- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Journal & Courier, Lafayette. May 15, 2015.

Buying back Indiana’s post-RFRA reputation

Tourism cheerleaders in Indiana have been taking stock of their dimmed prospects after this spring’s struggle over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

For all the talk about businesses thinking about pulling up stakes due to the impression - intended or not by General Assembly members - that protecting religious freedom also meant marginalizing gays and lesbians, the most immediate backlash against Indiana came in the form of convention traffic veering elsewhere.

It only took a few multi-million conventions to pull out of Indianapolis and other cities to put the legislators’ blind spot on RFRA’s perceived discrimination into full view.

Last week, visitors bureau insiders considered the next potential victim washing up on the RFRA shore: the state’s latest tourism slogan, “Honest to Goodness Indiana.”

The question was whether the (ahem) beloved slogan introduced in 2014 would survive the state rebranding that’s bound to come now that Indiana hired Porter Novelli, a New York City-based PR firm, to help sell Indiana as a welcoming place.

Joining the voices was Jo Wade, president of Visit Lafayette-West Lafayette.

“It’s difficult to see ‘Honest to Goodness’ as a slogan for state tourism at this point in time,” Wade told the Indianapolis Business Journal. “People want to grab anything they can to remember their anger toward our state, and ‘Honest to Goodness’ could be a flare-up. At the time we passed RFRA, people didn’t see that as honest or good.”

Writing premature obituaries for a slogan that was roundly mocked for making Indiana look folksy in the hokiest of ways might be as misguided as tourism officials pushing blame for its demise on a religious freedom bill.

But the truth is that dealing with the state’s image is going to cost Indiana.

On Wednesday, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. signed a contract that puts Porter Novelli on retainer and authorizes expenses for marketing campaigns. The total so far: $750,000. The estimate floated by state officials earlier this year is that the reputation repair work might cost $2 million or more by the time the New York firm is finished.

Wow.

The convention business left in peril is nothing to sneeze at. But it just suggests the longer-range costs that Indiana might never be able to put on a spreadsheet.

As the RFRA question was still roiling in early April, West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis spoke about how hard it is to compete for new industry and new jobs in a global market. He called the margins between winning a huge deal and losing one “razor thin.” Would RFRA’s lingering backlash be the grain of rice that somehow tips the scales against Greater Lafayette or Indiana? Dennis said he’d never know for sure. But attention on RFRA didn’t help the cause.

Will an ad campaign undo the damage? We’ll see.

But as Gov. Mike Pence and Republicans in a supermajority House and Senate cut checks to out-of-state public relations firms, they should be steeling themselves for a fix that will cost considerably less. They should be preparing legislation that adds equal protection for gays and lesbians in the state’s civil rights codes.

It’s one sure way to prove once and for all that, as they insisted, RFRA had nothing to do with discrimination.

That’s honest to goodness Indiana, whether they realize it yet or not.

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The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne. May 14, 2015.

Driven to reform

More than 30 Indiana state lawmakers have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to oppose any and all new taxes. But unlawful overcharges at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles are a tax the GOP legislators can support, it appears.

Presented with evidence of tens of millions in overcharges and a “legacy of misbehavior” continuing over two administrations, they voted in February against independent audits of the scandal-plagued agency. A report released Monday - disclosing more overcharges - calls for the very auditing process the lawmakers rejected in February.

BMV is the state’s second-largest agency, responsible for the collection of more than $460 million in fees and $490 million in excise, wheel and surtaxes. Why aren’t legislative leaders demanding an end to the dysfunction in the agency?

Accounting firm BKD, hired last year to examine operations at BMV, issued a harsh report this week. It confirms what was clear to everyone but the Republican officials who have downplayed the problems. The report found:

- A lack of independent monitoring and oversight. The agency’s central office has not been independently audited in the past five years.

- Errors and inconsistencies in a master table of fees, taxes, fund names, effective dates and other critical values used to calculate transactions.

- Overly complex and ambiguous legislative authority for fees and taxes.

- The need to evaluate “the effectiveness and proficiency” of BMV leadership and establish a workforce “capable of supporting the agency’s mission.”

“It’s a shame that this report couldn’t have been issued a few weeks ago, so the Indiana General Assembly could have shown a more pro-active approach toward BMV reform rather than the weak package advocated by the governor and his Republican supermajorities,” said Rep. Dan Forestal, D-Indianapolis, in a news release. He offered the amendment calling for independent oversight and also drew attention to a “convenience fee” levied by third-party vendors for services contracted by the state.

