busy," he said, “but you find time when it’s important to you. If it’s only an hour a month, it’s one more hour than the party had before. Or if you don’t join [the party], it’s just talking to your brothers and sisters, your mom and dad, and those you care about about the issues.”

  • An update on previous 2015 blog topics

    Several of the posts I’ve written here each week had an immediacy to that moment, or were on subjects that had no expiration date. Some subjects I’ve discussed, however, have had new developments since I first wrote about them. So, here are updates on a few things I’ve covered, a small refresher course on what’s happening in the Region and beyond:

    • Gary/Chicago International Airport Expansion: The airport’s expanded runway is now open! Meanwhile, we haven’t heard much new about the plans for that third Chicago airport that Illinois has been planning to build for decades…
    • South Shore Expansion: The proposed expansion of the rail line passed a big hurdle by getting funding approved in the state budget. After years of seeming stagnant, it looks like it’s going to happen.
    • Illiana Expressway: The proposed toll road had the support of our Governor Mike Pence and former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. But then current Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner beat him in the election last year, and, after keeping mostly mum on the subject during his campaign, rescinded his state’s support. It looks dead for the time being. But while I was wrong on this, my New Year’s predictions about the Airport and South Shore are looking pretty good right now.
    • Indiana Toll Road: The Australian firm IFM ended up buying the Indiana Toll Road, keeping it in private hands. We’ll see if they have better luck than the last owner.
    • Elonis v. United States: The Supreme Court case over whether one Anthony Elonis’ violent Facebook posts were legitimate threats or (as he contended) constitutionally-protected lyrics ended with the Court ruling 7-2 in favor of Elonis, overturning his conviction for making criminal threats. This is major because it’s one of the first cases to directly deal with free speech over social media, but it surely won’t be the last.
    • Glenda Ritz: Indiana’s beleaguered Superintendent of Public Instruction did, unfortunately, have her powers removed by the state legislature. However, since then, Governor Pence’s popularity has tanked, making him looking quite vulnerable in the 2016 election. And who’s among those competing for the Democratic nomination to take him on? None other than Glenda Ritz.
  • As the Dominoes Fall...

    Illinois recently legalized medicinal use of marijuana, and over 2000 state residents have already applied for it. The state is now taking applications for licensed distributors to begin selling it in 2015.

    Believe it or not, Illinois is actually the second state on our borders that allows medical marijuana, Michigan being the other (though it’s still illegal to sell or use recreationally in both states). Additionally, within the city limits of Chicago, possession of up to 15 grams is punishable by a fine instead of jail time. Ohio has similar penalties for small amounts. While possession or distribution is still illegal, such loosened penalties like these suggest that lawmakers are starting to see that casual use does not make a person a criminal per se.

    I’ll hasten to point out that pot is still illegal in all instances within the borders of Indiana. The closest thing to reform we’ve had was a very modest bill that would allow medicinal use defenses in trial, which did not pass the state legislature.

    Still, the stigma of marijuana is withering as more states loosen restrictions. Decriminalization or medical legalization are happening nationwide. And while Washington and Colorado are the only states that have flat-out legalized it so far, a few states have floated the idea to legalize and tax it to raise much-needed state revenues (Illinois being one of them). If the dominoes keep falling, it could become legal in Indiana in the foreseeable future.

    The national consensus is shifting so rapidly that nobody is really talking about the negatives, but they are there. For one, despite the fact that Colorado and Washington have raised tax revenue off it, legalization hasn’t been the budget-balancing cash cow that lawmakers have advertised. More pertinent, the general consensus seems to have come to the conclusion that marijuana is practically harmless, or at least less harmful than tobacco or alcohol. I can’t say for certain about those comparisons, but a few studies have suggested that it can have a moderately harmful effects on the brain. Just because a substance has proven medical benefits does not make it completely harmless. Though have you seen the list of side-effects that get rattled off for FDA-approved medications in television commercials lately?

    But does that mean the law should make adults’ choices for them, and we should criminalize otherwise-upstanding citizens who use it recreationally? I don’t think so.

  • Atlantic City could be harbinger for NWI casinos

    In the 1970s, the fading resort town of Atlantic City, New Jersey, got an idea to reverse its fortunes: legalize gambling and create a bastion of casinos that would attract visitors from across the Northeast. It worked pretty well.

