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RICH JAMES: Too many negatives define Hoosier state

RICH JAMES: Too many negatives define Hoosier state

Just a week ago, the front page of this newspaper provided a microcosm of what Indiana is all about.

On the lower left corner, Gov. Mike Pence talked about luring businesses to Indiana because of the wonderful tax climate.

On the lower right corner was a report about Indiana being 45th in the nation in infant mortality, meaning that in only five states do more babies die before their first birthday.

Welcome to Indiana where business is king, and the health of babies isn’t much of a priority.

What Pence failed to mention is it takes more than a favorable tax climate to make a state attractive to business and industry.

And that’s where Indiana is lacking.

There are other stories when it comes to Northwest Indiana -- or the state in general -- being an attractive place. While there are positives, there are too many high-profile negatives.

The state’s public education system, which once was a model for the nation, has been under attack by former Gov. Mitch Daniels, Pence and the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Teachers have lost rights, including the ability to negotiate key portions of their contracts. They no longer are treated as professionals.

Charter schools are popping up quicker than tulips -- all at the expense of public schools.

And it isn’t clear whether Pence or Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz is in charge of education.

The Legislature also has made it clear gays will be treated as second-class citizens, and unions aren’t terribly welcome because of the state’s right-to-work “for a lower wage” law.

And when we are talking about the state’s relationship with Northwest Indiana, things get worse.

Five years after the Cline Avenue Bridge was closed, there hasn’t been a yard of concrete poured to get the thing reopened.

Because the state refused to rebuild the bridge, it will be constructed as a toll road by the private sector. NWI’s blue-collar workers will pay for it. Imagine, a toll road running through one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the country. Steelworkers will have to pay to drive to work.

But who cares? Business taxes are low.

Potential businesses might also want to consider that Cline Avenue -- the region’s industrial thoroughfare -- was closed for a few days during the winter. Road surface decay, resulting from state neglect, made it too dangerous for vehicles.

And businesses might want to consider that $400 million in new highway money won’t be spent in Lake or Porter counties.

But Pence can boast about the business climate. He also can talk about the $2 billion the state has in the bank while babies are dying, roads are crumbling and schools are cutting staff and programs because of a lack of funding.

That, my friends, is Honest to Goodness Indiana.

April 13, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Hammond is missing link in Lake County unity

RICH JAMES: Hammond is missing link in Lake County unity

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky is on the verge of doing what no other politician has ever done – unite Lake County.

Almost single-handedly, Visclosky has plodded around the county asking 19 municipalities to commit a portion of their county economic development income tax to extending the South Shore Line from Hammond to Dyer.

Eleven communities and the county have committed various amounts.

Dyer, which stands to gain more than others, promised a paltry sum, which tells me drinking the water there might not be advisable.

There is one major missing link that could have made Visclosky’s job easier.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, who doubles as county Democratic chairman, is straddling the fence even though the extension has been discussed for some 25 years.

Although the mayor of the county’s largest city said he is committed to the project, he will ask the City Council next week to approve a resolution calling for a $250,000 environmental impact study.

Unfortunately, part of the city’s CEDIT money – that could go to rail expansion – will be used to fund the study.

“I think regionally, but my bottom line job is to take care of the citizens of Hammond,” McDermott said as he tried to explain why he is waffling.

It seems an environmental study is little more than an effort for Hammond to stiff-arm the project or commit a minimal amount of money at best.

Extending the train to Dyer will mean fewer folks driving to Hammond to board a train headed to Chicago. That has good and bad aspects.

McDermott said some fear that if fewer commuters drive to Hammond there would be a ripple effect on nearby businesses.

Like Hammond, there won’t be an immediate benefit to Gary, since both cities rest on the current rail line.

Nevertheless, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has shown leadership in saying she will ask the council to commit 20 percent of the city’s CEDIT or about $793,000.

Perhaps the most acute comment I’ve heard came the other day from Crown Point Councilman Andrew Kyres, who said, “At the end of the day, what’s good for one region or one city or one town, the other town is going to benefit. This is an opportunity that I would hate we not take advantage of.”

As Kyres said, this is about improving the quality of life – financially included – of Lake County and beyond. That really hasn’t happened since the downturn in steel employment 35 years ago.

Come on, Mayor Mac, you know an environmental impact study is a waste of time and money.

Shoot, if I had a nickel for every South Shore expansion study that has been done over the last 25 years, I’d be a rich man.

April 09, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Kumstar machine-guns Ligon's reputation

RICH JAMES: Kumstar machine-guns Ligon's reputation

Some people will go to any length to get elected.

Richard Ligon is one of them. And sadly, he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with what he’s doing.

Well, he got an earful last week.

Ligon is retired from the National Guard and the U.S. Postal Service as an inspector. He is one of two Democrats challenging Sheriff John Buncich.

Ligon projects one of those holier than thou images. That doesn’t work when you’re swimming in the political sewer.

Ligon’s problem is Joseph Kumstar.

You might recall Kumstar was deputy police chief under Roy Dominguez, who preceded Buncich as sheriff.

You also may recall that Kumstar was convicted of the illegal acquisition and sale of restricted machine gun parts and laser sights. And he used his position as a police officer to make the illegal acquisitions.

Kumstar was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison. But he is still running the streets because the government wants to use him to testify against the weapons firm from which he acquired the parts.

So what does a guy who’s waiting to report to prison do with his time?

Well, Kumstar hit the campaign trail singing the praises of Ligon.

And Ligon, who wants to be the top law enforcement officer in the county, apparently embraces having a cop-gone-bad as a member of his campaign committee.

Kumstar was at centerstage at a Ligon fundraiser at the Patio in Merrillville a couple weeks back.

And Kumstar drives around one of those Ligonmobiles you might have seen parked around the county.

While Ligon has said he doesn’t see anything wrong with having a convicted felon campaigning for him, others saw it differently last week.

Seventy-six members of the Lake County Fraternal Order of Police issued an endorsement after hearing sheriff candidates speak a few days back.

Buncich got 90 percent of the vote. Not one law enforcement officer voted for Ligon.

It’s unheard of for a leading challenger to a sitting sheriff not to get the vote of one FOP member. Some cops never like the boss.

Kumstar hurt every member of the county police department by violating the public trust. They won’t soon forget. They let Ligon know that walking hand-in-hand with the man who put all county police officers in a bad light isn’t acceptable.

There’s one other thing.

The League of Women Voters held a candidates night for those vying for sheriff last Tuesday.

One of the things Ligon talked about was “integrity” within the sheriff’s department.

Integrity is of the utmost importance to county police officers. Apparently it didn’t so much matter to Kumstar.

And now you have to wonder about Ligon, who is dangling Kumstar in the face of every honest cop.

April 06, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Lake County GOP should invest here

RICH JAMES: Lake County GOP should invest here

I don’t know how Lake County Republicans can get anyone to take them seriously.

The party has become a joke.

Its only real worth is raising money for Gov. Mike Pence — who doesn’t much care about Lake County — and other downstate Republicans.

The latest squabble is between county Chairman Dan Dernulc and his predecessor, Kim Krull.

Dernulc is crying to the county Election Board about Krull. And Krull is doing her best to tell the State Election Commission that Dernulc ought to be dumped.

It’s kind of like two kids running to mom to tattle on the other.

Dernulc wants the Election Board to fine Krull for allegedly failing to file a party financial report when she gave up the chairmanship a year ago.

Krull wants the State Election Commission to remove Dernulc from office for allegedly forming a “new” county GOP organization to avoid repaying an $18,525 loan to the family of former County Chairman John Curley.

Curley, who passed away in 2009, was among the finest local Republicans I’ve known over the past 40 years.

In terms of this family feud, Dernulc is wired on both ends. Schererville’s Dan Dumezich is state party treasurer. His lot in life is raising money for state Republicans.

While Dernulc holds the title, Dumezich runs the Lake County organization.

It’s not by chance that Dumezich’s wife, Dana, holds a lucrative position on the county election board.

As Republicans battle each other, they essentially give Democrats a pass.

If any of the rank-and-file Republicans care, they aren’t publicly saying anything. Where are the so-called party leaders like state Reps. Rick Niemeyer and Hal Slager and County Councilman Eldon Strong? Guess they are just busy hoping to get re-elected.

It’s a shame because the county needs a two-party system — not a token Republican here and another one there.

If ever there’s been a stage set for a minority party to make advances, it’s in Lake County.

But this inept GOP organization fails at every turn.

Instead of sending money downstate, Republicans would be wise to spend it at home.

Even though most elected Lake County Democrats are fine officials, have you ever seen a Republican billboard bemoaning the fact that the Democratic Party has had a corner on public corruption?

Have you ever seen Republicans come up with a platform for advancing Lake County?

Have you ever seen Republicans stand up against the NIMBYS (not in my back yard) in an effort to advance the county?

Have you ever seen rank-and-file Lake County Republicans stand up to the tea partiers in an effort to attract independents?

Have you ever seen Lake County Republicans stand for anything as opposed to being against everything?

I didn’t think so.

Lake County Republicans are like the Cubs. They are sometimes lovable, but usually losers.

April 02, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Football players wrong to tackle Northwestern

RICH JAMES: Football players wrong to tackle Northwestern

I find it a bit odd that steelworkers in Gary, East Chicago, Burns Harbor and other places are financing the Northwestern University football players' fight to unionize.

Northwestern is a prestigious university, and the lion’s share of its graduates end up in lucrative positions on the managerial level, not working in the BOP shop.

It’s not that there is a thing wrong with being a steelworker. Those folks are the salt of the earth. They played a major role in building America.

The steelworkers also were a big part of the movement that brought unions to America. They are the unions that brought safety to the workplace, fair wages, overtime pay, health care and more.

While I am a longtime union supporter, I can’t buy the National Labor Relations Board’s decision that Northwestern football players should be allowed to unionize.

The NLRB said the players are employees because of the scholarships issued by the university. The players said their scholarships are compensation and their coaches are managers.

The university said athletes, as students, aren’t like factory workers, truck drivers or other unionized workers.

The university is right.

The ability to play football provides those athletes with the opportunity to a college degree without having to pay for it.

I would say that is more than just compensation for playing football.

Northwestern is providing the athletes the ability to earn a living — and in most cases a pretty good one.

The players argue their services help the university generate millions of dollars in profits. Yes, and some of those profits are used to provide scholarships to football players.

The players argue their goals are coverage of sports-related medical expenses, protection from head injuries and perhaps pursing commercial sponsorships. Those issues are better left to the NCAA to handle.

I shudder to think what could result from unions for college players.

Could there be player strikes or lockouts?

Might players attempt to dictate schedules, the length of practice, meals, class schedules, uniforms, pads, playing time and the coaching staff?

I suppose unionization could mean any of those things.

But I suspect it’s all about money.

For instance, the NCAA is fighting a class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the money earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia and more.

During the recent discussion over unionization, some so-called expert hinted it’s all about money.

He said while it’s nice that players are getting free educations, some can’t even afford to buy a pizza.

Yeah, we’re headed for compensation for the players. It’s not a bad idea. Because of practice, travel and playing demands, most don’t have time for side jobs.

Money for pizza, movies and gas for the car is more practical than unionization and paying dues.

March 30, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: GOP platform should offer meat, not emotion

RICH JAMES: GOP platform should offer meat, not emotion

I thought they’d never ask.

The Indiana Republican Party wants us to help them decide what it should stand for.

That leads me to think the party isn’t terribly sure what it is.

Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann will be in Merrillville on Thursday to ask folks to add and delete from the state party platform.

