Doug Ross has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 30 years, including more than two decades at The Times of Northwest Indiana, where he is the Editorial Page Editor.
Doug is an elder at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Valparaiso and is on the board of the Indiana Center for Evidence-Based Nursing Practices
Lake County has more municipalities, libraries, school districts and other units of local government than you can shake a stick at — and don't tell me you haven't been tempted.
Is Lake County collapsing under the weight of all its government? And is there an alternative?
Those questions are all the more relevant during the E-911 consolidation anguish and the decades-long struggle to expand commuter rail service in Lake County.
Enter Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and his discussion of Unigov during his Wednesday visit with The Times Editorial Board.
"If you really want to go beyond the parochialism, you've got to think big," he said.
That means thinking about Unigov, which merged Indianapolis and Marion County when Dick Lugar was mayor there.
"They think regionally, and they're highly successful," McDermott said.
And then there's Lake County, where achieving unity is a struggle.
McDermott's selling point for turning Lake County into one large city — the second biggest in Indiana — is the clout Lake County and its mayor would gain downstate.
That's also one of the biggest fears expressed by many politicians who would be key in accomplishing that merger.
Their fears are valid and have to be taken into consideration. This is Lake County, after all. But realize the entire state puts a lot of power in one individual — the governor — and cities a lot bigger than Lake County have been successful with just one chief executive.
McDermott used this Lake County Unigov scenario as a midterm exam when he taught a local government course. The college students came up with varying plans, which included a name for the city.
Indiana State University beat him to that punch, though. Its Unigov proposal was dead even before printing was done.
McDermott's proposal is to push the merger years into the future — at least a decade — so the details can be worked out. That gets the current mayors out of the way so it doesn't become a battle for the new supermayor job.
It would work better if the municipal elections were switched to an even-numbered year. Currently, voter turnout is so low during municipal election years that it seems to be mostly municipal employees, their friends and relatives who cast ballots. That's not good public policy.
And, like the Indianapolis Unigov situation, it would take a legislative mandate and not a referendum to accomplish.
Sometimes it's hard to agree to do what's for your own good. Don't believe it? Just talk to any parent whose kid doesn't want to go to school.
Will it happen? Who knows? What Republican supermajority downstate wants to create a Democratic powerhouse? But it could turn into a Republican powerhouse in the future under the right conditions.
Planting seeds now, and continuing to water them, might get us to that point.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has a lot of challenges within her city. But her vision doesn't stop at the city limits.
Freeman-Wilson cast a key vote in support of the South Shore extension to Dyer when she announced Monday she would ask the City Council to approve 20 percent of the city's county economic development income tax revenue, starting in 2016, toward the commuter rail expansion.
The mayor said the city would give $100,000 toward the project in 2015.
"We have to take a regional approach" to economic development, she said Thursday.
She likewise cast a key vote in favor of the Illiana Expressway when it came before the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. Freeman-Wilson's support of the proposed highway was crucial.
So why support a highway that was several miles south of her city? Because she knows what buoys one part of the county can help everyone else.
In fact, Freeman-Wilson said she has heard from warehousing brokers who are interested in Gary locations when the Illiana opens, bringing congestion relief to the Borman Expressway.
I've made the point before that relieving Borman congestion will encourage businesses to consider northern Lake County locations. It's good to hear proof that developers think so, too.
By approving the Illiana, by supporting the South Shore extension, Freeman-Wilson is bringing indirect, and perhaps some direct, benefits to her constituents.
She's also helping the entire region.
That's the view more people in Northwest Indiana should embrace.
Freeman-Wilson knows the majority of employees at U.S. Steel's Gary Works live outside the city. But that doesn't discourage her from caring about those workers and the city streets they use.
Her attitude should inspire others to think big — meaning outside their own parochial boundaries — as well.
Freeman-Wilson is making some headway on major challenges facing the city.
There's asbestos remediation going on at the former Sheraton Hotel, which has been vacant almost 20 years. The asbestos needs to be dealt with so the building can be razed by October or November, she said.
Like it or not, that building next to City Hall is a symbol of Gary's troubles. It's an eyesore easily visible from vehicles zipping through the city on the Indiana Toll Road.
"I see a building I can see through, and that's not a good sign," she said.
About one-quarter of city's housing stock is abandoned, and Freeman-Wilson hopes to use state and federal help in knocking down about one-quarter of those.
Wouldn't it be good if Gary had partners in the region helping with this, too? That would require the same regional vision Freeman-Wilson has shown.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence calls himself not just the state's commander-in-chief, but also "salesman-in-chief."
So how many people are on his sales team? You'd better be sitting down for this one.
If Pence gets his way, he's got about 6,571,000 people working for him. In other words, he wants every Hoosier selling the state.
I've sat through any number of speeches by Indiana leaders extolling Indiana's virtues. What set Pence apart Thursday at Valparaiso University was his aggressiveness toward closing the deal.
Pence's stop in Valparaiso was brief — long enough to wolf down a slice of carrot cake, speak for about a half hour, sign major legislation regarding transportation funding, then out the door on a sales call to Chicago, at the Reinventing America Summit.
"I love going to Illinois," he told the Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce members. "It's what we call low-hanging fruit."
That brought lots of laughs — in Indiana — followed by his next sales pitch:
"I know that on my best day, I will not have with someone with whom you do business with outside the state of Indiana, someone you went to college with outside the state of Indiana, maybe a Hoosier expatriate who moved to another part of the country with his business — on my best day, I won't have a fraction of the credibility that you will have talking about the Hoosier state.
"So I'm going to ask you to go a little outside your comfort zone, OK. And before the end of this week, and I know it's Thursday — I think — I want you to reach outside the state of Indiana to someone who knows you, who respects you, who trusts you, who respects you for who you are or the enterprise you're in, and I want you to ask them this question:
"Would you ever be willing to talk to somebody about putting all or part of your business in Valparaiso or Porter County?"
