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Saturday, September 23, 2017
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Thursday, July 11, 2013 1:16 PM
MERRILLVILLE – You know the saying that if it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all. I suspect Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and the Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority have that feeling right about now.
    
That’s because it was announced last week that completion of a $166-million expansion project was being delayed – again. Rather than being ready at the end of this year, it now is estimated that the project, largely runway expansion, won’t be completed until September 2014 at the earliest.
    
Despite the delay, the Airport Authority will proceed with plans to attract a private investor willing to put up at least $100 million as part of a private/public partnership. The expansion project involves railroad relocation and remediation of polluted soil and groundwater to allow for runway expansion.
    
The irony is that the very thing that led to Northwest Indiana becoming an industrial giant is now blocking the area’s future. The land around the airport is among the most polluted in the country. And that obviously didn’t happen overnight.
    
  • MERRILLVILLE – There were a lot of questions raised during and after the Democratic precinct caucus that elected Oscar Martinez Jr. as the new Lake County sheriff last week. Martinez, who has been a Lake County police officer since 1993, won a third-ballot victory over Schererville Police Chief David Dowling. Martinez had 223 votes to Dowling’s 170. It was the first Democratic caucus since James L. Wieser was elected party chairman earlier this year. What a web has been weaved. During the chairman’s election, Wieser and Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay tied. Outgoing chairman John Buncich broke the tie by selecting Wieser. It was because of Buncich that there was a need for the special caucus last week.
  • MERRILLVILLE  – Almost without exception, what happens just across the state line in Illinois has an impact on Northwest Indiana. When property taxes go up, scores of Illinois residents move to Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. When the Illinois sales tax goes up – particularly in Cook County – people flock to Indiana to buy cars, cigarettes, gasoline, appliances and more.  And now, Cook County residents are coming to Northwest Indiana to buy pop and other soft drinks containing sugar. The Cook County Board has approved a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary soft drinks. The financially strapped county says the tax will raise about $200 million annually and prevent the closure of Stroger Hospital or a reduction in its services, particularly to low-income residents.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Lake County Democrats are about to select a new sheriff without the help of the general public. It’s happened before. In the mid-1980s, Democrats picked a new sheriff when Rudy Bartolomei was indicted. Bartolomei went into the witness protection system and helped launch Operation Lights Out, the most extensive federal investigation into public corruption in the history of the state. Lights Out resulted in a slew of federal indictments and sent several elected officials to jail. Lake County Democrats will elect another sheriff at a precinct caucus on Sept. 16. Sheriff John Buncich was removed from office last week upon his conviction on bribery charges in connection with county towing contracts. It used to be that convicted public officials stayed in office – while collecting fat paychecks – until sentencing. The Legislature in recent years, largely prompted by Lake County, changed the law to remove an elected official from office upon conviction.
  • MERRILLVILLE – An out-of-towner asked me the other day how things were going in Gary. I told him the murder rate was down, but that was only because the population of the city had dwindled to fewer than 80,000 residents, not because of a drastic reduction in homicides. And, while crime continues to be a problem in Gary, so too is justice. It was unveiled a few months back that the Gary city court has a backlog of more than 200,000 cases and no plan in place to speed up justice. And just as the state named a special monitor to take control of the city’s struggling school system, a group in the Miller Beach section of the city announced it may try to form a new school district with the three schools in that section of the city. But it’s not all negative when it comes to Gary. Every few months there is an announcement about something positive for the city. Virtually every time, it involves the creation of jobs – something sorely needed. Despite the optimism, it’s rare that jobs are created.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Are Donald Trump and Mike Pence peas in a pod, or is the vice president ready to fly from the nest. Pence, who is one of the biggest defenders of the president, stayed true on Monday after critics ripped Trump for saying there was fault to be found on both sides of the Charlottesville, Va., demonstration last weekend. So defensive of Trump was Pence that he attacked the media, much like the president has done since taking office. “The media is more concerned in attacking Trump than criticizing the violence itself,” Pence said. Besides defending the president, Pence added that there “will be more unity in America” under Trump’s presidency. All that is fairly standard for Pence, who one day would like to be president. And if Pence is going to succeed Trump, he will need the president’s political base to do so. Perhaps that’s why we haven’t heard from Pence since Monday. Pence, even though he is traveling, hasn’t said a word about Trump’s Tuesday tirade about what happened in Virginia. 
