• NWI Veteran Village could hold solution for homelessness

    Next month, the new Northwest Indiana Veterans Village is scheduled to open in Gary. The facility will provide free housing to homeless veterans and provide them with facilities and staff to aid them with everyday tasks.

    This is a small but welcome piece of good news in the litany of bad news regarding American veterans in recent years. Aside from widespread homelessness, we hear so often about decreased VA funding, slashing of veterans’ benefits, inadequate aid for dealing with the physical and psychological damage they’ve suffered, and frequent suicides. For a country who holds the military in such high esteem, we sure aren’t very good at taking care of them after they have served.

    Providing them with housing will not fix every problem our veterans face, but it’s certainly a good start toward bringing some stability back into their lives.

    In fact, housing could not only help homeless veterans, but the homeless population in general.

    About a decade ago, Utah started providing free permanent housing to homeless people in the state. Not only did this decrease homelessness in the state exponentially, but many of those boarders found work and became productive members of society. The simple stability of a place to stay was the breakthrough they needed.

    In the wake of the Great Recession, many stereotypes about the homeless have been shattered. Regular families, devoted students, and even employed working people are among the homeless, as are plenty of veterans. Providing them with the stability of a place to live could greatly help them improve their lives, and moreover, it’s quite simply the humane thing to do.

    Happy Memorial Day!

  • Of teens and vaping

    people society culture taxes vaping

    Indiana’s western border towns may soon no longer be the destinations they have long been for Illinois smokers.

    Currently, taxes on cigarettes in our state stand at $0.99 per pack, half that of Illinois. But there is talk in the statehouse about increasing that by a dollar, which would actually push taxes a cent higher than our westward neighbor.

    Supporters are touting the potential for reducing smokers in the state. But the taxes will likely go toward fixing state roads, and to me, that seems like a more likely reason this has come up than public health. Roads are paid for through gasoline taxes, which no politician wants to raise and become the bad guy in the eyes of the public. But raising taxes on something commonly despised, like cigarettes, is often okay by most voters.

    Maybe such a ban would reduce the number of smokers in Indiana. But as our state picks up this old fight, there’s some disconcerting news from the new frontier of smoking: Apparently, 70 percent of teenagers are exposed to advertising for e-cigarettes, which is not subjected to heavy restrictions like that for tobacco products. What’s more worrisome about this is that perception seems to be that e-cigs or “vaping” aren’t harmful like regular smoking (on that note, does anyone else remember vaping being advertised as a way for smokers to wean themselves of their addiction, or did I just imagine that?).

    Taking on e-cigarettes today is trickier than it was for tobacco. Banning TV commercials and regulating print ads may have been a big step in yesteryear. It still might be, but the world is a little different today. The Internet and social media are enormous marketing tools, users of which tend to skew younger. Frankly, it’s hard to regulate that without getting into some free speech issues.

    Short of outright criminalizing it, treating it like tobacco—mandatory warning labels, taxes, and bans in public places—and hoping for the best might be all we can do. Once a person reaches adulthood, if they still want to vape knowing the hits their health and wallet will take, it’s on them.

  • Of voter selfies and political optics

    In July, taking and/or sharing photos of one’s ballot in the voting booth became illegal in Indiana. Last week, the law went before a federal court, with the ACLU of Indiana arguing it’s a violation of freedom of speech.

    The state’s argument for the law is that it’s ensuring the complete privacy and legitimacy of the ballot. Sharing one’s ballot can open the door to voter coercion and intimidation, they contend, because the intimidating party can demand a photo as proof for whom a person voted.

    I definitely agree it’s important that every voter is guaranteed the privacy of the voting booth. However, if they choose to waive that privacy of their own accord, such as by taking a selfie with their ballot, I think they should be allowed. As for the state’s voter intimidation hypothesisl, I think voter ID laws like those in Indiana and other states—laws which have created several obstacles to voting in the name of preventing voter fraud, even though statistically the problem is nearly nonexistent—is a bigger threat to the inalienable right to vote.

    But beyond debating the law’s merits, this is an especially egregious case of bad optics. I mean, didn’t the state of Indiana stop and think that this law would look a little suspicious, given that Indiana already has a voter ID law, the state had the lowest voter turnout in the country in last year’s midterms, and the controversial polling consolidation of the most Democrat-leaning part of the state? Even if it’s just a coincidence, and the majority-Republican state legislature’s intent with this law was to protect voters, it still sort of looks to the layperson like another law tightening rules and restrictions on voting.