Don’t be misled. Ellspermann’s visit is little more than a dog-and-pony show to make local Republicans feel good about themselves.

The real decisions will be made by party leaders just prior to the state convention this summer.

Ultimately, the platform will be a litany of generalizations about supporting economic development, education and tax cuts for those blessed with the ability to make money — lots of it.

But, any party worth its salt ought to adopt a platform that is loaded with specifics about improving lives of fellow Hoosiers.

To that end, I have some suggestions as to what the party should stand for other than telling same-sex couples they aren’t wanted in Indiana.

It would be nice if Indiana Republicans would go against the grain and back fairness and equality for women in the workplace.

And speaking of women, stop the attacks on a woman’s right to have a legal abortion.

There ought to be a statement of support for the state’s public school system. To that end, there needs to be a commitment to mandatory kindergarten and support for preschool education statewide.

With those programs in place, there wouldn’t be much of a need to lure kids out of the public schools with vouchers for parochial and charter schools.

The party needs to tell the middle class that it won’t suffer when tax cuts go to corporate Indiana.

Better yet, how about a commitment to the middle class — things like making it less expensive to go to college?

And speaking of the middle class and those trying to get there — wouldn’t it be special for the party to make sure all Hoosiers have health care coverage — as is the case with most Americans.

And as long as Ellspermann is in Northwest Indiana, it would be great if the platform includes the following.

• A land-based casino for Gary.

• A Northwest Indiana trauma center.

• State money to rebuild the Cline Avenue Bridge.

• State financing to help expand the South Shore commuter railroad.

• A commitment to extend state funding for the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority beyond 2016.

• State support for a world-class convention center in Northwest Indiana.

• Finally, there should be no reference to God, guns and gays in the platform.

The Bill of Rights provides for the separation of church and state and the right to bear arms. And being gay is a lifestyle, not a decision.

Republicans need a platform with meat, not emotion.

March 23, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Lake County cities showing vision? Really?

RICH JAMES: Lake County cities showing vision? Really?

Rep. Pete Visclosky is running around Lake County asking municipalities to pony up as much as a third of their economic development income tax proceeds for the extension of the South Shore to Dyer.

He’s got a lot of nerve.

Why should Gary or Lake Station or East Chicago or Hammond or Whiting or Hobart help finance a commuter rail line far from their borders?

The residents of all those communities can conveniently hop on the existing South Shore to get to jobs in Chicago.

Why should the taxpayers in those communities see their money spent on a train they likely won’t ever ride?

Let’s get real, Pete. Let the folks in Dyer, Munster, Highland, St. John and Schererville — the communities that will benefit the most — pay for the new rail line.

This is a dog-eat-dog world, Pete. It’s survival of the fittest. The folks in Lake Station don’t much care about those who make the big money on the west side of the county.

No, those on the east side of the county have their own issues. They don’t need to be worrying about a South Shore train that won’t do them a lick of good.

So, Mr. Congressman, why don’t you go back to Capitol Hill and quit trying to stir the pot here in Lake County? We don’t need your fancy and expensive trains flashing through Lake County’s serene countryside.

Yeah, Pete, go back to your highfalutin club in Washington where everyone wears blue suits and red ties. This is blue-collar country back here in the hinterland.

By the way, Pete, I read that flippant comment you made down in Lowell the other day.

Lowell Councilman Robert Philpot said residents are questioning whether a train to Dyer will lead to any economic good for Lowell.

It could be 20 years before the train reaches Lowell, if it gets there at all.

“I can’t guarantee you (it) will come to Lowell. But I can guarantee it won’t come to Lowell” if the Dyer extension isn’t built, is what you told those folks. Cute.

So, what’s that you say, Pete. You say I’m wrong.

You’re telling me Whiting and Hobart already have pledged money for a train their residents won’t ride.

You’re saying Hobart pledged about $171,000 and Whiting $105,000?

“Sometimes you have to think beyond your own borders, and I’m proud the council stepped up to the plate,” Whiting Mayor Joseph Stahura said.

Hobart Mayor Brian Snedecor said he looks on the Dyer extension as the first step before a train runs through Hobart.

Man, was I wrong. Local leaders are putting aside their parochial interests for the common good and a better quality of life. Call it vision.

All aboard?

March 19, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Indiana legislative session was waste of money

RICH JAMES: Indiana legislative session was waste of money

It could have been worse. Much worse.

But in the end, it wasn’t good.

You might say it pretty much was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Indiana could have lived without the 2014 short session of the General Assembly that ended last week.

It was about 1970 that the state started holding short sessions for the purpose of putting Band-Aids on the biennial budget passed the previous year.

While legislators this year didn’t fuss with the budget, they didn’t do a couple of things they intended to do. That’s good. For instance …

With the clock ticking toward a midnight adjournment Thursday, the Senate deadlocked on a bill to require drug testing for some welfare recipients.

While some said the bill was an effort to help people get off drugs, it was little more than an effort to punish some of the state's less fortunate.

When the Statehouse doors opened the first week of January, Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s priority was the elimination of the personal property tax on business.

Legislators, responding to an outcry from local officials who collectively faced the loss of $1 billion annually, had better sense and killed the bill. They did, however, say counties can act on their own to lower or eliminate the tax.

But legislators did OK a bill to lower the business income tax from 6.5 percent to 4.9 over the next six years.

A plan to pay bonuses to public school teachers who would jump to charter schools died, perhaps because legislators feared reprisals from the voters. Former schools Superintendent Tony Bennett will attest to that.

For reasons beyond the imagination, legislators OK’d a bill to allow weapons on school property if they are out of sight. Do you think that would sell at Sandy Hook?

Some $200 million was approved for highway funding. It should have been the full $400 million set aside last year. The other $200 million is up to the State Budget Committee made up of a few legislators, not all 150 of them.

Some good things were done.

Pence’s proposal for a preschool pilot program for 1,000 low-income children was approved after some tried to dump the issue into a study committee.

It’s for kids in five to-be-determined counties. It will be a crime if Lake County isn’t one of them.

Legislators sent $4 million that will be saved from closing a tax loophole in Lake County to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority for South Shore expansion.

The money should have gone to the county’s municipalities where the money was generated. The state can afford $4 million out of its $2 billion surplus for transit growth.

I guess that would be a nice thought if the state was truly interested in partnering with Lake County.

March 16, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Back home again in Indiana, honest to goodness

RICH JAMES: Back home again in Indiana, honest to goodness

It’s good to be back home again in Indiana after a brief respite where no one ever has seen snow.

Yeah, Jim Nabors even greeted us at the state line.

Back home again in “Honest to Goodness Indiana”? Put a lid on it before word gets out.

While state tourism folks embarrass the state with a hokey moniker, the state Legislature is doing its best to tell the rest of the nation that Indiana isn’t ready for prime time.

As I reviewed what I had missed, there were highs and lows.

The biggest adrenalin rush came as U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky made a final plea Monday for all Lake County communities to commit to helping finance South Shore Railroad expansion to Dyer.

And, this time it wasn’t just the 15-term congressman leading the cheers in an empty fieldhouse.

A heavy dose of young professionals took up the cause, saying expanded South Shore Line service is the salvation for Northwest Indiana through access to high-paying jobs in Chicago.

The newly created Emerging Leaders Network, young professionals from across Northwest Indiana, is providing a fresh voice in the face of old, tired opposition.

I was equally encouraged by the words of retired Merrillville schools Superintendent Tony Lux, one of the finest educators in the state.

Lux asked why he hasn’t seen a public outrage over what the Republican-controlled Legislature is doing to education.

His question is a good one. The answer lies in this fall’s elections and when Indiana votes for a governor in 2016. Have we forgotten how Glenda Ritz ousted Superintendent Tony Bennett?

I also was pleased to see Lake County Democratic Chairman Thomas McDermott take the lead in criticizing the Legislature for directing recovered county tax revenue to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority rather than to local municipalities where it belongs.

But I didn’t return to find things all sweetness and light.

Take Republican state Rep. Hal Slager of Schererville, for example.

He has legislation to force majority Lake County Democrats to come up with a plan to eliminate county precincts with fewer than 500 registered voters.

That, of course, would mean the elimination of some Gary precincts, making it more difficult for some to vote.

While the county ought to look at its precinct alignment, the state has no business issuing a mandate.

Then there is the GOP’s fascination with gun legislation.

The latest is the Republicans’ irrational push to allow guns on school property. While there are pros – but more cons – to the issue, the GOP wrongly challenged and belittled opponents at a committee hearing Monday.

How about the plan to cut business taxes while the state continues to miss income projections?

Honest to goodness, I’d say it’s good that legislators are going home at the end of the week.

March 12, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Whatever happened to GOP's compassion?

RICH JAMES: Whatever happened to GOP's compassion?

What is it with Indiana Republicans and their belief that this state can act independently of the federal government?

We’ve seen it as the state not only has stiff-armed the Affordable Care Act but also refused to expand Medicaid, leaving hundreds of thousands without health care.

We’ve seen it as the Legislature recently approved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage even though federal courts have ruled such actions to be unconstitutional.

And we are seeing a second rebuke of the feds as the legislature is in the midst of mandating drug tests for some welfare recipients. And, yes, federal courts have ruled that unconstitutional as well.

What’s particularly troubling is that those on the receiving end of the Republican wrath are the down-trodden and those who have to struggle for social acceptance.

You’ve got to wonder why.

As introduced, the welfare bill would have required each of the state’s 27,000 recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to undergo drug tests.

For financial rather than compassionate reasons, the bill was changed in the Senate.

As it stands now, just those welfare recipients with a prior drug-related criminal conviction would have to take a drug test.

And, as the bill stands, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients with a prior drug conviction who twice test positive for drugs would lose their benefit unless they enroll in a drug treatment program.

Can you imagine a woman, who probably has a child, being able to afford a drug-treatment program with the $85 monthly check?

The House bill to require all recipients to be drug tested would have cost the state as much as $1.1 million a year but would have saved just $315,000 by eliminating those who tested positive from the program. There is no financial estimate on the scaled-back program.

But we are talking only about misdemeanor convictions. Federal law bars a person convicted of a felony drug crime from receiving TANF for 10 years.

State Sen. Mike Young, an Indianapolis Republican, said the goal of the legislation is to encourage Hoosiers with drug problems to get assistance. And what the heck, if the person didn’t get help, the state would save a few bucks.

In a perfect world, Young might be right.

But this is a very imperfect world made up of the haves and the have-nots.

The Republican Party – in Indiana and the nation – is so divided that the internal quest for control outweighs the people it should be serving.

And Republicans wonder after every election why they can’t get the votes of the poor, minorities and gays.

Whatever happened to the party of Lincoln that was so compassionate that it brought an end to slavery?

March 09, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Legislature hasn't delivered on government reform

RICH JAMES: Legislature hasn't delivered on government reform

Former Gov. Mitch Daniels will tell you one of his proudest accomplishments was his appointment of former Gov. Joe Kernan and Chief Justice Randall Shepard to chair the Local Government Study Commission.

The charge was to come up with recommendations to make local government smaller and more efficient.

Daniels said, “Indiana has some 2,700 local units of government authorized to levy property taxes. Governing these units are more than 10,700 elected officials, 1,100 of whom assess property. Few other states have as much local government.”

A good number of those units of government are in Lake County.

The Kernan/Shepard study was released in December 2007.

Unfortunately, little has been accomplished.

Kernan/Shepard said the model for Indiana's local government is archaic.

“We should no longer try to deliver government services under boundaries set according to travel by horseback,” the study said. “That’s no longer efficient in this age of the Internet, interaction and interstates.”