It's one thing for governors and their economic development aides to make pitches like this, but when private citizens do it, to people they know, Indiana might be able to bring more jobs here.
That's not to say Indiana isn't having some success. Just this week, GE Aviation announced plans to build a $100 million jet engine plant in Lafayette with promises to create 200 jobs. And last week, Pratt Industries broke ground for a $260 million expansion that is expected to bring 137 jobs by 2018.
In fact, Pence pointed out, Indiana is the No. 3 job-creating state, behind Texas and California. Indiana created 50,000 jobs last year, he said.
There has been much discussion about Indiana creating a business-friendly climate, including tweaks made in the legislative session concluded just two weeks ago.
Now it's time to close some deals, and Pence wants his vast sales force to start dialing for dollars.
Who will you call?
If you had won Tuesday's $400 million Mega Millions jackpot, how long would it take you to decide what to do with that money?
I'm guessing it would take you a lot less time than for Porter County officials to reach a decision on the $140 million jackpot they received when they sold Porter Hospital in 2007.
Here we are seven years later, and the County Council and commissioners still are discussing what to do with that money.
When I talk of long-range planning, I'm not thinking of a planning process that takes years to accomplish.
As it now stands, it takes a majority of the County Council and Board of Commissioners to spend any of the interest money. Cracking the nest egg open — spending any of the principal — requires the unanimous consent of every member of both groups.
Meanwhile, the interest continues to add up, but not very quickly. Indiana law places strict limits on how county funds are invested.
County officials are continuing to discuss the option of taking a portion of that money and putting it into a foundation where it could fund big projects — and where the interest income would grow faster.
While they continue to discuss that option — more long-range planning — County Treasurer Mike Bucko is pushing for a legislative easing of his fiscal handcuffs.
Bucko worked with state Rep. Chuck Moseley, a Democrat, and state Sen. Ed Charbonneau, a Republican, on legislation that would address long-range investments for the proceeds from the sale of a major asset.
The General Assembly approved a summer study on this issue, but Charbonneau told me Thursday that's no guarantee the study will actually take place. It's up to the legislative leaders to determine that.
Yet to be ironed out are wrinkles like how to define a "major county asset," whether the proceeds should be put in a nonreverting trust fund with the principal never diminished, and permissible uses for the interest from that fund.
This might seem to apply only to Porter County, but Bucko says that's not so. Several counties are interested in selling hospitals, retirement homes and other houses and want to be able to invest these windfalls in mutual funds or other investments that would offer a good return on investment with relatively little risk.
"If it's a tool in our toolbox of opportunities, we ought to have it there," Bucko said.
This idea makes sense. We're talking about investments rated AA or above, not "Wolf of Wall Street" penny stocks and junk bonds.
"I have no business as a treasurer investing in complicated investments," Bucko said.
The Legislature should give the county treasurer more leeway, within reason, in investing this money for the long term.
Because who knows whether the County Council and commissioners will still be undecided next year on what to do with this huge jackpot.
Two events this week show Northwest Indiana isn't satisfied with the status quo. It's moving forward, and everyone should get on board with these two movements.
On Monday, the new Emerging Leaders Network launched a big push to support expanding commuter rail service in Northwest Indiana. On Thursday, the region's Shared Ethics Advisory Commission held a breakfast to disseminate ethics pledges to existing municipalities and counties that are not yet members, and to candidates running for public office this year.
The emerging leaders want the South Shore Line extended to Dyer, creating construction jobs as early as next year and improving access to high-paying jobs in Chicago when the rail line is built.
"The way forward is connecting to the global powerhouse that is the Chicago economy," said Ben Bochnowski, of Peoples Bank.
"Expanding the South Shore is how we claim our place in that global economy," he said.
Bill Hanna, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, urged the region to "be the leaders that we were destined to be, standing next to one of the most powerful cities on the planet.
"Here we stand at the finish line, almost, of one of the biggest things that could happen in our time," Hanna said.
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky emphasized the need to invest in the next generation, the way previous generations invested in ours by building the Borman Expressway and other major investments.
The West Lake Corridor idea first surfaced in 1987. "A generation has passed since that first conversation took place," Visclosky said.
The clock is ticking on Visclosky's March 31 deadline for local funding commitments.
With the local match in place — the federal government pays half the cost — a train could be running on those new tracks nine years from now.
Visclosky singled out today's seventh-graders as being among the first to be able to commute to Chicago via rail, staying in Northwest Indiana instead of leaving home for greener pastures.
My son is a seventh-grader. His speech hit home for me. But it hits home for others, too. Lake County has nearly 7,200 seventh-graders. I hope their parents are listening, too.
This project wouldn't require new taxes, only a portion of the taxes already being collected.
There are a lot of naysayers, but I hope they're drowned out by people with vision.
The same is true of the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission's push for ethics training and awareness in local government.
The commission hosted former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, who served on the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee, at its annual Ethics in Government breakfast meeting Thursday.
" 'At least he's not a convicted felon' does not sound like a high ethical standard to me," Hamilton said.
There are critics who say all politicians are crooks. They're wrong, of course. And there are politicians who say they don't need ethical guidance. They're wrong, too.
Both the South Shore extension and ethics-in-government movements must go forward. These are both vital quality-of-life issues for the region.
Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin is running for re-election, but she's not running from controversy. Neither should Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Elgin met Thursday afternoon with The Times Editorial Board to address criticism — by me, among others — over township spending.
Elgin was spotted using her township-owned vehicle to visit her campaign headquarters. That raised all sorts of questions about the township's fleet.
The fleet has shrunk dramatically since Elgin took office 11 years ago. But cutting spending remains urgent.
The township is under the gun to reduce spending on poor relief to no more than 12 times the state average. If not, Griffith could hold a referendum on seceding from Calumet Township. That would ease the tax burden in Griffith but exacerbate it elsewhere.
Between property tax caps and the incredibly low property tax collection rate, hitting that target is harder than it looks.