    Optics is important in this age of immediate information and short attention spans. Even if a subject or issue is more complicated, by the time one gets around to adequately explaining it, onlookers have probably moved on to something else, so it’s more important than ever to strike the correct note right off the bat.

    Then again, given how blindsided the state seemed by the universal negativity to the RFRA earlier this year, even with LGBT acceptance nationwide at an all-time high and only going up, maybe positive optics is too much to ask.

  • On infrastructure, mere repair is a low bar

    The issue of fixing the nation’s infrastructure (roads, highways, and bridges in need of repair) has steadily gained traction within in the past decade or so. If you haven’t heard much about it, well, the need to do so has hit home in our state in the form of the current problems with I-65.

    This problem isn’t going to go away, so sooner or later, something will have to be done about it. While we’re having this debate, however, we should consider another factor going forward.

    A recent study named Chicago and Northwest Indiana one of the ten worst regions for traffic congestion in the country. The list is made up of other major metropolitan centers nationwide. The study also concludes that congestion has only gotten worse over time.

    Just fixing our transportation infrastructure wouldn’t eliminate these traffic issues, which not only make for more time spent in the car for drivers, but also compound the amount of car exhaust spewing into the atmosphere due to vehicles running for longer. So instead of merely fixing it and keeping it the way it is, this is a prime opportunity to drastically remake our transportation infrastructure.

    How so? Well, turning public transit systems from mostly a city thing into a suburban thing would be a good start. High-speed rail lines between major metro centers is a good idea, too.

    But, this all won’t happen. Undertakings like these would take time, effort, and, most importantly, money, and when was the last time people were supportive of a tax, even if the thing it was paying for would arguably benefit them? Heck, the reason even necessary infrastructure repair has moved so slowly is because it would require raising the gas tax, which pays for it.

    My guess is that at some point, we’ll see a major infrastructure repair plan, when the problem is too big to ignore anymore.  Hopefully, that will happen before another tragedy like the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota, which seemingly jumpstarted this debate in 2007.

    But wouldn’t it be nice if people were more willing to work together toward long-term and ambitious but beneficial projects, instead of only going for what’s most convenient for them in the short run?

  • Pre-K benefits should outweigh politics

    Last week, Governor Mike Pence rejected $80 million in federal money that would have gone toward providing pre-schooling for low-income children in the state.

    Indiana isn’t exactly a stranger to cuts in education at all levels, both have occurred under Pence’s term and in the Mitch Daniels' era before that. And yet, despite being lower end on education spending per student among the 50 states, Indiana still has a graduation rate in the upper eighties, which is high. However, the state’s public pre-kindergarten services are slim to none.

    There is debate on the merits of Pre-K for academic performance. However, studies have shown that beneficiaries of such programs are less likely to break the law, and have better developmental, motor and cognitive functions. In other words, the benefit is in socialization and mental development.

    I discussed before how other countries have government programs operating at more advanced levels than we do, and similarly, another country is a good model for how Pre-K works. This time it’s France, where public preschool is provided to all children. They are guaranteed to learn all the beginner lessons and motor skills that they’ll need for regular school, whereas in the U.S. only those whose parents can afford to send them are so lucky. And it costs less per student than most public schools here.

    So it’s no wonder support for Pre-K programs (maybe not programs as good as France’s, but at least something) crosses political lines more so than other issues. It’s also no surprise that the Governor’s decision has been met with disappointment from many state businesses that are generally supporters of his. His rationale for doing so sounds like political speak, like it was more out of an anti-federal ideological position than pragmatic. But frankly, what’s most important is that children get the best education, not that each plan fit within one ideology. And it would be best if children’s education gets started on the right foot when they’re most impressionable.

  • Refugees are part of our country's heritage

    Last week, Indiana once again made the national news for the wrong reasons.

    A family of refugees from war-torn Syria, scheduled to be settled in Indianapolis after a three-year wait, was diverted to Connecticut at the last minute after the state announced that they would not be allowing any Syrian refugees. Unlike with the RFRA earlier this year, Indiana’s no outlying pariah on this, as 30 others states said the same thing. That doesn’t make it right, though, and the fact that this hasn’t seen the same level of outrage is frankly troubling.

