- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Goshen News. Jan. 17, 2015.

An education session or assault?

On Tuesday, the same day Governor Mike Pence gave his “State of the State” address, three bills were introduced in the state Senate on the first day of the 2015 legislative session that would essentially strip Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz of her authority when it comes to the State Board of Education.

While this year the Legislature will mostly focus on the state’s budget, Pence urged lawmakers to focus on more than just the bottom line.

“Let’s agree here and now that this will be an education session dedicated to improving all our schools for all our kids,” Pence said.

With three opening day salvos, it is clear we’re watching an education assault. Dedicating time and effort to making this year an education session while also looking to strip Ritz of her powers is both mutually exclusive and counter-productive.

Since both were elected to their posts in 2012, Pence and Ritz have clashed often. Soon after taking office in 2013 Pence eliminated Ritz’s control of the Educational Employment Relations Board. Later that year Pence, through executive order, created the Center for Education and Career Innovation. It was funded through dollars cut from the State Board of Education.

Pence has since dissolved the Center for Education and Career Innovation but, but that hallow olive branch has obviously done little to fix the fractured relationship between the Pence administration and Ritz.

In October 2013, Ritz filed a lawsuit against Pence and members of the State Board of Education for violating open door laws. Talking to the Indianapolis Star this week, Senate President Pro Tempore David Long (R-Fort Wayne) said, “The superintendent has a significant amount of fault in this as well, for the way she has managed the board.”

We don’t consider Ritz blameless in this ongoing political soap opera, but for a Republican governor and Republican Legislature to essentially strip an elected Democratic superintendent of her power, smacks of partisan politics.

Sure, the art of politics helps paint almost every decision and piece of legislation born out of Indianapolis, but when it comes to the education of our children, our leaders should eschew such tactics.

We also find this push to strip Ritz of her powers short-sighted. While Indiana is a mostly red state, Hoosiers have a history of electing Democratic governors. Former governors and state superintendents have been able to coexist despite political difference.

As the current governor may remember, he failed to reach the 50 percent mark in the 2012 general election against Democratic opponent John Gregg. In fact, Pence wasn’t even the top vote getter among state races in Indiana in 2012. That would be Ritz, who cruised to an upset of Republican incumbent Tony Bennett. Hoosiers wanted a change, not to have their wishes pillaged by vigilante politics.

These repeated Republican power plays against Ritz are a slap in the face to the Hoosiers who wanted Ritz to be their voice for education in Indianapolis. If they are unhappy with her work, it is their prerogative to vote her out, not the Legislature’s.

So, let’s make this an “education session” that will better the lives of our children, not further the fortunes of political agendas. Republicans should leave Ritz’s position alone and stop acting like brats.

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The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne. Jan. 15, 2015.

Behind the numbers

Gov. Mike Pence describes Indiana as “the fiscal envy of the country,” enjoying balanced budgets, strong reserves and the largest tax cut in the state’s history. Indiana is on a roll, he proclaimed in his State of the State address Tuesday. This ignores some bitter realities.

“To describe Indiana in terms of absolute economic success is disingenuous,” said Derek Thomas, senior policy analyst for the Indiana Institute for Working Families. “I don’t think anyone is envious of Hoosier families and their finances.”

Thomas is the author of a study that finds a record-breaking 1 million-plus Hoosiers living in poverty, with increases in the number of low-income people, the child poverty rate and the overall poverty rate that surpass the U.S. average and the rates of all our neighboring states. Culled from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures and analysis of other federal reports, the report is a grim reflection of Indiana households since the recession. In addition to increasing poverty rates, the percentage of low-income households has risen to nearly 36 percent of the population as the number of middle- and high-income Hoosiers has decreased.

“It looks like most Hoosiers are losing economic ground,” Thomas said. “Of course, having a job is the No. 1 tool for economic self-sufficiency, but wages are declining.”

Median household income in Indiana has decreased by 14 percent since 2000; by 10.8 percent since 2007. It is the largest decrease among all neighboring states.

Figures for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families show that the safety net is failing. Since 2008, the state has seen a 71 percent decline in TANF alongside a 25 percent increase in poverty.

“That’s not the way the program is supposed to work,” Thomas said. “When poverty rises, TANF participation is supposed to increase to provide help.”

The numbers play out in every Indiana community.

