- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Munster Times. Oct. 23, 2015.

NWI needs to cultivate manufacturing workers.

Northwest Indiana has long been proud of its industrial might, and deservedly so. That muscle must not be allowed to atrophy.

We must pay attention to manufacturers’ future workforce needs.

Here in Northwest Indiana, the expectation once was that many high school graduates would become steelworkers, just like their fathers and uncles. Then the pendulum swung and all students were expected to get four-year college degrees. But don’t discount the value of training to work in a factory.



U.S. Steel CEO Mario Longhi and others said at a recent World Steel Association conference in Chicago that the steel industry technology is becoming increasingly automated. That’s eliminating the low-skill jobs that many associate with heavy manufacturing but opens opportunities for skilled jobs to support that infrastructure of automation.

This is a message that must be told, repeatedly, to students, their parents and educators. There will still be low-skill jobs available, but the number of those is shrinking - and those should be seen as temporary jobs, not a permanent career.

A recent Manufacturing Day event highlighted Northwest Indiana’s heavy reliance on manufacturing jobs to support the local economy.

Manufacturing jobs traditionally pay well, higher than most jobs in the region.

We mourn the loss of steel jobs in Northwest Indiana, and for good reason. There were about 70,000 steel jobs here in the 1970s, and it’s down to 20,000 today, said NIPSCO Director of Economic Development Don Babcock. Losing that many jobs hurts.

But rather than focus on the past, look to the future.

Roughly 11 percent of the region’s workforce is the manufacturing sector, which supports about 40 percent of the region’s jobs. The Northwest Indiana Forum estimates every dollar spent on manufacturing adds $1.48 to the workforce.

Manufacturing isn’t just good for the employees and their families; it’s at the heart of who we are in Northwest Indiana.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., said what many of us believe: “I grew up in the Glen Park neighborhood of Gary, and I believe in the bottom of my heart we need to make stuff. When we stop making stuff, we become stupid.”

Not all jobs can be service-based. “We all can’t just be each other’s bankers. Someone’s got to make something,” said Mark Johnson(asterisk), director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office.

We also must continue to develop new technologies and processes that allow U.S. manufacturers to remain competitive in a global economy. ArcelorMittal, for example, houses a global research and development facility in East Chicago that develops new steels and new ways to make them. Purdue University Calumet’s Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation and others help support manufacturing in the region, too.

We need to produce producers, but also thinkers who can retool our production lines and create new products.

Manufacturing is at the heart of who we are and who we will continue to be. We need to ensure the future workforce continues that tradition.

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The South Bend Tribune. Oct 23, 2015.

These crossroads could be tricky.

Even though Gov. Mike Pence has done little more than announce a $1 billion spending plan focused on Indiana’s roads, the path ahead already looks bumpy.

Unveiled earlier this month, 21st Century Crossroads would only fund state-mandated highways and bridges. The new money, to be spent over the next four years, would be in addition to the $3.2 billion in planned spending over the next five years.

The proposal involves tapping into the state’s $2 billion surplus.

Pence, who has been defending the condition of Indiana transportation infrastructure in recent weeks, wrote in an op-ed that his plan is “a substantial next step that will improve our roads and bridges as we work toward the solutions for the even longer term.” He also wrote that he looks forward to working with the General Assembly in the upcoming legislative session to accomplish these goals.

Those negotiations could be tricky, based on initial response from lawmakers - in both parties - to 21st Century Crossroads. Democrats, who have been criticizing the governor about the state of Hoosier roads, fault the plan for achieving only the “bare minimum.” They also note that, according to an interim study committee for roads and transportation, the plan neglects 90 percent of the state’s roads and bridges.

For their part, House Republicans have sounded a tepid response. House Speaker Brian Bosma said legislators “appreciate” Pence’s ideas and will “keep his proposals in mind.” Concerns about taking on debt were expressed by House Ways and Means Chairman state Rep. Tim Brown.

To further complicate matters, a report commissioned by the state offered that a long-term solution to Indiana’s infrastructure problems would require a lot more money: A yearly total of $1.5 billion over the next 20 years is what’s needed to keep things in good or fair condition, according to the report - a far cry from the current yearly spending of about $570 million.

Whatever you think of Pence’s plan - and there’s material to question, including the lack of funding for local roads - at least it’s a step toward focusing some much-needed attention and resources on Indiana’s infrastructure. Those who find fault with the 21st Century Crossroads need to come up with alternative plans. And those unwilling to spend the money necessary to maintain the state’s roads and bridges should understand that Hoosiers will end up paying the price, one way or another.