Calumet Township has to ask for twice as much as it expects to collect because the tax collection rate is so low. That's a rare problem in Indiana.
Elgin is suing Indiana to set aside this state law.
She makes a good argument in saying the township needs more guidance from the state in determining eligibility for assistance.
"The statute says every 30 days they're eligible, but the state says we do too much," she complained.
She said each intake interview with a client to determine eligibility takes 45 minutes. That's 60,000 man-hours a year for Calumet Township, she said.
It's also an opportunity for Pence.
Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels tried to streamline the welfare intake process by hiring IBM to handle it. It was a failure.
When IBM was gearing up, though, it turned to Calumet Township for advice, said Alex Wheeler, who heads the township's Job Search Works program.
Pence could capitalize on this situation. He should appoint a blue ribbon panel to study welfare in its various forms, including township assistance, with an eye toward making the process more efficient.
Daniels did that for local government reform. Not all of the Kernan-Shepard recommendations were implemented, and I'll keep reminding both elected officials and the public about the remaining reforms Indiana needs.
But that report did set the bar for reform, which is what welfare — everything from urgent rent and utility bill assistance to health care bills — needs.
One of the outcomes of a comprehensive welfare study should be to shift the township assistance tax burden from the township to the state. Calumet Township, with its concentrated poverty, is the poster child for this.
This blue ribbon, bipartisan panel could be Pence's opportunity to shape the future of welfare in Indiana for the next generation. What an appropriate way to honor the state's bicentennial in 2016.
We're all in the same boat when it comes to civil rights, but some of the passengers are paddling backward.
I'm referring to state lawmakers promoting pro-discrimination legislation.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed legislation Wednesday that would have allowed people to use their religious beliefs as a defense against discrimination claims.
In Indiana, state Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, attempted Wednesday to allow employers to use religion as a factor in determining who to hire.
That runs counter to everything I've heard about American employment practices, beginning with my undergrad business law class at Purdue North Central. There are certain questions that should not be asked at a job interview, and questions about religion are absolutely verboten.
What Boots proposed, what the Arizona legislators proposed, was to turn back the clock and allow discrimination that currently is illegal, not to mention unconstitutional.
If any of these proposals eventually become law, legal challenges will be inevitable.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged his state counterparts to not enforce laws that go against their beliefs. Holder, who is African-American, said he wouldn't have defended a "separate but equal" law in court.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller took the opposite tack, saying he defends laws he doesn't believe in. He cited capital punishment as an example. He's opposed to it, but his staff attorneys routinely make the state's case for applying the death penalty.
If Boots gets his way, Zoeller would be put in the position of defending an unconstitutional law that supports discrimination.
I'd like to think our society has come a long way since segregation was routine. I shudder at the thought of encouraging, rather than forbidding, businesses to discriminate against a group of customers based on their color, ethnic origin, creed or religion.
This isn't about religious ceremonies. That's different. This is about equal rights, not equal rites.
What our nation needs is unity, not division. The laws proposed in Indiana and Arizona and elsewhere must be denounced loudly.
It wasn't long ago that the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. We've come a long way since then. But for as much progress as we've made, there are still people like Boots who are paddling in the opposite direction.
Speaking of tolerance, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. used Twitter and Facebook as anti-social media Thursday morning.
Thursday's editorial on the city settling a lawsuit with ousted Hammond Housing Authority Director Maria Becerra prompted a classic unfiltered rant by McDermott on Twitter and Facebook.
The mayor's skin is awfully thin for someone who aspires to higher office.
McDermott's rant, while entertaining, was wrong about the diversity of The Times staff, both racially and geographically. We have staff members who live all across the region, including in the urban area.
Even as Chicago and Illinois talk about their legacy costs, meaning overly generous public pensions, Gary and Calumet Township are dealing with their own legacy of past poor decisions.
In her 2013 State of the City address, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson tried to put a good spin on the city, but she began by acknowledging what she inherited when she took office.
"Shortly after our first day, a number of federal agencies set meetings to tell us that the city was out of compliance with a variety of rules and regulations," the mayor said.
"At the Gary Sanitary District, representatives of the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management convened to talk about the Clean Water Act and convince me that I could not do what others had attempted to do for 20 years. At the Gary Housing Authority, HUD arrived to announce that they were prepared to take over the agency because our vacancy rate was too high and our waiting list too long," she said.
Some mayors' ideas of turning their cities around amounts to fine-tuning compared to what Freeman-Wilson faces with Gary. But she's working on it.
To her credit, she's also recruiting help. In this year's State of the City address, she had a strong message to those who sit on the sidelines instead of pitching in to help the city.
"What are you going to do?" she asked on Wednesday. "Will you continue to place side bets or do your part to get in the game?"
That's an inspiring attitude. How very different from what's happening with Calumet Township.
Township Advisory Board member Clorius Lay sued Trustee Mary Elgin to stop her from allowing certain employees to take home township-owned cars.
Elgin said there haven't been any take-home cars since she ordered four 2004 Ford Taurus cars parked last July amid criticism of township spending.
But why did the township have take-home vehicles in the first place?
Even as Elgin contends with Lay's lawsuit, she has filed one of her own. Elgin is suing Gov. Mike Pence in federal court to stop enforcement of a 2013 state law that requires the township to reduce the property tax rate supporting poor relief to less than 12 times the state average.
The township's tax rate has been as high as 22.6 times the state average for townships.
Calumet Township's administrative costs are 37 percent of of the total budget. Would you give money to a charity with overhead costs that high?
If Calumet Township doesn't bring its spending under control, it could lose Griffith, a major portion of its tax base.
It's fascinating, and instructive, to see how Freeman-Wilson and Elgin are responding to the legacy of excessive government spending. Freeman-Wilson is being creative in getting others to partner with the city on big projects while cutting city spending. Elgin has been cutting township spending since she took office, but she's giving up too soon.
