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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 – School referendums to increase property taxes in Hobart and Hammond were approvedTuesday. But I have to wonder what the outcome would have been if more than 14% of the registered voters had turned out. There was nothing else on the ballot to lure voters to the polls. You have to think that those who voted were either adamantly for or against the extra money for the school systems. The state law requiring the referendums for extra school funding is full of holes. As Hammond Supt. Walter Watkins pointed out, schools have suffered from a loss of funding from the state-mandated tax caps, increased costs for health care and ongoing increases in energy and fuel costs. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – When Richard Gordon Hatcher was elected mayor 50 years ago, Gary was one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Blacks were confined to Midtown, but they weren’t bothered by the housing restrictions, said State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary. Brown said blacks accepted the segregation because jobs were plentiful and the pay was good. Brown came to Gary from Philadelphia in the early 1960s and took a job as a teacher. He quickly became part of Hatcher’s campaign team. The Hatcher years will be featured during a celebration Saturday at West Side High School. Among those expected are close friends, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan. The Hatcher years were tumultuous. Many embraced Hatcher for being the one of the first blacks, along with Carl Stokes of Cleveland, elected mayor of a major U.S. city.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Hoosiers used to elect local school board members to make the tough decisions about education. That’s not the case any longer. The Legislature mandated several years ago that any major increases in the amount of money schools can raise must be approved by the voters through a referendum. Such will be the case Nov. 7 on increased funding proposals for the Hobart and Hammond school corporations. Again, I don’t fully understand why. It seems that the school districts elected board members to make the decisions about levels of funding for the hiring of teachers and staff, the repair and replacement of school buildings and the purchase of equipment. There is one major fault with that system, and Lake County has seen it happen in recent years. The more affluent communities approve referendums to raise more money for schools. And, the poorer communities reject referendums to raise more money for the operation of the schools. Specifically, the voters in Gary and East Chicago, the two poorest municipalities in the county, have rejected school referendums in recent years. That’s somewhat understandable in that those taxpayers can least afford to spend more money on schools – or anything else for that matter. The irony of referendums dying in Gary and East Chicago is that those two districts needed more money for schools than others did.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Every time adults and children are gunned down in a school or theater or music venue, Republicans run and hide behind the 2nd Amendment. It was no different a week ago when 59 were killed and hundreds wounded at a concert in Las Vegas. Is it time for new gun laws? Well, maybe, perhaps in the future, but not now is the response from Republicans. We certainly don’t want to upset the National Rifle Association, Republicans say. Americans have a right to bear arms because, well, the British might be coming. And, the standard Republican argument is that tougher gun laws won’t stop the kind of thing that happened in Las Vegas or Sandy Hook. Something has to be done because 96 people die in America each day because of gun violence. That doesn’t say much about the most powerful country in the world. This is how President Donald Trump put it when dodging the issue of gun reform. “We’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes by,” Trump said.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Public transportation, and a source of funding, has long been an uphill fight for Northwest Indiana. And it still is today, both in terms of computer rail and bus service. Federal funding for the expansion of commuter rail from Hammond to St. John, as well as double-tracking the existing South Shore Rail operation, seemed a virtual lock until President Donald Trump entered the picture. U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, who has been the godfather of both projects, sits high on the House Appropriations Committee which will provide federal funding for both South Shore projects. Visclosky has been saying for years that he will secure the federal money if the state and local communities come up with a match. The match has all but been secured, but that was before Trump was elected president and cast doubt over the future of transportation projects. That’s why not only Visclosky, but also Gov. Eric Holcomb, who is a South Shore supporter, are putting pressure on Mike Pence, the vice president and former Indiana governor, to see that the federal money flows this way. Although Pence never went out of his way to funnel money to Northwest Indiana, he and Holcomb are close.
  • MERRILLVILLE – There were a lot of questions raised during and after the Democratic precinct caucus that elected Oscar Martinez Jr. as the new Lake County sheriff last week. Martinez, who has been a Lake County police officer since 1993, won a third-ballot victory over Schererville Police Chief David Dowling. Martinez had 223 votes to Dowling’s 170. It was the first Democratic caucus since James L. Wieser was elected party chairman earlier this year. What a web has been weaved. During the chairman’s election, Wieser and Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay tied. Outgoing chairman John Buncich broke the tie by selecting Wieser. It was because of Buncich that there was a need for the special caucus last week.