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The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Oct. 23, 2015.

Paying off the feds.

State officials are crowing over a plan to pay off Indiana’s debt to the federal government for unemployment insurance borrowing.

Indeed, they deserve credit for meeting the longstanding obligation - they just aren’t entitled to call it an “early” payoff. The final payment on the state’s $2.2 billion federal bailout should have been paid years ago.

Gov. Mike Pence announced Thursday the state will repay the final $250 million owed on its loan with an advance from cash reserves, which have ballooned to $2 billion even as the state pays millions of dollars a year in interest.

When the Great Recession hit, three dozen states had to lean on the federal government to backfill their unemployment insurance trust funds, the source of jobless benefits. When Indiana was enjoying budget surpluses at the turn of the century, there was bipartisan support to increase unemployment benefits and cut premiums paid by employers. As a result, the state’s unemployment trust fund ran out even before the downturn hit.

Indiana and Michigan were the first states in line for a handout in 2008, and Indiana remains one of just four states with an outstanding balance. Michigan paid off its obligation years earlier. But Indiana officials resisted.

“We don’t want to be in the position of raising taxes and killing jobs and then have the federal government step in and forgive the loans,” House Republican Leader Brian Bosma said in early 2010, even as the White House advised that no bailout was planned.

Then-Congressman Mark Souder, R-3rd, weighed in at the time: “When (states) say the federal government needs to bail them out, what they mean is run up the federal debt and have inflation and interest take off because they don’t have the guts to face up to their own budget and tax questions.”

The General Assembly deserves some credit for earlier changes that will finally make the unemployment trust fund structurally sound. If economic conditions remain strong, the state will build a balance of about $1 billion by 2019.

The belated payoff is a good move, as it takes Indiana businesses off the hook for penalties incurred as a result of the debt. Employers are currently paying $105 per employee in tax penalties, but the figure would have grown to $126 per employee next year.

Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, has been a key player in restoring fiscal integrity to the state’s unemployment trust fund. He noted that the payoff will inject $327 million back into the economy.

Tapping the state’s general fund for the debt isn’t ideal because it shifts unemployment costs to all taxpayers. But Pence’s plan - approved by the State Budget Committee - calls for the money to be repaid by the end of this fiscal year. Given that cash reserves have been growing for years with budget cuts and spending reversions, the real question might be “What took so long?”

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The South Bend Tribune. Oct. 22, 2015

Act on the knowns, unknowns of e-cigs.

THE ISSUE

Indiana legislative study committee looking at e-cigarette regulations.

THEIR VIEW

There is scant solid information on the health risks.

The Indiana legislative study committee tasked with considering e-cigarette regulation should keep in mind what is known about e-cigs.

And what isn’t.

Among the known: A National Institutes of Health report says that e-cigs have surpassed traditional smoking in popularity among teens. 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 and 7 percent of students who tried e-cigs said they’d never smoked a tobacco cigarette.

Committee members should also consider the figures for Hoosier youth are higher than the national average. The Indiana Youth Survey found that an average of 15 percent of youth between seventh and 12th grades said they used vaping products at least once in the month before they took the survey. Only 11 percent of ninth-through 12th-graders in Indiana said that they used cigarettes in the month prior to the survey.

Ruth Gassman, executive director of the Indiana Prevention Resource Center, which conducted the survey, said that what’s inferred is that “students have this misconception it’s somehow safer than smoking a cigarette.”

Which brings us to what isn’t known about e-cigs. Despite talk about “vaping” being a less dangerous alternative to traditional smoking, there is scant solid information regarding the possible health risks of the electronic devices. A member of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network told the study committee earlier this month that the jury’s still out on e-cigarettes, which produce a vapor infused with nicotine but without the same tar and chemicals in tobacco cigarettes.

And it certainly hasn’t helped that the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t been as proactive on this issue as it should be, especially in light of the product’s growing popularity with young people.

In a letter to the FDA last year, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller urged the federal agency to do more “to warn young people and their parents that they could be subjecting themselves to health risks.” Further, Zoeller noted, the argument that e-cigs aren’t as bad as cigarettes “does not mean that e-cigarettes are a safe product.”

Earlier this year, in supporting legislation that proposed the first-ever regulations for the liquids used in e-cigs, we asked lawmakers not to wait around for the FDA to take action on “a fast-growing product about which little is known” and which poses a potential threat to youth. The bill that passed was a first step. Now it’s time to go further, with a more comprehensive list of proposals.

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