• 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?

  • 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.

  • Governor's disconnect is bad for Indiana

    Barely a week after the passage of SB 101, the state legislature and Governor Mike Pence hastily added new language to outline certain (but not total) legal rights related to sexual orientation (the reception to the fix among LGBT rights groups has been pretty tepid). But that was after the state received tremendous blowback from all but the most lockstep members of the political right, and our governor entered the national spotlight somewhere between a villain and a laughingstock.

    This isn’t the first time Pence has been on the national stage in a less-than-stellar fashion. Earlier this year was the short but notable saga of Just IN. We’ll never know if it was, as Pence claimed, simply a press release site rather than a state news source. Even if it was, though, the glaring obviousness of its negative reception highlights a sort of disconnect shown by this Governorship.

    If that disconnect went no further than a boneheaded PR snafu, it would be forgivable. But it’s manifested in other ways that maybe haven’t gotten the national media’s attention, and are no laughing matter at all.

    After the Mitch Daniels era, state taxes were very low, so low that both parties seemed to agree more revenues were needed. Yet one of Pence’s first acts as Governor was another tax cut. Another thing on which both parties seem to be in agreement was that public education funding is too low. Instead, Pence still focuses on charter schools, clashes with Glenda Ritz at every turn, and dropped Common Core without much of a plan for what would replace it.

    Simply put, Pence seems to be more of an ideologue than an effective governor. The cynical speculation is that he’s getting in good graces with a narrow sector of the conservative base so he can run for President (an idea that, if it were a longshot before, seems like an impossibility now). But maybe he truly believes in every decision he’s made. Unfortunately, that ideology is clashing pretty starkly with the reality of what’s happening in his state.

    Fortunately, a few recent events have bridged that disconnect. Even if his fix for SB 101 may not be perfect, he at least heard everybody and was driven to do something. Also, in relation to the HIV outbreak downstate in Austin, he’s swallowed his political views on anti-drug measures and approved a needle exchange, which seems to be the right thing to do.

    These were both extreme instances that were too obvious to ignore, but nevertheless, they still poked holes in the ideological bubble in which our Governor seems to reside.

  • I changed my mind on body cams...and have an idea!

    A few months ago, I wrote a piece expressing skepticism about placing body cameras on police officers. Well, I take that back, and am now behind the idea.

    What changed my mind was the recent case of Samuel Dubose, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing. A video recorded by Tensing’s body cam caught the whole sequence of events, showing pretty clearly that the shooting was unwarranted. As a result, Tensing is now facing a murder charge, and this case hasn’t met with the controversy and heated difference of opinion that's accompanied other high-profile police killings recently, because frankly the video made what happened pretty open-and-shut.

    This is a pretty convincing argument that body cams would take away the ambiguity of police actions, and also assure that officers uphold the law instead of abusing it. But I say it’s foolish to stop there. Rather than simply keeping the upholders of the law honest, why not do the same with those who make laws, by which I mean our elected officials?

    Okay, we won’t put body cams on every politician, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have cameras rolling on them while they’re governing us. And I mean during all parts of governing, not just the pandering floor debates on C-SPAN, but every committee meeting, every meeting with constituents (or lobbyists), and every drafting of new bills. To go along with this, there should be legislative rules stipulating that anything that isn’t discussed on one of these recordings is disqualified from consideration.

    Most people probably won’t watch it (I admit it sounds like the most boring reality show imaginable), but the point is every step and every minute of the system at work would be recorded. Imagine: no more backroom meetings, no more secret favors or deals that benefit their cronies at the expense of everyone else. And we’d see our elected leaders in all their sweaty, swearing, down-and-dirty glory, which might finally put to rest the idea of the electorate voting based on a candidate’s persona over policy.

    Despite the backlash to the country’s surveillance apparatus in recent years, it’s very likely the age of Big Brother is here to stay. If we can’t beat it, we can at least return the favor. Be their Little Brother, so to speak…

  • It's the ISTEP, stupid!

    You might have missed it in the news, but one of the most wide-reaching laws of the new millennium, one that had support across the political spectrum and was touted as a major achievement that would fix our education system, might be dying a quiet death.

    The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, was an extensive piece of legislation with many different parts. But one thing about it everyone seems to agree on is that its strong focus on standardized testing was ineffective, putting tremendous pressure on schools and teachers without effectively teaching students.