  • MERRILLVILLE  – Almost without exception, what happens just across the state line in Illinois has an impact on Northwest Indiana. When property taxes go up, scores of Illinois residents move to Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. When the Illinois sales tax goes up – particularly in Cook County – people flock to Indiana to buy cars, cigarettes, gasoline, appliances and more.  And now, Cook County residents are coming to Northwest Indiana to buy pop and other soft drinks containing sugar. The Cook County Board has approved a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary soft drinks. The financially strapped county says the tax will raise about $200 million annually and prevent the closure of Stroger Hospital or a reduction in its services, particularly to low-income residents.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Lake County Democrats are about to select a new sheriff without the help of the general public. It’s happened before. In the mid-1980s, Democrats picked a new sheriff when Rudy Bartolomei was indicted. Bartolomei went into the witness protection system and helped launch Operation Lights Out, the most extensive federal investigation into public corruption in the history of the state. Lights Out resulted in a slew of federal indictments and sent several elected officials to jail. Lake County Democrats will elect another sheriff at a precinct caucus on Sept. 16. Sheriff John Buncich was removed from office last week upon his conviction on bribery charges in connection with county towing contracts. It used to be that convicted public officials stayed in office – while collecting fat paychecks – until sentencing. The Legislature in recent years, largely prompted by Lake County, changed the law to remove an elected official from office upon conviction.
  • MERRILLVILLE – An out-of-towner asked me the other day how things were going in Gary. I told him the murder rate was down, but that was only because the population of the city had dwindled to fewer than 80,000 residents, not because of a drastic reduction in homicides. And, while crime continues to be a problem in Gary, so too is justice. It was unveiled a few months back that the Gary city court has a backlog of more than 200,000 cases and no plan in place to speed up justice. And just as the state named a special monitor to take control of the city’s struggling school system, a group in the Miller Beach section of the city announced it may try to form a new school district with the three schools in that section of the city. But it’s not all negative when it comes to Gary. Every few months there is an announcement about something positive for the city. Virtually every time, it involves the creation of jobs – something sorely needed. Despite the optimism, it’s rare that jobs are created.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Are Donald Trump and Mike Pence peas in a pod, or is the vice president ready to fly from the nest. Pence, who is one of the biggest defenders of the president, stayed true on Monday after critics ripped Trump for saying there was fault to be found on both sides of the Charlottesville, Va., demonstration last weekend. So defensive of Trump was Pence that he attacked the media, much like the president has done since taking office. “The media is more concerned in attacking Trump than criticizing the violence itself,” Pence said. Besides defending the president, Pence added that there “will be more unity in America” under Trump’s presidency. All that is fairly standard for Pence, who one day would like to be president. And if Pence is going to succeed Trump, he will need the president’s political base to do so. Perhaps that’s why we haven’t heard from Pence since Monday. Pence, even though he is traveling, hasn’t said a word about Trump’s Tuesday tirade about what happened in Virginia. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Perhaps the biggest political question in Indiana is whether U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly can win reelection next year. Judging by the crowded field of Republican hopefuls, the answer would have to be no.  But given that he is the second most bipartisan member of the Senate, the answer would have to be maybe. Indiana Democrats suffered a stinging defeat last year when Evan Bayh lost in his bid to win back the Senate seat he gave up several years earlier. So, for the first time since the 1970s, Indiana doesn’t have one of its native sons, Democrats Birch and Evan Bayh and Republican Richard Lugar, in the U.S. Senate. That can’t change next year, but Democrats are bent on making sure Donnelly is reelected. Democrats think that’s possible, because there won’t be a presidential race heading the ballot. There won’t be a governor race high on the ballot either. Who Republicans nominate remains to be seen, but chances are it will be someone out of the Donald Trump mode. That would have meant a great deal last year but won’t mean nearly as much next year. Republican candidates thus far are U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita, a Munster native, and Luke Messer; State Rep. Mike Braun; Hamilton County businessman Terry Henderson; Kokomo attorney Mark Hurt; and Floyds Knobs educator Andrew Takami. Although most of those candidates have embraced Trump, that may be a mistake, given his plunging approval rating.
