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Thursday, July 02, 2015
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Thursday, July 11, 2013 1:16 PM
MERRILLVILLE – You know the saying that if it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all. I suspect Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and the Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority have that feeling right about now.
That’s because it was announced last week that completion of a $166-million expansion project was being delayed – again. Rather than being ready at the end of this year, it now is estimated that the project, largely runway expansion, won’t be completed until September 2014 at the earliest.
Despite the delay, the Airport Authority will proceed with plans to attract a private investor willing to put up at least $100 million as part of a private/public partnership. The expansion project involves railroad relocation and remediation of polluted soil and groundwater to allow for runway expansion.
The irony is that the very thing that led to Northwest Indiana becoming an industrial giant is now blocking the area’s future. The land around the airport is among the most polluted in the country. And that obviously didn’t happen overnight.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Every decade or so, the thought of downsizing government in Lake County comes to the surface. Unfortunately, not enough people take the issue seriously and nothing gets accomplished. Some react to such talk as if you wanted to do away with their first born. Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub again raised the consolidation issue the other day. Scheub, in fact, has been one of the few in Lake County willing to tackle the issue of combining several communities into one, but stopping short of calling for a system of Unigov for the entire county. Scheub, and rightly so, contends that Lake County doesn’t need 19 municipalities duplicating the services of each other. The way Scheub sees it is that if Lake County is going to grow economically, it must lower taxes by reducing the duplication of services. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – If I were Gov. Mike Pence, I’d call out the National Guard and station the troops along the Indiana/Illinois state line. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner seems poised to attack. He said it before and he repeated the threat this week. Rauner fired the first salvo last month as he talked about his agenda to get his state’s fiscal house in order. And when he does that, Rauner said he would “rip the economic guts” out of Indiana. Rauner attacked again this week when he spoke to a crowd of south suburban business people asking them to convince state legislators to support his fiscal positions. Rauner, speaking in Oak Forest, called the south suburbs the “heart of the state’s economic potential.”  And when Illinois’ economic climate is right, Rauner promised to lure companies to the south suburbs that have seen residents, factories, warehouses move to less-taxed Indiana. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – One could probably write a sociology text after watching the transformation of Merrillville since its incorporation in 1971. There are some who refer to Merrillville these days as “Little Gary.” And the irony of that label is that the area known as Merrillville, with the help of special legislation carried by then-state Rep. Chester Dobis, incorporated to avoid being annexed by Gary. During the first 44 years of Merrillville’s incorporation, Gary has fallen on hard times. Gary’s population has plummeted from a high of about 175,000 to 80,000 today. Interestingly, much of the white population that fled Gary landed in Merrillville. Merrillville has been undergoing its own transformation as its white population is leaving and being replaced by blacks exiting Gary in search of safer neighborhoods and better schools. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – When it comes to being an advocate for regionalism, Northwest Indiana needs a few more Karen Freeman-Wilsons. Just this week, the Gary mayor urged the city council to have the city join 11 other Lake County communities in committing a portion of their economic development income tax to the extension of the South Shore line to Dyer. The mayor wants the council to approve Gary’s commitment of 7.5 percent of its income tax, or about $300,000 annually over the next 30 years, to help fund the $571 million extension.  Although the South Shore extension won’t have a direct impact on her city, Freeman-Wilson said it is all about regionalism, which she called the future of Northwest Indiana. The mayor acknowledged the commuter rail extension might provide employment for the underemployed or unemployed, including residents of Gary. Retiring city Councilman Roy Pratt, who long has been a visionary, backed the mayor, saying, “We have to look at the big picture.” 
