- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

South Bend Tribune. Jan. 9, 2015.

Protect youth from ever-popular e-cigarettes

For all the unknowns about electronic cigarettes, one thing’s for sure: Companies are trying their darnedest to hook the younger generation on them.

It certainly appears that their efforts — which include offering such flavors as bubble gum and chocolate chip cookie dough — are paying off. A recent report by the National Institutes of Health says that e-cigarettes have surpassed traditional smoking in popularity among teens. The good news: Tobacco smoking by teens has dropped to new lows. Not so good: The use of e-cigs reached levels that came as a surprise to researchers. Nearly 9 percent of eighth-graders, 16 percent of 10th-graders and 17 percent of seniors said they’d tried an e-cigarette in the previous month. Between 4 percent and 7 percent of students who tried e-cigs said they’d never smoked a tobacco cigarette.

The report comes even as questions about the safety of e-cigs — which produce a vapor infused with nicotine but without the same tar and chemicals in tobacco cigarettes — remain unanswered.

This is why a bill proposing to place restrictions on youth use of e-cigarettes is welcome news. State Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, says his bill would require stores to have a license to sell the battery-powered devices and would tax them like tobacco products.

The bill also would add e-cigarettes to the state’s smoking ban and would require child-resistant packaging for the containers holding the nicotine-infused liquid that is vaporized.

Clere has expressed concerns about the surge of young people using e-cigs and about the vape shops where they are sold — businesses he says are popping up and “flying under the radar.”

Equally troubling are the claims being made, without solid evidence, that “vaping” is a less dangerous alternative to traditional smoking. The Food and Drug Administration, which hasn’t been nearly as proactive on this issue as is called for, should be stepping up restrictions to protect minors. As an article in the New York Times reported, e-cigs have become a $2.5 billion industry with “virtually no regulatory oversight.”

We’ve been down this road before, with Big Tobacco making a direct pitch to hook a new generation of smokers. In 2009, the FDA banned flavors from traditional cigarettes, like clove, chocolate and vanilla, in an effort to deter young people from picking up the habit. In August, 29 state attorneys general — including Greg Zoeller of Indiana — urged the FDA to prohibit the sale of most e-cigarette flavoring, among other regulations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month that 10 states permit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Indiana law prohibits such sales, but more can be done to protect youth. Clere’s bill is a good start.

___

The Herald Bulletin, Anderson. Jan. 7, 2015.

Education should be top priority in Indiana budget

State legislators gathered Tuesday in Indianapolis for the start of a four-month legislative session to craft a $30 billion, two-year budget.

Much of the session will be devoted to the budget and, specifically, what to do with the anticipated increase of $840 million in state coffers.

Here’s an oversimplified suggestion: Spend it on education.

Several years back, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels stripped $300 million from the education budget. The state was in the throes of the recession, and Daniels took his ax to schools. It was a mistake then, and public schools are still paying the price.

The current biennial budget, which lapses at the end of June, did devote more to education spending compared to the previous state budget - 2 percent more in 2013 and 1 percent more this year. But that’s not nearly enough to give Indiana’s K-12 schools the resources needed to guarantee a top-notch education for all Hoosier children.

In particular, urban schools like Anderson Community School Corp. are in need of more resources to challenge kids academically and provide the counseling support and small class sizes that are keys to excellence in education.

While charter schools and private schools are important structures in the education landscape, traditional public schools need the most attention. Legislators should be sure to address their many needs before devoting more money to vouchers for private schools.

The Republicans hold a super majority in the General Assembly, with advantages of 71-29 in the House and 40-10 in the Senate. They can essentially pass - or kill - legislation at will.

That means that some important Democrat-supported ideas don’t have a fighting chance. Among those initiatives is the minimum wage.

Indiana is one of 21 states that uses the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Democrats want to raise the rate to $10.10 an hour. Republicans won’t let it happen, but they should develop a plan to raise the rate at least incrementally over a period of years.

The current minimum wage is not enough to support a decent quality of life. While keeping the minimum that low might be attractive to businesses, it saddles Hoosiers with the sort of jobs that keep them in or near poverty. Indiana’s per capita income is among the 10 worst in the nation.

The Legislature should also approve, once and for all, live dealers in the casinos at Anderson’s Hoosier Park and Shelbyville’s Indiana Grand. Needless limitations on gambling are keeping those facilities from generating more tax revenue and employing more people in a competitive environment for casinos.

And, finally, the General Assembly must agree to a stricter ethics code to keep legislators from having undue influence over bills that benefit them or their business interests.

We’re all familiar with the case of Eric Turner, who represented a portion of Madison County in the state Legislature. Last session, he worked behind the scenes to kill a bill that would have halted nursing home development. Turner has a multi-million dollar interest in such facilities. He won re-election in the fall but stepped down afterward.

Let’s hope that this session of the General Assembly has a better legacy, the legacy of reclaiming education as a top priority.

___

The Journal Gazette. Jan. 6, 2015.

Fairer approach

Partisan redistricting makes a mockery of the basic principles of democracy. … The Indiana legislature has the opportunity - actually, the obligation - to take its thumb off the scales of voter equality.