    That is, until a lot of smaller communities got the same idea and opened their own casinos, taking customers away from Atlantic City. Now, the city is under emergency management, much like Detroit was before it declared bankruptcy, and there’s much speculation that Atlantic City is on the same path.

    The casino industry in Northwest Indiana is hardly Atlantic City, which at its peak was revered as the East Coast’s Las Vegas. Still, the same fate could very well come to pass here, and it would still hurt on some level.

    Despite casinos being the most lucrative business in Lake County, the Horseshoe and Ameristar only employ about 2600 people between them, which is a relatively small amount in a population of nearly half-a-million. But as I’ve discussed before, the big thing casinos bring to the state is tax money. Lots of it.

    Every time Chicago faces a budget problem, talk of legalizing gambling in the city comes up, and the Region casinos all hold their breath. So far, it’s never come to pass, but it seems more like a matter of when, not if, the city comes around to it. Several other states have legalized it in some form, if not outright. Online gambling is thriving so well that some states are proposing laws taxing it. Heck, pro sports, one of the last institutions you’d think would want to get involved with gambling, are opening up to it.

    Should Chicago ever finally implement gambling, and—God forbid—draw away enough customers to put Northwest Indiana’s casinos out of business, there goes a good chunk of local tax money. Making up for that shortfall would require a) instituting a new tax elsewhere, b) accepting the shortfall and possibly going into the red, or c) cutting yet more services. In any case, it will affect residents.

    Maybe this will happen soon, maybe it’s a long way off. But it seems like a fool’s bet to say it won’t ever happen.

  • Casino money is a gold mine for state, local budgets

    In Illinois as well as many other corners of this country, talk of opening casinos or legalizing gambling always seems to arise when states are at a budget impasse. And honestly, it’s a wonder more casinos don’t dot the landscape of this country.

    Here in Lake County, the Horseshoe Hammond employs about 1500 people, and the Ameristar in East Chicago has just under 1100 employees. For a county of 490,000 (about 75% of which are 18 and older, or working age), that doesn’t put a huge dent in the total employment figures, not to mention the possibility that surely some workers might be from surrounding counties in Illinois or Indiana. Still, casino jobs are highly in demand in the area, and are certainly a benefit for those who hold them.

    The real impact is in taxes, however. Indiana casinos pay two types of taxes. The larger wagering tax is split, with 75 percent going to the state and 25 percent to the host city. The other, admissions tax, is split three ways: for every dollar going to the state, another dollar goes to the county and to the host city.

    According to the Casino Association of Indiana, the state received over $685 million in wager tax and $66.7 million in admissions tax last year. And that’s actually down from peaks of nearly $800 million in wagering tax and over $80 million admissions tax before the Great Recession. Even after you subtract the local taxes, that’s a pretty good chunk of the estimated $15.7 billion in tax revenue collected by the state in 2013.

    It would still be a pretty big chunk if a smaller piece went to the state, and local communities got to keep more. I mean, I’m sure Hammond isn’t complaining about the $36 million it rakes in from the casinos each year. Still, counties in Indiana have to pay for certain services with local taxes, do why can’t they raise more revenue for themselves?

     I realize gambling is a special case with heavy oversight and regulation. But it raises an interesting question: how much does Lake County Pay in taxes, and what does the state give us in return?

  • Cleaner air a long but worthwhile fight for Indiana

    Here is an interesting little tool I found showing how each state ranks on certain environmental issues. Surprisingly, Indiana did a lot better than at least I expected overall. But there were two main areas where we rank toward the bottom: air quality (48th) and carbon dioxide emissions (45th). Our neighboring states don’t rank much better.

    This is just one organization’s measurement, but a quick search around the web will reveal many environmental organizations rank Indiana’s air quality pretty low. It’s not surprising at all when you consider that we have several of the major contributors to air pollution.

    There’s heavy industry. Between the refinery and steel mills and being included in the metro area of Chicago, we in the Region know all about that.

    There’s cars. Lots and lots of cars. Being the Crossroads of America means millions and millions of drivers passing through spewing exhaust throughout our state, especially plenty of semis burning diesel on our highways. Also, I’ve said how we don’t have much public transit, which means residents are forced to drive more.

    And like most of the Midwest, the coal industry is the main supplier of power in our state. Sure, there’s some alternative energy at play in our state, such as the Meadow Lake Wind Farm you pass through on I-65, but coal is still king and won’t be deposed anytime soon.