  • MERRILLVILLE - U.S. Steel, the company that built Gary, Ind., more than 100 years ago, once employed more than 20,000 people in Lake County. But that number has been declining since the late 1970s when the steel industry modernized and needed fewer workers to do the job. The employment level continues to decline – not so much because of modernization – but because of the unfair competition from foreign steel. As a result, the need for a diversified job market continues to grow in the self-proclaimed City of the Century, a label Gary adopted in the late 1950s. And that call for diversity may be on the brink of being answered. After years of delays and cost overruns, it appears the Gary/Chicago International Airport may be about to become a player in the greater Midwest air transportation network. Two federal grants totaling almost $6 million were announced by U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville, this week. One of the grants is the 10th payment of a $50 million letter of intent issued in 2006 for runway expansion. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – There weren’t any real election surprises in Northwest Indiana during Tuesday’s primaries. But there were some impressive numbers for some winners, as well as failed attempts at comebacks. The numbers were pretty staggering in several of the contested Democratic mayoral primaries. In Hammond, Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who has aspirations for statewide office, was nominated for a fourth term, which would be the most for any mayor in that city. McDermott’s numbers were extremely impressive, particularly for someone who has had three terms to build enemies. The mayor defeated city Councilman Homero “Chico” Hinojosa, winning 78% of the vote. His impressive numbers rival some of those recorded by his father, Thomas McDermott Sr., who served as mayor as a Republican. Lake Station city Judge Christopher Anderson won the Democratic nomination for mayor, winning 78% of the vote. Anderson topped three others, including sitting Mayor Keith Soderquist, who is under federal indictment. One of the other candidates, Robert Getzmer, may have gotten a record low for mayoral candidates, pulling just six votes. In Gary, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson pulled 72% of the vote while topping four opponents. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Sometimes it is a fellow Republican, as opposed to a Democrat, who is the toughest on Republican Gov. Mike Pence. And for that Republican to be from Lake County is somewhat of a surprise. Such seems to be the case as the fallout continues over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. When Pence signed the bill into law, the vast majority of Democrats expressed outrage.The same could be said for a good number of Republicans. While Pence staunchly defended the bill, the criticism became too much, especially after his appearance on George Stephanopoulos’ Sunday morning political show, “This Week." When the heat got insufferable, Pence retreated and asked the Legislature to “fix” the bill, and he signed a “fix” into law. The Democratic outrage quickly ebbed, leaving the governor to think he had weathered the storm. But, he was mistaken. The governor found out this week when some 200 Republicans, many of them ministers, rallied in the Statehouse to condemn the governor for approving a “fix.” And the man leading the charge was the Rev. Ron Johnson Jr., the senior pastor at Living Stones Church in Crown Point. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – When Donna Harris was elected a week ago to replace her late husband, Earl Harris, in the Indiana House of Representatives, it certainly didn’t break any new ground. In fact, for wives to replace their husbands in elected office has been a tradition in Lake County for several decades. Rep. Earl Harris, an East Chicago Democrat, spent 33 years in the House before passing away last month. Precinct committeemen elected Donna Harris over Byron “Duke” Florence to replace her late husband. It’s always pretty much been a sentimental kind thing, whether the office being filled is on the local or state level. Whether Donna Harris was the most qualified for the job doesn’t really matter. The people wanted Earl’s wife to replace him. So, she will serve this year and next year and likely won’t run for a full term. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Is that all there is? The Republican-controlled General Assembly made a change to the “religious freedom” bill and Gov. Mike Pence signed it into law before beating it out of the country for a vacation. Is that it? It is signed, sealed and delivered and Indiana is all right with the world? Don’t bank on it. The fallout from this fiasco will live for a good while. Much of the ongoing reaction may not make headlines, but it will be there lurking under the surface. The question isn’t whether the fallout will come back to haunt those responsible, but rather when and how much. The presumption is that Pence’s presidential aspirations, regardless of how flirting they were, are now dead. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Never, perhaps, has a single issue brought such unity to Northwest Indiana as has the state’s so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Republicans, Democrats, business, industry, academia, the private sector and politicians in other states have come together to condemn the legislation signed into law last week by Gov. Mike Pence. Perhaps the most publicly damning act came from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who sent more than a dozen letters to Northwest Indiana businesses urging them to move their operations to Chicago. “Gov. Pence’s act is wrong. It’s wrong for the people of Indiana, wrong for the individuals who will face new discrimination and wrong for a state seeking to grow its economy,” Emanuel said. Emanuel added that Pence is taking Indiana “back to the 1960s.” 