    I understand that people are on edge about ISIS after the Paris attacks. However, consider a couple facts:

    • It takes up to several years for refugees to be vetted and granted asylum in the U.S.
    • In the case of Paris, most of the attackers were European.
    • The 9/11 hijackers entered the country legally on regular visas.

    None of this necessarily completely precludes the possibility of an extremist entering the country disguised as a refugee, but it seems rather impractical and improbable. On the other hand, closing the country to all Syrians will certainly deny the chance at a normal life to families fleeing those very terrorists.

    Remember after 9/11 when everyone said “the terrorists win” if we did or didn’t so something? Well, I don’t think terrorists have the power to destroy America, as far as the ideas and values for which we stand. Only we can do that by choosing to succumb to our fears and abandon those values.

    We chose to build this security state leviathan that threatens the right to privacy. We chose to disregard morality and civil rights by adopting torture during the War on Terror. Terrorists attacked us, but they didn’t force us to do either.

    And now with this refugee situation, we face another choice about the fabric of our identity. While racism and anti-immigrant sentiment have existed throughout our history, the fact is that our country always has always taken in those looking for a better life. That is who we are, and it is a moral good. And for it to end would be a tremendous moral loss.

    Moreover, this Thursday begins the time of year about giving and spreading goodwill to your fellow man. Well, if we can’t do so for those who really need it, the whole season seems rather meaningless.

  • Region ignored? Numbers tell a different story

    There’s always been the sort of mentality in Lake County that The Region is the forgotten stepchild of the state of Indiana, always last to be considered for state funding. Last week, I discussed how a large majority of local casino tax revenue goes to the state over local governments. That got me thinking: is the old idea about Lake County true? Do we really get less from the state than we pay into it?

    According to the numbers, it turns out we get more.

    In a 2010 report by the nonprofit Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, at the time of the last U.S. Census, Lake County paid a total of more than $890 million in taxes. That’s the second highest amount paid by a single county, behind Marion County. However, the same year, Lake County received over $1 billion in state expenditures. The shortfall between taxes and spending for the county amounted to $186 million, the largest in the state.

    The Horseshoe Hammond and Ameristar in East Chicago bring in about $200 million a year in revenue for the state. If yearly taxes and state expenditures for Lake County are similar to the report, then it’s safe to say that the county’s shortfall would more than double if the two casinos were taken out of the equations.

    It should be noted that only 22 of the state’s 92 were in the black in the report. Also, on a per capita basis, Lake County’s shortfall was on the smaller end because of its population size. So it's not like we're getting spoiled (though interestingly, Marion County, the leader in population, tax revenue and stat expenditures, was in the black).

    The report also points out that certain expenditures are the responsibility of each county, and counties can enact their own taxes to fund local projects. For example, last year Lake County passed an extra income tax to help fund schools.

    But going back to my initial question, no, Lake County is not the neglected corner of the state some might think it is.

  • Religious freedom bill is doublespeak legislation

    Indiana’s first legislative session begins this week. One issue on the docket is quite troubling.

    Our statehouse is one of many nationwide considering a religious freedom bill, which would give businesses the right to refuse customers on religious grounds. Even supporters don’t seem to argue that it’s aimed mostly at LGBT people.

    You might have seen some news stories about local bakeries forced to close their doors for refusing to serve gay customers. Well, this bill would protect Indiana businesses who do just that. It could also conceivably allow adoption agencies to refuse to let gay adults adopt children. Those are the known components of such a law, though more appeals to it will probably come should it pass.

    You might also recall Arizona’s state legislature passed such a bill last year, and the reaction was swift and negative. Public figures and politicians in both parties denounced it. Celebrities and businesses threatened a boycott of the state. The NFL even talked about moving this year’s Super Bowl. Amidst the outcry, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill.

    Indiana is far from the tourist destination that Arizona is, but passing this bill could be bad for business in our state, too. Indiana likes to tout itself as business-friendly to attract outside investment. If a boycott similar to Arizona’s takes shape, or if business owners are simply more socially-minded, people might think twice about coming to our state. So might prospective residents. Many Illinois small businesses and residents have found a new home here in Northwest Indiana. If this bill puts people off, they might look elsewhere.

    Its effect on business is only the beginning, there are social issues as well.