    Well, almost everyone.

    Indiana just signed a law instituting stricter standards for ISTEP testing. Specifically, there’s a much higher pass-fail cutoff, which it’s estimated will immediately increase the percentage of students failing - which will, in turn, drop letter grades for certain schools. Which could, if such ratings persist, cause control of said schools to go from their community to the state.

    To a cynical observer, considering the state’s unfavorable policies toward public education since the Mitch Daniels administration, this could be construed as a way to force public schools into state control or closing. But even if these new standards were meant to positively motivate students and schools, it’s hard to see that happening after it’s been tried already, especially since Indiana’s new standards are higher than NCLB.

    Why is the state taking this route? They rebuffed federal standards by rejecting Common Core, and yet now they’re doubling down on the standardized testing focus that was a pillar of NCLB.

    The answer, I think, is that much anti-Common Core fervor is less about finding an effective education policy than a rallying cry for small-government ideologues. Well, it doesn’t matter if it comes from the state level or federal level: when something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And does anyone want to argue more standardized testing and stricter accountability standards have worked?

  • Journalism alive and well, at least in Indiana

    A major story right here in our state, one with possibly huge implications for journalism as we know it, came and went so fast last week that you might have missed it.

    The state of Indiana announced plans to launch its own taxpayer-funded news site, Just IN. Memos seemed to suggest that the site would produce stories which could then be republished by other news sources.

    The reaction was swift and universally negative. Blogs and social media across the country raised comparisons to the infamous Soviet propaganda newspaper Pravda, while Governor Mike Pence was depicted in caricatures ranging from a toga-clad Roman Emperor to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. In response to the backlash, Pence clarified that the site would operate more in a press release capacity than as a full news source.

    We’ll never know for sure, for Just IN was killed before the week was over. Even so, the idea of a state-run media source remains very frightening. The idea probably arouses visions of some authoritarian regime in another country. The reality is in the current state of media in America, government-written content could theoretically supplant independent journalism without trampling on the First Amendment one bit.

    The new millennium has seen the rise of blatantly ideological sources, be they cable news or those viral stories you see all over social media. Such sources seem to have no problem promoting stories that bend the truth or are even outright false if it supports their point of view. It’s unlikely they’ll have any qualms about republishing state-approved content, either, if they support the party in office.

    Even worse, a state news source could conceivably infiltrate legitimate ones. The state of the newspaper industry in the age of the Internet has forced publications (especially small, local ones) to reduce staff and rely increasingly on wire services. So, what if such a service is set up by a government? The very thought should sicken any student or practitioner of journalism.

    In neither of these scenarios would anybody’s freedom of speech or the press be violated. And while just a cursory bit of research can tell you where your news comes from, a lot of people don’t look into what they read, so they might not even realize it if they’re reading exactly what the state wants them to think.

    Fortunately, the outcome for now turned out to be hopeful. While the outcry on social media sometimes veered into immaturity, it’s still very heartening that the populace cared. Also, before Pence’s clarification and the site’s cancellation, many Indiana papers (including The Times) stated they wouldn’t publish any stories from Just IN.

    With all the talk we hear of the death of journalism, it’s nice to know the principles and enthusiasm for a free and independent press are very much alive.

     

  • Low turnout, lower information

    Republicans are claiming that they have the mandate of the voters to govern after their midterm victories two weeks ago. Well, that is how our system works, or is supposed to work. In practice, though, our election results might not definitively reflect what the people want.

    This is especially true of these midterms, which saw the lowest turnout since World War II at less than 37 percent. At best, this is reflective of only the more dedicated voting blocs. But even for those who do vote, the choices they made may not be truly representative of their beliefs.

    Polls often tell a different story about what people want than the officials they elect. Probably the most high-profile example of such disparity is Obamacare: the name is viewed very negatively, but everything under the law is very popular, and people who live where the law was fully implemented love their new insurance. Polls similarly show a majority of the public supports immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, even a seemingly controversial assault weapons ban.

    And yet, they don’t vote that way.

    One conclusion might be that polls are only representative of a sample of the population, but then, the same can be said about an election where only slightly more than a third of the electorate voted. A more likely explanation: people vote without knowing exactly what they’re voting for.