    Short of some superpowered air filtering system out of a sci-fi novel, I don’t see how we can improve our air quality without drastically changing our lifestyles. For example, if we want to reduce automotive exhaust, we’d all have to drive less, chip in tax dollars to fund mass transit, or switch over to hybrid cars, and then eventually to completely electric ones. To stop polluting the air for electricity, we’d have to seriously consider clean sources like solar and wind as our main power sources, not just a sideshow to coal power plants. And in addition to facing resistance from the industries involved and to raising the public funds needed, we’d also have to deal with the reality that said industries employ a lot of people.

    I’ve been to Seattle, a very green city in one of the more environmentally conscious states, and even in the middle of downtown, the air made regular open air in Northwest Indiana suburbs seem like a smoky bar. The seasonal allergies I usually suffer seemed to disappear the four days I was there. So believe me, cleaner air is worth the time and effort it’ll take, not only because of climate change, but for the simply selfish reason that it’ll make our daily routine of breathing better.

  • Deconstructing the Governor's ACA response

    Last week, I discussed how things could get bad for Indiana residents should the Supreme Court rule against federal subsidies in the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”). Well, scratch that.

    I had planned to talk about what state residents could do next in such a scenario. But since that didn’t come to pass, let’s instead just have some fun at our Governor’s expense, shall we?

    Here is Governor Mike Pence’s statement reacting to the Court’s decision, along with a few paragraph-by-paragraph thoughts:

    Governor Pence: “The Supreme Court's ruling in King v. Burwell is profoundly disappointing to me and every Hoosier who had hoped this ruling would give our nation the opportunity to start over on health care reform.”

    The ACA’s exchanges have been up and running for less than two years, and the law isn’t fully implemented. But the parts that have taken effect have reduced the uninsured rate, and are only gaining in popularity. It’d be one thing to scrap the whole thing if it were an utter failure, but only someone who wants the ACA to fail would call this a disappointment.

    GP: “Today's display of judicial activism by the Supreme Court upholds this deeply flawed law to the detriment of millions of Hoosiers who will continue to be subject to the mandates and taxes in Obamacare.”

    What the Governor does not state is, had the Supreme Court ruled against the subsidies, Hoosiers still would be subject to those same mandates and taxes. What would have changed is that they would get no federal aid and have to pay even more. And if he’s against the average citizen having to pay into an insurance program, why did he create the state’s Healthy Indiana plan that requires users to pay into it instead of simply taking the ACA’s no-strings-attached Medicaid expansion to which every state is entitled?

    As for the claims of judicial activism, the Court’s ruling reflected those of most of the lower courts who heard the same case. Also, Justices John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy have ruled on the side of conservatism on many other cases (despite being branded a traitor by conservatives in this case, Roberts dissented in the Court’s decision on same-sex marriage the very next day).

    GP: “ObamaCare must be repealed and states must be given the flexibility to craft market-based solutions focused on lowering the cost of health care rather than growing the size of government.”

    “Repeal and replace” has been the Republican soundbite for a while, but they never offer any solid info on a replacement, just conservative platitudes and buzzwords. Something tells me that if they really repealed it, they wouldn’t replace it and just wait and hope the public forgets about it in the news cycle. That might have worked a few years ago before the law started to take effect, but since people are now using it and would notice if it’s gone, that window’s probably closed.

    GP: “It now falls to the American people to elect new leadership in Washington, D.C. so we can repeal ObamaCare and start over with health care reform based on personal responsibility and consumer choice rather than government mandates and taxes. Indiana will continue to be a leading voice in advancing those principles in the national debate.”

    Considering Indiana’s last moment on the national stage under Pence was the RFRA, I very much doubt the country will be quick to look to our state for anything for a little while. But he is right that it’s up to the people to vote on new leadership. Unfortunately for him, it appears that Indiana’s desire for new leadership pertains specifically to his office.

    His statement suggests that my speculation last week about the Governor's potential actions to fix things if the subsidies were eliminated was probably wrong. I figured as much, but fortunately for the state’s ACA enrollees, their health insurance isn’t in his hands.

  • Despite SCOTUS ruling, bell might be tolling for death penalty

    The Supreme Court recently finished an eventful term, upholding the Affordable Care Act and legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. But one of the lesser-publicized cases is likelier to ignite much more debate in the years to come.