    Imagine if a law gave businesses the right to refuse customers of a certain skin color, specific ethnicity or a particular religion. Or if someone had the power to prevent those same groups from creating a family unit. In fact, you don’t even have to imagine it. Just read a history book about miscegenation and segregation laws. Today such laws are likely abhorrent to the majority of well-meaning people.

    Now replace those persecuted groups with homosexual and transgender people. How is that any more acceptable? Or any different?

  • RFRA by another name

    The week before Thanksgiving, Indiana Senate Republicans introduced a bill aimed at expanding LGBT protections in the state. Or so they say.

    Senate Bill 100 does, in fact, add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s non-discrimination laws. However, the bill has many exemptions that remove much of its teeth.

    Religious organizations—including charities, schools, and adoption agencies—are still allowed to refuse service to LGBT people. All businesses with fewer than four employees can also refuse on religious grounds to provide services related to marriages to same-sex couples. In addition, public and private organizations are able to determine their own restroom policies, specifically as they pertain to transgender people. And localities within the state cannot pass any further protections.

    When you actually read it, this bill doesn’t seem much different than RFRA.

    Proponents of this law and RFRA before it claim this is about preserving religious freedom, not antigay discrimination. To put that claim to the test, let’s compare it to protections against other forms of discrimination.

    I’ve stated before how the Civil Rights Act doesn’t mention LGBT protections, but it does contain an exemption for religious organizations. However, it only stipulates that religious organizations have a right to only hire a follower of their religion if the nature of the job demands it. They still cannot discriminate based on race, nationality, or gender, in hiring practices or providing services.

    If sexual orientation or gender identity are truly equally protected, they would be subject to those same terms, without exemption. Anything less is de facto legalized discrimination.

  • SB 101: Economic Unrest?

    The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of Indiana was recently signed into law by Governor Pence. We all know what it is. It has scrutinized and discussed before it was even signed, but what does it mean for Indiana startups and businesses? A number of companies have said they will stop unnecessary travel to Indiana and pull investments from the state because of the RFRA.

    For companies that are considering moving their operations out of Indiana, they don’t have to look far for viable locations. Especially here in Northwest Indiana. Newly elected Illinois Governor Rauner has been quoted as saying he would like to “try and rip the economic guts out of Indiana”. But Illinois and Indiana’s rivalry is nothing new. Indiana’s ‘Stillannoyed’ campaign is barely even a year old now.

    But now the question is: Will businesses begin to relocate?

    I highly doubt that it will be the sole reason for a business moving out of Indiana.

    Indiana should be crafting bills that give businesses reasons to stay and attracting new ones to the state.

    Where I think this could really hurt is when it comes to investments from outside of the state. The black eye that Indiana got from the recent news cycle following the signing of the RFRA was brutal. There was backlash from global companies like Apple and Salesforce. When a company is thinking about investing in Indiana, the recent negative news headlines will unfortunately come to mind. Companies will be asking why they would want to invest in a state that is perceived to be behind the times.

    Instead of introducing and passing bills that create disconnects with segments of the population, Governor Pence should be doing more to make everyone feel welcomed in the Hoosier state. Because if it doesn't welcome everyone, states that border Indiana will definitely point that out and welcome them with open arms. Especially when it comes to businesses and investments.

  • Search and seizure heads to IN Supreme Court

    The Indiana Supreme Court decided to hear a notable case last week. Unlike the case I already discussed in my last post, this one’s outcome is sure to have further-reaching effects than just our corner of the state.

    Garcia v. State centers on Antonio Garcia, who was pulled over and arrested on the misdemeanor charge of driving without a license in 2012. While being searched during his arrest, the police found a small container, which they opened to find a hydrocodone/acetaminophen pill. This painkiller is considered a controlled substance, possession of which without a prescription is a felony.

    Garcia testified that he had found the pill among a recently deceased family member’s effects, and carried it with him so his child wouldn’t find it. Though he was able to produce prescription records indicating the family member did, in fact, have a prescription for the drug, he was still convicted of felony possession.

    The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned that conviction on the grounds that it violated the Indiana Constitution’s stipulation against search and seizure. Specifically, the ruling stated that the container aroused no reasonable suspicion or threat to the arresting officers, therefore searching it violated Garcia’s Constitutional rights.

    The Indiana Supreme Court will have the final say, though a decision probably won’t come until next year.