It isn't easy, it isn't painless, but those cuts have to be made anyway.
The weather didn't reflect it, but Valparaiso had its own Arab Spring moment last weekend.
Shut down by the Valparaiso School Board, which didn't want to hear residents' concerns about a plan to send Chinese students to Valparaiso High School, the resident uprising took to social media to complain.
Those tweets, posts and other messages often contained inaccurate information, but that can happen when the official sources shut people out.
Here's how the story played out. Lumenus USA, a local company, already had received the School Board's blessing to place up to 30 Chinese students in the 2015 graduating class to get those students better acclimated to American culture even as they hone their English skills. The students then likely would enter Valparaiso University.
It was a good plan. It should be revisited after a new school superintendent is hired.
The school system would be paid full tuition by Lumenus and the Chinese students would be eligible to participate in all school activities except sports — and that was because the Indiana High School Athletic Association had not yet given its approval.
The Chinese students would benefit from interaction with Americans, and the Valparaiso residents would benefit from the exposure to the foreign students.
After the School Board approved the plan, with little notice, the public had many questions about it — especially about crowding at the school, the effect on their children's class ranking and access to advanced placement tests.
So students and adults attended the Feb. 6 School Board workshop to learn more and to express their concerns and fears, many of which could have been quelled with a frank recitation of the facts.
But the board didn't want to listen to them. Board President Mark Maassel said only comments about the superintendent selection would be accepted at last week's meeting. Comments about the Lumenus contract would have to wait until Feb. 20, he said.
That was the wrong thing to say. He effectively shut down members of the public who wanted to voice their concerns through the proper channels.
Complicating the matter is that the Valparaiso School Board members are appointed, not elected, and that Mayor Jon Costas owns an 11 percent stake in Lumenus. Costas doesn't appoint members, but his political influence on the City Council must be noted.
If the board members were elected, perhaps they would more easily recognize they are accountable to the public, rather than the City Council or Center Township Advisory Board members who appoint them.
Lumenus withdrew its proposal Monday morning following a weekend firestorm on social media.
If the School Board had listened, the residents wouldn't have had to throw a social media tantrum.
The Chinese students won't be learning at VHS, unfortunately, but it could still become a teachable moment for the School Board. Listen to the public before making decisions, and respect the public's concerns.
If you're worried about footing the bill for eliminating the personal property tax for businesses, your misery has company.
A new report by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute shows how much Lake County could be affected by this proposal.
Gov. Mike Pence has proposed eliminating this tax but left it up to the Indiana General Assembly to figure out the ramifications. And for Lake County, that impact could be huge.
Eliminating a tax is easy. Figuring out how to provide the services that tax previously funded isn't easy because it means figuring out who gets stuck with the tab.
Pence wants to eliminate the tax, but he also doesn't want it to be onerous for private citizens. I'm still trying to figure out how that could be accomplished.
As economists John Stafford and Larry DeBoer noted in the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute report, personal property is mainly business equipment used to produce an income. For a steel mill or refinery, that's close to the entire value of the mill.
Further complicating all this is the constitutional cap on property taxes. If property tax rates rise in Lake County and elsewhere to help businesses reduce their tax burden, more homeowners and others would hit those tax caps. That would make it even harder for local government to recoup that lost revenue.
Further complicating the issue is that the personal property tax burden isn't spread evenly throughout the state.
Lake, Allen, Marion and Vanderburgh counties by themselves account for 29 percent of all Indiana revenues from this tax, the report explains.
Eliminate this tax, and those counties are hit hardest.
Lake County alone would lose an estimated $109 million a year (17.5 percent of county property tax revenue). Porter County would take a $25 million hit (13.4 percent).
The burden could be shifted onto a local option income tax, but that's onerous for private citizens. Businesses aren't subject to that tax.
Separate House and Senate proposals to abolish this tax are moving forward, but the solution for replacement revenue still isn't palatable.
A better solution might be to offer long-term abatement for new personal property. That would have the effect of encouraging additional investment even as the state acknowledges concerns expressed by businesses, especially manufacturers, about this tax.
It also would avoid the necessity of making Hoosiers pay for a major business tax break.
Indiana is already business-friendly. It doesn't need to become business-intimate at the citizens' expense.
Mayor Jon Costas and his administration have brought significant improvements to Valparaiso by creating a business plan for the city, presenting it to the citizens, tweaking it as needed, and sticking to it.
In his State of the City address Tuesday, Costas spoke of his administration's past accomplishments.
Roundabouts, of course, are right up there on his list. Valparaiso was the first city in Northwest Indiana to adopt roundabouts as a solution to poor traffic flow at troublesome intersections.
Costas jokingly referred to roundabouts as "those ubiquitous circular shrines of vehicular tranquility." You either love them or hate them, and Costas has gotten an earful.
The new roundabout at the city's five-points intersection — where Vale Park Road, Roosevelt Road and Calumet Avenue meet — is the latest, but not the last, example.
"Now that the roundabout has been at work for almost two months, the only vocal complaint I've gotten is that there aren't enough lights on the big spruce that lives there," Costas said. "I have to admit I was a bit relieved to see it not just worked, but it worked very well."
The roundabouts are a symbol of the Costas administration, and not just because of the number of them installed during his tenure.
Driving in a roundabout is confusing to people who are accustomed to driving in a straight line, waiting for the stoplight to turn green, then proceeding. But not everyone is patient. Some are in a hurry to get where they're going.
I mean that figuratively, not just literally.
When I was younger, I was stymied as I was trying to exit the parking lot at the Arie Crown Theatre in Chicago. I wondered if the traffic rules had been suspended for the evening. Then I got great advice: Aim for a newer car, and you'll go forward.
That advice generally works for driving in a roundabout, too.
When you think about it, aiming for something new isn't such a bad way to lead a city.
I enjoy the new downtown park Costas' administration created. Valparaiso's downtown, in part because of the park, is vibrant again.