  • MERRILLVILLE –  Unless something drastic happens in the next couple of days, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is going to trial on charges that he accepted kickbacks from tow truck operators. The trial will be in U.S. District Court in Hammond. The government alleges that Buncich accepted cash and checks from towing operators in exchange for the right to tow vehicles for county police. Should Buncich actually go on trial, it would be counter to what generally happens with public corruption cases in Lake County. Rarely does an elected official actually go on trial. In virtually all cases in the last several decades, the defendant has entered into a plea agreement with the government. The plea agreement generally results in less prison time than if the defendant had gone to trial and lost. Not only does Buncich deny taking kickbacks from towing businesses, he is putting the blame on Timothy Downs, his second in command and the former president of the Indiana Fraternal Order of Police. In pretrial motions, Buncich alleges that Downs acted on his own to collect money from the towing firms. Downs, however, entered into his own plea agreement early on and will testify for the government.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Scott L. King was mayor of Gary when the University Park East project surfaced more than two decades ago. It was going to be a collaborative effort between the city, the school city, Indiana University Northwest, the IU School of Medicine, Methodist Hospitals, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northwest Indiana and Ivy Tech Community College. It would have included single-family housing, expanded elementary education, after-school facilities and green space from IUN to the east. At the time, it would have been the most far-reaching development in the city in decades. And, it was intended to slow the rising crime rate in the Glen Park section of the city. The plans also included construction of a teaching hospital adjacent to the IUN campus. After all, there already was an IU medical school program affiliated with the IUN campus. It was a grand plan that would have pumped life into the Steel City. The only problem was money. None of the planned participants had enough to move forward. And then King left office and hung out his attorney shingle. Thanks in large part to the efforts of state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, Methodist Hospital Northlake Campus has been designated a Level III trauma center.
  • MERRILLVILLE – It’s becoming clear that President Donald Trump doesn’t like former President Barack Obama. It’s not a political thing. It’s personal. And it’s driving Trump – and to a lesser extent, Vice President Mike Pence – up a wall. And, yes, the springboard is the Affordable Care Act, which is better known as Obamacare. I think it’s a jealousy thing. Obama twice won the popular vote while Trump didn’t in his one try. Trump started the birther movement, contending Obama wasn’t born in the United States. And Trump never let go of the issue. And Trump was offended when Obama said he wasn’t mentally fit to be president. And virtually anytime something goes wrong, Trump blames it on Obama. What really eats at Trump is Obamacare. The repeal and replace of Obamacare was at the heart of Trump’s campaign. I’m not terribly sure why, given what people are saying today. Last November, just before being elected, Trump said, “My poll numbers are going through the roof. Part (of the reason) is Obamacare.”
  • MERRILLVILLE – I really had to chuckle when President Donald Trump’s vote fraud commission asked Indiana to expose just about everything there is to know about those who vote in this state. First of all, anytime I hear Trump talking about vote fraud, it makes me laugh. Because Trump is such an egomaniac, he just can’t accept the fact that he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump has said several times that if the votes illegally cast for Clinton were thrown out, he would have won the popular vote. Trump is talking about up to 5 million illegal votes having been cast for Clinton. Trump, of course, hasn’t provided the first shred of evidence. So, Trump has launched an illegal voter witch hunt and put – of all people – former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the vice president, in charge. So, what happened when the national vote commission turned its attention to Indiana? I guess you could say Pence and company got a rude reception. And Pence should have known what was coming. Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, a fellow Republican, pretty much told the vote commission to take a hike.
  • MERRILLVILLE – A nationwide study by a major moving company has found that more people are moving out of Indiana than moving in. United Van Lines reported that 54% of state-to-state moves last year were out of Indiana, while 46% were to the Hoosier state. Strikingly, 66.3% moving out of Indiana did so because of jobs. Such statistics seemingly call into question claims by former Gov. Mike Pence that Indiana has positioned itself to be one of the most business friendly states in the country. Among those laws is the anti-union statute known as the right-to-work law. The state also has done away with the prevailing wage law that also is anti-union. And, Indiana has passed a series of laws making it virtually impossible for teachers to negotiate wages or working conditions.
  • MERRILLVILLE – The Mike Pence tax and the Eric Holcomb tax are colliding on the streets of Valparaiso. And the same is likely to happen in some other Northwest Indiana communities. A year ago, then-Gov. Mike Pence approved a wheel tax package that promised state matching funds for local road repairs if towns and cities raised their share of the money. And, in Valparaiso, the local source of the money is a $25-per-car wheel tax. The maximum the state will kick in is $2.7 million annually. That was then and this is now. Valparaiso Councilwoman Debra Porter, D-at large, has suggested that the city eliminate the tax, given what the Legislature approved this year. Initially, the Valparaiso council approved the wheel tax with the caveat that it would be eliminated if the county imposed its own wheel tax. Although the county did nothing, Porter said the state road funding plan approved this year has changed the situation. Ironically, the new state plan was sponsored by Rep. Ed Soliday, a Valparaiso Republican.