  • MERRILLVILLE – Perhaps the biggest political question in Indiana is whether U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly can win reelection next year. Judging by the crowded field of Republican hopefuls, the answer would have to be no.  But given that he is the second most bipartisan member of the Senate, the answer would have to be maybe. Indiana Democrats suffered a stinging defeat last year when Evan Bayh lost in his bid to win back the Senate seat he gave up several years earlier. So, for the first time since the 1970s, Indiana doesn’t have one of its native sons, Democrats Birch and Evan Bayh and Republican Richard Lugar, in the U.S. Senate. That can’t change next year, but Democrats are bent on making sure Donnelly is reelected. Democrats think that’s possible, because there won’t be a presidential race heading the ballot. There won’t be a governor race high on the ballot either. Who Republicans nominate remains to be seen, but chances are it will be someone out of the Donald Trump mode. That would have meant a great deal last year but won’t mean nearly as much next year. Republican candidates thus far are U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita, a Munster native, and Luke Messer; State Rep. Mike Braun; Hamilton County businessman Terry Henderson; Kokomo attorney Mark Hurt; and Floyds Knobs educator Andrew Takami. Although most of those candidates have embraced Trump, that may be a mistake, given his plunging approval rating.
  • MERRILLVILLE –  Unless something drastic happens in the next couple of days, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is going to trial on charges that he accepted kickbacks from tow truck operators. The trial will be in U.S. District Court in Hammond. The government alleges that Buncich accepted cash and checks from towing operators in exchange for the right to tow vehicles for county police. Should Buncich actually go on trial, it would be counter to what generally happens with public corruption cases in Lake County. Rarely does an elected official actually go on trial. In virtually all cases in the last several decades, the defendant has entered into a plea agreement with the government. The plea agreement generally results in less prison time than if the defendant had gone to trial and lost. Not only does Buncich deny taking kickbacks from towing businesses, he is putting the blame on Timothy Downs, his second in command and the former president of the Indiana Fraternal Order of Police. In pretrial motions, Buncich alleges that Downs acted on his own to collect money from the towing firms. Downs, however, entered into his own plea agreement early on and will testify for the government.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Scott L. King was mayor of Gary when the University Park East project surfaced more than two decades ago. It was going to be a collaborative effort between the city, the school city, Indiana University Northwest, the IU School of Medicine, Methodist Hospitals, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northwest Indiana and Ivy Tech Community College. It would have included single-family housing, expanded elementary education, after-school facilities and green space from IUN to the east. At the time, it would have been the most far-reaching development in the city in decades. And, it was intended to slow the rising crime rate in the Glen Park section of the city. The plans also included construction of a teaching hospital adjacent to the IUN campus. After all, there already was an IU medical school program affiliated with the IUN campus. It was a grand plan that would have pumped life into the Steel City. The only problem was money. None of the planned participants had enough to move forward. And then King left office and hung out his attorney shingle. Thanks in large part to the efforts of state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, Methodist Hospital Northlake Campus has been designated a Level III trauma center.
  • MERRILLVILLE – It’s becoming clear that President Donald Trump doesn’t like former President Barack Obama. It’s not a political thing. It’s personal. And it’s driving Trump – and to a lesser extent, Vice President Mike Pence – up a wall. And, yes, the springboard is the Affordable Care Act, which is better known as Obamacare. I think it’s a jealousy thing. Obama twice won the popular vote while Trump didn’t in his one try. Trump started the birther movement, contending Obama wasn’t born in the United States. And Trump never let go of the issue. And Trump was offended when Obama said he wasn’t mentally fit to be president. And virtually anytime something goes wrong, Trump blames it on Obama. What really eats at Trump is Obamacare. The repeal and replace of Obamacare was at the heart of Trump’s campaign. I’m not terribly sure why, given what people are saying today. Last November, just before being elected, Trump said, “My poll numbers are going through the roof. Part (of the reason) is Obamacare.”
  • MERRILLVILLE – I really had to chuckle when President Donald Trump’s vote fraud commission asked Indiana to expose just about everything there is to know about those who vote in this state. First of all, anytime I hear Trump talking about vote fraud, it makes me laugh. Because Trump is such an egomaniac, he just can’t accept the fact that he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump has said several times that if the votes illegally cast for Clinton were thrown out, he would have won the popular vote. Trump is talking about up to 5 million illegal votes having been cast for Clinton. Trump, of course, hasn’t provided the first shred of evidence. So, Trump has launched an illegal voter witch hunt and put – of all people – former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the vice president, in charge. So, what happened when the national vote commission turned its attention to Indiana? I guess you could say Pence and company got a rude reception. And Pence should have known what was coming. Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, a fellow Republican, pretty much told the vote commission to take a hike.