    One might recall the case of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett, whose execution by lethal injection last year was stopped when the drugs he was administered (an experimental new mix of substances) failed to render him unconscious. He allegedly was in great pain for close to an hour before succumbing to a heart attack from the ordeal.

    In the case Glossip v. Gross, a group of death row inmates argued that this method constitutes cruel and unusual punishment (which is banned by the Eight Amendment) because the administered sedative midazolam fails to render the condemned unconscious, causing them to feel tortuous pain throughout their execution. The Court disagreed, however, ruling 5-4 that they couldn’t prove the drug’s use was cruel and unusual.

    Well, it certainly sounds like cruel and unusual punishment in this case. But a few of the dissenting justices went even further, suggesting that capital punishment itself violates the Eighth Amendment.

    At the legislative level, the death penalty is withering away, but slowly. It's been outlawed in seven states within the last decade, and not strictly along partisan or ideological lines. The most recent state was Republican-leaning Nebraska, whose state legislature voted to outlaw capital punishment and voted to override their Governor’s veto of the measure.

    In other states, both red and blue, it’s still business as usual. Right here in Indiana, a bill making murder by decapitation or attempted decapitation grounds for the death penalty was passed almost unanimously by the state legislature and became law at the start of the month.

    So it’s very significant that the school of thought which considers capital punishment a violation of criminals' constitutional rights made it into the legal conversation of the highest court. Even though it lost before Court this time, it’s probably not going away. If it gains momentum in jurisprudence, we might one day mark this as the beginning of the end of capital punishment in the U.S.

    Should that happen, it would be a good day for human rights. More than any other factor in the argument against capital punishment—its inconclusive effect as a deterrent, the cost of executions, the fact that innocents can sometimes be executed—it all comes down to the fact that no government, federal or state-level, should have the right to dictate who lives or dies.

    Lockett was convicted of some horrible things, no question. It’s admittedly hard to sympathize with him. Or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, or Timothy McVeigh, or anyone who would mutilate another human being as described by Indiana’s new law. But for comparison, if we truly value free speech, we must also defend and tolerate speech with which we disagree or find offensive or vile. Similarly, if the right to live is truly inalienable, then it must also apply to the worst among us.

  • Does the state win in the lottery?

    I wrote a while ago about how if Chicago were to ever get its own casino, it could siphon gamblers away from casinos in Northwest Indiana, and lots of tax revenue with them. Well, the exact opposite is happening lately, at least in the one bastion of gambling most states agree is okay: the lottery.

    You’ve probably heard recently that the Illinois Lottery has been unable to pay winners above a certain amount. Apparently, such a turn of events is sending avid lottery players across the state line to partake in the Hoosier Lottery.

    Is this good for our state? And going further, does the lottery in general benefit Indiana? I’ve looked before at how casino taxes make up a good chunk of state and local tax revenue, but not the lottery.

    Well, according to the Hoosier Lottery website, the state’s total revenue from the game in the fiscal year of 2013 was $224,500,003. The state’s figures back up those numbers. That’s around 1.5 percent of the total revenue the state raised in the same time.

    By state law, revenue collected from the lottery goes to teachers’ retirement funds, local police and fire department pensions, and the Build Indiana Fund, which funds all sorts of projects. The Hoosier Lottery Site even has an interactive map where visitors can see how the money’s distributed across the state’s counties.

    It’s a smaller chunk of change than casinos bring to the state, but yes, the lottery definitely does benefit the state.

    On a final note, I feel I should clarify that Illinois’ lottery woes aren’t what many people seem to think: it’s their current budget impasse that’s legally tying their hands, not the fact that they don’t have the money (a conclusion to which I jumped when I first heard the news). Still, with the state so dysfunctional that they can’t even keep up their lottery, maybe an Illinois casino isn’t as likely to happen anytime soon as I might have feared.

  • Don't forget to vote tomorrow!

    Tomorrow is Election Day. You might not have known that because the next Presidential election isn’t until next year, and we aren’t electing a governor or any members of Congress here in Indiana. Between that and the low turnout in our state, I’ll take it upon myself to remind you to get out and vote.