The commission made recommendations for every level of local government.

Unfortunately, the Legislature has done little over the last seven years to have the 27 recommendations implemented.

The Legislature did get rid of the assessors in small townships and turned over those duties to the county assessor.

But in large townships, the Legislature allowed the residents to vote on keeping the assessors. In Lake County, just the North Township assessor was eliminated by voters.

The study did mandate consolidation of E-911 centers.

But the Legislature has done nothing on two of the study’s key recommendations.

One was to move municipal elections to even-numbered years to save money and foster greater voter turnout.

And the other, which would be wonderful for counties like Lake and Porter, would eliminate the three county commissioners in favor of a single administrator.

And the study calls for that administrator taking over the duties of most county elected officials. It would be much like a mayor appointing a police chief, controller, surveyor, etc.

Can you imagine Hammond or Gary or Crown Point having three mayors?

That is exactly what we’ve got on the county level.

Some say the county administrator would have too much power. It wouldn’t be any greater than that of a mayor.

So why hasn’t the Legislature acted to replace a board of county commissioners with a single administrator?

Legislators often are emphatic about saving money, especially at election time.

A single county administrator would save money — lots of it.

But eliminating county commissioners likely would be unpopular politically on the local level.

And state legislators don’t want to do anything to weaken their chances for re-election.

The bottom line is that saving the taxpayers' money is great, unless it is unpopular in political circles.

Don’t hold your breath waiting on the end of county commissioners.

March 05, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: South Shore CVA needs fiscal oversight

RICH JAMES: South Shore CVA needs fiscal oversight

It was about a month ago that state Rep. Charlie Brown had harsh words for Speros Batistatos.

“He’s like a cow that gives a bucket of good milk and then turns around and kicks it right over,” Brown said.

Batistatos is president of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority. He’s outspoken, arrogant and very good at what he does.

While Brown called Batistatos a friend, he also suggested he’s a loose cannon who needs to be reined in.

Batistatos has a nice gig. He runs an agency with a multimillion-dollar budget. The money comes from casino and hotel/motel taxes. The staff of 20 is well-paid, as is Speros, who commands a salary into the six figures.

What eats at Brown is that Speros’ agency doesn’t have to answer to an elected body.

And Brown’s bill to have the Lake County Council approve Speros’ budget never got a hearing. Brown immediately vowed to return next year with the same bill.

Brown said Speros was boasting that he got the bill killed. I’m sure he did.

One of the members on Speros’ board is W.F. “Bill” Wellman, who might be the best visionary in Northwest Indiana. Wellman also works for Dean White, chairman of Whiteco Industries. He is a wealthy man and a quiet but strong Republican political force and a guy who benefits from Speros’ agency.

When the visitors bureau was created three decades ago, state law mandated the Lake County Council approve the agency’s budget.

Seemingly under the cover of darkness, that got changed years back. Today, there’s no oversight of the agency’s budget by an elected body.

So why all of a sudden does Brown want the County Council to approve where Speros and company spend millions of dollars each year?

That’s largely because Brown – like many others – is upset that Speros is moving the annual air show from Gary’s beaches to Fair Oaks Farms – 40 miles to the south.

The change was made, according to Speros, because Gary said it no longer can afford to provide security for the show, and no other suitable spot could be found along the lakeshore.

So is Brown right in saying the agency needs fiscal oversight by elected officials?

I tend to think he is, even though the agency doesn’t receive any property taxes.

One of the recommendations of the 2007 Kernan/Shepard report on improving local government said, “Too many appointed boards and individuals hold fiscal power, thus removing them from the direct control of voters.”

Bob Kuzman, a former Crown Point state representative who lobbies for Speros’ agency, said there’s no need for the County Council to review the budget because it has an appointment to the 20-member board.

I don’t think Brown is going to buy that argument – with or without a Gary air show.

March 02, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Legislature rejecting Pence's wish list

RICH JAMES: Legislature rejecting Pence's wish list

The Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly and Gov. Mike Pence aren’t on the same page.

Shoot, they aren’t even reading the same book.

If Democrats think they are getting the short end of the stick this session, they might ask to borrow Pence’s crying towel.

The governor has been battered by his own party at every turn.

What’s surprising is that Pence continues to turn the other cheek.

Consider that with just a couple weeks left in the legislative session, the governor’s top priority – elimination of the personal property tax on business – remains in limbo.

Instead of elimination of the tax, some legislators have proposed a reduction in the business income tax.

And because the business personal property tax – which amounts to about $1 billion annually – goes to fund local government, elected officials across the state have railed against Pence’s proposal.

The governor had two other priorities whacked just days apart last week.

The Senate Education Committee gutted Pence’s plan to establish a preschool voucher program for up to 1,000 low-income 4-year-olds in five to be determined counties.

That bill was rewritten by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, to create a commission to study how to best implement a preschool program in this state.

Kenley made the changes because he is bothered by Pence’s plan to create the pilot program this year but wait until next year to fund it.

And just a day after preschool took a punch, Kenley ripped into another of the governor’s priorities.

Pence had the General Assembly set aside $400 million last year for long-term road construction projects.

At the behest of Kenley, Republicans cut that in half and suggested the other $200 million go to the general fund to make up for revenue shortfalls, which could eliminate the need for additional budget cuts.

The lower than anticipated income led Pence to cut $172 million in planned spending last year.

While the business tax, preschool and highway funding are on life-support, the marriage amendment appears headed for divorce court.

Pence badly wanted Hoosiers to vote this fall on a proposal to put a ban on gay marriage in the state constitution.

Before Hoosiers can vote on a referendum, the proposed constitutional amendment has to be approved by two separate sessions of the legislature. And that proposal would have to contain the same wording each time.

Well, the wording was changed this year, meaning that there will have to be a second vote on the new language in 2015 or 2016. That would set up 2016 as the earliest referendum date.

With the session winding to a close, Pence is on the verge of suffering a major legislative embarrassment.

That’s not terribly good for someone still harboring thoughts about running for president.

February 26, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: NRA's shotgun approach to recruiting backfires

RICH JAMES: NRA's shotgun approach to recruiting backfires

There are days when we all dread going to the mailbox.

You never know what will be there. It could be a call to jury duty or a notice that you are late on a bill.

What happened to me was even worse. I received an invitation to join the National Rifle Association. And sticking through an envelope window was the red and black decal that said “Member National Rifle Association 2014.”

Perish the thought.

The invitation talked about all the wonderful things that would come my way.

The so-called benefits include 24/7 defense of my Second Amendment freedoms, the “award-winning” NRA magazine, a free subscription to the NRA/ILA grassroots alert, a personalized membership card and decal and free admission to the NRA’s annual meetings and exhibits with more than 7 acres of guns, gear and outfitters.

But there’s more. If you join for a year or more you get the NRA’s heavy-duty duffel bag. And joining for three years will bring you the NRA’S 9-LED aluminum barrel flashlight.

No thanks. I’d rather have the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder pin. And I’d rather have a jar of Ovaltine than a NRA membership.

While I don’t have a whole lot of use for guns, I also don’t have any desire to take them away from people, other than, say, assault weapons.

The Second Amendment provides the right to bear arms and – despite what the NRA says – I don’t see anyone trying to repeal that amendment.

What bothers me is the number of kids who have access to guns and the number being killed by accidental gunfire.

That was spelled out in an ABC-TV special, “Young Guns,” recently.

And the New York Times last fall took an in-depth look at the accidental deaths of children and explained how the actual numbers are hidden in bureaucracy.

What we do know is that a minimum of 800 kids under age 14 were killed in gun accidents over the last decade.

And the Archives of Pediatrics and Adult Medicine indicates 30 percent of the households with children younger than 12 don’t lock up guns.

Yet the NRA opposes “safe-storage” laws, as well as laws to hold adults responsible for the accidental deaths of children with an adult’s guns.

In opposing “safe-storage” laws, the NRA says children are more likely to be killed by falls, poisoning and environmental factors. That kind of makes it sound like the lives of children killed in accidental shootings don’t matter.

The NRA believes education is the answer and that kids should be told that if they see a gun they shouldn’t touch it but should call an adult. Anyone who has kids knows that doesn’t work.

Just 18 states have “safe-storage” laws. Unfortunately, Indiana isn’t one of them.

February 23, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Portage City Council owes Snyder an apology

RICH JAMES: Portage City Council owes Snyder an apology

It seems the controversy dogging Portage Mayor James Snyder’s decision to send snowplows into Gary a few weeks back just won’t go away.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

I can’t say I have any great love for Snyder. He wouldn’t level with me during the mayoral campaign about the status of then-Police Chief Mark Becker.

And I found Snyder’s campaign despicable in terms of the tactics he used to scare senior citizens by suggesting they no longer had police protection after 5 p.m. because of the consolidated E-911 system.

And after being elected, Snyder used gestapo-like tactics when he ordered a police presence at Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission meetings.

The NIRPC board finally told him to call off the dogs.

Despite our differences, Snyder did the right thing when he sent Portage snowplows into Gary to help his ill-equipped and poorly prepared neighbor out of a jam.

What happened next mirrors the constant Republican attacks on President Barack Obama in Washington.

Only in the case of Portage, the Democratic City Council pounced on the Republican mayor.

The council was dead wrong.

There is something to be learned from this – and it is something Northwest Indiana has struggled with for decades.

Although things are getting somewhat better, NWI governmental units have had difficulty working together.

A wall still exists between Lake and Porter counties, although a portion of it has crumbled.

And although one cannot tell at what point he has left Munster and entered Highland, let there be no doubt that a governmental barrier remains in place.

There has been a lot said about what Snyder did. Some say he had no business sending Portage plows into Gary without City Council approval.

I don’t buy it. Conditions were such that there was no time to call a council meeting to talk about snow that had Gary on the brink of gridlock.

Did Snyder’s move cost the taxpayers of Portage? Of course. Will the average guy ever notice? Of course not.

The fact remains that Gary needed help. And some Portage residents work in Gary or pass through Gary to their jobs. And some Gary residents shop in Portage.

Some Gary residents were so appreciative that they sent checks to Portage as a way of saying thanks. That helps break down long-standing barriers.

What Snyder did for Gary was an example of regionalism on a small scale.

Northwest Indiana counties and municipalities should take notice and grow from what Portage did.

Too often we can help each other but fail – or refuse – to do so.

Weather doesn’t stop at governmental lines, and neither should we.

And the Portage City Council owes Snyder an apology.

February 19, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: 'Honest to Goodness' slogan is honestly awful

RICH JAMES: 'Honest to Goodness' slogan is honestly awful

“Honest to Goodness Indiana” is the state’s new pitch for travel and tourism?

You’ve got to be kidding.

Say it ain’t so, Joe.

This is the 21st century, and the state still thinks it’s the 1800s.

I haven’t been this embarrassed since the 1980s when the state theme of Wander Indiana was emblazoned on Hoosier license plates.

People kept asking, “Where the heck is Wander, Indiana?”

People looked, but no one ever found it.

So now Indiana has forsaken “Restart Your Engines” for “Honest to Goodness Indiana.”

“This announcement begins a new era for Indiana’s travel, tourism and hospitality industry, said Mark Newman, executive director of the Indiana Office of Tourism Development.

A new era and a bad one at that.

And we paid $100,000 for someone to come up with that hokey phrase.

In the dictionary, “honest to goodness” is listed as an adjective and means “plain, simple and exactly what they appear to be.”

Excuse me.

I’m a lifelong Hoosier and the last thing I want to be is plain and simple and someone to be taken for granted.