I'm looking forward to the park's expansion, beginning later this year. Costas, one of the best mayors in the region, is focused on continual improvements.
Linear thinking, and not just at intersections, goes only so far. It takes a creative spark to turn things around, which is why Valparaiso has so many roundabouts.
For Valparaiso, it all began with a business plan for the city when Costas first ran for mayor. He knew where he wanted to take the city, and he has taken it there.
Now it's time to look deeper into the future to see what else can be accomplished.
This time, though, the planning is being led by citizens. That's a smart move.
This is a model every city and town in the region should follow.
This week's theme, apparently, is taxes on businesses. Along with the continuing discussion in Indianapolis over personal property taxes for businesses, there has been discussion of other business taxes.
MONDAY: U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly urges lowering the corporate income tax rate to about 25 percent.
WEDNESDAY: U.S. Sen. Dan Coats also proposes lowering the corporate income tax rate as part of his 2014 legislative agenda.
THURSDAY: Rex Richards, president and CEO of the Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce, says the tax burden on Indiana businesses has been increasing.
The top U.S. corporate income tax rate is 35 percent, said to be the world's highest. The reality, though, is corporations pay about 17 percent, on average, in part because of all the loopholes Donnelly and Coats want to eliminate.
Why would a business support a proposal that would increase its tax burden? Because then it'd know where it stands.
Donnelly spoke of AT&T's CEO telling him, "Look, what we want is certainty for a couple of years. Right now there's more cash on the sidelines with American businesses than in any time in history."
It's as if we were at a high-stakes poker table, and every one of the gamblers is afraid to place a big bet. Except in this case, that big bet isn't a stack of poker chips. It's a major investment in machinery, a new location or other business expansion, or some other business investment that translates into a lot of new jobs.
And jobs are what this economy needs to move the needle from slow to fast.
Coats, a Republican, and Donnelly, a Democrat, don't appear to be far apart on the numbers. Coats' 2011 legislation called for a flat 24 percent corporate income tax rate. Donnelly said he's flexible on the 25 percent. If they can convince their colleagues in the Senate and House, we could see some meaningful action on the economy coming from this Congress.
Even as this discussion continues in Washington, Indianapolis is focused on the business personal property tax. Richards put this in perspective.
If individuals paid this tax, they would be dunned for every toaster, microwave oven, washer, dryer, personal computer and snowblower — a timely reference this time of year — they own.
There needs to be a dialogue on how best to fund government. Not all individuals have the same ability to pay, which is why corporations are asked to chip in as well.
The key, though, is to offer not just tax reform, but also stability. Provide a stable tax structure that encourages business investment while generating the revenue the government needs for its own strategic investments.
There's a lot more action on tax issues right now, but hasn't your brain been taxed enough already trying to sort through all this?
A potpourri can be either a medley of miscellaneous items or a mixture of flower petals and so forth used to make things smell better. Considering the topics for this column, maybe it's both.
What do former Gary City Councilwoman Marilyn Krusas and Beanie Babies king Ty Warner have in common?
Krusas failed to file income tax returns for two decades and cheated the federal government out of an estimated $80,000 to $200,000. Her sentence: one year and one day in prison.
Warner, who squirreled away at least $25 million in an offshore bank account, agreed to pay $27 million in back taxes and interest and a $53 million civil fine. His sentence: two years of probation.
If you saw "The Wolf of Wall Street," which got five Oscar nominations Thursday, this might sound familiar.
In that movie, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) faces federal charges — but remember, the wealthy aren't treated the same as others.
Marry, marry, quite contrary
The battle over same-sex marriage and civil unions continues in the Statehouse in the Hoosier Holy Land. It looks like GOP infighting is heating up.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, who has said the referendum on the constitutional amendment isn't a priority, appears ready to replace members of the House committee hearing that legislation so it can move to the House floor.
That comes on the heels of a Chesapeake Beach Consulting poll for the Republican legislators that said Republican opposition to the amendment increases to 54 percent when they learn civil unions would be banned as well.
Same-sex marriages and civil unions already are illegal in Indiana.
So here's another issue where Republican candidates will have to be extremists to win in the primary but could lose to moderate candidates in the fall, when independents weigh in.
A Republican initiative from a few years back, the Common Core Standards for education, was approved by the Indiana State Board of Education and endorsed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels but is now under attack.
The business community likes the Common Core Standards because they put all students on an even footing for comparison.
As much as he likes to compare Indiana's business climate to other states when it comes to taxes, Gov. Mike Pence is following the Tea Party line in opposing Common Core.
"Hoosiers have high expectations when it comes to Indiana schools. That's why Indiana decided to take a time-out on national education standards," Pence said in his State of the State address Tuesday.
"When it comes to setting standards for schools, I can assure you, Indiana's standards will be uncommonly high, and they will be written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers, and will be among the best in the nation."
So much for Common Core as a way to make sure Hoosier students stack up well against their peers nationally.
A major report on Asian carp came out this week, but it was buried by snow — along with everything else.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report Tuesday suggests a number of options for dealing with the Asian carp and other invasive species creeping into the Great Lakes.
Among the ideas on the table — or in the water, in this case — are:
- Reverse the flow of the Chicago River (restoring it after all these years)
- Inspecting and cleaning watercraft before or after entering a waterway
- Set up nets with openings big enough to let smaller fish through but big enough to trap Asian carp
- Use locks to zap water around barges and other vessels on the Chicago Area Waterway System
- Apply herbicides and pesticides
- Use electric fences
Environmental groups quickly jumped on the idea of physically separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River as the most effective way. They're right, of course, but the collateral damage could be severe.
That would shut down the shipping industry, a bad idea in an area whose economy is heavily dependent on transportation.
The report hinted at another idea, but it wasn't explicit. But first you should know why Asian carp are in our area in the first place.
They were in fish farms in the Deep South, then escaped the farms when the Mississippi River flooded some years back. Who can blame them for exploring new territory?
