- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Indianapolis Star. Jan. 30, 2016

It’s not complicated - pass LGBT rights

State legislators have made the effort to extend Indiana’s civil rights protections to LGBT citizens far more complicated than it needs to be.

This past week, a Senate committee narrowly passed Senate Bill 344, which, although deeply flawed, would for the first time provide statewide protections against discrimination in employment, housing and public services for gay, lesbian and bisexual Hoosiers. The full Senate is expected to take up the legislation in the next week.

On the positive side, in addition to expanding basic civil rights, SB 344, as amended, would no longer override existing local human rights ordinances. That means LGBT rights laws in Indy, Carmel, Zionsville and other communities - in total covering about 40 percent of the state’s population - would remain in place.

Now for the negatives of SB 344, and they’re considerable.

The proposed legislation would unnecessarily exclude transgender citizens from civil rights protections. As a result, those Hoosiers could continue to be legally fired from jobs, denied housing and refused services open to other members of the public simply because of their sexual identification.

SB 344 would delegate to a summer study committee the question of whether and how to provide civil rights protections to transgender individuals. Such a move would be an unnecessary delay and diversion, especially considering that Indianapolis since 2005 has provided a model for how to provide such protections without creating unintended consequences or even lasting controversy.

The legislation also would block local governments from adding protections for transgender citizens if such ordinances are not already in place. That’s an unacceptable intrusion by the General Assembly on Hoosiers’ ability to make local decisions for themselves.

And the bill would exclude small wedding service providers from having to abide by the civil rights law if those business owners raise religious objections to assisting with same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Religious liberty is an essential right, protected by the state and U.S. constitutions. But protecting against discrimination in public accommodation also is an important principle.

Deeply held beliefs matter. But when a business opens its doors to the public, it opens those doors to everyone. The owner should not have the right to discriminate. Baking a cake for a ceremony is not equal to being asked to perform a same-sex marriage as an officiant.

All of these complexities are unnecessary. Lawmakers should focus on ensuring equal treatment under the law, not on writing laws that would empower some level of discrimination.

Providing civil rights for all is not complicated. It’s simply a question of finally deciding to do the right thing.

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The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Jan. 28, 2016

Veterans’ days.

When the financial website Wallethub compiled its list of most livable cities for military veterans this past Veterans Day, Indiana cities did not fare well. Fort Wayne was ranked as the sixth-least livable of the 100 most populated cities; Indianapolis finished ninth from the bottom.

But responsibility for the poor showing flows primarily to the Statehouse, where elected officials have talked a better game of honoring military service than they have delivered. Wallethub examined economic, environmental, education and health measures to rank the cities, highlighting factors that could be addressed by a stronger, more effective Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, late last year criticized the agency for its response to an independent evaluation that cited nearly two dozen problems in service delivery.

“I don’t believe IDVA has taken it seriously,” he told The Journal Gazette last year. “It’s a frustration because I’m a member of the (Veterans Affairs) commission as a legislator, but when I talk to (county veterans service officers), I hear IDVA is not well enough in tune in assisting them and giving them the resources they need.”

Banks, who was on active duty as a Navy Reserve officer in Afghanistan during the last session, this year has sponsored eight bills related to veterans and military personnel. He’s also the Senate sponsor of House Bill 1089, which would establish six district service officer positions in the state and require the Veterans Affairs Commission to set certification requirements for the service officers.

Indiana chapters of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and American Veterans have a list of combined legislative priorities for the current session that includes support for annual training and accreditation for county veteran service officers. Other priorities would be met with bills currently under consideration, including one that would establish a definition of “Hoosier Veteran” as an individual who is resident or has a permanent home in Indiana and is currently serving or has previously served in any branch of the armed forces.

“Indiana is a patriotic state; we raise our men and women to want to serve,” Indiana Amvets Commander Jackie Randolph said in a news release this week to highlight the legislative priorities. “We need our elected officials to honor that service and pass meaningful legislation to get Indiana off the bottom of the pile.”