Can you just picture someone in Kansas or Illinois or Kentucky saying, “Let’s go to Indiana for some honest to goodness”?

You can’t even buy that at Walmart.

Yeah, Honest to Goodness Indiana is one of those aw shucks kind of expressions that tells the world we are a bunch of country bumpkins.

We seem to be saying you’re invited to come to Indiana, sit on the porch and rock the day away while sipping on lemonade.

Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann, who was a big part of picking the new state moniker, said, “Everywhere you go in Indiana, the people and the experiences are genuine. Even our biggest attractions satisfy and delight visitors because here, more so than anywhere else, hospitality matters. That’s real. That’s Honest to Goodness Indiana.”

Ain’t that special.

Yeah, that Hoosier Hospitality is something, but don’t try telling that to gays who would like to wed in Indiana or unions that want to protect workers’ rights or women who would like to be paid as much as men or public school teachers who more than ever have to fight for what they love – education.

There’s a lot to promote in Indiana, but Honest to Goodness isn’t one of them. We’re bigger and better than that.

There is plenty to proud of in Indiana, starting in our own backyard with the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and outstanding salmon and trout fishing

But Newman said the new theme incorporates all regions of Indiana.

Yeah, without naming one of them. It’s kind of like Wander Indiana.

Would someone please save us from ourselves?

February 16, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: We're in for a boring primary election season

RICH JAMES: We're in for a boring primary election season

When the dust settled Friday as filing closed for the May primary elections, I couldn’t help but think the Lake County Democratic Party had lost its swagger.

Lake Democrats generally charge out of the filing period loaded for bear.

Up and down the ballot there’s always a litany of hot contests — enough to keep political junkies salivating for the next three months.

Those print shops that make yard signs would be raking in money just as a retailer does on the eve of Christmas.

A month before the election, yard signs would spring up like dandelions. But the guy with the most signs doesn’t always win.

Brochures would be written and clog mailboxes.

Those slick publications would talk about economic development and education and jobs and taxes but will lack detail.

Years back, nine out of 10 candidates listed the fact they were World War II veterans. Not many today have any kind of military service. I guess that’s what happens with an all-volunteer Army.

And the dirt sheets would appear at random, accusing one candidate of anything from infidelity to not having paid a speeding ticket.

The municipal precinct organizations would invite the candidates to speak and then make endorsements. Receiving a group’s backing was akin to winning an Oscar. And if you were endorsed, the candidate would have to pay an assessment to be listed on the pluggers handed out door-to-door and at the polls.

All this, of course, took money.

Every other night, it seemed, a candidate was hosting a fundraiser. The price of admission generally was $100. Sometimes a thousand people would show up, which meant the candidate was either loved or gave away a bunch of tickets.

And spending $100,000 on a county office campaign was chump change. Some races cost close to $500,000.

In government and political circles, there was a constant buzz.

But not now. You don’t even need five fingers to count the interesting races.

On the county level, there are no contests for auditor, treasurer and prosecutor. That’s unheard of. County Clerk Mike Brown has token opposition, as does Commissioner Roosevelt Allen.

There is an interesting race shaping up between Jerome Prince and Mike Troxell to win back the assessor’s office.

Only in the sheriff’s race, with incumbent John Buncich being challenged by Oscar Martinez and Richard Ligon, is there real excitement.

I’m not sure what happened. Is it the cost of running? Is it public scrutiny?

All I know is that I’m going to miss the thrill. I feel like Darren McGavin in “A Christmas Story” when the Bumpus dogs stole the turkey.

There will be no turkey soup. No turkey casserole. No turkey cacciatore. No turkey a la king.

February 12, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: GOP legislators making session divisive

RICH JAMES: GOP legislators making session divisive

As is the case in Washington, politics in the Indiana Legislature has become more divisive.

It is easy to tell by looking at where legislation stands at the halfway point of the session.

If this were a football game, the halftime score would be 52-0.

Republicans are leading, largely because they have twice as many players on the field.

The Republican game plan is to reward the business community for its ongoing financial help.

The plan also includes proposals to further decimate teacher unions, including financial incentives to lure teachers from public schools to charter schools.

And to satisfy the God, guns and gays faction of the party, the GOP is pushing hard to put a same-sex marriage ban in the Indiana Constitution.

While legislators waste their time trying to dictate lifestyles, little is getting done other than what the business community seeks.

Yeah, Republicans want to make the grass even greener in a state that ranks near the top in having a favorable business climate.

Gov. Mike Pence wants either the business personal property tax eliminated or the corporate income tax reduced.

Eliminating the property tax would cost local schools and government $1 billion annually.

Pence knows that, but said he doesn’t want to “unduly harm local government.”

When asked what he meant by unduly, he refused to answer. Talk about leadership.

I guess you can’t blame the GOP for being in bed with businesses – they came to the dance together. And don’t forget the Republican “right-to-work-for-less” law approved a year ago.

If the GOP-business tryst bothers you, Democrats aren't choir boys either. Republicans claim Democrats go out of their way to help unions. That’s true, in part because unions traditionally back Democrats, and in part because the Dems embrace what unions represent.

What it seemingly comes down to is big business versus unions. Yeah, but it is much more than that.

Democrats also look out for the rights of minorities, women and, yes, the gay and lesbian community.

Democrats are striving to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the gender wage gap. Republicans oppose both goals.

If the Republicans are so bad, why do they have such control of the House?

There are a couple of reasons.

Republicans redrew House districts following the 2010 Census, turning blue districts red.

And two years ago – largely because of a political attack against Obamacare, there was a huge Republican vote in 2012 against Barack Obama, and the residual effect sent lots of Indiana Democrats packing.

Pence – for political and business reasons – and fellow Republicans slammed the door on Obamacare, leaving hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers uninsured.

That’s the political reality. And don’t look for Democrats and the folks they represent to fare any better when the Legislature's second half opens tomorrow.

February 09, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Indiana needs more salt, plows in use

RICH JAMES: Indiana needs more salt, plows in use

There is no better critic of a state's interstate highways than those who drive them the most — the truckers.

Some over-the-road drivers weren't very kind a couple of weeks ago when they spoke about Indiana’s highways in the wake of another snowstorm across the Midwest.

And rightly so.

Truck driver Shelly Vanscyoc, of Akron, Ohio, was interviewed at the Petro Stopping Center in Gary. Her comments were typical.

“I drive all over,” Vanscyoc said. “Everyone’s roads are up to par except for Indiana.”

Trucker Wayne Kruger said driving from Ohio into Indiana is “like night and day.”

It is the same old story, snow after snow. Indiana doesn't measure up when it comes to snow removal and highway maintenance.

I’m not talking about the pileup that killed three people on Interstate 94 outside Michigan City two weeks ago. That was a rare occurrence caused by a sudden, blinding band of lake-effect snow.

In terms of highway maintenance — or the lack thereof — the recent closure of Cline Avenue because of a plethora of potholes, shows the neglect.

And while the situation wasn't as severe, driving portions of U.S. 30 in Schererville and Merrillville the past two weeks was like traversing a minefield of potholes.

I don’t know what it’s like driving from Ohio into Indiana, but I can attest to coming into Indiana from Illinois on Interstate 80/94.

During a snow, the interstate on the Illinois side is in pretty good shape. The Indiana side looks like an orphan in need of a home.

When the Indiana Department of Transportation is confronted with complaints about a lack of attention in this corner of the state, officials go on the defensive.

They talk at length about the amount of money INDOT pours into this area.

For example, Karl Browning, the INDOT commissioner, spoke recently in response to U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly’s criticism of the state for not rebuilding the Cline Avenue Bridge.

Browning’s answer was the state has invested $450 million in Lake County highways since 2006.

That’s all well and good, but …

While we appreciate whatever attention the state gives us, standing behind the millions the state sends up here isn't good enough. The issue, which involves lives and property, is more complex.

I wrote a column a while back bemoaning the poor snow removal effort on the Indiana side of I-80/94 compared to Illinois.

Gov. Mitch Daniels spoke to the issue when we met a couple of weeks later.

Daniels said the state had its full complement of plows out during that storm.

INDOT has said the same thing in reaction to the same criticism in recent weeks.

Perhaps we've found the cause of the problem. Indiana, it would appear, needs more salt and plows. This really isn't rocket science.

February 05, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: South Shore expansion might be chugging along

RICH JAMES: South Shore expansion might be chugging along

Lake County elected officials too often expend more energy finding excuses as to why they can't do something as opposed to getting something done.

That applies to Republicans and Democrats.

It has been going on for years. The local officials, for example, have found countless reasons why there is no need to add additional routes to the South Shore rail line.

And, for two generations, Lake County folks have talked about the need for an Illiana Expressway from Interstate 65 into Illinois, but managed to come up with enough excuses to block the new road.

And for an even longer period, a lot of folks here wouldn't even think about enacting a county option income tax, even though the state’s 91 other counties had done so.

The naysayers would have no part with any of those projects. And the supporters pretty much turned their backs.

That was then. Things are changing.

The Illiana Expressway has been approved.

And Lake County has an income tax, thanks to the courageous stand of Commissioner Mike Repay, who was a staunch opponent of the tax until he saw the need for the money.

That pretty much brings us to South Shore expansion. And things are looking up, thanks in part to Repay.

Other than the opposition from those who don’t want a South Shore train running with miles of their homes, the hang up with commuter rail expansion has been money.

That, too, is coming into focus.

Fortunately, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky represents us in Congress and sits high on the House Appropriations Committee.

Yeah, Visclosky has access to the money that can make South Shore expansion a reality.

Even though Visclosky has had access to South Shore expansion money for a couple of decades, there hasn't been any local match money. And there’s been virtually no effort to identify a funding source.

And if a funding source had been identified, most officials would have found a reason not to enact a tax for the South Shore.

But now that might be about to change.

Repay is carrying the ball to use some of the income tax he once opposed to serve as part of the local match for South Shore expansion. He’s talking $2 million to $3 million per year. It is a wonderful plan because there wouldn't be a need for a new tax.

The local communities that get part of the income tax would be asked to chip in as well.

The state of Indiana, which would reap financial benefit from South Shore expansion, also would be expected to contribute.

Some county officials besides Repay will have to vote to spend the money on the South Shore.

And, hopefully local officials are all out of excuses as to why that wouldn't be a good idea.

January 31, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Hoosiers aren't married to changing constitution

RICH JAMES: Hoosiers aren't married to changing constitution

It’s time for House Speaker Brian Bosma and his same-sex marriage ban backers to fess up.

Bosma wants us to believe there is a hue and cry from voters wanting to have the chance to vote on whether to add a same-sex marriage ban to the Indiana Constitution.

Call it the latest take on Hoosier Hysteria.

Bosma took the highly unusual step of moving House Joint Resolution 3 from the Judiciary Committee to the Elections Committee.

Bosma knew the resolution was doomed in the Judiciary Committee but would pass out of the Elections Committee.

It is a move I've never seen in 35 years of covering and observing the Legislature.

Bosma said the issue shouldn't be decided by one person in the Judiciary Committee, but rather by all 100 members of the House.

That’s poppycock, and Bosma knows it.

The House approved HJR 3 on Tuesday. It now goes to the Senate.

House speakers — Bosma included — and the leaders of the Senate have for years assigned bills they wanted to see die to committees to where they would never see the light of day.

Bosma has said this is an issue the people of Indiana should decide “once and for all.”

But Hoosiers aren’t begging for the chance to vote on the marriage amendment, especially since there is a bill on the books banning same-sex marriage in Indiana.

