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Saturday, February 28, 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 – 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. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Are Lake County’s fortunes about to rise in the Indiana General Assembly? Could it be that for the first time under Republican control in Indianapolis that Lake County will have a voice? Could it be that the GOP powers in Indianapolis may break from tradition and even listen to what the Republican legislators from Lake County have to say? Time will tell. But one thing is certain: Lake County will have its greatest Republican presence ever in the GOP-controlled Indiana House. Looking at the roster of House Republicans and Democrats, one would think the county was fairly evenly split. The lineup belies the fact that Lake County remains the most heavily Democratic in the state.  
  • MERRILLVILLE – The nationwide Republican onslaught impacted Lake County on Tuesday. But the GOP gains were offset by a critical loss. Republicans ousted two Democratic state representatives, Shelli VanDenburgh in District 19 and Mara Candelaria Reardon in District 12. VanDenburgh narrowly lost to advertising agency owner Julie Olthoff, and Reardon came close while losing to attorney William Fine. Republicans also retained the 15th House District seat with Hal Slager winning a second term over James Wieser. Democrats had targeted the seat. Each of the three seats was drawn by House Republicans following the 2010 Census. Reardon and VanDenburgh narrowly won two years ago but couldn’t withstand a heavy Republican vote on Tuesday. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – When incumbent Republican legislators started canceling debates with Democratic challengers a few weeks back, speculation was that they didn’t want to have to defend the GOP agenda on a number of levels. It now is becoming clearer that the issue that led to the Republican cancellations was education. Republicans have come under fire on a number of fronts when it comes to the education agenda. Democrats have criticized the GOP for freely shifting education money from public schools to charter schools. Democrats have rapped Gov. Mike Pence for his assault on Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, have expressed displeasure with Pence for forming his own education board at great expense to the taxpayers and have assailed Republicans for taking away many of the rights teacher unions have held over the years. Democrats have knocked the GOP for not doing something to improve the outdated school funding formula. And, the list goes on. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Talk about two tales of one city. Of course it is Gary, Indiana. The city had one of its proudest moments Wednesday night with the scheduled landing of  President Obama and Air Force One at the Gary/Chicago International Airport. Because of residual problems at O’Hare International Airport caused by a fire at the Aurora radar center last week, the president planned to land at Gary. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who is to greet the president today, had a different take on why Obama was landing in Gary, as opposed to Chicago. “We feel and hope it is because of the convenience of Gary’s location to Chicago,” the mayor said. “We are, after all, the third airport for the Chicago area.” 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Indiana Democrats need to pick up three seats in the House to break the Republican supermajority. They would need to gain four seats in the Senate to end the GOP supermajority there. Holding the supermajority means the party in power can do whatever it sees fit. The minority party, in essence, doesn’t have a voice to affect or stop legislation. If Democrats are to break the Republicans’ stranglehold of the Legislature, they will have to do it in the House. There is general agreement they can’t do it in the Senate. There also is general agreement among Democrats that one of the three seats they must win is the 15th House District where Rep. Hal Slager, a Schererville Republican, is the incumbent. Challenging Slager is Democrat Jim Wieser, a former Highland town councilman and Lake County councilman and longtime party advisor. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Lake County Democrats have a long and proud tradition of beating Republicans on the local and county levels. And the Democratic vote often is so great that statewide Republican candidates fear the impact of the Lake County vote. The Lake Democrats won again this week, not only beating statewide Republicans but a local GOP elected official as well. Lake Circuit Judge George Paras declared Senate Bill 385 unconstitutional, which was a blow to the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Paras ruled the law unconstitutional because it was special legislation. Paras’ ruling also left state Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, the bill’s author, with egg on his face. The bill would have required Lake County to eliminate the majority of its precincts that have fewer than 500 registered voters. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Munster is the richest community in Lake County and also the most Republican. When it was learned a week ago that the Munster schools were $8 million in debt and behind on utility bills, political heads began turning. Munster school officials quickly put the blame on the Republican controlled General Assembly, which writes the school-funding formula. The Republican attacks on Democratic state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and their disregard for the public education system as a whole are expected to play a major role in the November elections, both on the state and local level. That may be particularly true in the 15th House District where Democrat Jim Wieser is challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Hal Slager. The two are Schererville residents who are part of the Lake Central School Corp. Lake Central receives even less than Munster in per-pupil funding. Wieser said the Republican assault on education is largely what prompted him to seek the state representative post. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – What Evan Bayh is doing to the Indiana Democratic Party is criminal. If convicted by the party faithful, he ought to be banned from Hoosier Democratic activities for life. The former governor and U.S. senator left the party in the lurch when he decided at the last minute that he would not seek reelection to the Senate, which essentially handed the office to Republican Dan Coats a few years back. Indiana Democrats pretty much thought that was the political end to Bayh, the son of former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, who is the greatest Democrat to represent Indiana at any level. But Evan kept the door open a crack. He would never say never about a political future. And that stance froze Indiana Democrats in terms of lining up a candidate to run for governor in 2016. 
  • MERRILLVILLE –  Can we have a frank discussion? Frankly speaking, I think it would be a good thing for the taxpayers of Indiana. We are talking about the franking privileges enjoyed by legislators in the Indiana General Assembly. And a recent column about the reality of franking and the abuse of the system has created a firestorm of sorts. The column was about a slick brochure sent by House District 15 State Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, to constituents in the greater St. John Township area of Lake County. Like most mindless franking mail, the brochure talked about job creation and how wonderful things are in Indiana. It talked about how Slager voted to appropriate an additional $400 million – above the usual highway budget – for road work in Indiana and how that would result in the creation of additional jobs. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Although their numbers have fallen, unions in Northwest Indiana remain a viable force when it comes to electing folks to public office. Politicians – make that largely Democratic candidates – go out of their way to seek the support of unions. And if they win a union endorsement, the fact is proudly displayed on campaign literature prior to primary and general elections. That union label is in large part why there are signs in yards across the region proclaiming “Proud Union Home.” Many times, the signs will refer to the specific union. As a result, the Northwest Indiana Building and Construction Trades, the United Steelworkers of America, Teamsters and other unions remain a viable part of the fabric of Northwest Indiana. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Regionalism has been the buzzword in Northwest Indiana for the better part of the last decade. There has been a concentrated effort to bring togetherness to the most segregated part of the state. There has been success, including decisions to move ahead with the Illiana Expressway, as well as the $571 million extension of the South Shore Railroad to Dyer. The South Shore project is being shepherded by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky who has vowed to provide federal funding to cover half of the construction cost. Visclosky has asked Lake County communities to commit 34 percent of their new local income tax money to the project for a term of 30 years.  
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  • Baron Hill says he's close to entering gubernatorial race
    “I’m encouraged by what I’m hearing. If I had to make an announcement today, I’d probably be in. That’s where my head is.” - Former congressman Baron Hill on what appears to be a probable Democratic gubernatorial bid. Hill also denied published “rumors” he has been in any decisions with Supt. Glenda Ritz about a lieutenant governor nomination. 



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Should the Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction be elected, or a gubernatorial appointment?


 

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