    It’s easy to say people vote for attitude and personality more than issues, and that’s probably true to a certain degree. But as someone who reads and follows the issues and candidates for even small local offices as much as I can, I can honestly say voter misinformation goes beyond simply not paying close attention. While voting this Election Day, even I didn’t know at least half of the people running on my ballot. Candidates for certain Lake County offices had little to no coverage in local papers and not even so much as a yard sign as far as name recognition.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s gone to vote and had this reaction to their ballot. I'd imagine most people probably just select the party with which they identify…which might partially explain why so many incumbencies rarely budge and issues rarely make any headway.

    Low information and low turnout are both bad enough, but put together, it not only explains why American democracy is beyond dysfunctional, but makes you wonder how it ever wasn’t. And it’s a problem without any apparent solutions. I mean, how do you get the majority of the electorate to care about the issues enough to vote but not get taken in by empty campaign platitudes?

  • Newsletters

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Terms of Dunes pavilion lease seem fair

    About three months ago, I wrote a post on the banquet center being built alongside the pavilion at Indiana Dunes State Park, as well as residents’ concerns that it could affect the protected ecosystem or just disturb the shoreline’s natural beauty. I took the position that as long as it does no harm to the ecosystem or lead to the park as a whole becoming available for private reservation, adding a banquet hall is fine by me.

    I’ve seen no reason to change that stance. In fact, in addition to assurances that no public land will be disturbed, the project’s artist’s depiction doesn’t even make it look like that much of an eyesore (much less so than the Whiting Refinery and other industrial elements that pepper the skyline, for sure).

    But while most concerns that were raised seemed focused on the land itself, one other issue in the matter passed under the radar: money. Specifically, what does this arrangement mean for the operators of the banquet hall, Pavilion Partners, LLC, the Dunes, and local taxpayers?

    Well, for taxpayers, it means nothing, as the costs of the new facility’s construction falls solely on Pavilion Partners. In return, their lease on the facility runs for 35 years, with two 15-year renewal options.

    Under the terms of that lease (which you can read for yourself), Pavilion Partners will pay $18,000 each year in rent on the property, as well as give two percent of the center’s revenue to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

    As for taxes, the DNR did not respond to a request for comment. However, the lease agreement contains the following clause:

    “Any and all taxes, which may be lawfully imposed by the federal government, by the State of Indiana or by any political subdivision thereof upon the personal property or business of the Lessee on the Leased Real Estate, shall be paid promptly as due by the Lessee.”

     You can decide whether these terms are fair or not. I think it looks like a pretty standard public-private partnership agreement, myself, far from any sort of impropriety.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Why is Midterm election turnout so low?

    Midterm elections are coming up in November, but you probably won’t vote. Statistically, I have more than a 50 percent chance of being right about that.

    Voter turnout always falls far short of the entire US electorate, with Presidential Elections generally attracting somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of eligible voters. Midterms, though, barely even reach 40 percent, despite being arguably more important than Presidential elections (midterms do after all elect the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate and Governors in 34 states).

    Why is turnout so low? There are certainly cases of socioeconomic disenfranchisement, which accounts for part of it. But why do citizens who are very much enfranchised not even bother?

    A few guesses:

    • They’re uninformed: A lot of people simply don’t pay attention to the political system, and only hear big news that makes waves in the 24 hours news cycle. The national media is partially complicit in this, as they only seem to think in terms of Presidential Elections, and the angle for every news story is how it will affect the public officials involved if they run for President. Most national coverage of the midterms has focused more on what it could mean about the 2016 Election than who’s running for 2014. Local media is slightly better, but often gets drowned out in the conversation.
    • A Governor isn’t running: This only goes for 16 states, but Senate and House elections don’t exactly drum up the excitement of a Presidential or Governor race. In Indiana, we’re not electing a Senator or a Governor, just Representatives. That’s even less exciting because…
    • Systematic advantages: Congressional districts are so gerrymandered along political lines that few of them are competitive. In addition, the system favors those who have money, and the winner is almost always the one with the most campaign funds, not necessarily the one with the best ideas. Generally, this favors incumbents who have ties to many donors and lobbies.

    I realize none of these definitively answer why turnout is low, but they point out some flaws in our system. Maybe in searching for solutions for these problems, turnout will increase.

    And by the way, Midterms are on November 4. The deadline to register to vote for them in Indiana is October 6.

  • 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.