“I can definitely say that the overall assessment of the situation is exactly what we see as well,” said Steve Hoffman, executive director of Community Action of Northeast Indiana. “Yes, the overall economy may be improving, but it is still a struggle for many. Rising employment rates only help so much, as the majority of our families are working but still can’t make ends meet.

“We know that it takes roughly double the poverty level to be economically self-sufficient,” he said. “I firmly believe in that standard and it is our guide strategically as well. What is critical to helping families to that level is helping them address all issues, so they can build upon their employment or education to reach self-sufficient levels. That is hard to do when a family has no child care or a broken car, much less housing issues or struggling to buy food.”

The report offers a “Working Families Tax Cut Package” designed to address the dismal numbers.

“We’ve spent over a decade creating a sandbox for business,” Thomas said. “Cutting taxes for the people whose incomes are growing has not worked in Indiana; it has not worked in the U.S.”

No discussion of additional business tax cuts, including the personal property tax, should happen without equal attention paid to addressing the increasingly inequitable burden on the poor.

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The Herald-Times, Bloomington. Jan. 14, 2015.

‘Religious liberty’ is not a reason to discriminate

It seems some members of the General Assembly want to continue to push laws that discriminate.

Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, is widely reported to be fine-tuning for introduction of a bill he and supporters call a “religious liberty” bill. It would allow individuals to use personal religious beliefs to justify refusing service to same-sex couples.

If it follows the form of similar bills in other states, it would allow small businesses such as florists, wedding chapels and caterers to refuse service to same-sex couples.

This is just wrong, opening the door for these places to refuse to serve Jews or Muslims or Buddhists, for instance, since their beliefs about Jesus don’t match up. Businesses owned by same-sex couples could refuse to serve Christians, based on this. It’s all a mess and so totally unneeded. What same-sex couple is going to want to provide business to an establishment so determined to discriminate against them?

The good news is, this legislation isn’t likely to get very far. State Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said in an interview Friday he doesn’t think the Republican-controlled General Assembly wants to jump back into an issue in which discrimination will be so prominent in the debate after last year’s discussions about same-sex marriage. He also noted there are many important issues during this budget session that need no distractions.

Anything can happen at the Statehouse, of course, but if someone with Kenley’s experience and power understands how divisive and damaging such a bill could be, reasonable heads might prevail. We hope he is correct in judging the lack of appetite in his party to support something like this.

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The Times, Munster. Jan. 14, 2015.

Improve ACA instead of fighting it

It is telling that Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, was criticized by President Barack Obama for Donnelly’s role in tweaking the Affordable Care Act to define full time as a 40-hour work week.

Under the original ACA language, companies employing 50 or more workers have to provide health insurance to workers on the job 30 hours or more. But everyone else considers the 40-hour workweek to be the standard.

“I supported the Affordable Care Act because I wanted to help working- and middle-class families to have access to health care,” Donnelly said. “That doesn’t mean that the law can’t be changed.”

Changing the law was the plan all along. And wow, are changes ever needed!

The White House threatened a veto of Donnelly’s legislation if it emerges from Congress, saying there is no evidence the ACA has caused a broad shift to part-time work.

Since the ACA was passed, more than 450 employers nationwide have cut workers’ hours to avoid paying for employee health insurance, Donnelly said. That’s obviously an unintended consequence of the ACA.

Republicans in Congress have so far concentrated their efforts on trying to repeal the law. But it is too late to do so.

There are benefits behind the ACA that have already been realized, including coverage for young people and those with pre-existing conditions, and a switch to electronic record-keeping for better quality control.

In Indiana, the effort to expand Medicaid hangs on a federal decision that is taking way too long to reach. But elsewhere, coverage has been extended already. And there are too many Americans enjoying subsidies and now covered by health insurance to pull the rug out from under them.

Republicans should switch their focus to what Donnelly, a Democrat, and a number of Republicans are attempting to do with this legislation defining full-time employment - improve the law, rather than continuing to fight a losing battle aimed at repealing it. That was the intent all along anyway.

That can bring common sense reforms Republicans said they wanted anyway - including cross-state competition, as just one example.

Republicans have long said they despise Obamacare. But it’s here to stay. Don’t let politics get in the way of creating good public policy and bringing the sensible improvements the ACA clearly needs.

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