And recent polls show a majority of Hoosiers think banning same-sex marriage is bad public policy that will drive away or keep away some of the best and brightest.

Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, appears cut from the Bosma mold.

Slager this week said he wants the marriage debate to end and that the best way to do that is to allow Hoosiers to ratify or reject it during the Nov. 4 general election.

No, the best way to end debate is to kill the amendment and avoid a multimillion campaign on an ill-advised proposal that flies in the face of the direction Americans are moving.

The five-hour hearing before the Elections Committee drew the most cogent comment to date on the issue.

State Libertarian Party Chairman Dan Drexler said, “The issue at hand is not whether voters have a say; it is whether Speaker Brian Bosma was able to have his own personal say. Lost in this debate is the basic truth that the tyranny of a majority should not be able to strip away the liberties of a minority voice.”

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody added that Bosma and fellow Republicans used “bully-style tactics” to force “unpopular, unnecessary legislation” through committee.

Cut the bull, Mr. Speaker. There are a lot of real issues that need to be addressed as opposed to those — such as the marriage amendment — that are trumped up by you and ultra conservatives for political expediency. HJR 3 can still be stopped.

January 29, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Sen. Tomes pistol-whips gun control

RICH JAMES: Sen. Tomes pistol-whips gun control

I don't believe I have ever been to Posey County in far southwest Indiana.

Based on what I've learned in the last couple of days, I'll make sure I never step foot in that part of the state. I've got a feeling those boys play tough.

That's because the people of Posey and a couple of surrounding counties elected state Sen. Jim Tomes and the baggage that comes with him.

Tomes lives in Wadesville, which is an unincorporated blip on the radar in Posey County.

Tomes is one of those Tea Party guys who wants a Bible in every classroom. He sponsored legislation to require all public school teachers to recite the Lord's Prayer on a daily basis. Thank God, the bill died.

He also favors allowing all Hoosiers to carry a concealed handgun without a license. I suspect there is a bit of the Old West in Posey County.

Given Tomes' stand on weapons, I guess it isn't surprising that he's carrying a bill this year to prohibit local governments from continuing to conduct gun buy-back programs.

Those are the programs that offer gift cards in exchange for a gun — no questions asked.

Lake County cities have held the buy-backs over the years. They have gotten hundreds of weapons off the streets. And most of those weapons  were obtained illegally by gang-bangers and others who are a cancer on society.

Tomes doesn't want the buy-back guns destroyed. He says they are too valuable. He wants the guns to be sold to a firearms dealer or through an auction with the revenue being used for local police departments.

Clearly, police departments are underfunded, but putting more guns on the streets — often into the wrong hands — isn't the way to raise the cash.

Sure, let's make things even more dangerous in a state that has some of the loosest gun laws in the country.

Let's put more guns on the streets and in the homes where, if they are ever fired, likely will result in a suicide or homicide.

Tomes' bill passed out of committee last week. Amazingly, Sen. Lonnie Randolph, an East Chicago Democrat, voted for it. Look around your city, Lonnie. Gunfire is killing people.

Perhaps it's only fitting that Tomes has introduced the buy-back ban this year.

After all, word slithered out of Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago that the National Rifle Association will be hosting an April convention there that is expected to draw 70,000 members.

Somewhat surprisingly for the NRA — which is as brazen as organizations get — it didn't want local tourism folks to make a big to-do about the convention.

It all got me to thinking about which is scarier, Tomes or 70,000 gun-toting NRA members about to descend on Indianapolis.

January 26, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Alcohol sales could leave the Dark Ages

RICH JAMES: Alcohol sales could leave the Dark Ages

Sip by sip, Indiana seems poised to step out of the Dark Ages when it comes to laws governing the sale and consumption of alcohol.

So backward is the Hoosier state that I think there are still folks bemoaning the end of Prohibition in 1933.

But there’s hope, even in Indiana, a bastion of conservatism.

Just the other day, for instance, I read about a legislative proposal to end the 67-year ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages at the Indiana State Fair.

Heck, a cold beer is about as American as hot dogs and apple pie.

So backward is Indiana that I recall one of the first issues I wrote about when I started covering the Legislature in 1979 involved liquor.

One brave legislator carried a bill to allow the Sunday sale of alcohol in restaurants if the majority of their gross sales involved food.

In other words, you could go out for dinner at one of those places with real tablecloths and have a drink, but would be out of luck at a shot-and beer joint that featured hot dogs.

The bill passed, and eventually you could buy booze on Sunday at any place with a liquor license.

That was some 35 years ago and Indiana hasn’t advanced its liquor laws since.

Hoosiers still can’t buy liquor to take home on a Sunday. I’m not terribly sure why. People surely drink on a Sunday. In fact, Sunday might be the day of the week when the most booze is consumed.

There are a couple of reasons why Indiana remains the last state in the nation to ban the carryout sale of liquor on a Sunday.

One is that package liquor stores think they will lose business to grocery and big-box stores. And liquor stores don’t want to open on Sundays.

The other reason is that religion thing.

There have been unsuccessful attempts to change the Sunday liquor law over the years.

Up until last fall, state Rep. Bill Davis, a Portland Republican, was chairman of the House Public Policy Committee, which heard proposals to change liquor laws.

Portland is south of Fort Wayne, pretty much out in the middle of nowhere other than being in the heart of the Bible belt.

Davis wouldn’t allow a vote on Sunday carryout sales.

Davis quit the Legislature when he was named head of the Office of Community and Rural Affairs. I’m not sure what that agency does, but I suspect it won’t be campaigning for Sunday carryout.

Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, is the new Public Policy Committee chairman and has vowed to give Sunday carryout a fair hearing. Bless those Northwest Indiana guys.

Life – in some respects – has evolved without Indiana. Colorado has legalized the recreational use of marijuana, but Indiana is still fighting the Sunday sale of carry-out liquor.

January 22, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: McDermott wants Wieser to run against Slager

RICH JAMES: McDermott wants Wieser to run against Slager

Lake County Democratic Chairman Thomas McDermott Jr. wants Jim Wieser in the worst way.

He wants him to run against state Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, in the 15th House District.

McDermott appears to be on the verge of filling a vital ballot slot in his quest to help the Democratic Party eat away at the supermajority Republicans' hold in the House.

So what makes a financially secure attorney – with more years behind him than ahead – give serious thought about returning to the public sector? Years ago, he served on the Highland Town Council and the Lake County Council.

Well, as it was explained to me, it pretty much started at a meeting at Wicker Park in early November.

Wieser, who has been a party stalwart for decades, was among the 45 to 50 members of McDermott’s inner circle at the meeting. New state chairman John Zody was on hand.

Toward the end of the session, which focused on the 2014 elections, McDermott asked if anyone else had a comment.

One of those at the meeting said Wieser stood and talked at length about what the Republicans were doing to Indiana.

Wieser, I was told by an attendee, said, “The road this governor is taking us down scares the 'bleep' out of me.”

When Wieser was finished, there was a chant of “Wieser, Wieser, Wieser.”

In the days that followed, the pressure to get Wieser to run began to mount.

The 15th House District was drawn by Republicans for Slager, who is serving his first term. While the district tilts Republican, Slager beat Democrat Tom O’Donnell by a scant 435 or so votes in 2012.

O’Donnell carried the Dyer, Schererville and Griffith portions of the district, but lost badly in St. John.

It’s often said that if you don’t like what’s going on in government, you need to put your name on the ballot.

That apparently is what Wieser would be doing.

Wieser has chastised Gov. Mike Pence and fellow Republicans for their attacks on Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and public education. Wieser’s wife is a teacher.

It likely would be an expensive election. During the 2012 race, Slager raised almost $200,000. About $130,000 of that came from GOP political action committees.

Money shouldn’t be a problem for Wieser. Democrats know how to raise money. It is one of the things they do best.

And Wieser is well-liked by politicians on both sides of the aisle, not just because of his political demeanor, but also his legal involvement in the public sector.

Beating Slager wouldn’t be easy.

But Wieser would have a couple of extras going for him.

One, Republicans tend to stay home in nonpresidential years.

Second, although Pence’s name won’t be on the ballot, what he stands for certainly will. And Slager might have difficulty distancing himself from an increasingly unpopular governor.

January 19, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Notice how lawmakers frame questions on surveys

RICH JAMES: Notice how lawmakers frame questions on surveys

You’ve probably gotten a constituent survey in the mail recently from your state representatives.

They are slick brochures, paid for and mailed at taxpayer expense.

If nothing else, they serve as public relations gimmicks for our elected officials. It is one of the advantages of being an incumbent.

Your representatives ask your opinion on issues the Legislature will be considering in the coming weeks.

The brochures are intended to make you feel like your opinion counts. On a very few isolated issues, your thoughts might impact the vote of your legislators. For the most part, it is just a warm and fuzzy, feel-good kind of thing.

I’ve seen brochures from Sen. Frank Mrvan, a Hammond Democrat, and from Hal Slager, a Schererville Republican, in the last couple of weeks.

The legislator’s questions – or lack thereof – reveal a good bit about themselves. The wording also can be indicative of how they feel on an issue.

For instance, Slager asks if you support preschool programs for low-income families. Mrvan wants to know if you support such programs for all children.

Each candidate wants to know if you support expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to more than 400,000 uninsured residents. Slager goes a step further and says it will cost Hoosiers $2 billion over seven years. Slager uses the word Obamacare. Mrvan doesn’t.

Slager asks if the constituent supports a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Mrvan goes a step further and points out that current law defines marriage as a union between a man and woman. The similar but different questions are meant to evoke different answers. Mrvan’s question clearly suggests a constitutional amendment isn’t needed.

Using different, but very similar words, each asks if Indiana should legalize the retail sale of alcohol on Sunday.

And the two also ask similar questions about legalizing small amounts of marijuana, lowering the penalties or keeping the law the same.

That is where the similarities end.

Slager asks if welfare recipients should face random drug tests. Mrvan avoids the question that has been declared unconstitutional and a waste of money in other states.

Mrvan wants to know if the minimum wage should be increased from the current $7.25. Slager ignores the question.

There is another question that Slager asks but Mrvan doesn’t. Slager wants to know if you support a single county executive who would replace the current three county commissioners.

It is one of the recommendations that came out of the Kernan-Shepard study on local government under Gov. Mitch Daniels. I’m pleased to see Slager revive the proposal. It’s a good one.

Now, take a minute and go over the aforementioned questions and ask yourself how much your opinions are going to matter. Go ahead and answer anyway.

January 15, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: GOP smart to rein in Pence's tax plan

RICH JAMES: GOP smart to rein in Pence's tax plan

Just four days into the 2014 legislative session and we already have three business personal property tax-cut proposals on the table.

So just who is in charge?

We know Mike Pence is the elected governor of Indiana.

But who really is leading the charge for Republicans, who can pass anything they so choose because they hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate?

With considerable fanfare, Pence a month or so ago said his legislative priority is the elimination of the business personal property tax.

Yep, eliminate the tax and find a way to make up for the annual loss of $1 billion in revenue.

Eliminating that tax would cost Lake County schools and local government units $74.2 million a year, Porter County $14 million annually and LaPorte County $7.2 million a year.

Pence didn’t say how the state should make up the loss, but he didn’t rule out shifting the burden to local individual income taxes.

He said he would leave it up to the Legislature to figure it out.

Enter House Speaker Brian Bosma, who took a look at the governor’s proposal and promptly discarded it.

Instead, Bosma and the House GOP proposed allowing each county to eliminate the tax — but only on new businesses and manufacturing equipment.

House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, praised Bosma, adding that his proposal essentially is tax abatement, something counties can do now.