  • MERRILLVILLE – A nationwide study by a major moving company has found that more people are moving out of Indiana than moving in. United Van Lines reported that 54% of state-to-state moves last year were out of Indiana, while 46% were to the Hoosier state. Strikingly, 66.3% moving out of Indiana did so because of jobs. Such statistics seemingly call into question claims by former Gov. Mike Pence that Indiana has positioned itself to be one of the most business friendly states in the country. Among those laws is the anti-union statute known as the right-to-work law. The state also has done away with the prevailing wage law that also is anti-union. And, Indiana has passed a series of laws making it virtually impossible for teachers to negotiate wages or working conditions.
  • MERRILLVILLE – The Mike Pence tax and the Eric Holcomb tax are colliding on the streets of Valparaiso. And the same is likely to happen in some other Northwest Indiana communities. A year ago, then-Gov. Mike Pence approved a wheel tax package that promised state matching funds for local road repairs if towns and cities raised their share of the money. And, in Valparaiso, the local source of the money is a $25-per-car wheel tax. The maximum the state will kick in is $2.7 million annually. That was then and this is now. Valparaiso Councilwoman Debra Porter, D-at large, has suggested that the city eliminate the tax, given what the Legislature approved this year. Initially, the Valparaiso council approved the wheel tax with the caveat that it would be eliminated if the county imposed its own wheel tax. Although the county did nothing, Porter said the state road funding plan approved this year has changed the situation. Ironically, the new state plan was sponsored by Rep. Ed Soliday, a Valparaiso Republican.
  • MERRILLVILLE –– The Gary Air Show – or I should say the lack of it in recent years – has become a joke. It was announced this week that there won’t be a show in Gary on the shore of Lake Michigan this year. The same was the case in 2013 and 2014. The cancellation this year is because Gary can’t afford the $350,000 needed to provide the support to make the event a reality. Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she was unable to find a corporate sponsor. The mayor had a year to secure the money and apparently was unable to do so. And I can understand why firms like U.S. Steel Corp. and the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. wouldn’t want to pony up the money. Speros Batistatos, the president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, said the loss of the show is devastating because of the hundreds of thousands of people it attracts. Batistatos’ organization used to be one of the sponsors of the show and lost $1.4 million over a nine-year span.
  • MERRILLVILLE –  Although he has been on the campaign trail for about eight months, Schererville Police Chief David Dowling formally launched his bid for Lake County sheriff a week ago. Dowling is looking to become the first chief of a small town to become Lake County sheriff. He spoke briefly to a sizable crowd at the Andorra Banquet Hall in Schererville, and he had two very noteworthy things to say about the race. Perhaps the most interesting is that Dowling said he will retire from the Schererville Police Department prior to the 2018 Democratic primary. He didn’t elaborate as to why he would retire, but one got the feeling that he wanted to be unencumbered during the last few months prior to the election. I suspect that it also makes Dowling look like a very serious candidate in that he will give up his current job while hoping to win a new one. And if he didn’t win the sheriff’s post, he would pretty much be without a job.
  • MERRILLVILLE – One of the biggest problems facing police officers in Northwest Indiana – and across the country for that matter – is that the flow of narcotics isn’t going to stop. As hard as they try to catch the drug dealers and the mules who transport the narcotics, it isn’t a winnable battle. But you have to give the police credit for trying; they do take narcotics and drug dealers off the streets. But while police are making an impact, 91 people are dying every day from drug overdoses across the country. It is an especially serious problem in Northwest Indiana. Lake County last year had 63 heroin deaths, while 20 died in Porter County from opioid overdoses. And those dying aren’t the bad guys. They are the victims. Schererville Police Chief David Dowling knows there need to be changes in law enforcement’s approach to opioids. “We all understand the opioid epidemic has gotten so bad that this isn’t a problem we can arrest our way out of,” Dowling said.
  • MERRILLVILLE – The case involving Lake County Sheriff John Buncich seemingly gets more bizarre by the week. Buncich, who is in his fourth term as sheriff, was indicted in November on bribery charges. His latest trial date is Aug. 7, but even that may well get continued. The most interesting twist came a week ago when the sheriff issued a press release proclaiming his innocence. While Buncich entered a not guilty plea when charged, last week was the first time he made a public comment. The sheriff issued a press release through his attorney, Bryan Truitt. Buncich said, “I assure you that I am absolutely innocent.” He went on to say, “For those of you who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges. Trust that I would never sell my office, not for any amount.” Why the sheriff issued such a statement five months after the indictment has raised some eyebrows. Some say it simply is a matter of looking for support in the court of public opinion before he goes to trial.
