• The ups and downs of online political outreach

    Indiana Senate Democrats, half of whom are from right here in the Region, have developed a site where Indiana residents can voice their concerns on the issues and vote on which ones are most important to them. The top results will be the party’s legislative priority in the next session.

    I think this is a GREAT idea. Regardless of the issues or even the party, this sort of channel can give a better, clearer voice to elected officials’ constituents.

    But is this a good thing, considering the kind of stuff people do on the web?

    Here are some ways it could be positive:

    • This could be an interesting way to get young people, a voting bloc for whom voter turnout is generally low, more involved in the process. Who knows? Maybe if this is a success, it could lead to a push to make voting via computer or even smartphone a reality, which might ensure greater participation by removing the effort of physically going to your polling place.
    • Traditional polling methods are becoming less accurate, as the model is mostly built on conducting polls via landline phones. Remember landlines? Those phones from back in the day that had no text function or Internet access, that were attached to walls, and where you had to physically press individual buttons to make a call? Well, one certainly would think online polling is the way to reach the under-30 crowd.
    • Aside from voting on issues that are already in the news, users can submit laws that they would like to see, which can then be voted upon by site visitors. If corporate lobbyists can literally write bills for Congress, then why not regular people?

    And now, some corresponding drawbacks to each of those things

    • Do we want to make something as important as selecting our leaders available with the same level of thought and effort as a taking a Buzzfeed quiz, or liking a Facebook post, or favoriting a Tweet? Heck, the voting button on the site looks exactly like the “upvote/downvote” functionality on Reddit.
    • Ballot stuffing, or other poll manipulation. Even if a poll is set to where each person can only vote once, web users can create throwaway usernames or even simply use another browser window to manipulate results.
    • Have you even been on the Internet? Well, it has this tendency to bring out the id in people, in all its anger, venom, ignorance, and xenophobia. The notion that a hateful and horrifying idea might be put forth on a platform like this is secondarily disheartening to the fact that I could see people supporting it, possibly a lot of them. And let’s not forget the trolls who’d abuse it.

    In spite of all that, I still think this is a great idea. In fact, I’d say the political process could use more direct interaction with the people via the web. I just recommend that people running the site be able to tell the different between the trolls and the people who are serious about it.

  • Things our state and governor did this year

    This Friday will be the start of an election year. So if you’re already sick of the campaign cycle, get used to it, because it’s about to get worse. All I have to say is thank the maker this era of near-unlimited spending on political ads is also the era of DVRs that allow us to skip commercials.

    In the midst of all the ads, grandstanding, attacks, and other irrelevant noise to come in the next ten months, it’s important to not get distracted and to keep track of the things that really matter: the issues. To that end, I’m here to help.

    Here are a few of the things Governor Mike Pence or the Indiana state legislature did in 2015:

    • Accepted the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, used to augment the existing Healthy Indiana Plan.
    • Announced, then cancelled, JustIN. Though to be fair, it was never clear if the site was really a state-run news source or, as Pence claimed, simply a press release service made out to be something it wasn't.
    • Stripped the Superintendent of Public Instruction, an elected office, of its power after fighting Glenda Ritz at every turn since she took office.
    • Abandoned Common Core standards without much a plan to replace them. The state later adopted a new curriculum heavy on standardized testing.
    • Passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, effectively legalizing LGBT discrimination in Indiana and resulting in a nationwide backlash against the state. The legislature hastily added anti-discrimination language to the law to save face, but later in the year, a proposed expansion of the state’s nondiscrimination policy left exemptions allowing some forms of discrimination.
    • Created a needle exchange to help stem an HIV outbreak in the state.
    • Repealed the state’s Common Construction Wage law. 
    • Announced that Indiana would not take in Syrian refugees (and was ignored).

    You might agree with some of these, disagree with others. I myself have different opinions on each issue. But these are things that happened in Indiana this year. So regardless of whatever pageantry 2016 has in store on the campaign trail, just remember everything that went down this past year when you get to the voting booth, whichever way you vote.