While a handful of military-related bills are moving through the process, legislation that might improve Indiana cities’ abilities to serve veterans seems to have stalled. Banks’ Senate Bill 158, for example, would allow a mayor to employ a service officer to serve local veterans. It also specifies that the president of the Veterans Service Officers’ Association would be a member of the Veteran Affairs Commission. It only makes sense for county-level service officers - those closest to Hoosier veterans - to have a voice on the statewide commission.

The session’s midpoint falls next week, leaving little time for lawmakers to deliver on promises this year. Voters will need to decide whether the effort in recent years matches the pledges made.

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The South Bend Tribune. Jan. 28, 2016

Ivy Tech must reverse troubling trend.

When it comes to students completing their college degrees, the north-central region of Ivy Tech Community College has a lot of catching up to do.

The region, which includes campuses in South Bend, Goshen and Warsaw, had the lowest overall six-year completion rate in the state for students enrolled between fall 2006 and 2008. Just 18.6 percent of students earned a degree or a certificate from Ivy Tech or another institution within six years.

By comparison, six-year completion rates in other regions ranged from 20.7 percent (northeast) to 28.8 percent (Bloomington area).

When Ivy Tech was designated Indiana’s statewide community college system more than a decade ago, enrollment surged. In recent years enrollment has dropped 25 percent. Ivy Tech is still well below the national average of 58 percent for full-time community college students finishing in six years.

Why the problem in completing a college degree? According to students, the reasons range from transferring to another college to taking a semester off to having achieved their educational goals to personal reasons.

And as reported Sunday by Tribune staff writer Margaret Fosmoe, there simply isn’t enough interest by some students to justify continuing to offer some programs. Right now the college is compiling statewide enrollment and graduation data, and eventually will be asked to provide a rationale for keeping or eliminating programs with low enrollment or completion.

As the state’s community college system, Ivy Tech plays a critical role in preparing students for the workforce in local communities. If students are not completing their course of study, that can impact the potential pool of employees businesses have to choose from.

A little more than a month ago the Indiana Commission for Higher Education approved several recommendations intended to ensure those with Ivy Tech degrees and certificates find employment. The recommendations include evaluating programs based on student and labor market demand, targeting students to help them complete their programs and helping those students transition to four-year colleges.

Besides those steps, Ivy Tech north-central region officials said they are trying to provide students with a “one stop” approach to help with admissions, financial aid and academic advising, all important areas to boost retention and completion rates.

Helping students complete their degree or certificate program must be a priority for this region. Continuing the status quo is not an option.

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The Anderson Herald Bulletin. Jan. 29, 2016

Avoid being a victim of a scam.

A widow may answer the phone and learn that she’s won a major sweepstakes. But there are fees she must send first. She might listen for awhile. Perhaps she is lonely enough that it’s comforting to hear a pleasant salesman who offers her a caring ear.

Or maybe a recent retiree agrees to send money because he wants to show his children that he can take care of his financial needs.

Neither will likely see any return.

Thieves call and use a variety of ploys to get unsuspecting seniors to send cash in untraceable manners.

The word is getting out about these phone scams.

Madison County Triad, which addresses issues for seniors, has often discussed scams at its monthly meetings. The Indiana Attorney General’s Office offers an outreach staffer who meets with audiences around the state to detail the latest in cons.

So it has been encouraging to hear of local residents recently rejecting the advances of these thieves.

In one case, a con artist identified himself as an agent of the local court system. He was demanding money from a Madison County man for missing jury duty.

In another, an Anderson man was told he had won millions. He didn’t send any money to the caller and hung up the phone.

Such phone scams are not limited to seniors.

Anyone can fall victim to the crimes, simply by sending money to the con artists.

But many of the con artists live out of the USA, making it impossible for law enforcement to capture them.

And they use devious methods to lure their victims. They may say they’re representing a local court, police department or sheriff’s agency. They may claim that they have been assigned by the IRS to collect fees.

Remember one thing: Government agencies don’t ask for money over the phone. If you’re not sure, contact the agency and verify the call.

There are ways to fight back. Avoid being a victim of a phone scam and follow two simple words: Hang up.

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