A class-action lawsuit filed two years ago started initial investigation of the overcharges, but problems appear to date to 2004. The state has spent nearly $650,000 on audits and reviews of the BMV; one lawsuit is still pending. The BKD audit revealed 10 undercharges and 16 overcharges not previously disclosed.

The state already has agreed to return more than $60 million to Hoosier motorists, although one round of refunds itself was error-plagued.

While Hoosiers appreciate the improved customer service they’ve enjoyed in recent years, it shouldn’t come at the expense of transparency in excise taxes and fees. The flawed collections also have affected local government: Indiana counties are seeing their state excise tax distributions reduced by 3 percent over the next two to three years to help cover BMV’s errors.

Lawmakers might posture as champions of the taxpayers, but their disregard for transparent and efficient financial management says more about their concern for Hoosier pocketbooks than a no-new-taxes pledge. After years of fiscal ineptitude, we need a pledge to clean up the mess at BMV.

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The (Munster) Times. May 14, 2015.

Obama library will open new chapter for South Side

The decision to put the Barack Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side is great news for that community, and for Northwest Indiana as well.

It means jobs, not just for the construction of the new facility, but also for operating it and for serving the tourists and scholars who will visit it.

Plans call for building not only a presidential library, but also a museum and office space, all built by donations and not taxpayer funds. Those attractions will bring additional development to the surrounding area, which will be a boon to the economy there.

Chicago is a world-class city, as anyone who has visited the city knows. This will be one more of many attractions that bring visitors from throughout the world to Chicago.

It makes sense to locate the center in Chicago. Obama’s political career was shaped and launched on the South Side. He spent 12 years as a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, which submitted the winning bid for Obama’s presidential library. The Obamas maintain a house near campus, too.

“All the strands of my life came together and I really became a man when I moved to Chicago,” Obama said in a video released Tuesday. “That’s where I was able to apply that early idealism to try to work in communities in public service. That’s where I met my wife. That’s where my children were born.”

And that’s where his foundation and presidential library will be located.

This will place the presidential library close enough to Chicago for school field trips and for easy access to families and scholars from Northwest Indiana. Say what you will about Obama’s politics, there’s no question that history was made during his presidency.

Other bids for the presidential library were made by Columbia University in New York, the University of Hawaii and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The university and South Side aldermen have stressed the expectation that hundreds of thousands of visitors would translate into thousands of jobs. In an area beset with crime and high unemployment, that’s welcome news. It will help transform the South Side.

The Obamas’ decision, with the cooperation of the city and the University of Chicago, puts another major attraction in Chicago, this one right in our backyard, and in a place that desperately cries out for jobs and attention.

___

South Bend Tribune. May 10, 2015.

Making a start on sex assault issue

A U.S. Department of Justice report from December 2014 provides some interesting highlights when comparing the rape and sexual assault of female college students and nonstudents from 1995 to 2013.

For instance:

- Student victims were more likely than nonstudent victims to state that the incident was not important enough to report.

- Fewer than one in five female student and nonstudent victims of rape and sexual assault received assistance from a victim services agency.

- Rape and sexual assault of students were more likely than nonstudent victimizations to go unreported to police.

No wonder the new film “The Hunting Ground” has ignited a dialogue about the topic of sexual assault on college campuses. The film provides dozens of candid interviews with sex assault victims from campuses across the nation, including the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College.

Rape and sexual assault can be one of the most difficult crimes to prove because it typically involves only two people and no other witnesses. Add to that in most assaults on college campuses either the victim or suspect or both had been drinking and the issue becomes even more clouded.

But there is proof colleges and universities are taking measures to address sexual assault. Saint Mary’s President Carol Ann Mooney recently announced the creation of a task force to take on sexual assault and sexual misconduct on campus. The task force, which will be made up of students, faculty and administrators, will look for ways to improve the college’s effort to prevent sexual assault and sexual misconduct and assist and support student survivors of sexual assault.

Indiana University South Bend is increasing security on campus, especially at River Crossing on-campus housing, after four sexual assaults were reported on or near the campus since September. More lights are being added, shrubs trimmed and officials are seeking funding from IU to pay for security cameras and install a fence on the apartment complex’s west edge.

At Purdue University in West Lafayette, a group of students is urging school officials to establish a rape crisis center on campus so that victims can get help sooner, especially after hours. The medical director at Purdue’s Student Health Center told the Lafayette Journal & Courier that her facility receives 10 to 12 sexual assault cases per year.

Considering the DOJ report, it’s clear that more must be done to educate students when it comes to sexual assault.

Sexual assault on college campuses is not a new issue and many of the measures being taken now should have been done long ago. And these are only simple initial steps; universities have plenty more to do to prove they’re seriously addressing the issue. But it’s a start.

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