Changing demographics rapidly make congressional and legislative districts obsolete. Redistricting, which occurs at the beginning of each decade just after the national census is completed, is a necessity for democracy to function.

But in Indiana, the legislature draws up its own legislative voting districts, as well as congressional districts. There are provisions for a redistricting commission, but they never come into play as long as both the House and Senate can agree on new maps within a set time.

This has never been a good procedure, but it can be made to work when one party controls each of the two legislative chambers. Both parties, though, have used the system to create unfair advantages over the years.

In the redistricting at the beginning of this decade, the GOP did a masterful job of controlling the process. Republicans held both houses, and they took the opportunity to move more Democrats into heavily Democratic districts and more Republicans into districts that had been fairly even.

The supermajorities in this year’s legislature reflect the results, with Republicans holding 40 of 50 Senate seats and 71 of 100 House seats. The GOP also holds seven of the state’s nine congressional seats.

Yes, more Hoosiers have been voting Republican in recent elections, but statewide votes two years ago show a substantial Democratic presence that isn’t reflected in the results from individual districts. President Barack Obama and Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg each won about 45 percent of the vote in 2012, and Democrat Joe Donnelly won his statewide contest against Republican Richard Mourdock.

Fairly drawn legislative and congressional districts wouldn’t produce the disproportionate result that Hoosiers saw in the fall election. A better system would discourage unopposed contests (20 House and Senate seats in 2014) and perhaps help Indiana avoid the distinction of having the lowest voter participation in the nation, as it did in November (a shameful 30 percent).

The Indiana Legislature flirted with changing our inherently flawed system of drawing up voting districts last year. A bill to create a bipartisan appointed redistricting commission passed the House but never got through the Senate.

Fortunately, there’s still time for lawmakers to agree on a plan in this session and begin implementation for the next redistricting, which will begin after the 2020 census.

This is a national problem, and there are efforts to address it underway elsewhere; Indiana can borrow from the best ideas in other states’ plans. Ohio’s legislature approved a redistricting reform measure in mid-December that voters will be asked to approve next November.

So far, the best-thought-out system appears to be the Citizens Redistricting Commission created in California when Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor and the Democrats controlled the legislature.

Its members are selected from citizen applicants instead of by politics-as-usual appointments, and it provides seats at the table for independents and members of minor parties as well as Democratic and Republican voters.

The only system not worthy of serious consideration is the status quo. Republicans tempted to keep it in place should remember the past and contemplate the future. The GOP won’t always have two supermajorities.

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Indianapolis Business Journal. Jan. 3, 2015.

State Legislature needs reformers

As if we needed more evidence that politics trump policy for most of our elected state representatives, we can look at the movement, or lack thereof, for local government reform.

With the 2015 General Assembly about to begin, none of the 150 House and Senate members elected to represent us has come forward to carry the flag on bringing sanity and efficiency to the structure of local government in our state.

Hoosiers are saddled with 1,008 township governments, many of which sit on piles of money collected from taxpayers. We have scores of elected officials at the county and township level who, even though they were elected, are unknown to most constituents. Who are the coroner and recorder in your county? Are their responsibilities more than administrative? If you don’t know who they are or what they do, how can you elect them and hold them accountable?

Our outdated and wasteful local government structure was called out in a 2007 study led by former Gov. Joe Kernan and then-Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. Among its 27 recommendations, the Kernan-Shepard Commission on Local Government Reform called for getting rid of 5,833 elected officials and 1,155 governmental units. The bipartisan commission’s report, with support from then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, was delivered with high hopes that something would finally change.

But the Indiana General Assembly wouldn’t budge, causing Daniels to comment later that “some of the changes are so obvious that our failure to make them is a daily embarrassment.”

Not to members of the Legislature then, and certainly not now.

Eight years later, the fate of that report appears to be sealed. Legislators contacted for a recent Associated Press story mostly hid behind the idea that getting their peers in the General Assembly to go along with any of the major ideas from the report would be impossible.

The comment of newly elected state Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, was typical. He told AP he wouldn’t sponsor any bills inspired by the commission’s report, but he paid lip service to the goals of the commission.

“We as a state need to continually improve delivery of services” to taxpayers, he said.

In the Kernan-Shepard report, legislators have a readable, 40-page narrative full of ways to do that. (Google “streamlining local government” and it comes up first.)

Not that a newly elected representative should be expected to lead the charge. Gov. Mike Pence would be a more influential proponent, but he’s shown little interest. Voters haven’t exactly demanded change, either, but pathetic voter turnout for local elections should be a call to action.

Surely at least some of our legislators see the danger in doing nothing. Perhaps they’re reluctant to tamper with the political infrastructure that propelled their political career. Or they don’t want to be a part of eliminating positions held by their friends back home. Fair enough. So adopt some of the report’s major recommendations, but delay implementation long enough that today’s players aren’t in the picture.

We know government typically moves slowly, especially on major issues. But on this issue, we’re faced with a government that won’t move at all.

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