- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Munster Times. September 18, 2015

Dyer should welcome prospect of rail facility.

Thanks to the thinking of visionaries like Daniel Burnham, Chicago has a lakefront that makes other major cities jealous. In Northwest Indiana, the visionaries who have worked for decades to extend commuter rail service along the West Lake Corridor deserve praise, too.

This is a giant project - and extremely costly - but it will pay enormous dividends. The South Shore Line service, along with the maintenance facility it will require, will be an economic boon to the entire region, not just the host communities.

A project this big requires elected officials to think big, something not all of them are adept at doing.

Now that the project is becoming a reality, details are coming into sharper focus. The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District is including a series of options in a draft environmental impact statement being prepared now.

One option is to put a layover yard south of an extended Main Street that would allow overnight parking for trains and light maintenance, including cleaning the rail cars. Another would include a maintenance yard that would straddle Main Street, taking up much of the area between Sheffield Avenue, the railroad tracks and an extended Main Street.

Where the station would go depends on which option is chosen; a maintenance facility requires a bigger footprint.

The maintenance facility for the South Shore’s main line is in Michigan City. For the new route, two sites in Hammond are under consideration as well as the one at the Dyer-Munster border.

The bigger the facility, the more jobs will be created there. But not everyone is aligned with that mindset.

“We don’t want a maintenance facility,” Dyer Councilwoman Debbie Astor, R-5th, said last week when plans were laid out, although she and the faction she represented seemed OK with the layover yard idea.

She ought to advocate for bringing the maintenance yard to the Dyer-Munster location.

Trains require stations, of course, and NICTD is looking at where those could go. But trains must be serviced, too. Whichever town hosts that maintenance facility will reap the economic benefits of those additional jobs as well as the residential boon and higher property values the station will bring.

The extension is a huge economic development boon to the region, and to the host communities in particular. Complaining about putting a maintenance facility, which means additional jobs as well as commuter convenience, in Dyer isn’t thinking like Daniel Burnham, who urged us to “make no little plans.”

This commuter rail extension is the biggest economic development to happen in Northwest Indiana in decades. Let’s build it right. .

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The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. September 17, 2015.

Back taxes windfall.

Indiana tax scofflaws are being told they have a chance to pay up without penalty, and all Hoosiers should hope they pull through. The fate of the state’s $82 million Regional Cities program is riding on it.

The Indiana Department of Revenue kicked off Tax Amnesty ‘15 on Tuesday, a two-month window for delinquent taxpayers to meet past-due tax obligations without paying a penalty, interest or collection fees. In exchange for full payment, the state will release any tax liens and waive civil or criminal prosecution. The program applies to tax payments due before 2013.

It could be a big haul. The state estimates outstanding bills of up to $545 million. But Andrew Kossack, the state’s revenue commissioner, downplayed the likely total.

“It sounds like a big number, but in reality it’s very difficult to collect that,” he told reporters. “Our goal is to help eligible taxpayers catch up on past-due taxes and move forward in good standing with the department.”

But lawmakers and Gov. Mike Pence had a different goal. Tax amnesty was proposed late in the legislative session as funding for the Regional Cities Development Fund, a priority for the administration. Some lawmakers, including Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, hoped it instead would be used to pay off the last of the $2.2 billion debt Indiana owed the federal government after it ran out of cash to pay unemployment benefits during the recession. Since 2011, Indiana businesses have been paying hundreds of millions in additional taxes every year because of an unemployment tax penalty.

Leonard told The Journal Gazette’s Niki Kelly in May that he “wasn’t exactly thrilled” the amnesty collection would instead go to the Indiana Regional Cities Development Fund and to the Indiana Department of Transportation - to support Amtrak service between Indianapolis and Chicago.

While the state is promoting the amnesty program as a one-time opportunity, Kelly notes that it is not. A 2005 amnesty program brought in $244 million in back taxes. Taxpayers who paid up delinquent obligations a decade ago aren’t eligible to participate this time around. Likewise, anyone who receives notification that they are eligible to participate this year is subject to an additional penalty if they don’t.

The state will pay Navient, the former Sallie Mae education loan collector, a portion of the collections to run the amnesty program. In 2005, Cincinnati-based General Revenue Corp. was paid $13 million for similar work.

About 260,000 corporations, small businesses and individuals are eligible for the amnesty program this year, according to the Department of Revenue. Rep. Greg Porter of Indianapolis, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, has expressed concerns about having the Regional Cities program and Amtrak funding depend on the uncertainty of delinquent tax collections.

We hope his concerns are unfounded. Northeast Indiana is counting on a good share of those delinquent payments, through a winning Regional Cities bid.

____

The South Bend Tribune. September 18, 2015.

The long drive to gain public trust in BMV.

Anyone who thought that the problems at the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles could be easily fixed or resolved by personnel changes alone has surely been disabused of that notion by now.

The most recent sign that the state’s second largest agency is plagued by systemic issues comes from a report by The Indianapolis Star. According to personnel records obtained by the newspaper, three individuals fired by the bureau - two of them for dishonesty - were later hired by Express MVA, the private BMV contractor. The third employee was terminated for poor performance that “opened the door” for title transactions involving fraud.

All three employees were given the OK by the BMV to access the computer system that contains confidential information about drivers licenses, vehicle titles, license plates and registrations.

Bureau audits later found numerous problems at Express MVA, including missing temporary tags and other irregularities. At least some of those problems can be traced back to one of the employees who was fired from the BMV.

BMV officials couldn’t explain why this happened or who gave approval, attributing the decisions to previous leadership.

Express MVA, for its part, is defending the decision to hire the fired employees, saying that the expertise individuals gain by working at the BMV is invaluable.

But the value of the three employees in question is best summed up by Julia Vaughn of Common Cause Indiana: “If they aren’t trustworthy to work at the BMV, why would you assume they would be trustworthy working for the private contractor?”

In response to the controversy, BMV Commissioner Kent Abernathy has asked for a review of former employees who have access to the agency’s computer system. And Gov. Mike Pence announced last month that Express MVA’s contract with the state would not be renewed.

Both moves were necessary steps to address the latest problems at the agency that last year handled 12.5 million transactions and collected $460 million in fees and $490 million in excise, wheel and surtaxes. Changing the way the agency does business and gaining the trust of the public will be a much bigger task.

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The Evansville Courier & Press. September 15, 2015

Face reality of test results.

An op-ed in the Monday edition of USA Today tells us that when states participating in the Common Core education program receive their children’s first test results in math and reading, the results should be sobering. The report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute said that parents deserve to know whether their children are learning and whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

The organization said that unfortunately, before Common Core, most states were setting a very low bar for their children. They said that the test results for their states could be even worse for the first year of testing.

We bring this up today because Indiana is one of the few states that chose to walk away from Common Core after being one of the first states to adopt the program.

Common Core is an education program designed by individual states working in concert, and not by the federal government.

Even more interesting, Indiana this year struggled to create its own standards and its own standardized test, instead of relying on Common Core. However, the issue evolved into whether Indiana should count the results of its testing, or not. Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has argued that Indiana should not count the results of its testing during the first year, the reason being that Indiana students might not be prepared the first year.

However, the state’s education leaders and lawmakers countered her argument, maintaining that parents want to know this first year how their students are doing in reading and math, even as their scores drop from past comparisons.

The Common Core commentary in USA Today maintained that the most important step in fixing the problem is to stop lying to ourselves. The authors argue that Common Core should help to boost college readiness by eventually raising expectations.

Let’s hope the same is true for Indiana schools, even as new standards prove challenging.

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