    Before trying to tie this case in to high-profile police and civil liberties controversies of recent years, one should take a closer look at the facts. While Garcia contends that regular search and seizure protocol went too far, he isn’t contesting his misdemeanor charge or alleging grave officer misconduct. The arresting officers also testified that Garcia was cooperative. And in fairness to the police, similar medicine containers frequently are used as containers for illegal drugs. So this case occupies a grey area.

    Personally, I’m leaning toward the side of Garcia, not due to any personal biases, but because if I have to choose a side, I always choose the one of civil liberties.

  • South Shore expansion is good for commuters

    Like the Gary Airport I’ve written about previously, an expansion of the South Shore commuter rail has been gestating for some time but has seen very little in the way of progress. The reason is the same one that causes so many public works projects to stall: money.

    In order to get federal money for the project (which the plan’s proposal estimates would cost up to $1 billion), more than a third of the total funding must be raised by the local communities through direct taxes. However, of the 20 local legislatures asked to provide funds, only 11 have pledged to do so.

    It’s not a huge surprise, as some of those communities wouldn’t even be directly served in the proposed new routes. Plus, the Region doesn’t really think much of public transit, so a new rail line is probably an afterthought in the minds of most residents.

    Still, would this expansion be a benefit for them?

    The proposal emphasizes the fact that expansion could make Northwest Indiana a destination and attract more businesses and people. A good intention, sure, but I’m not sure that will happen. It would seem smarter to focus on development of our communities first to give people a reason to come here before creating a new way to get here. Doing things the other way around would only provide more Indiana communities with easier access to Chicago. And with more people going in to Chicago to work and spend money, what would be the incentive for people in Illinois to come here?

    For the individual commuter, however, I think it’s worth the building and upkeep costs. Let’s face it: the main reason people use the South Shore is to go to Chicago. Even when factoring in both a roundtrip on the South Shore and travelling around the city on the L, taking the train is much cheaper than the gas money and parking fees it takes to drive there. Less driving also means less pollution, which is good.

    And people would certainly use the new lines. Even on just a regular workday, the parking lots of current South Shore stations are almost always saturated with the cars of commuters to city. More lines and stations would allow even more people to get to Chicago while reducing driving and saving them money.

  • Sunday Alcohol Sales Ban: A Retrospective

    Indiana Sunday Alcohol Sales Laws

    As Hoosiers, we are well aware of the ban of alcohol sales on Sundays.  Last February, it looked as if the law may finally change, but the measure met its usual fate.  Although Sunday sales were backed by big-box grocery stores such as Walmart and Kroger, the measure was opposed by liquor store owner. They have argued that the costs of being open on Sundays would not provide enough additional revenue [1] and that allowing sales on Sunday would put liquor stores in danger of going out of business [2].  The bill also died due to the restrictions that the state wanted to put on displaying alcohol and its placement in stores.  Liquor would have had to have been kept behind a counter and beer would only be allowed in designated areas [3].  As a result of these restrictions, the measure lost favor from big box stores, due to the costs of remodeling to accommodate these requirements.  

    So how did Indiana become one of 12 states to ban sales on Sundays in the first place?  The ban on Sundays is what is known as a “blue law”.  A blue law is a kind of law that prohibits certain activities occurring at certain times [4]. This particular blue law has been in place since the end of prohibition in 1933. These laws are also a sign of their times.  For example, one blue law that was enacted in Illinois banned the sale of ice cream sodas on Sundays, because soda was actually considered a controlled substance in the late 1800’s, due to it being marketed as a “miracle cure” [5].  For soda jerks to remain open on Sunday, they added chocolate syrup in lieu of soda, hence the invention of the Sundae.

    Although frustrating to many people in our state, sales in restaurants, bars and microbreweries are not banned on Sunday. A 2010 law allowed microbreweries to sell Sunday carryout beer, provided that the beer is brewed on that site [6]. For around $11, anyone of legal drinking age can purchase a growler (64 ounces) of beer to take home with them.  Since this time, many new microbreweries have opened around The Region, including 3 in Valparaiso.

    In a time when many households, such as ours, have both a husband and wife who work full-time, something as simple as going to the grocery store can become complicated. Since Sunday is also one of the busiest shopping days of the week, some opt to do their shopping on this day, but may have to make an extra trip on a different day to purchase alcohol. So the question now becomes is this blue law still going to be able to remain in place for the foreseeable future? Once again, we will have to wait until next year.