    And if you're not registered to vote, go do that. Call it a New Year's resolution, one that you might actually keep.

  • Throwing out democracy with the Ritz

    Even when I strongly disagree with the politics of elected officials (and I have been critical of Governor Mike Pence), I try to avoid the hyperbole of labelling someone a dictator. Still, you have to wonder if our Governor realizes the optics of what he’s been doing lately. First he tries to start a state-run news agency (maybe), and now, he’s all but gotten his way in subverting the democratic process.

    You’ve probably seen the stories in the papers: ever since Glenda Ritz was elected State superintendent of Public Instruction over charter school golden boy Tony Bennett (who, by the way, was suspected of illegal activity) in 2012, the Governor and Republican state legislature have clashed with her at almost every turn.

    Policy isn’t what really matters at this point, however. What matters is that last week, both the House and Senate voted in slightly different measures to have Ritz, for whom the people of Indiana voted and elected, removed from office. Nothing’s official yet, but it bodes not well for her.

    That very idea should alarm anyone regardless of political affiliation, for it is blatantly and unequivocally taking the power of the vote out of the people’s hands.

    If President Obama tried to remove someone from power like this, the outcry would be deafening. And unlike the many overblown and ridiculous claims made against the President, his critics would be absolutely in the right. The same goes for any President, or for that matter, any elected official.

    If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that people do appear to be upset about it. From personal letters to the editor pages of local newspapers to social media, supporters for Ritz have come out in droves, including many Republicans. Considering how both houses have voted her out, though, and the fact that the Governor apparently is blind to his image among the electorate, Ritz’s fate might be sealed.

    It’s widely agreed that Pence wants to run for President, and speculation is that his supreme support of private education is meant to impress the Republican base (and big money donors). Hopefully—if, in fact, Ritz is removed, and Pence does run in 2016—the people look at his record of undermining the vote and don’t give him theirs in the primaries, let alone the election. But I’m pessimistic.

  • Two 911s might not be better than one.

    You’d think that there would be some things out there that are immune to political partisanship. You know, like our emergency services.

    You’d think that, but apparently not.

    In case you haven’t been following, Indiana passed a law stipulating that each county in the state can have no more than two 911 dispatch centers, with the deadline to consolidate their call centers being the first of this year. Lake County missed that deadline, but has been working to establish one main call center in Crown Point, with a backup center in East Chicago.

    Most of the towns in the county signed on to this plan, but Schererville and Cedar Lake have held out every step of the way. Even when the state started withholding millions in funding to try to force their hand, they still won’t go along. Now, even though the Lake County E-911 center will be operational soon, the two towns are still operating their own joint call center.

    It’s hard to find a reason why the two towns are refusing to cooperate. The lone argument against 911 consolidation that might be understandable is the fear that fewer dispatch centers would somehow cause a drop in service or longer response time. But even this contention falls apart when considering one big, simple factor: technology.

    In today’s age, "smart" mobile devices can place one’s exact location. I’ve also spoken before about how police are able to track cellular phones. Well, the upside of that creepy security state stuff is that emergency services can find you easily, and they can coordinate with cops, EMTs, and firehouses across a whole county area instantaneously.

    Years ago when the world was still mostly analog, the argument that consolidation could adversely affect emergency responses might have had some weight, but not so much today. On the contrary, one whole system with everyone working on the same page seems way more practical than two separate, independently operated ones.

    I can’t really think of another reason why to fight consolidation, other than petty politics. If that’s all it is (and to me, it seems that way), Cedar Lake and Schererville should give up this fight and go with the option that’s more efficient and effective for Lake County.

  • Weighing wheel and gas taxes

    Tonight, Valparaiso’s City Council will vote on imposing a proposed wheel tax on vehicles registered in the town. Recently, a few other cities and towns in Northwest Indiana have added wheel taxes, and more are considering it.

    The impetus for this issue was the state’s road funding bill signed in March, a provision of which allowed cities with a population of 10,000 or more to impose such taxes on vehicles to fund road repair and maintenance. The state also pledged to match the amount raised by each town or city, setting aside money for such funding.