    If you didn’t know that there are elections tomorrow, I’m guessing you don’t know who or what we’re voting for, either. So, here’s a helpful little tool to let Indiana residents know what they will see on their specific ballot. There are still several hours left to do a bit of your own research to find out about the candidates and issues. The site can also help you check your registration status and find your polling place.

    If you’re not registered at the moment, well, it’s frankly too late to participate in the process this year due to Indiana's policies. So instead, take this opportunity to get registered, so you’ll be able to vote in next year’s Presidential primaries and election.

    I know some might be thinking, “Oh, these are just meaningless small town elections!”, or “What difference does it make if I vote? Both sides just argue and nothing ever gets done.” The latter statement might have some truth to it, at least at the federal level. But while Washington gridlock doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon, the small local elections are the ones that will matter in the long run. A policy idea or political movement can catch on at the local level, and if successful, can spread to other communities, then on to the state or even national level. With the astronomical amounts of money it costs to run a big campaign these days, the local level could be the only place where new ideas can really enter the conversation.

    I know, I’m sounding like a wide-eyed, idealistic character in an educational cartoon. But it’s true. Furthermore, the people who get elected govern both voters and nonvoters alike, so it’s in your best interest to vote for the candidate who would govern better.

    So, get registered if you’re not, and vote tomorrow if you are. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your driver’s license.

  • Drone registration is taking flight

    This week Federal regulators announced that they will begin to require recreational drone operators to register their drones. This move comes in the wake of numerous drone incidents over the past year, the most high profile one being a drone crashing onto the front lawn of the White House. Federal regulators hope that the creation of a registration program for drones will help curb future close calls like this one, but will it?

    Currently, the details of the drone registration are foggy at best, but one thing is for sure, federal regulators will have their work cut out for them. For one, how is this registration going to be enforced? People who are going to want to do illegal things with drones are surely going to avoid the registration process, then what? Let’s say crime or incident occurs with an unregistered drone, then there is no way to trace it back to the owner. Then the owner can simply walk away and buy another drone. Getting drones registered is going to be the biggest hurdle for this new system.

    It is probably going to end up being harsh penalties for unregistered drones with little other incentive. I could also see Federal regulators requiring operators to take some sort of written test before they register. However, it would be nice if they instituted a tiered system of licenses that was dependent on flying hours where higher tier licenses would grant operators more privileges like high elevation allowances.

    Ultimately, the registration of drones was inevitable. There has been far too many close calls and the government wasn’t going to wait for a more serious incident to occur before some action was taken. However, with any new regulations there is definitely going to be some growing pains. My fear is that regulations will be so strict that experienced drone operators will not be able to bring out the full potential of drones. Over the past few years we have seen some really amazing drone videos of cities, events, and landscapes. It would be a real shame if recreational drone operation was stomped out. Regulators needs to outline a path for expanded commercial use and recreational use, not just create roadblocks.

  • Drug crisis poses challenge for Indiana lawmakers

    The most vexing issue for the General Assembly in the coming session may not have anything to do with roads or RFRA.

    In a recent conversation I had with State Rep. Chuck Moseley, D-Portage, he spent some time discussing the state's drug crisis. The issue came to the forefront this year with Indiana earning dubious recognition for having the most methamphetamine labs in the country.

    We're not talking about the giant labs run by crime syndicates, as portrayed in the TV series "Breaking Bad." State Police say 99 percent of the labs are run by addicts. In one case, an active meth lab was found in a backpack in the bathroom of a Muncie Walmart. Part of the problem, Moseley said, is people who go from pharmacy to pharmacy purchasing the allergy medicine used to manufacture meth.

    Last month, House Speaker Brian Bosma said he would advocate for a bill requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine, the ingredient in current over-the-counter medicines like Claritin-D and Allegra-D. It would be an inconvenience to allergy sufferers, but it's a measure that has proven successful in other states in reducing meth manufacturing.

    Moseley also touched on the issue of heroin addiction and the public health approach of needle exchanges. Indiana ended its ban on needle exchangesthis year, but only in response to an HIV outbreak in southern Indiana's Scott County. Though needle exchanges have been proven successful in reducing the spread of infectious diseases, the Scott County program was approved reluctantly on a temporary basis. State approval would be required to expand the program to another county.

    Why not allow counties to institute needle exchange programs on their own if county health departments deem it a benefit? One only needs to look at the zero-tolerance approach exemplified by the search and seizure case before the Indiana Supreme Court where a man was convicted of a felony from having a single painkiller pill he collected among the possessions of a deceased relative. 