  • MERRILLVILLE –– The Gary Air Show – or I should say the lack of it in recent years – has become a joke. It was announced this week that there won’t be a show in Gary on the shore of Lake Michigan this year. The same was the case in 2013 and 2014. The cancellation this year is because Gary can’t afford the $350,000 needed to provide the support to make the event a reality. Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she was unable to find a corporate sponsor. The mayor had a year to secure the money and apparently was unable to do so. And I can understand why firms like U.S. Steel Corp. and the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. wouldn’t want to pony up the money. Speros Batistatos, the president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, said the loss of the show is devastating because of the hundreds of thousands of people it attracts. Batistatos’ organization used to be one of the sponsors of the show and lost $1.4 million over a nine-year span.
  • MERRILLVILLE –  Although he has been on the campaign trail for about eight months, Schererville Police Chief David Dowling formally launched his bid for Lake County sheriff a week ago. Dowling is looking to become the first chief of a small town to become Lake County sheriff. He spoke briefly to a sizable crowd at the Andorra Banquet Hall in Schererville, and he had two very noteworthy things to say about the race. Perhaps the most interesting is that Dowling said he will retire from the Schererville Police Department prior to the 2018 Democratic primary. He didn’t elaborate as to why he would retire, but one got the feeling that he wanted to be unencumbered during the last few months prior to the election. I suspect that it also makes Dowling look like a very serious candidate in that he will give up his current job while hoping to win a new one. And if he didn’t win the sheriff’s post, he would pretty much be without a job.
  • MERRILLVILLE – One of the biggest problems facing police officers in Northwest Indiana – and across the country for that matter – is that the flow of narcotics isn’t going to stop. As hard as they try to catch the drug dealers and the mules who transport the narcotics, it isn’t a winnable battle. But you have to give the police credit for trying; they do take narcotics and drug dealers off the streets. But while police are making an impact, 91 people are dying every day from drug overdoses across the country. It is an especially serious problem in Northwest Indiana. Lake County last year had 63 heroin deaths, while 20 died in Porter County from opioid overdoses. And those dying aren’t the bad guys. They are the victims. Schererville Police Chief David Dowling knows there need to be changes in law enforcement’s approach to opioids. “We all understand the opioid epidemic has gotten so bad that this isn’t a problem we can arrest our way out of,” Dowling said.
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  • Rokita revives residency issue against Messer
    "What's best for our family is living right here amongst our constituents, amongst our neighbors in Brownsburg, Indiana. You only have to look to [Richard] Lugar [and] Evan Bayh to see how the Indiana electorate treats someone who doesn't really live in this state and has lost touch." - U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita to WIBC’s Tony Katz, in reference to his criticism of U.S. Senate primary opponent Luke Messer, who moved his family to Washington while he serves in Congress. Messer told Katz, "The Hoosiers I talk to put their family first and they respect that a member of Congress would put their family first too.“ Sens. Lugar and Bayh lost Senate bids in 2012 and 2016 with residency one of the issues that came up during the campaign.
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  • The slitherly slope and redemption
    Here are some thoughts on the “Pervnado” that is sweeping Hollywood, Capitol Hill, newsrooms and statehouses, though things at the Indiana Statehouse have been quiet.

    Does it make a difference when a decades-old allegation comes up that the perpetrator apologizes? Particularly if there’s no specific evidence? We’ve watched Kevin Spacey, Sen. Al Franken and comedian Louis C.K. seek some measure of atonement for their inappropriate behavior, while Republican Alabama U.S. Senate nominee Roy Moore, who has been accused of pedophilia, has not and remains defiant? Ditto for comedian Bill Cosby.

    As any crisis communicator will tell you, coming clean and being contrite is the better long term strategy even if one takes big losses in the short-term. And Americans have a penchant for redemption, as past controversial figures ranging from Muhammad Ali, Jane Fonda, Kobe Bryant to Barney Frank and even Presidents Clinton and Nixon eventually were restored some degree of trust and popularity.

    Is it inconsistent for U.S. Rep. Luke Messer to call for the resignation of Sen. Franken for one ribald photo and an inappropriate and slithery pass a radio personality Leanne Tweeden, while President Trump escapes a similar assessment despite a dozen or so similar complaints and the Billy Bush “Access Hollywood” tape?

    Just asking, as we watch many powerful figures tumble down the slithery slope.  - Brian A. Howey, publisher
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