If they spread to the Great Lakes — and they're right on the doorstep — the Asian carp species could dominate, threatening the existence of other species in the lakes.
These fish are menacing, too. Just ask Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who took a boat trip on the Wabash River and came face to face with Asian carp. Zoeller wants an Indiana hearing on the Asian carp issue before Congress settles on a strategy.
By the time Congress acts, it might be too late to fight the spread of Asian carp to the Great Lakes. But even if the Great Lakes can be protected, what about the waterways they have already invaded?
The image most people have of the Asian carp is of giant fish leaping into boats. Or maybe they've seen the electric fences zapping the fish, thinking about what that might do to a swimmer.
That got me to thinking. If you're going to fry the fish anyway, why not dip them in batter first?
Here's my suggestion: Create a market for these carp by inviting top chefs to create recipes for them and make them a delicacy in top restaurants. Whether this is through a Food Network show or a Chicago restaurant contest, the aim is to make the public crave this fish.
That would create market-based incentives for commercial fishing of those species and boost sport fishing as well.
If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.
The Christmas Day death of a pregnant Calumet City teen in Dolton is not an isolated tragedy but part of a long string of bad decisions with tragic consequences.
As happens so often when a child is shot and killed, Eva Casara, 17, was described as an innocent victim. But a closer look at this case is warranted.
Casara was 5 1/2 months pregnant when she was shot. Her child, Leilani Paris Casara, survived. That baby is a victim of this crime, too.
The baby's father, along with two other young men, have been charged in connection with the crime.
Dolton police and Cook County state's attorneys allege Casara herself was right in the middle of a convoluted scheme that turned fatal.
They said Casara set up a fake drug deal so her boyfriend, 16-year-old Anthony Lee, and his brothers Diante Coakley, 21, and Darius Marshall, 19, could rob the alleged drug dealer.
A prosecutor said Thursday all three fired at the vehicle in which Casara and the alleged drug dealer, a Hammond man, were sitting. Casara was struck by a bullet in the back of the head.
The intended victim of the crime, the alleged drug dealer, fled the scene and dumped Casara in an alley, police said. She was still alive. A passer-by found her Christmas night.
Coakley and Lee allegedly drove to Gary to look for Casara, not realizing the intended robbery victim lived in Hammond and not Gary.
If the police and prosecutors are right about this chain of events, it's one dreadful decision after another.
In cases like this, police and prosecutors come in after the fact to investigate the crimes involved. They seek to apprehend the criminals and bring them to justice.
But who's going to look at this crime to try to figure out where Casara, her boyfriend and his brothers started to go wrong? And how can those lessons be applied to help others avoid the tortured route those young people allegedly took?
Baby Leilani might or might not survive. If the baby does grow up, it will be without the mother and perhaps without the father as well.
Casara and Lee should have avoided pregnancy. They shouldn't have been having sex in the first place. Early sexual activity is a precursor to all sorts of troubles.
Even if there hadn't been another crime involved, the baby's life would have been difficult, and so would the teen mother's.
In the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey gets to look at consequences before making an important life choice. He then makes the right decision.
If only Casara, her boyfriend and his brothers had that same opportunity when their lives started to go off the rails.
But now Casara's life is over at age 17, and the young men face potential legal consequences as well as the loss of a friend.
Talk about this tragic story with your kids. Make sure they see what bad decisions can lead to.
December isn't the normal time to talk about parks. But this is the season of giving, and this column is about giving back to the community by cleaning up parks.
Parks are a sign of vitality — or lack thereof — in a community. A well-groomed park shows people have pride in their community, in their neighborhood, and consider quality of life a priority.
What do you look at when you're shopping for a home? The schools, the nearby homes, the parks and other amenities.
So now that we're nearing the midpoint of Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's four-year term, remember her plan to get people to help clean up the city's many parks.
The first to pitch in was Neighborhoods Inc., led by Keith Speaks.
In late April 2012, the mayor mentioned a new adopt-a-park program. Speaks promptly volunteered to clean up Rees Park by the end of May.
"I could just read their minds, thinking who is this nut?" Speaks said. But he and his staff had done their homework, looking carefully at the park near the intersection of Grant Street and Fifth Avenue.
Neighborhoods Inc. cobbled together a team of volunteers, including a Lake County work release crew.
"It looked like the A-team," Speaks recalls. "The van doors spilled open, and these guys just started spilling out of there like a bunch of busy bumblebees, started picking up tools." The work Speaks thought would take four hours was done in half that time.
A total of more than 1,000 hours of labor were needed to clean up that park.
The nearby McDonald's restaurant adopted Rees Park so it would continue to be maintained.
Neighborhoods Inc. also cleaned up Borman Square Park near the Cathedral of Holy Angels, and the cleanup spread to the surrounding neighborhood. Three groups cleaned up 23 empty lots, Speaks said.
One man, whom Speaks referred to as "Chain Saw Bill," was helpful in cutting down trees growing in vacant lots.
Neighbors saw what was happening, came outside, and offered food and water.
The park, near the city's water tower, is getting more use now that it has been cleaned up, Speaks said. That will translate to taking better care of the park.
Neighborhoods Inc. was an early adopter, but not the only one.
The Bridgette Kelly Foundation and the Northwest Indiana Green Vision Project, led by the Times Media Co. and former Lake County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura, pitched in last year, along with other local organizations.
The key to making these cleanups successful is to involve the neighbors in the cleanup and deliver a park they will be so proud of that they will help the city maintain it.
"I've got neighbors over there — two guys, and that's been one and a half years now — who said they would come over and mow that park," Speaks said. "They don't even know each other."
But they know the value of a well-maintained park, and that's important in a city like Gary that is struggling to right itself.
If the much-ballyhooed Porter County Jobs Cabinet report had a soundtrack, it most likely would include "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas. Just change the lyrics to "Dust on the Shelf."