So Pence’s priority for the 2014 session was pretty much wiped from the board. And a Pence spokeswoman said the governor supports Bosma’s proposal. Go figure.

Not to be outdone, Senate budget leaders Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, and Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, came up with their own business tax plan. And it too had no resemblance to Pence’s proposal.

The Senate version cuts the income tax rate on businesses from 7.5 percent to 6.5 percent this year and to 4.9 percent by 2019. It would cost the state $132 million in revenue.

The Senate bill also would eliminate the business personal property tax on companies with less than $25,000 in taxable property at a cost of $30 million a year to the state.

Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, of Anderson, said it was nice that Republicans threw Pence a bone. But Lanane added it would be better to invest in the health and education of Hoosiers instead of more tax breaks for businesses.

Therein lies the party differences.

Republicans are committed to the businesses that fund their campaigns.

Democrats look out for the unions and middle class that provide them with financial support.

Yet there can be a common ground.

Pence’s plan is beyond irresponsible.

It is encouraging to see fellow Republicans rein him in. It must be an election year.

January 12, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: How much longer must less fortunate kids wait?

RICH JAMES: How much longer must less fortunate kids wait?

You wouldn’t think the issue of providing state-supported prekindergarten programs for 4-year-olds would be a political thing.

But it is, at least in Indiana.

Democrats seem to be head-over-heals in favor of getting the 4–year-olds into classes tomorrow.

Republicans aren’t so sure. While they talk about the benefits of early education, there isn’t a united voice.

While Gov. Mike Pence and fellow Republicans talk about making Indiana more attractive to outsiders by eliminating the business personal property tax, they aren’t hell-bent about Indiana catching up with other states in providing early education.

And, unfortunately for 4-year-olds at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, 2014 likely won’t be their year.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, called prekindergarten an essential foundation for education and essentially for workforce training.

“We need to take the steps to make this happen,” Bosma said without voicing any urgency.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, also didn’t see it as a pressing issue, saying it all will depend on cost.

In fact, the Republican-controlled Senate last year killed a House bill to provide $7 million for a prekindergarten pilot program to service 1,000 low-income children in five counties.

While prekindergarten is almost universally supported in the education community, Pence isn’t so sure.

“The results on pre-K are mixed,” Pence said last month. “The evidence that universal pre-K programs improve outcomes for kids is thinner than one might think, but early learning programs targeted to at-risk and low-income children can and do work well."

But Pence doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get the at-risk kids into a program.

Instead, he wants the legislators to draw up a prekindergarten program this session and figure out how to pay for it next year.

So, why are Republicans so hesitant to launch an early education program that has a proven record of success?

Could it be because the biggest supporters of prekindergarten are Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and legislative Democrats?

State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, who is a retired educator, has invited Pence to embrace “the benefits of quality early childhood education.”

State Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, added, “This will make our children more marketable once they get older, because we’re competing against other states that have had early education for years and years. It’s time to stop talking and put up the money and get the job done.”

And the state has the money. Indiana is sitting on a $2 billion surplus collected from Hoosier Republicans and Democrats.

Don’t tell me tax breaks for businesses are more important than kids who start out in life with two strikes against them.

How much longer must the less fortunate have to wait?

January 08, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Lame excuse to avoid ethics issue is unethical

RICH JAMES: Lame excuse to avoid ethics issue is unethical

It was some eight years ago when it seemed government across Northwest Indiana – particularly Lake County – had reached an ethical low.

Rep. Pete Visclosky saw it and asked local government – especially Lake County governmental units – to open themselves to scrutiny. A few did. Most refused.

It was about the same time when Cal Bellamy formed the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission and asked governmental units in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties to join. Some did. Most didn’t.

The code has 32 planks on how officeholders and employees should act in terms of honesty, civility, accountability and fairness. Roll those into a ball, and you spell ethics.

Given the history of questionable practices and public corruption in this corner of the state, one would think every town, city and county governmental unit would have jumped at the chance to put its best foot forward and embrace ethics.

Shoot, it would have been the ethical thing to do.

Therein is the problem. Too many communities thought they were holier than thou and refused to join.

Bellamy said nonmember communities said their employees didn’t need ethical training because they already are as ethical as they can get, and besides, they only hire people with common sense.

Therein is another problem. We aren’t born ethical; it is something learned.

Let’s give credit to those who have joined the commission – Crown Point, Dyer, East Chicago, Gary, Highland, Hobart, Lowell, Munster, Schererville, Whiting and LaPorte County.

But, there isn’t a governmental unit in Porter County that has gotten on board. And we all know they aren’t as pure as the driven snow, although some seem to think they are.

This brings us back to Lake County, where the meaning of ethical depends on whom you ask.

While the majority of the folks in Lake County government wouldn’t think about taking a nickel they didn’t earn, there are those always looking for a deal on the side. And the sad part is they too often don’t think they are doing anything wrong.

It was about a month ago that Bellamy went back to a meeting of the Lake County Council, hoping to get them into the fold. And the results were the same as prior invitations.

It wasn’t a matter of council members saying training on ethics wasn’t needed.

No, council attorney Ray Szarmach told councilmen that while the code had many admirable traits, it was too vague for the county to adopt as law and survive a constitutional challenge.

I really don’t think anyone expects the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission to one day have to defend itself before the Supreme Court.

Ethics is about learning right from wrong. A lame excuse to avoid the issue is, well, unethical.

January 05, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: New Year's resolutions for political world

RICH JAMES: New Year's resolutions for political world

New Year’s resolutions are meant to improve an individual’s life and the lives of those around him or her.

While most of us make resolutions, I have it on good authority that politicians are the least likely to do so because they have trouble keeping promises.

Individuals and groups might want to make the following resolutions.

Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub: To treat others as he would like to be treated.

Lake County Republican precinct organization: To announce a game plan as to how it intends to cut into Democratic domination.

Hoosier Republicans: To stop the attacks against Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz.

Porter County obstructionists: To tear down the wall they built between Lake and Porter counties.

To south Lake County residents: To tear down the wall they built between north and south county.

Mother Nature: To call off the dogs of winter.

Indiana Republican leaders: To do the humane thing and halt the attacks on gay marriage.

Speros Batistatos: To find a way to get the South Shore Air Show back on a Lake Michigan beach.

Lake County Democratic Chairman and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.: To grow thicker skin.

Former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh: To come clean with the Hoosiers who have elected him over the years.

State Treasurer Richard Mourdock: To promise to never seek office again.

Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority: To be relentless in completion of the runway extension project.

Indiana labor unions: To continue to climb back to their rightful place in society.

Lake County Council: To do the right thing and join the Northwest Indiana Shared Ethics Advisory Commission.

National Rifle Association: To admit there is no place in civilian America for assault weapons.

Recently retired Merrillville school Superintendent Tony Lux: To stay active in the quest to preserve the public school system in Indiana.

Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission: To become more of a facilitator.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky: To keep the pressure on local officials to act — not just talk.

National Right to Life: To stay out of other people’s lives.

Northwest Indiana's legislative delegation: To release their agenda for the upcoming legislative session — if they have one.

President Barack Obama: To continue the push for immigration reform and a hike in the minimum wage — among others.

Republican National Committee: To search out a 2016 presidential candidate who is in touch with America.

Indiana House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City: To continue to be a voice of reason in a chamber of horrors.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence: To own up to his plans for the state's $2 billion surplus.

Those who opposed the Illiana Expressway: To embrace the bigger picture.

The people of Northwest Indiana: To continue the good fight.

January 01, 2014 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Dermody might restore optimism for casinos

RICH JAMES: Dermody might restore optimism for casinos

The outlook for Northwest Indiana couldn’t have been brighter in 1996 when the first of four casino boats opened at Buffington Harbor in Gary.

The Majestic Star Casino owned by Don Barden was the first to welcome gamblers.

A day later, Trump Casino opened adjacent to Barden’s boat.

Barden, who had grand plans for the lakefront at Buffington Harbor, is dead.

Trump has sold his casino.

Much has changed since Indiana – a highly conservative state – opened its doors to casino gambling.

Some saw casinos as the savior for the Rust Belt. While the casinos have helped, they won’t be deified.

The two casinos in Gary and one each in Hammond, East Chicago and Michigan City have created jobs but not served as a catalyst for economic development.

The casino tax revenues have paved streets, built a jail and a baseball stadium as well as turned a hospital into a public safety facility. The money also has helped local government stay afloat.

But the casino tax revenues – most of which go to the state – are threatened.

An analysis by The Times indicates gambling revenue fell by $77 million during the last fiscal year. The collections were the lowest since 2002.

Why? Largely because of competition from slot machines in Illinois bars, a tribal casino in southwest Michigan, state-licensed casinos in Ohio and casino gambling at horse racing tracks.

And all the while, the Indiana Legislature sat back and did nothing.

But, alas, the clouds seem to have parted. Rep. Bill Davis, R-Portland, was chairman of the House Public Policy Committee, which governs casinos. Davis was about as kind to casinos as a vulture on road kill.

Fortunately, Davis is gone. And his replacement to head the Public Policy Committee – Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, seems to care.

Is there optimism for a land-based casino in Gary? Could well be.

Like any other business facing competition, casinos have to make themselves more attractive to the customer.

Dermody said they need to “make difficult decisions about how we allow gaming to continue in Indiana and be as competitive as possible. Because one thing I think for sure, just doing nothing, we’re not going to stay at the same level we are now.”

If the Legislature is to move forward, so too must the Northwest Indiana elected officials who have a stake in the game.

That includes Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who in the past has fought Gary’s effort for a land-based casino. McDermott said he did so to protect Hammond’s Horseshoe Casino, which is the most profitable in the state.

That attitude has to change if the casino industry is to convince a conservative Legislature it needs help.

That attitude also needs to change to rekindle that optimism of 1996.

December 29, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Here are some additional Christmas gifts

RICH JAMES: Here are some additional Christmas gifts

I suspect Santa will have forgotten to deliver some gifts today. I’ll help him out with presents to the following:

  • South Shore Air Show: A new home along Lake Michigan.
  • Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas: Something bigger than being mayor.
  • Chicago Blackhawks: Their third Stanley Cup in the last five years.
  • Indiana University: Another “I” on the Old Oaken Bucket in 2014.
  • Gary: The big break the city so deserves.
  • State Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City: A statewide future.
  • Former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh: A reunion with the Democratic Party he deserted.
  • Chicago Cubs fans: More crying towels.
  • Proponents of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages in Indiana: A resounding defeat.
  • Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz: The continuing strength to ward off the barrage of Republican attacks.
  • Lake County Sheriff John Buncich: Re-election in 2014.
  • Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority: A commitment from Gov. Mike Pence for ongoing state financial support.
  • Cline Avenue Bridge: Someone in Indianapolis who cares.
  • South Shore Railroad: Someone to come up with a local funding formula for expanded commuter rail.
  • Illiana Expressway: The fast track.
  • Indiana Tea Party: Last rites.
  • President Barack Obama: A Republican House that cares more about the country than itself.
  • Lake County Solid Waste Management District: Somewhere to put our garbage other than in a landfill.
  • Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.: Whatever it is that he’s trying to find.
  • Lake County Republican Party: Signs of life.
  • U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville: A statue along Lake Michigan recognizing his success in reclaiming the shoreline.
  • South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Speros Batistatos: Someone to tell him he isn’t always right.
  • Gov. Mike Pence: Truth serum when it comes to public education.
  • Indiana Democratic Party: Another Frank O’Bannon.
  • Indiana University basketball: Another national title in 2015.
  • Northwest Indiana elected officials: Someone to recognize, then act on, the fact there is too much government.
  • Gary/Chicago International Airport: Airplanes stacked up awaiting landing.
  • Merrillville’s Century Mall: Tenants.
  • Chicago Bears: A win Sunday over the dreaded Green Bay Packers.
  • Hillary Clinton: The presidency.
  • Merrillville: City status and a mayor to stop the bleeding.
  • Schererville, Dyer and St. John: Consolidation into one government.
  • Griffith, Highland and Munster: The same as above.
  • Gary: Enough population growth to again be Lake County’s most populous city.
  • Indiana General Assembly: The ability to recognize Northwest Indiana is a pretty darn good place to live.
  • Shared Ethics Advisory Commission: More and more members.
  • Indiana Republican Party: Another Dick Lugar.
  • Portage Mayor James Snyder: One-term status.
  • Northwest Indiana trade unions: The strength they once enjoyed.
  • People of Northwest Indiana: The ability to embrace what they have, because it represents an awful lot of good.
December 25, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Pence throwing out more tax-cut gift ideas

RICH JAMES: Pence throwing out more tax-cut gift ideas

I suspect Gov. Mike Pence thinks he’s Santa Claus. He is sporting gifts – or promises thereof – for just about everyone.