    Valpo’s proposed tax would be $25 per passenger vehicle and $40 per commercial vehicle, and would be collected during BMV registration. That’s an annual fee, by the way.

    Usually, roads are funded through gasoline taxes, but raising them at the state or federal level has been received…well, about as well as you’d expect a tax to be. A yearly wheel tax that costs, depending on the vehicle, a little more or a little less than a regular fill-up seems a lot more palatable than paying extra at the pump each time.

    So, what’s the downside? Well, less money raised in taxes, naturally, means less money for roads. Even with the state effectively doubling the funds, towns will still come up well short of what's needed to maintain their roads.

    A gas tax increase wouldn’t for sure bridge those budget gaps (a proposed federal increase is estimated to only put a small dent in our needs for federal highway repair). But there’s another component of gas taxes: getting people to use less of it. Specifically, to reduce our driving habits and use public transportation, thus lessening the need for road repair (and also, reduce pollution).

    But, that angle only works if there’s a public transit infrastructure for commuters to use. In the Region, there’s not much.

    So, wheel taxes are what we got. They're not perfect, but they can do some good. If your town doesn’t have one yet, expect to hear more about them from here on out.


  • What if the mail ended?

    It was recently announced that Gary’s mail processing center will close next year. Its duties will be outsourced to the branch in Bedford Park, Ill., by next July, although much of its service has already gone there.

    The initial reaction might be to go to the “everything is abandoning Gary” narrative, but it appears that isn’t the case this time. The Post Office is closing many branches nationwide by next summer as part of its restructuring plan. Gary is just one of several centers set to close in Indiana.

    The Post Office has been beset by financial struggles in the last decade, with closures and talk of ending Saturday mail. It’s entirely unsurprising, however, when you consider how much of its services have been usurped by technology.

    Bills and other payments can be made online. Magazines, like savvy newspapers, have moved online. Letters as a means of communicating across long distances have been all but replaced by email, which is not only free (letters are less than a dollar, but that’s still not free) but also quicker. In the age of smartphones, it’s as instantaneous as a phone call. You might still send someone a card once in a while (though there’s even a digital option for that), but generally it’s a good bet you communicate by email or other digital means.

    All that leaves is package delivery, which isn’t going away. Whenever I’ve been in the Post Office, there’s always been a line of people mailing packages. It’s still the cheapest option. But if packages aren’t enough to keep the Post Office alive, there are other options regular citizens as well as businesses can use like UPS and FedEx.

    Do we really need mail? That question was played for laughs on Seinfeld in 1997, but it’s a fair question today. Maybe older citizens who never adapted to modern technology still need it, but for people more in tune with current technology and options, probably not. If mail service ended tomorrow, people might get a little sticker shock the first time they pay to send a package through a private carrier, but otherwise their lives won’t change that much.

    Well, except for those employed by the USPS. And while mail isn’t set to end altogether anytime soon, the estimated 150 workers at the Gary branch (as well as thousands employed at other closing processing centers) will be out of work next July. My heart goes out to them.

  • What will 2016 bring The Region?

    government politics policy legislation

    Happy New Year!

    I did my “look back” piece for 2015 last week. Now that we’re in 2016, it’s time to look to the future.

    The predictions I made for the area going into last year were admittedly a little ambitious and starry-eyed (though they weren't entirely off). So this year, I’ll keep things a little more grounded.