    References:

    [1] http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/indiana/2015/02/24/indiana-lawmaker-kills-bill-legalizing-sunday-alcohol-sales/23947273/

    [2] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/01/19/indiana-strict-on-sunday-booze/1566476/

    [3] http://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2015/02/24/sponsor-sunday-alcohol-bill-enough-votes/23930769/

    [4] http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Blue+Laws

    [5] http://xmb.stuffucanuse.com/xmb/viewthread.php?tid=7396

    [6] http://www.wndu.com/home/headlines/Breweries-booming-with-Sunday-business-264184251.html

     

  • Supreme Court Cases of Interest in the Wake of SB 101

    It’s been less than a week since the passage of Senate Bill 101, and the outcry hasn’t abated. The local and national reaction has been almost uniformly negative, and talks of boycotting the state seem to be getting bigger by the day.

    I said my piece about the law a while ago, and seemingly every argument against it has been put forth in the last week or so. It remains to be seen if the backlash pushes the state legislature to backtrack. But even if it doesn't, with the onslaught of recent legal victories for gay rights, it's fair to wonder whether the law will stick anyway.

    To that, some legal precedent:

    The face of so-called “Religious Freedom” bills seems to be eateries looking to deny service to homosexuals, which has elicited comparisons to segregated lunch counters from the Civil Rights Era. Well, in the 1964 decision Katzenbach v. McClung, the Supreme Court found 9-0 that customer discrimination in restaurants is unconstitutional, as per the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But, it should be noted that the Civil Rights Act, while outlawing discrimination on basis of race or sex, does not specifically mention sexual orientation.

    There were few rulings on sexual orientation until the 1996 case Romer v. Evans, in which the Court ruled 6-3 that an amendment to the Colorado state constitution allowing discrimination based on sexual orientation was unconstitutional. Of the five current Justices who were on the Court at the time, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Anthony Kennedy voted with the majority, while Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

    Romer v. Evans wasn’t completely all-encompassing, as several states still have laws that are in some way discriminatory (in many states, it’s still legal for employers to fire workers for being gay, for instance). Still, the decision was cited as precedent in many high profile gay rights cases. Among them were the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision striking down anti-sodomy laws in all states, and the Massachusetts case Goodridge v. Department of Public Health which legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

    Between those two cases, it would seem SB 101’s days could already be numbered. But, last year’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. set a big new precedent pertaining to what constitutes religious freedom, one that allowed private businesses to opt out of certain legal requirements that go against the owners' religion. So if SB 101 or a similar law should make it all the way to the Supreme Court, it's hard to say what would happen.

  • The (possible) soda tax next door

    A few years ago, you likely heard about New York City trying to enact a ban on the sale of sugary drinks above a certain size (the plan was eventually struck down in the state’s courts). That was the most public example of efforts to curb Americans’ consumption of such unhealthy beverages, but they most often take the form of taxes, which have been proposed but rarely adopted by local governments.

    Just last week, a proposal of just such a tax hit close to home—still safely across the state line, but close nonetheless—when Chicago considered a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. That may not sound like much, but it adds up quickly, from over a dime more per can to an extra couple bucks per 24-pack.

    This issue brings to mind so-called “sin taxes” on products such as cigarettes, and while drinking pop is certainly more publicly acceptable than smoking, some health advocates have supported adding health warning labels to soda just like tobacco products. Another eerie similarity between the two arose this summer when it was revealed Coca-Cola reportedly paid millions to scientists who downplay the role of cutting pop from one’s diet while trying to lose weight. The story elicited comparisons to yesteryear when Big Tobacco funded studies arguing against their products’ health effects.

    I don’t think many would argue that pop or other drinks loaded with sugar are good for you, but there is still one distinct difference from smoking: while secondhand smoke affects everyone in the vicinity of a smoker, secondhand drinking is not a thing. The personal choice argument is much more airtight with soda because it only affects the person who chooses to drink it.

    Still, I can see where proponents of soda taxes are coming from. People don’t want the government in their lives, but living an unhealthy lifestyle can make for more medical procedures and bills, and since healthcare is so costly in this country, people often have to turn to government services. It makes some sense to try to push people away from unhealthy habits, and in doing so potentially preventing problems like obesity or diabetes rather than spending the money to treat them when they manifest. And the personal choice crowd won't like to hear this, but having to pay a little more for a Coke doesn't take away one's right to choose whether or not to pay for it or drink it.