But don’t be misled by that red and white suit.

While some see the governor as jolly old St. Nick, he is little more than a poster child for the Tea Partiers.

Of course, we are talking taxes, or Pence’s quest to make Indiana the least taxed state in the country, regardless of how it will cripple local government and schools.

Things are quickly coming into focus.

Many criticized the governor when he proposed a 10 percent cut in the income tax before he had taken office.

When his fellow Republicans objected, Pence settled for 5 percent. For a guy making $30,000 a year, the cut will amount to a $51 savings. That’s enough to buy a carton of cigarettes. For the guys making bigger money, the cut becomes something to write home about.

We now see the income tax was just the start of the tax attack.

A couple weeks ago, Pence said he wants to eliminate the personal property tax on business, which will reduce state income by $1 billion a year.

Pence didn’t say how the state would make up for the loss, but he didn’t rule out increased property taxes for the guy saving $51 a year because of the income tax reduction.

The business personal property tax revenue, by the way, funds local government and schools.

And just when you thought you had seen it all, Pence pulled another tax cut out of his back pocket.

Pence last week said he wants to cut the income tax for families with children as a way to promote marriage and childbearing in Indiana.

If you are assuming the tax cut wouldn’t apply to gay and lesbian couples with children, you likely are correct.

As usual, Pence was short on specifics. While he said he wanted the current exemption of $1,000 per child increased, he didn’t say by how much.

And, as is the case with elimination of the personal property tax on business, Pence said nothing about how the state would recoup that lost income.

He only would say the two latest tax cuts fall under his plan for a revised tax code, but he declined to say what all that entails.

What Pence did say was that he’d let the Republican-controlled Legislature decide how to carry out his vision. Is that like the blind leading the blind?

So we’ve got a governor throwing multiple tax cuts against the wall, hoping some will stick.

That will look good at re-election time, but what about paying for these cuts. Why is that being kept secret? Is it going to be that painful for the middle class?

December 22, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: NIRPC should hold sway on South Shore extension

RICH JAMES: NIRPC should hold sway on South Shore extension

The two most significant events I’ve seen in nearly four decades of writing about government in Northwest Indiana happened in the last couple of weeks.

That’s quite a statement. And yes, it doesn’t bode well for the region. But hey, it might well show that we have turned a very large corner.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission last week overwhelmingly approved the Illiana Expressway in the face of passionate opposition. It’ll be the first significant Lake County highway project in five decades.

And about the same time, Lake County’s plethora of governments seemed just a step away — after years of jostling — from forming a countywide E-911 system.

Is there hope that NWI is coming together for the common good? I hope to tell you.

Before anyone decides to kick back and light a cigar, they should be reminded that there’s work to be done. And the next deadline is looming.

After the Illiana folks left the NIRPC meeting last week, the agency adopted a resolution supporting increased financial support for South Shore Line railroad expansion.

It’s nice that they did that, but resolutions are virtually spineless. Resolutions are what governmental bodies do when they don’t have the power to do anything else.

South Shore expansion from Chicago to Lowell should be next on the region’s agenda of moving out of the 1950s into the 21st century.

And, yes, it should happen now. South Shore expansion has been studied to death. It is time to acquire track, buy cars and hire conductors.

And the guy who’s grown most impatient is U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, the guy holding much of the money.

And the usually mild-mannered Visclosky laid down the law a couple months ago. He said he wants a local funding source to match the federal money he can acquire by March.

A local funding source ought to include state money and a local tax. And because there will be South Shore expansion to Valparaiso after Lowell, all of Northwest Indiana ought to pay for it. Don’t tell me that some Porter County people won’t slide over to Lowell to ride the new train to Chicago for jobs that pay 40 percent more than similar jobs here.

Settling on a new tax is a fairly dicey proposition. The General Assembly will have to authorize a new tax that would be adopted locally.

So how do we arrive at a consensus?

We need a facilitator, someone to bring us together. Because there isn’t a dominant city in Northwest Indiana, that consensus will have to be reached by committee. And that ought to be NIRPC.

By law, NIRPC had to vote on the Illiana. It doesn’t have to do anything in terms of South Shore funding. But it should if it wants to live up to its name of being a regional planning agency.

December 18, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Pence draws a bead on public education

RICH JAMES: Pence draws a bead on public education

Gov. Mike Pence’s assault on the state’s public school system apparently is headed for the fast track.

Pence threw around a lot of fancy words last week when he announced his education agenda for the legislative session that starts in three weeks.

The governor said he wants to put education “reform” on the shelf and instead move to education “innovation.”

And Pence said even though Indiana has 71 charter schools, there needs to be more — lots more.

He said more charter schools are needed because they “stir the pot” of what’s expected in education.

And, by golly, he also is going to change what’s expected in education in Indiana.

Pence said he wants to minimize the constitutionally mandated focus on general “knowledge and learning,” and have schools become worker training centers from the earliest grades.

In other words, Big Brother will be deciding early on whether Johnny will be a truck driver, a carpenter, a teacher or a doctor when he grows up. Nevermind that Johnny’s focus might change as he experiences different things in life.

He also wants to allow charters to take over unused public school buildings.

And he wants to allow charter operators with more than one Indiana school — including for-profit operators — to shift state money among their schools.

The most egregious assault on the public school system is Pence’s proposal to pay a bonus to teachers to leave their schools for a low-performing charter school.

In layman’s terms, he wants Hoosier taxpayers to pay teachers to abandon public schools in favor of charters. That is unconscionable.

While I am all for more money for teachers, they should receive it through negotiations, not because a head-hunter came calling.

If the public school system is so unproductive — as Pence has been suggesting since taking office 11 months ago — why does he want the heart of that system — its teachers — to jump ship in favor of charter schools?

Pence clearly is pitting public schools against charters, which is the opposite of an innovative approach to education.

I keep wondering why Pence has such a disdain for public schools. And clearly he does.

Pence and his Republican Party can’t seem to live with the reality that Democrat Glenda Ritz defeated GOP Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett last year.

While Pence says warm and fuzzy things about trying to work with Ritz for the benefit of Hoosier children, the facts show he is trying to undermine her authority at every turn.

Pumping up charter schools is political power for Republicans. So is decimating the ranks of teacher unions.

Come on, governor. End the charade, and admit it. And let the educators run education.

December 15, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Pence faces revenue shortfall, wants to lose more

RICH JAMES: Pence faces revenue shortfall, wants to lose more

There is something wrong with this picture. Drastically wrong.

Gov. Mike Pence this week ordered state agencies to withhold $51.5 million in planned spending because state revenue for November was $76.8 million, or 7.8 percent short of the revenue target.

He put a hold on another $50 million in early 2013.

Pence said the cuts are necessary if the state is to maintain its $2 billion surplus.

I’m not sure why the state needs a $2 billion surplus, but so be it. It’s a nice round number.

What’s harder to understand is that Pence has made elimination of the business personal property tax his 2014 legislative priority.

On one hand, Pence is fighting to keep the state’s $2 billion surplus, and on the other hand, he is proposing a cut of $1.04 billion in revenue by eliminating the business personal property tax.

If that doesn’t bother you, consider that $109 million – or about 10 percent – of the business tax collected by the state comes from Lake County. And $25 million is collected in Porter County.

With the elimination of the tax, schools and local government here are going to get whacked.

Pence said he wants to cut the tax so it doesn’t “unduly” harm local government. And just what does unduly mean to you, governor?

Here’s the real kicker. House Speaker Brian Bosma provided the details Pence failed to mention.

Bosma said they may allow local government to decide whether to eliminate the business tax. Where was that mindset when Lake County was punished for not adopting an income tax?

What Pence and Bosma are saying is that Indiana is leaning toward pitting one county against another. Isn’t that akin to taking state’s rights to the point of absurdity?

Isn’t that kind of like grading all public schools based on the same criteria without consideration of the socioeconomic background of the students?

But I digress.

The elimination of the tax will cause Lake County schools to lose $37 million and Porter County schools $10.5 million annually.

It also would mean a loss of an additional $71 million for all other taxing units in Lake County and a shortfall of $15 million for other Porter County taxing districts.

Pence said the tax cut is to make Indiana’s already top-rated business tax climate even better. He failed to say the average Joe will make up the loss.

If that tax climate is so great, why are revenues falling short of target and the per capita income of Hoosiers lower than 40 other states?

This simply is another way of sugar-coating President Reagan’s failed trickle-down economics that Republicans continue to embrace. Saying something might trickle down to the guy at the bottom is like offering him the dregs of the coffee pot. It’s insulting.

December 11, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Merrillville wants to preserve disappearing history

RICH JAMES: Merrillville wants to preserve disappearing history

I was there when Merrillville incorporated in 1971 and have been a casual observer since.

Veteran State Trooper Les Sheridan was the town’s first police chief and had his hands full when he took a dozen green kids by the hand and turned them into a police department.

That was 42 years ago. Never have I seen a town undergo such drastic change in such a short time.

That in part is why I had to chuckle a week ago when the Town Council announced the formation of a Historic Preservation Commission.

I wondered just what they were going to preserve.

I guess you can say Merrillville never had a heart. It is a town without an identity.

Maybe it never had a chance.

There never has been a downtown Merrillville as you will find in Schererville, Griffith, Highland, Lowell and other region towns.

Merrillville’s only identity, really, is that it is known as the town that grew up when Gary started down.

Merrillville is a cluster of subdivisions that developers threw up as whites fled from Gary. The irony is Merrillville incorporated to prevent Gary from expanding to the south. It happened anyway, a couple of times at that.

Merrillville was little more than a crossroads off two lightly traveled roads — Broadway and U.S. 30 — at the time of incorporation.

The town elected its first town council of seven members on a nonpartisan basis.

They were well-meaning folks who didn’t know much about planning, and it quickly showed. The town became a myriad of strip malls and access roads.

In the mid-1970s, Southlake Mall arose from a cornfield and gave Merrillville a new identity even though it wasn’t part of the town.

About the same time, billionaire Dean White opened the Holiday Star Theater that gave the town a bit of identity.

The subdivisions continued to mushroom as the flight from Gary heightened.

And then the unthinkable happened. Those who had become part of the town early on picked up and left again.

At the same time, the black flight from Gary became as real as was the white flight three decades before.

And all the while, Merrillville still lacked an identity. And Hobart snatched up Southlake Mall.