    So, in 2016:

    • The Dunes pavilion liquor license controversywill drag on, but eventually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pavilion Partners LLC gets their wish and is permitted to serve alcohol in their proposed banquet center.
    • The expansion project of the South Shore line will continue, though still slowly and incrementally. The average commuter won’t notice much difference this year, except maybe some riders bringing bikes on the weekend.
    • Our local steel industry will continue to face uncertainty in its balance act with the global market. I don’t really have more to add to this vague generality, but I wouldn’t be optimistic for a turnaround.
    • Governor Mike Pence looks quite vulnerable in this year’s election, but unless he pulls another major blunder like the RFRA, the race will still be close. It all might come down to voter turnout.
    • Unless the Republican nominee to succeed our retiring Senator Dan Coats turns out to be another Richard Mourdock (in either the no-compromise hardliner or foot-in-mouth respect), the GOP will probably retain the seat.
    • Illinois will continue to be dysfunctional, sending more residents and businesses our way. Our casinos can probably rest easy, for now.
    • The Cubs will win the World Series. The celebration will be short-lived, however, as this event will bring upon the Rapture, the zombie apocalypse, a meteor, an alien invasion and everything Bill Murray talked about in Ghostbusters.*

    *I should note that whenever I make sports predictions, I turn out to be wrong way more often than right. Go Sox!

  • Why are people leaving Indiana?

    I and many others have written about residents leaving Illinois. Not as many people are talking about the same thing happening here in Indiana. But it’s happening.

    Since 2005, more residents have left Indiana than have moved here. The state’s total population has remained overall steady, increasing slightly each year. About half the counties in the state, including Lake County, have seen small decreases each year, however.

    I have a few ideas why this might be:

    • Wages: Incomes in Northwest Indiana fell by about an average of $3000 last year…thoughworkers here are still paid better than the rest of the state. Indiana’s median household income lags behind the national average, as well as those of 30 other states and Washington D.C. And as I’ve said before, our minimum wage still lingers at the federal level.
    •  State services: People always complain about their tax dollars funding state services, but they always use them when they’re available. Indiana lags behind a lot of states in this department, from education to public transit. A big issue in the future could be health care, as more and more people come around to the Affordable Care Act. Currently, Indiana doesn’t run its own insurance exchange and is still kicking the idea of Medicaid expansion around. This could tilt our state out of favor for employment-seekers deciding between similar-paying jobs in Indiana or in another state that does have those things.
    • Greener, and warmer, pastures: I’d imagine those moving out of Indiana do so more for monetary reasons than weather-related ones. Still, warmer climates are no doubt more attractive than the bitter cold winters in the Midwest, the Region’s being even worse because of the Lake. Another factor more in our control, though, is our state’s environmental record. While we rank higher than some Midwest states, our air quality is still pretty bad. As someone who suffers from allergies and is thus sensitive to airborne particles, I can say from experience that the difference between Indiana and Washington (one of the most environmentally-conscious states in the country) is like the difference between inhaling secondhand smoke and simply clear air.
  • Why wait on road and bridge repair? Answer could be simple.

    All it took to loosen the state’s purse strings was a crippling closure on a major Interstate!

    I’m sure by now everyone’s heard about the I-65 closure downstate, which has turned a relatively quick drive into a long and winding full-day trip through scenic Indiana. It’s a bad situation that affects residents from here to Indianapolis, both in business and their commutes.

    Fortunately for drivers and the people who depend on them, Governor Mike Pence has responded the right way. After resisting using the state’s reserve funds for much of his tenure, he has announced support for using some of the over $2 billion in the state's coffers to fix faltering roads and bridges.

    In 2016. Also, it's dependent on the state legislature approving such an infrastructure plan when they convene in January.

    This kind of urgent situation is what reserve funds are there for, so this is the right thing to do. The only question is, why wait until next year when roads need to be repaired now, and there’s over four months left in 2015?

    This is pure speculation, but I have a theory: 2016 is gubernatorial election year, and Pence is looking very vulnerable right now. If the state legislature approves a major infrastructure repair, it might be a good issue on which a candidate can run. Moreover, using reserve funds to pay for it would preclude raising taxes, and in 2016 it would be pretty recent, whereas by then the RFRA and its fallout will be a year in the past, practically forever ago in our constant news cycle.

    Maybe there are other reasons why the Governor is waiting to act. In his defense, given how brutal our last two winters were, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to wait until after winter to start such an undertaking.

    But if it’s just about politics and public perception, I must say that a leader who does the right thing when it needs to be done looks much better than a leader who waits until it would be the most politically opportune.