  • The downside of police body cams

    I’m not a legal expert by any means. I also know the subject I’m about to discuss is a hornet’s nest in every sense of the metaphor. Nevertheless, I think it’s too important not to talk about.

    The subject is the emerging trend and debate about police wearing body cameras to film their patrols and arrests. Hammond’s police force is now equipped with cameras, and a few other forces in the Region might follow suit.

    Body cams are ostensibly about policing the police, making sure that they respect suspects’ rights and don’t break the law themselves. You might have heard increased calls for their adoption recently in the wake of highly publicized killings of (mostly minority) suspects by police officers.

    I’m not sure it will make a difference about that. A few of those controversial deaths have been on video recorded by bystanders. And even when the video evidence was pretty clear, several officers involved didn’t faced any legal repercussions. Nor did it ever seem to affect anyone’s opinion, so thoroughly were they entrenched in their view of the cops’ actions.

    That’s troubling enough, but what’s really scary is that while the consensus is body cams will be a win for rights of the accused, it's not hard to picture it doing the opposite. We already live in the age when we're constantly recorded and nearly everything we do leaves a digital trail of some sort. Adding yet another recording apparatus, even one with the best of intentions, only lessens our privacy and grows the surveillance state even more.

    Moreover, I can imagine instances where body cams will be a detriment to the accused. Even if they're used properly and not abused, recorded videos could still bring undue incrimination upon suspects. The Miranda rights recited by every cop when a person is arrested explicitly state that what they say can be used against them in court. Well, what about video of their arrest? It's not outside the realm of possibility that video could make them look bad and skew jurors, precluding a fair trial.

    I hope I’m worrying over nothing, and that if body cams do become more widespread, they do good things for the relationship between the police and the people they serve. But just in case, I hope as they start to catch on, they’re accompanied by regulations and wide-reaching legislation or court cases making sure they do only that.

  • The Duneland Innovators Community

    Duneland Innovators northwest Indiana Chicagoland

    What a year! 2015 has seen the Duneland Innovators brand expand quite a bit. If you haven't been following down every avenue, let us outline some of the biggest developments here for you.

    Probably the most notable addition to the offerings is our monthly event series. On the first Wednesday of each month, a local professional takes to the presentation stage to talk about their ideas on a relevant topic. If you follow us on Facebook, you can watch the video recordings of presenters you may have missed. There have been a lot of great dialogs started during the Q & A sessions that follow the presentation. If you're looking for networking opportunities, these events are an excellent platform to meet others working in northwest Indiana. If you'd like to join the group, connect with it on Meetup for updates and announcements.

    Social media channels are vital for us to spread the messages embedded into our content here on the site. While we endorse a "Facebook first" strategy, you can find unique promotions on Duneland Innovator's Twitter account as well. We even share pictures occasionally on Instagram from the events or "behind the scenes" moments while filming. Join the conversation and let us know your thoughts on articles that interest you.

    Producing video segments based on articles and from events has been a really fun new endeavor. The crew has turned out approximately 50 videos since we started with the format this Spring. Not too bad for a little boutique operation like ourselves. Look for more announcements about our video efforts in the new year.

    We're now releasing 3-5 original pieces of content each week and every month reach thousands of people via all of our channels. It great to see people engage the stories, particularly for features that highlight organizations and individuals in our community. If you have a story that needs to be told or would like to contribute content to the site, please get in contact with us by calling (855) 404-6016 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

    Thanks for a great 2015.

  • The great train shutdown

    I’ve spoken frequently on this blog in support of expanding public transportation in Northwest Indiana. Well, a possibility has arisen that, come year’s end, we could learn the hard way how beneficial public transit can be to our wallets.

    Congress stipulated in 2008 that all trains must be outfitted with Positive Train Control (PTC), a system that can monitor and stop trains in case of emergency via GPS, by January 1, 2016. Outfitting the South Shore line with this system will cost around $120 million, nearly $80 million more than was budgeted for the refit.

    The NICTD and local officials are requesting an extension on the deadline. Should the request be denied, the South Shore would have to end its services.

    Just when its long-gestating expansion finally started moving forward, the rail might literally be stopped dead in its tracks.

    For those of us who travel to Chicago on occasion, this is an inconvenience. But for residents who rely on the line for frequent commutes to the city, it will really sting in the pocketbook.

    Let’s compare prices: 

    A one-way fare on the South Shore from Indiana and South Suburb stations to the downtown stops costs $8 or less, except for the last two stops way out in Hudson Lake or South Bend. For frequent commuters, there’s also 10-ride, 25-ride, or monthly tickets that, used daily, average out to slightly cheaper than a one-way ride. Also, it's free to park in most station lots.

    Parking in Chicago, on the other hand, will set you back at least $2 per hour. For a whole 8-hour workday, that comes to more than one round-trip at most of the South Shore’s rates. And that’s before taking into account the extra driving time or gas expended going to Chicago, versus Region residents’ fairly short drive to the nearest South Shore station.

    Apparently, the South Shore isn’t the only rail in the country who’s behind on implementing PTC, so it’s possible its shutdown isn’t a foregone conclusion. But whatever happens, it’s clear that a major transportation infrastructure like the South Shore saves riders money they’d otherwise spend on gas and parking.

    We should keep that in mind if and whenever the debate on public transportation within the Region comes up again.

  • The minimum wage is not enough in Indiana

    Not too long ago, there was chart that went viral showing how many hours one would have to work in each state earning minimum wage to be able to rent a two-bedroom apartment. In Indiana, the number was in the seventies. But our state was actually on the low side, as several states required more than the equivalent of two or even three 40-hour workweeks.

    That made the point of how minimum wage workers can afford very few luxuries. What it doesn’t illustrate is how difficult it is to simply live on minimum wage.

    According to MIT, a living wage (meaning it covers all regular expenses) for a single person living alone in Indiana is $8.44 an hour. The state’s minimum wage is at the federal level of $7.25 an hour. The rate where they’d be considered below the poverty line is lower than that. However, the living and poverty wages increase as more people enter the picture. Basically, if there are any more than two people living together, the minimum wage is below the poverty wage.

    President Obama’s proposed increase would bring the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. In this scenario, an Indiana resident living alone would now have a living wage, and most households with two adults working minimum wage could theoretically double their income to a livable level. However, a single parent with even one kid would still be below the livable wage. Plus, anyone with kids knows how hard it is to have both parents working.

    The model doesn’t take into account life’s little caveats like this and others. For example, the calculation for a single-person household sets aside $306 a month on transportation. In real life, one month you might only pay for gas, then the next month your car might need expensive maintenance. Same with medical spending: you might not get sick one month then unexpectedly suffer a serious illness or injury the next, costing more than the $135 per month the model estimates.

    Indiana’s poverty rate is over 14 percent. Even at $10.10, the minimum wage probably still won’t lift them out of it. But to those who work for minimum wage and have to watch every cent they make, even less than an extra three bucks an hour would make a difference. If the federal government doesn’t raise the minimum wage, Indiana should.

  • The State of Referendum

    If you have driven around the region these last few years during the month of April, you may have seen signs in yards asking voters to vote “yes” on a school referendum.  

    In 2008, the state legislature passed a law that changes the ways that a district is able to levy taxes for the operation of schools within the district or for the cost of construction.  Since that time, several districts within the state have had referendum votes for small tax increases to offset the limitations set by the law. I live in Hebron and it took two separate elections to pass one in our school district.

    The first vote in 2013 failed by only four votes- 547 to 543.  The defeat resulted in Metropolitan School District of Boone Township having to make several cutbacks.  The greatest of which was the termination of six teachers, which meant some classes would be overcrowded.  In a town with nearly 2,500 residents, voter apathy may have played a role in the measure being defeated the first time.  In our family's case, we did not vote in this election, and thus did not vote for the measure at all.  At that time, our home was not affected by passage or defeat, since our oldest child was not yet in school. 

    The measure did pass the following April, and it did so by just 23 votes.  The passed measure called for an increase of $0.21 per $100 of assessed property value.  This meant that a home with an assessed value of $135,000 would see an annual tax increase of around $130.  We did vote yes on the second referendum, because our son was about to begin Kindergarten that following August, so we wanted to ensure we were investing in his education.  On his first day of school, his class size consisted of only 22 children.  

    These two elections brought out much emotion on opposing sides of the measure.  For us, we were looking out for what we felt was in the best interest of our children.  For a couple in town on a fixed income, whose children have already been through school, I can certainly understand the reason for them voting no.  Although these referendums are fairly new, it is still too soon to tell if there will be a long-lasting impact. In the case of our district, seeing exceptional grades on our son’s report card is a great start.