    The slow walk by Indiana of the obvious needle exchange solution reflects the central problem in Indiana's unsuccessful approach to drugs. The notion that drugs are a law enforcement issue first and a public health issue second needs to be reversed. If Indiana is to reverse the grim statistics, lawmakers must take a bold approach that puts public health and help for addicts first.

  • Dunes banquet hall controversy is small potatoes

    The unquenchable beast that is capitalism is so ever-present that even the country’s most prized and beautiful lands, our National Parks, have felt its wrath. Now, it seems that even our very own Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore isn’t safe from it.

    The company Pavilion Partners LLC is stepping in to fix up the Dunes’ main beach pavilion, replacing the old, dank bathrooms and updating the concession stand. But that project comes with a price, as the company also seeks to implement an evil plan for the Dunes.

    Brace yourselves: They want to put a new banquet hall alongside the pavilion.

    Wait...a banquet hall? That’s it?

    Well, whether or not it actually happens now is unclear, as the proposal got a decidedly negative reaction at a town hall meeting in Chesterton last week. Pardon me for not being too outraged, but this isn’t exactly equal to drilling for oil in Yellowstone (and for those who care about the environment and keeping the country clean, there are people who want to do that in our National Parks).

    Honestly, it does seem a little tacky to try to stick a fancy dining facility in the middle of the Dunes, or even mid-level dining at that. The Dunes are about enjoying the outdoors, of appreciating the peace and beauty of nature. Going there to have an experience better suited for indoors sort of defeats the purpose. If you want to eat a nice meal in full view of the Lake, there are plenty of places in Chicago that offer that.

    But the only reasons I’d be outright against the idea is if it affected the park for the worse. For instance, if it upsets the natural ecosystem or plant and wildlife, or if it would create substantially more garbage that could blow around the beach (though this would only be a problem if it’s open air). Or, if a rentable banquet hall would potentially lead to the park itself being taken for private parties.  I’m strongly opposed to that, as the Dunes should be open to everybody.

    Short of any of that, however, I’m pretty neutral. I love the Dunes and visit them at least a few times a year, and the presence of a banquet hall in the pavilion won’t likely change that.

  • E-cigarettes: Regulating Common Scents

    For better or for worse technological advances have had an impact on almost every part of our daily lives. Smartphones keep us connected to everyone and everything. Speed cameras keep us safe and angry. Drones provide us with beautiful new overhead views, but also have forced governments to create legislation to regulate them. Another new technology is forcing governments to introduce legislation to counteract its unforeseen affects.

    The technology I am referring to is E-Cigarettes. For those who do not know, E-cigarettes are different from regular cigarettes in a number of ways. The main difference is that E-cigarettes use a heating chamber inside a device that resembles a large pen to vaporize the fluid inside. Vaping is the main draw of E-cigarettes since it has been found to be safer than regular cigarettes. But E-cigarettes still are not safe, just safer than the current leading cause of lung cancer.

    While some states have outlawed smoking altogether in bars in restaurants, Indiana still allows it. However, for bars that choose to be non-smoking, E-cigarettes can be a problem. Since using an E-cigarette is considered “vaping” and not smoking some users will try and get away with vaping in nonsmoking bars or nonsmoking areas. This is where the legislation needs to catch up to regulate vaping because the affects of the secondhand smoke from vaping is also very harmful, though the full affects aren’t known yet.

    It would be nice if E-cigarette users would use common sense to see that E-cigarettes essentially have the same affect on nonsmokers as cigarettes, but that obviously isn’t always the case. And on top of that, the companies producing the fluids that are used in vaping aren’t heavily regulated by the FDA yet. This has led to some of these companies using dangerous chemicals in their fluids that have known to cause horrible damage to users.

  • Ethanol is not the future

    When I was in high school (from which I graduated in 2008), a major topic in social studies and government classes was biofuels. At the time, there was talk that corn-derived ethanol would be the fuel of the future.

    Seven or eight years later, you don’t hear much about ethanol anymore. Yet, it’s quietly gained a foothold in the market. Most of the gasoline sold at U.S. gas stations is now 10 percent ethanol, which is the safe amount for most car models past and present.