I occasionally accuse Porter County government of being dysfunctional. The response to this report is a good example.
On Wednesday, the Porter County Economic Development Alliance hosted a breakfast meeting to revisit the Jobs Cabinet's final report, issued a year earlier.
The report easily could have been reissued with only a one-keystroke difference — to change the date from 2012 to 2013.
"We gave a list of recommendations, and it's really a menu. It's not prescriptive at all," Jobs Cabinet facilitator Bill Hanna said Wednesday. Hanna is president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
In the year since this report — commissioned by Commissioner John Evans — was released, the Porter County Council has not officially heard the recommendations.
That should be easily rectified. The council should swiftly schedule a presentation by Hanna and others, then review the recommendations.
Among the advice was to create a Porter County Department of Economic Development. It need not be a big agency. The executive director, with any necessary staff support, would report to the commissioners.
But the department can't be created without funding, and that's the council's bailiwick. This executive director wasn't included in the 2014 budget approved by the council this year.
The danger for Porter County is to look around and see signs of the improving economy, then conclude nothing needs to be done.
The county needs to do something before another economic downturn, Hanna said, because by then opportunities would have been lost.
Porter County sold the government-owned hospital, which created an enormous nest egg growing interest that could be tapped for some of the Jobs Cabinet's recommendations. The remaining large asset is the county-owned airport in Valparaiso.
There's already some development near the airport. Planning well could attract additional business investments without limiting the airport's ability to grow.
The county's proximity to Chicago is another big selling point. Improved access to the rest of the Chicago metro area would allow the county to better tap one of the world's largest economies.
There are many other recommendations in the report for the council to consider.
Even focusing on two or three for now would be better than continuing to ignore the report.
Recommendations like this that gather dust are signs of government negligence and dysfunction. Worse, they discourage continued engagement and trust in government by major stakeholders.
Lake County residents know what I mean. Just say Good Government Initiative, and they'll talk of missed opportunities.
Porter County is headed that same direction. It's up to the County Council to make sure that doesn't happen. Dust off this report.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. threw his weight around Thursday, but it didn't land where he wanted.
McDermott wanted a weighted vote on the Illiana Expressway proposal at the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission meeting, but it ended up backfiring on him.
The final vote was 76-20, with the vote weighted by population. Hammond, for example, has 11.2 percent of the population of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, so McDermott's vote against the Illiana was more than half of the "anti" vote.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson controlled nearly 13.9 percent of the vote, with NIRPC using 2000 Census data instead of 2010 to determine the weight of each vote.
Had it been a straight show of hands, rather than a weighted vote, the project would have won by a mere two votes.
Freeman-Wilson spoke eloquently in a carefully crafted speech about the need to think regionally, not parochially. That's what it's all about.
There will be people inconvenienced by Thursday's vote, some more than others. Everyone feels sympathy for their plight.
Lowell Town Council member Craig Earley has spoken passionately about the potential strain the expressway could put on the volunteer EMS and firefighting services in that area. It's an issue that needs to be addressed.
Earley isn't happy about the NIRPC decision.
Personally, I'm thrilled by the results of Thursday's voting. It means the Illiana will qualify for federal funding. There are other hurdles yet for the expressway, but the big ones have all been cleared.
What doesn't thrill me is the number of communities not represented in this vote.
Three municipalities in LaPorte County — LaCrosse, Pottawatomie Park and Westville — haven't filled vacant seats on the commission yet. Dune Acres, in Porter County, also hasn't appointed anyone to NIRPC.
Admittedly, these are small towns, with as few as 213 residents, so there are fewer potential representatives to choose from. Still, this is an important position.
On top of those vacancies, there were six municipalities that have representation, but those people were no-shows Thursday on what might be the most important NIRPC vote of the decade.
Kingsbury, Kouts, Michiana Shores, the Pines and St. John weren't represented there. (Ogden Dunes representative Tom Clouser attended, but was out of the room when the crucial vote was taken. His vote would not have affected the outcome.)*
You'd think St. John, at least, would have had a representative there. The town is relatively close to where the expressway will run and could feel the effects of that development.
To me, it all comes back to what Freeman-Wilson said. We need to come together as a region, not be focused on individual parochial thinking. The no-shows and vacancies reflect the latter, not the former.
* This column has been changed from the original, to reflect Tom Clouser's attendance during most of the meeting.
Watching the reactions to former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til's guilty plea has been interesting. The comments I've read and heard say a lot about people's outlook on life, not just their political views.
Van Til admitted using county employees and resources to campaign for office. He submitted his resignation as part of his plea bargain.
In a statement Van Til sent to The Times, he noted the good he accomplished as well as admitting he did wrong.
Van Til was surveyor for 20 years, nearly half of his 42-year political career. In that time, of course he accomplished some good things.
On the day that news broke that Van Til would plead guilty, he received a letter from a state official commending the surveyor's office for its implementation of a robust GIS system.
Some observers have a harsh view of politicians — in this case Van Til — and see only black and white.
I see Van Til in shades of gray, noticing his accomplishments as well as his crimes.
Make no mistake. What Van Til did was wrong, and he should be punished for it.
I've known Van Til for years, and I see a beaten man. Removing him from office, head hanging in shame, is real punishment for him.
Van Til could have to pay up to $20,000 in restitution. That's not much. The real question is how much time Van Til will serve behind bars. That will be determined when he is sentenced.
How long should that sentence be? It depends on your political persuasion, to some extent, but even more so on how you balance justice, mercy and practicality.
Many Republicans want vengeance — not just for what Van Til did, but for the Democratic Party's grip on Lake County. But Van Til, not the party, is on trial here. In this country, people are prosecuted for their actions, not their politics.
From a practical standpoint, Van Til would be an expensive prisoner to house. His health isn't good, and the government pays for health care for prisoners.
The people who want Van Til sentenced to a lengthy prison term might not be thinking of the financial ramifications.