  • MERRILLVILLE - Lake County election officials are stepping out to find a cure for voter apathy. It’s something they have been doing at least once a year for more than a decade. Yet, the problem, they say, isn’t getting any better. Election officials said the statewide turnout for the 2014 primary was 13 percent. In Lake and Porter counties, the election folks said the turnout was a paltry 11 percent of the registered voters. The numbers, however, are deceiving. The election officials know that but won’t admit it. In Lake County, for instance, voter registration officials say there are 350,000 registered voters in the county. Given that the county has fewer than 500,000 residents, there can’t be 350,000 registered voters, unless the voting age has been lowered considerably.

  • MERRILLVILLE – There is one thing that separates Northwest Indiana Republicans from their colleagues in the rest of the state. When it comes to issues dealing with unions in general, the area Republicans tread lightly. While Northwest Indiana Republicans usually don’t win the endorsements of unions, they also don’t want to anger the members of the myriad of unions that populate this corner of the state. And the building and trade unions in Northwest Indiana rarely endorse a Republican over a Democrat, although it does happen. Such was the case with former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and the International Union of Operating Engineers. The Operating Engineers endorsed Daniels during each of his campaigns, largely because of his support for the construction of an interstate highway from Evansville to Indianapolis. The Operating Engineers also appreciated Daniels for his Major Moves program that was funded with the lease of the toll road. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – It would appear that Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. wasn’t telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when he announced his resignation as Lake County Democratic chairman last year. At the time, McDermott said he was stepping down because he was considering a 2016 run for statewide office, possibly for governor. If he were to seek statewide office, McDermott said, it could be a negative if he carried the title of chairman, given the history of public corruption. McDermott seemed to be suggesting that if he resigned as chairman that no one would remember that he once headed the Democratic party in the county. So, McDermott resigned and the precinct organization elected Sheriff John Buncich as chairman. There has been little mention since of McDermott running for governor or another statewide office. But last week, it became clear why McDermott stepped down as county chairman, and it wasn’t because of the county’s less than stellar reputation. The truth came out the day after the sentencing hearing for former Lake County Surveyor George W. Van Til in U.S. District Court. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Indiana Republicans are in lock-step on virtually every issue facing the state. But that wasn’t the case for Northwest Indiana Republicans last week when it came to legislation involving the Lake County Solid Waste Management District. And it was rather refreshing. At issue was Sen. Rick Niemeyer’s bill to require Lake County commissioner approval of any major decisions by the county’s Solid Waste Management District. Niemeyer’s proposal comes after the waste district came under fire for some questionable spending that amounted to less than $1,000. And Niemeyer and others are still angry about the attempt to open the Hickory Hills landfill east of his hometown of Lowell. Niemeyer’s bill made little sense in that there are 27 members, representing every municipality in the county, sitting on the waste district board. The membership includes appointees of the county commissioners and county council. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Given the Republican stronghold on the General Assembly, one might think that heavily Democratic Lake County might be out in the cold. After all, with Republican super majorities in the House and Senate and the GOP controlling the governor’s office, Democratic Lake County wouldn’t seem to have much of a voice. Well, that’s not exactly the case. And in fact, Democrats ought to be thanking hometown Republicans. Without the local GOP, Northwest Indiana Democrats would have much less of a chance of getting what they seek from the Legislature. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – What is it about the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly and Lake County? Heavily Democratic Lake County has no love for downstate Republicans. The controlling GOP has given Democrats reasons for harboring those feelings. And this session of the General Assembly is no exception. The Republicans already are dictating the direction of two pieces of legislation that are keys to the area, particularly Democrats. Foremost is the legislation to continue funding for the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. Most vital to that legislation is whether the state will renew its $10 million annual commitment to the authority. Gov. Mitch Daniels (yes, a Republican)  made that commitment 10 years ago when the RDA was founded through the efforts of state Rep. Chester Dobis, D-Merrillville, U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville, and Daniels. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – There was a time when Lake County Democratic mayoral primaries were as good as it gets when it comes to spectator sports.There were vicious battles across the county. The intensity largely was because the victor had an easy road ahead in the fall. And, of course, there was something special about having the word mayor in front of one’s name. Few can forget the campaigns pitting East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick and challenger Stephen Stiglich. Stiglich once served as Pastrick’s police chief and later won two full terms as sheriff after filling a vacancy. So competitive were the Pastrick/Stiglich mayoral primaries, that political consultant Chris Sautter filmed a documentary on the 1999 primary. The film, which won several awards, was named “The King of Steel Town.” Pastrick is retired and Stiglich died during heart surgery several years ago. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – It is less than a month now until longtime Lake County political figure George Van Til will be sentenced after admitting to using an employee to conduct campaign work on public time. Van Til, 67, is a former Highland town councilman, Lake County councilman and five-term county surveyor. He is considered one of the best legal strategists in the history of the county. Sentencing is slated for Feb. 12. Van Til, who is represented by former Gary Mayor Scott King, and the government filed briefs last week asking the court to be tough or lenient at sentencing. In conjunction with the filings, the court unsealed a host of letters written on Van Til’s behalf asking the court for leniency at sentencing. Several letters made reference to former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. Bennett, a Republican, left Indiana after losing his bid for reelection to Democrat Glenda Ritz in 2012. Not too long after leaving for Florida, Bennett came under fire for practices he employed in his Indiana office. Not only was there heavy criticism for his education policies, but also for the way he used some of his employees. It was learned that Bennett used some of his workers to conduct political activities while in the office on state time. Ultimately, Bennett was charged with an ethics violation as opposed to being criminally indicted. Bennett was fined $5,000 and sent on his way. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – I love Northwest Indiana. But I don’t see it becoming home to a National Football League franchise anytime soon. Probably never. So, I think this is one time I wouldn’t be terribly hurt if the General Assembly told the area to get lost. State Rep. Earl Harris, D-East Chicago, has directed the Legislative Services Agency to craft legislation to establish a Northwest Indiana NFL Commission that would be charged with bringing a professional football team from another part of the country to the region. The idea is for the commission to hire an executive director to organize NWI counties, economic development organizations and business and political groups to lure a team to the region. Yeah, sure, Earl. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Just when the state’s beleaguered Democrats needed a lift, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce delivered. When the chamber announced this week that its legislative priority will be making the superintendent of public instruction an appointed rather than elected position, Democrats were aghast. While they likely won’t admit it, Democrats also were smiling. The Republican-dominated chamber had just given Democrats a solid campaign issue for 2016 when Hoosiers will pick a new governor and all 100 members of the House. But the chamber proposal put Republican lawmakers in a precarious position. The question is whether Republicans want to anger Hoosier voters or the state chamber. Neither is a good proposition. Republicans are still seething over the ouster of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett by Democrat Glenda Ritz in 2012. 
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  • Gregg raises $1.7 million, will report $1.8 million cash on hand
    “Preliminary numbers are in: We raised more than $1.7M with more than $1.8M cash on hand!! Big numbers for our first 60 days. Thanks to all who contributed.” - Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg on Wednesday after the June 30 reporting deadline. Gregg began the cycle with $130,000, well behind Gov. Mike Pence’s $3.5 million. But he raised $440,000 in large donations in May and June, compared to $225,000 by the Pence campaign. Democrat Supt. Glenda Ritz had no large donations and State Sen. Karen Tallian shifted $20,000 from her state senate campaign to her gubernatorial. 

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