    Now, Chicago is considering taking ethanol another step forward. The city is considering a bill that would require most gas stations to provide a pump that dispenses gas that’s 15 percent ethanol.

    There’s been a backlash, much of it from the petroleum industry, but also due to the fact that most engines (cars as well as other machines) aren’t made for 15 percent ethanol gas. But the larger issue, I think, is that in the long run, ethanol is not a great answer to our energy woes.

    For one, while it’s generally agreed upon that ethanol is cleaner to produce than regular gasoline, burning it still releases carbon dioxide into the air. Supporters contend that since the fuel comes from corn, the carbon dioxide burned is cancelled out by new corn plants that use it. But, burning it still puts it in the atmosphere, which isn’t what we want to do considering the very real dangers of climate change.

    Moreover, making ethanol creates a higher demand for corn, which causes the price of food to go up. All that aforementioned talk of an ethanol revolution was mostly derailed by a major jump in food prices in 2008. Given, that was an extreme circumstance caused by a number of factors. Still, with food prices already being affected by population growth and environmental turmoil, it’s not a good idea to select an energy path that’ll raise them further.

    Also, the mere fact that most vehicles can’t use it is a valid issue, precluding any environmental progress intended by the legislation. If the city wanted to incentivize its residents to make their driving habits greener, it would make more sense to push for a major change (something like, say, electric cars), not  an incrementally small one like an extra five percent ethanol in their tank.

  • Every Student Succeeds a baby step for education reform

    No Child Left Behind officially ended last week. Mostly.

    Under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, much of NCLB’s more stringent testing is history, although students will still face federal testing annually in grades 3-8, and once in high school. However, rather than being subject to uniform federal standards, individual states will now be responsible for setting most standards, evaluating teachers and schools, and deciding how to rectify schools under their jurisdiction.

    But then, the federal government recently has been pretty accommodating in granting exemptions from certain NCLB standards. So, ESSA sort of just puts the writing on the wall (that everyone agreed NCLB wasn’t working) into official paper form. 

    The law is a step in the right direction (it also gives funding to some early education programs, which I am for), but it’s just that, a step. It’s the equivalent of admitting there is a problem, which is only the first step to solving a problem.

    With power reverting to the states, one would think this is a good time to put the old “laboratories of democracy” concept to work, allowing states to experiment with new ideas and policies and see what works. I might be inclined to agree, but unfortunately for Indiana, the people running our lab are pretty out of touch.

    So, I hope this is a new beginning for the discussion of improving the education system in this country, not the end of it for a while. Sadly, though, I think Indiana is out of luck as far as effective reform goes until we get a new Governor and state legislature.

  • For Toll Road, public ownership is better than privatization

    It’s been nearly six months since the Indiana Toll Road declared bankruptcy, and it recently appeared obvious who would take over its operations. But at the eleventh hour, some new developments popped up almost out of nowhere.

    It looked like a partnership between investors and Lake and LaPorte Counties was the front-runner. If approved, that deal would bring in $5 million a year for each county, plus even more in excess toll revenue.

    That bid was going through the approval process in recent weeks, and it seemed all but inevitable that it would win the lease. But at the end of last week, the Australian firm IFM Investments announced that it had put in the winning $5.725 billion bid for the Toll Road.

    Proponents of the Lake-LaPorte plan insist that the decision is not made, that the IFM plan has yet to meet government approval. Even so, IFM’s statement sounds pretty final and confident, more so than those of the Lake-LaPorte backers.

    I must say, the Lake-LaPorte plan seems like a better idea. For one, the last attempt to privatize the Toll Road ended up losing money for the owners, so it seems a little foolish to try again. But more so, a public (or at least semi-public) Toll Road could benefit the local communities, whereas a private one can only really benefit the owners.

    I can’t help but be reminded of our neighbor Chicago’s infamous parking meter debacle, in which the city sold control of its meters to a private firm for 75 years for $1 billion. The idea was almost immediately revealed to be a bad one on the city’s end, as it could have raised more than that over the long run by running the meters themselves, money a state in such massive debt could have really used.

    Fortunately, Indiana isn’t in nearly as dire financial straits as Illinois. Still, local ownership of the Toll Road is a better option than privatization, because whatever profits are made go to the counties. True, $5 million isn't a whole lot in terms of government expenses, but it's still an extra $5 million that can go to our schools, our roads, or toward something else in the community instead of just into the pockets of some company.