At the time the Historic Preservation Commission was announced, Clerk-Treasurer Eugene Guernsey said it should have been done 20 years ago. Maybe even 30 or 40 years back.

They are talking about a historic district from Mississippi Street to Van Buren along 73rd Avenue. That’s where some of the early settlers lived.

But many of the early homes are gone. The Old Mill is shuttered.

And the first school, which housed town government after incorporation, is now a museum.

I guess it all begs the question of how to preserve what’s no longer there.

December 08, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Food banks worth far more than a hill of lima beans

RICH JAMES: Food banks worth far more than a hill of lima beans

I haven’t gone to bed hungry since the night mom served liver and lima beans for supper when I was a kid.

Although she gave me heck that night, I still don’t eat them today. I’d rather chew on cardboard.

I suspect the majority of people in Northwest Indiana never have had to deal with hunger. Not even for a day.

To most folks, hunger is little more than a word in a headline about depleted shelves at area food banks.

Part of the increasing demand on the food pantries and soup kitchens served by the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana is the cut in food stamps.

The 2009 boost in food stamps expired last month. Why Congress allowed that to happen is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps some congressmen, who never have experienced hunger, just wanted to boast they are reducing government spending, the less fortunate be damned. Those likely are the same officials who oppose an increase in the minimum wage.

Anyway, the reduction in food stamps has increased the demand on food banks, said Megan Sikes, spokeswoman for the Food Bank of NWI.

I suspect there is a misconception that those who turn to food pantries for help are unemployed or elderly on fixed incomes or bums.

More and more homeowners with jobs are finding a need for food pantries to make ends meet.

I can’t think of many things more dehumanizing than standing in line for food.

But I guess what really bothers me is why food pantries have to go hat-in-hand begging for donations with which to feed the hungry.

One would think that in this most bountiful of lands there would be something to eat for all.

There always will be people hurting financially. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the ability to take care of them.

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., donated the $5,000 he was paid during the government shutdown to food banks around Indiana.

Donnelly could afford to do so, but the point is that he did it.

Where are the rest of us?

One would think that anyone who pays $5 for a pack of cigarettes could donate the same amount to a food bank.

Or how about those who go to area casinos? Maybe they can set aside a buck or better for food banks every time they drop $20 or $50 or $100 or more into slot machines.

If you spend $20 on a case of beer, how about another dollar for food banks?

And what about the Republican and Democratic parties that serve food aplenty at fundraisers to raise money to win elections to serve the people. Is it above them to collect money for the hungry?

After all, for some, a bowl of lima beans can be just as enticing as filet mignon.

December 04, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Krieg is Lake GOP's unofficial mud-thrower

RICH JAMES: Krieg is Lake GOP's unofficial mud-thrower

Eric Krieg has every right to speak his mind. It would just be nice if he would get something right once in a while.

In case you don’t know Krieg – and you've been blessed if you don't – he is the unofficial mud-thrower of the Lake County Republican Party.

He also has run for office several times, only to get hammered at each outing. You’d think he would get the message.

But no, he just likes to attack Democrats – who often deserve it, unless Krieg is doing the name-calling because he’s always wrong.

Krieg has run for County Council a couple of times and county surveyor as well.

Most recently he has attacked Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who sometimes deserves it, but in this case doesn't.

Krieg wants the Lake County Election Board to investigate McDermott’s use of campaign funds to pay his wife and friends for work.

Krieg says McDermott’s in violation of state law for failing to file a written contract detailing the services for which the campaign was paying.

There is no need to do so, according to Brad King, co-director of the bipartisan Indiana Election Division.

I've dealt with King for decades. No one knows Indiana election law better than Brad. He must have written that chapter of statutes, I sometimes think.

The mayor contends Krieg is reacting to a defamation suit his brother, Aaron McDermott, filed against Krieg.

Krieg contends he is holier than thou and that Democrats invented public corruption.

When Krieg ran for county surveyor last year, he refused to say he would leave his job at BP if elected.

When Krieg felt the political heat for that ridiculous stand, he abruptly said he would quit BP. Yeah, sure.

He unfairly pounded Surveyor George Van Til during the campaign, calling for an investigation of drainage work on Plum Creek. County commissioners said all was fine.

Other absurd Krieg comments include his charge that county Councilman David Hamm shouldn't have been allowed to vote on the income tax because he was selected by committeemen to fill a vacancy, not elected by the voters.

And he said it was wrong for suburban police departments, like his hometown of Munster, to sometimes loan cops to the north county team designed to curtail crime in Hammond, Gary and East Chicago.

Krieg called them “failed Lake County cities,” and suggested they wallow in their own crime.

And when he ran for County Council, Krieg opposed anything that would benefit the county, including an income or food and beverage tax, the Regional Development Authority, bus service, expanded commuter rail and the Illiana Expressway.

Krieg’s problem is that he says what he thinks voters want to hear, rather than embracing the facts.

And Republicans wonder why they can’t make inroads in Lake County.

December 01, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: These are a few of my favorite things

RICH JAMES: These are a few of my favorite things

It's that time of year. I’m thankful …

That U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky is finally putting pressure on local officials to come up with a funding plan for South Shore Railroad expansion.

For puppy dog kisses.

That it appears the Illiana Expressway will become a reality.

That former Sens. Birch Bayh and Dick Lugar graced my life.

For the call of the loon on a pristine lake.

That I got to see the Chicago Blackhawks win two Stanley Cups.

That Hoosiers elected Glenda Ritz superintendent of public instruction.

That Barack Obama is president.

For those who are working on a daily basis to bring Northwest Indiana together.

For having had the ability to quit smoking.

That I knew the late Gov. Frank O’Bannon — the finest man I’ve ever met in Indiana government.

That the White Sox are the only Chicago team to win a World Series in the past 100 years.

For the sounds of summer after being cooped up all winter.

That IU is back at the top of the college basketball heap.

That Speros Batistatos never changes.

That Lake County came to its senses and adopted an income tax.

That someone invented beer.

For the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

That trade unions are on the way back when it comes to influence.

That IU no longer is the worst Indiana football team in the Big Ten.

That Opening Day is just over four months away.

For when it comes time to plant flowers in the spring.

That Lake County is on the verge of meeting a state mandate to merge all E-911 units into one system.

That people are starting to realize the Tea Party is poisoning the country.

For steak and lake perch.

That Mayor Joe Stahura is doing a wonderful job in Whiting.

That law enforcement has come together to reduce crime in northern Lake County.

That the Lake County Animal Shelter is a no-kill facility.

That Hillary Clinton likely will be the next president of the United States.

That Marc Trestman is coach of the Chicago Bears.

That at least one area team, Andrean, will play in a state football championship game.

That Joe Hogsett, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana and a former secretary of state, is about to get back on the ballot.

That I am old enough to have witnessed the Camelot days of JFK.

That I got to see the sandhill cranes gather one fall at the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Refuge.

That I know a member of the last class to graduate from Hammond Tech.

That there is a glimmer of hope Indiana might return to a one-class basketball tournament one day.

But mostly, I am thankful for family and friends. Without them, all the rest wouldn’t matter.

November 27, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Pence is paying a lot to undermine Ritz

RICH JAMES: Pence is paying a lot to undermine Ritz

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence seems to have thrown transparency and conservatism out the window just 10 months into office.

But I guess you have to do that when it comes to stripping Glenda Ritz of the powers entrusted to her by Hoosier voters.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Pence has been sniping at Ritz since the day she took office as the state superintendent of public instruction in January.

You see, Ritz, a Democrat, did the unthinkable by beating Republican schools boss Tony Bennett. He had attacked teacher unions and funneled education money into charter schools that essentially are owned and run by Republicans.

Since he didn’t want to look like the bad guy, Pence needed a vehicle to go after Ritz.

So, under the cover of darkness one muggy night in August, Pence created the Center for Education and Career Innovation.

He just did it. Poof. One day it was suddenly there. While most state agencies are created by the Legislature, this one was all Pence. Kind of like the magician who pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

The CECI provides support staff to the State Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor.

CECI’s prime mission in life appears to be to make Ritz wish she never had run for state superintendent.

And if you have doubts about what Pence wants to do to Ritz, consider what House Speaker Brian Bosma said last week.

Bosma suggested a long-standing law designating the superintendent as chairman of the State Board of Education may be headed for extinction by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“We don’t want to take any actions that appear to be unfair to anyone, but we have to have a system that works as well,” Bosma said. “We’re doing what we can behind the scenes to try to calm everything down and bring people together, and if we have to be out in front, we’ll do that, too.”

The system worked well for decades. Now it doesn’t? Things were fine when Republican Sue Ellen Reed was superintendent and Democrats were in control.

Worse than the covert operation is what some of the 15 CECI staffers are being paid to help make life miserable for Ritz.

Claire Fiddian-Green, who heads the CECI, is being paid $120,000 a year.

That’s not exactly chump change. You could hire a few teachers with that kind of money.

If you are a bit bothered by what Fiddian-Green is being paid, consider that six of the 15 CECI staffers are being paid more than $100,000 annually.

It’s obvious that taking control of education in Indiana is pretty important to Pence and his Republican brethren. The cost – politically or financially – apparently doesn’t matter.

November 24, 2013 12:00 am

RICH JAMES: Pence's olive branch to Ritz is poisoned

RICH JAMES: Pence's olive branch to Ritz is poisoned

Just when you thought Gov. Mike Pence’s quest to take control of education couldn’t be any more blatant, he turned things up a notch.

Pence has asked the National Association of State Boards of Education to resolve a dispute between the Indiana State Board of Education and Glenda Ritz, the state superintendent of public instruction.

That’s like asking the Purdue University president to officiate a basketball game between Purdue and IU.

Pence’s call for outside help would seem to be little more than a smokescreen for what he has done to the state’s education hierarchy since taking office 10 months ago.

This isn’t rocket science. Pence is the problem.

The governor controls the Board of Education. His good buddy Daniel Elsener runs the board. Elsener also was close to former Superintendent Tony Bennett, the Republican golden boy who angered Hoosiers and lost to Ritz last year.

If Pence wants to end the feud, all he has to do is call Elsener into his office and tell him to call off the dogs.

But Pence's brief tenure as governor shows he doesn’t want to do so. Perhaps that’s a tribute to Bennett for his attack on the state’s public school teachers.

Pence created the Center for Education and Career Innovation, which is slowly usurping Ritz’s authority. The CECI wasn’t approved by the Legislature.

The Republican-controlled Board of Education two weeks ago proposed that Pence’s CECI co-direct a review of state education standards in conjunction with the Department of Education over which Ritz presides.

Elsener, a couple of months ago, mandated the Board of Education adopt a strategic plan for future education. The final decisions will be made by Elsener and the board, not Ritz, even though she is board chairwoman.

The State Board of Education last month secretly submitted a letter asking the Legislative Services Agency to compile grades rating schools. The move would take grading authority away from Ritz and the Department of Education.

Gary’s Tony Walker, one of the board members, had the audacity to defend the secret serial meeting, saying it was all legal because it was done electronically. But he was among those who signed the letter to the Legislative Services Agency. Go figure.

Pence has tried to distance himself from the Republican education coup. That’s one reason he created the CECI.

Pence sounds Pollyannaish when he talks about the Ritz/board friction.

“There’s people of goodwill in this, and whether there’s been a misunderstanding or not, we need to stay focused on our kids,” Pence said recently.

The question is whether Pence thinks the people of Indiana are dumb or naïve.

Remember, Mike, they were smart enough to dump Bennett.

November 20, 2013 12:00 am
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