  • MERRILLVILLE – There probably isn’t another Johnny V. pounding the political paths anywhere in Indiana. He was one of a kind. And everybody liked Johnny Visclosky. But Johnny V. is what everyone called him. He passed away a week or so ago at the age of 101. He was mayor of Gary in the early 1960s when Mayor George Chacharis went to prison. Johnny V. (pictured, right) was city controller at the time and became mayor because there wasn’t a deputy mayor. He chose to serve only until the next election and gave way to A. Martin Katz. Gary was a huge vibrant city at the time with some 180,000 people calling the Steel City home. There was little crime and anyone wanting a job simply had to knock on the door at U.S. Steel. Johnny V. stayed active in politics, helping people in his beloved Gary. And everywhere he went, people glad-handed the man who knew how to make things happen. While he may have been mayor, he came to be best known as the father of U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Why does Lake County keep embarrassing itself smack dab in the middle of the General Assembly? No wonder downstate Republicans are often unwilling to give Lake County money when folks come hat in hand. I and others have sometimes criticized the state for giving Lake County the cold shoulder. But, alas, I can’t criticize the state for what it is about to do. Some Lake County towns and cities are about to mess up the work U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville, has done for the last three years to bring South Shore Railroad’s West Lake Corridor to reality. Visclosky has worked doggedly to get 20 Lake County municipalities to commit at least a third of their County Economic Development Income Tax over the next 30 years to building the nine-mile rail line. Now, Merrillville has voted to reduce its pledge from 22% of its CEDIT to 8%.
  • MERRILLVILLE – One of the most famous political slogans came from Lord Acton way back when. Acton, of British descent, said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have the feeling those words are emblazoned on the walls of the Republican Senate caucus in the Indiana General Assembly. I think we might be able to say the same about the Hoosier House of Representatives as well. But they don’t seem to care. With Republicans controlling both chambers by wide margins, they apparently think they can do just about anything they want legislatively. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb seems to have the same train of thought. At issue is the bill to take the office of the superintendent of public instruction out of elective politics and allow the governor to appoint the secretary of education. The bill was written by Holcomb. But, much to his surprise, the Senate killed the bill on Feb. 20 on a 26-23 vote. So, that was the end of the grand conspiracy to take over the office of the education superintendent.
  • MERRILLVILLE – Election after election, Lake County Democrats deliver for the party. They did so last November, but the massive vote totals were overshadowed by the losses of each of the Democratic statewide candidates. The Nov. 8 results were fairly typical; Lake County Democrats delivered a huge plurality, but the party suffered big losses on the state level. And yet, the strongest county Democratic party in the state doesn’t received any respect, according to Jim Wieser, the newly elected county chairman. “We don’t have a strong voice in the state,” Wieser said shortly after taking over as chairman. That lack of respect, Wieser said, has to change. And, he sees a couple of ways to make that happen. One way is for the party to make regular stops in Indianapolis to “pound on the door.” The party, Wieser said, needs a bigger voice in shaping statewide policy and elections, including a larger role for Lake County’s Young Democrats, a group that outgoing Chairman John Buncich energized.
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  • Pence presses Donnelly on tax reform as McCain scuttles health bill
    "We will make America safe again. We will make America prosperous again. And to borrow a phrase, we will make America great again." - Vice President Mike Pence, appearing in Anderson to push President Trump’s tax reform plan. Pence made a pitch to Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, who attended the speech, saying, "Senator Joe Donnelly we need your help." Pence’s appearance came as U.S. Sen. John McCain announced he will vote against the Graham/Cassidy health care bill, saying, “I cannot in good conscience vote for the Graham-Cassidy proposal. I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried.” Pence had been lobbying Senate Republicans to support the plan, which is now opposed by McCain and Sen. Rand Paul, with Sen. Susan Collins likely to vote against the measure.
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  • Mike and Hillary
    We’ve watched 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton make the rounds on her new book: “What Happened.” The reaction has been cringes from Democrats hoping to move on, a set-the-record mentality from some journalistic quarters, and taunts from Republicans. Vice President Pence has the best line of all, with this tweet Thursday morning: “The first book that has the question and the answer on the cover.” Good line, Mike, er … Mr. Vice President. It harkens back to those studio days near the Speedway and a retreat to Claude & Annies. - Brian A. Howey, publisher
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