However, letting Van Til off with just the restitution, the forced resignation and a suspended sentence would not be enough. Other elected officials need to see this crime has serious consequences. Van Til needs to serve time.
The question should be how much, not whether.
Keeping in mind this is a federal crime, look at what the Indiana General Assembly accomplished with sentencing reform. The state's criminal code was overhauled to make sure each punishment fits the crime.
What Van Til did was basically theft. He stole county resources, by appropriating them for his use. He should be punished accordingly.
But he also stole a portion of what little trust remains of Lake County government. To me, that's his worst crime, and the entire county will be punished for that.
With Thanksgiving fresh on our minds, this seems the perfect time to discuss immigration and related issues.
You'll remember from those pageants in grade school that the first Thanksgiving was held after the Pilgrims survived a year in the New World. It was a harsh year, and many of the settlers died.
The ones who did survive thanked God for their lives, but they invited the natives to join them for that feast.
My, how the tables have turned since that first Thanksgiving dinner.
Now some of the descendants of immigrant want to shut the door to newcomers, not extend the same help their ancestors received.
But perhaps there's another way.
The Midwest has some of the best universities in the nation. They draw students from far beyond the Midwest.
In fact, Purdue University's main campus in West Lafayette drew 9,509 international students from 126 countries in 2012-13, according to the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, co-published Nov. 11 by the U.S. State Department.
Purdue ranked second in the nation in terms of foreign students at public universities, the report said. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ranked No. 1, with 9,804 students.
With all due apologies to the leftover turkey, there's a lot of red meat in that report:
- Indiana's 24,389 foreign students brought the state more than $775,000 in foreign spending, creating 11,122 direct and indirect jobs.
- Of those, 756 students were at Purdue University Calumet and 492 at Valparaiso University.
- Illinois had 39,047 foreign students, bringing nearly $1.1 billion in foreign dollars to the state and creating 5,257 direct jobs and 11,974 indirect jobs.
- China sends almost as many students to U.S. colleges and universities than the next four leading countries combined.
Why bring Thanksgiving, immigration and foreign students into the same column? Because they were all present at that first Thanksgiving.
The reason the Native Americans were invited to that first feast is because the newly arrived immigrants would have perished without their instruction.
Now we're the natives educating the foreign newcomers at our universities. We're teaching them American ways of life.
There's a lot of yakking about immigration reform in Washington, D.C., and out here in the land beyond the Beltway.
But just for a moment, remember that first Thanksgiving and what the Americans of European descent owe to the Native Americans -- the ones who arrived first and decided to help the newcomers instead of clamoring for them to be sent back.
Now you've got another reason to be thankful on this day after the celebration of that first feast in the new land -- and food for thought, too.
Where were you when you learned President John F. Kennedy was assassinated? That's assuming you were old enough to remember, of course.
I was with my mother, watching a grainy television in a gas station.
It was a pivotal moment on which the world suddenly turned.
I was young, just 4 years old, and this is one of my earliest memories. But it's still vivid.
Fifty years later, it's an appropriate time to look for perspective.
JFK is considered the best president of the modern (as in post-World War II) era. Is it because he was martyred? Or is it because of his actions in the Bay of Pigs and other tests of his leadership?
On Tuesday, we marked the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Compared to other speeches of its time, Lincoln's 272-word speech was practically a tweet. But it offered a positive message that focused the nation on the reasons for fighting the rebels in the Civil War.
JFK, too, offered memorable oratory. Who can forget the stirring message, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
It was a time to serve others, not a time to serve yourself.
And look what has happened to our society in the 50 years since Kennedy was suddenly taken away from us.
In 1968, the American political world turned bloody once more. Martin Luther King Jr., the famed civil rights leader, was shot to death in April. Two months later, JFK's brother, Robert, was killed.
Today, the Camelot years are long gone.
Wealth has become more concentrated, and fewer Americans believe the next generation will have a better standard of living than their own.
The haves often look at the have-nots with scorn, wondering why they reach out for public assistance. And the have-nots have become addicted to public aid, finding it difficult to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, a term popular in the 1960s.
We have become a nation so polarized over access to health care that our federal government was partially shut down for weeks. Political feuds, rather than collaboration and compromise, have become the order of the day. Faith in government has sunk to new lows.
When JFK was running for president, his book "Profiles in Courage" wasn't a fawning autobiography but the story of eight U.S. senators who exercised the courage of their convictions and not the party line. It's a book worth reading today.
I think President Barack Obama was elected because Americans want a charismatic leader who can unite the nation. That hasn't happened.
What will it take to pull the nation back together again?
Fifty years since JFK's assassination, and 150 years since the Civil War, it's an urgent question. Please share your thoughts.
Follow The Times
If you are facing difficulty meeting your personal obligations…
Military Men & Women Receive 10% Off Their Purchase Every Day!
Over 25 years of experience. Accepting NEW Patients. Participating with MetLife, Delta, and Guardian Networks at Dr. Daniel Bades office!
New Patient Special $99 includes exam, x-ray and treatment plan.
or go to www.meyersgriffith.com
Weddings by Rev. Doug Klukken will perform your wedding to you…
Submit a Letter to Editor
We welcome letters from readers on any issue of public interest, and make every effort to publish as many as we can and in a timely manner. The Times will publish only one letter a month from a writer, and be sure to include your name, address and a telephone number for verification. Letters should be 150 words or less. They will be edited.Letters may be submitted:
- Via our submission form.
- Via e-mail.
- Via fax: (219) 933-3249 or (219) 465-7298
- Via mail or by hand to our offices:
- 601 45th Ave., Munster, IN 46321
- 2080 N. Main St., Crown Point, IN 46307
- 1111 Glendale Blvd., Valparaiso, IN 46383
- 3410 Delta Dr., Portage, IN 46368
- Please mark envelopes with "Attn: Letters"
Email Editorial Page Editor Doug Ross or call (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357
Should Lake County join the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission?