More analysis of spending bill and clarification as to whether it was $1.1 T or $1.01 T

The National Priorities Project (NPP) is a source I frequently refer to. If not familiar with NPP I strongly encourage visiting at least NPP’s home page. I subscribe to their email list (no cost and only requires email and zip) and this can be done near the bottom of their home page.

NPP has an analysis of the recently passed spending bill and has some details not previously shared on this blog including:

Debt & Deficit

  • Officially abides by the spending limits ($1.013 trillion) of the 2013 Ryan-Murray Bipartisan Budget Act.
  • However, total spending is actually closer to $1.1 trillion, when you count emergency spending and appropriations from previous years that will actually be spent this year, bringing spending above the Bipartisan Budget Act limit.

What’s in the $1.1 trillion spending bill?

(The Washington Post on 12/10/14 published “What’s in the spending bill? We skim it so you don’t have to,” as reported by Ed O’Keefe, and republished below.)

This item has been updated and revised.

The $1.01 trillion spending bill unveiled late Tuesday will keep most of the federal government funded through next September — and it’s packed with hundreds of policy instructions, known on Capitol Hill as “riders,” that will upset or excite Democrats, Republicans and various special interest groups.

So, what’s in the bill? We’ve sifted through the legislation, consulted supporting documents from Democratic and Republican aides, and called out some of the more notable and controversial elements below. (If you want to review detailed reports on all 12 parts of the spending bill, click here.)

Please note: This is a fluid report that will be updated to add more detail or correct errors. What notable changes did we miss? What notable changes did you spot? Contact us or share details in the comments section below:

ABORTION:

The bill once again bans using federal funding to perform most abortions; blocks the use of local and federal funding for abortions in the District of Columbia; and blocks the use of federal dollars for abortions for federal prisoners. Republicans say that there’s also new language directing the secretary of health and human services to ensure that consumers shopping for health-care coverage on the federal exchange can tell whether a plan covers abortion services.

AFFORDABLE CARE ACT:

The law is still funded, but there’s no new money for it. There’s also no new ACA-related funding for the Internal Revenue Service and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the two agencies most responsible for implementing the law. The bill also would cut the budget of the Independent Payment Advisory Board — what Republicans have called “the death panel” — by $10 million.

AFGHANISTAN:

Congress withholds funding for the Afghan government “until certain conditions are met,” including implementing the bilateral security agreement reached with the United States.

AMTRAK:

The nation’s rail passenger service earns $1.39 billion, the same amount it currently receives. The rail service carries passengers through 46 states and hit an all-time high of 31.6 million passengers during the last fiscal year, according to Democratic aides.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE:

The bill would dramatically expand the amount of money that wealthy political donors could inject into the national parties, drastically undercutting the 2002 landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul. Bottom line: A donor who gave the maximum $32,400 this year to the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee would be able to donate another $291,600 on top of that to the party’s additional arms — a total of $324,000, ten times the current limit. Read more on this here.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY:

The agency gets $8.1 billion, down $60 million from the last fiscal year. The agency’s budget has been slashed by $2.2 billion, or 21 percent, since fiscal 2010, according to GOP aides. The cuts mean that EPA will have to reduce its staffing to the lowest levels since 1989.

ERIC CANTOR:

Well, kind of. The former House majority leader stunned the political world by losing in a GOP primary last summer. But Congress agreed to provide $12.6 million for his signature legislative achievement — the Gabriella Miller Kids First Act, which authorizes new federally-funded pediatric research. The bill was paid for by slashing federal funding for political conventions.

FEDERAL WORKER PAY (AND CONFERENCES):

The bill allows a 1 percent pay raise ordered by Obama to take effect in January. And the legacy of embarrassing spending scandals at federal agencies persist as Congress once again banned or put limits on certain conferences, official travel and some employee awards.

FOOD SAFETY (AND THE FDA)

There’s $2.589 billion for the Food and Drug Administration, a $37 million increase from last year. There’s $27 million in new funding for the Food Safety Modernization Act. The Food Safety and Inspection Service would receive $1.016 billion, a $5 million increase.

GUANTANAMO BAY:

Once again the Obama administration is banned from transferring terrorism detainees to the United States from the U.S. military facility in Cuba. There’s also a ban on building or buying any facility in the U.S. to house detainees. But the bill allows for the ongoing transfer of detainees to other countries.

HEROIN:

In a modest attempt to address a growing crisis with the illicit drug, lawmakers are adding $7 million for a new anti-heroin task force run out of the Justice Department’s COPS Office. The money will be used as part of a competitive grant program for drug enforcement, including investigations and operations to stop the distribution or sale of the drug, according to Democrats.

IMMIGRATION:

The bill only funds the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees most immigration policy, until February. But negotiators gave new money for immigration programs at other federal agencies. There’s $948 million for the Department of Health and Human Service’s unaccompanied children program — an $80 million increase. The program provides health and education services to the young migrants. The department also gets $14 million to help school districts absorbing new immigrant students. And the State Department would get $260 million to assist Central American countries from where of the immigrant children are coming.

INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE:

One of the GOP’s favorite targets will see its budget slashed by $345.6 million. The nation’s tax agency also would be banned from targeting organizations seeking tax-exempt status based on their ideological beliefs.

ISRAEL:

There’s $3.1 billion in total aid for the country plus $619.8 million in defense aid.

JOE BIDEN:

The legislation once again enacts a pay freeze for the vice president “and senior political appointees.”

LIBYA:

The troubled country cannot receive any U.S. aid until the secretary of state confirms the country is cooperating with ongoing investigations into the September 2012 attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

JORDAN:

The Arab kingdom would receive $1 billion in economic and military aid, in addition to U.S. humanitarian aid for millions of Syrian refugees.

LIGHT BULBS:

The bill once again prohibits new standards that would ban the use of cheaper, less energy efficient incandescent bulbs. The proposal was first introduced and set in motion by the Bush administration, but the Obama White House allowed the change to continue, despite sustained consumer demand for older bulbs.

MARIJUANA:

The District of Columbia will be prohibited from legalizing marijuana for the much of the coming year. The development — upending a voter-approved initiative — shocked elected D.C. leaders, advocates for marijuana legalization and civil liberties groups. The bill also would block the Justice Department from interfering with state-level medical marijuana measures and prohibits the Drug Enforcement Agency from interfering with industrial hemp production.

METRORAIL:

The D.C. region’s subway and bus system would earn $150 million in federal dollars for continued improvements. That’s part of $10.9 billion set to be doled out for transit programs nationwide, including the construction of new rail and rapid bus projects in California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, North Carolina and Texas. But Republicans stress that the bill has no new federal funding for high-speed rail projects, especially the ambitious Los Angeles-to-San Francisco routes envisioned by California Democrats.

MILITARY PAY AND PERKS:

Military service members will receive a 1 percent pay increase next year. But there’s a pay freeze for generals and flag officers. The bill also ends a five percent discount on tobacco and tobacco-related products sold at military exchanges.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY:

The agreement includes $24 million to complete the federal government’s contribution to the new museum being built on the Mall. The rest of the money will be raised through private donations.

NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH:

The nation’s premier medical research agency would receive $30.3 billion, a $150 million overall increase. Democrats noted that the new funding helps especially for ongoing Alzheimer’s and brain research programs.

OFFICIAL PORTRAITS:

You’re a government official and want an official portrait? You’ll have to pay for it (or raise the funds). The bill bans taxpayer funding for official portraits of any Executive Branch employees, lawmakers and heads of legislative agencies.

OVERSEAS MILITARY OPERATIONS:

There’s $1.3 billion for a new Counterterrorism Partnership Fund; $5 billion for military operations to combat the Islamic State, including $1.6 billion to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces; $500 million for a Pentagon-led program to train and equip vetted Syrian opposition fighters; $810 million for ongoing military operations in Europe, including requirements that at least $175 million is spent in support of Ukraine and Baltic nations.

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY:

The bill stops assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it becomes a member of the United Nations or UN agencies without an agreement  with Israel. It also prohibits funds for Hamas.

PENSIONS:

For the first time, the benefits of current retirees could be severely cut, part of an effort to save some of the nation’s most distressed pension plans. The change would alter 40 years of federal law and could affect millions of workers, many of them part of a shrinking corps of middle-income employees in businesses such as trucking, construction and supermarkets. Read more on this here.

U.S. POSTAL SERVICE:

You like your mail on Saturdays? You’ll keep your mail on Saturdays. The bill requires the mail service to continue six-day deliveries, despite a years-long attempt to cut back on service to save money.

POTATOES:

White potatoes, to be exact. The Women, Infants and Children program that provides food aid to low-income families would receive $6.6 billion, a $93 million cut from the last fiscal year. But the program will be required to ensure that “all varieties of fresh vegetables, including white potatoes, are eligible for purchase” through the program, said Republicans. The change is a big victory for the potato lobby, which has long fought to be part of the food assistance program.

RACE TO THE TOP:

The bill cuts funding for Obama’s signature education initiative — a big blow to his education legacy, according to The Post’s Valerie Strauss. Overall, the Education Department would take a slight hit in funding; at $70.5 billion, down $133 million below the fiscal year 2014, but special education grants to states would get $25 million more than last year, up to $11.5 billion. There is also no funding for the controversial Common Core State Standards in this legislation.

RAILROADS:

Among other things, there’s $3 million to expand inspections along the roughly 14,000 miles of track used by trains hauling oil tankers.

SAGE-GROUSE:

In a victory for the GOP, the bill would ban the Fish and Wildlife Service from adding the rare bird found in several Western states to the Endangered Species List. Republicans argue that adding the bird to the list “would have severe economic consequences on Western states and the nation’s efforts to become energy independent.” But there’s also $15 million for the Bureau of Land Management to conserve sage-grouse habitats.

SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM:

The school lunch nutritional changes sought by First Lady Michelle Obama take a hit. The bill allows more flexibility to school districts to implement new whole grain nutrition standards “if the school can demonstrate a hardship” when buying whole grain products, according to Republicans. The bill also relaxes new sodium standards until they are “supported by additional scientific studies.”

SEXUAL ASSAULT IN THE MILITARY:

There’s $257 million for the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response programs, including $25 million more to expand the Sexual Assault Victims’ Counsel program. But Democrats, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), are expected to make a final push to expand the program this week.

TRUCKING:

In a victory for the trucking industry, the bill blocks new Transportation Department regulations requiring truckers to get two nights of sleep before starting a new work week. The regulation slashed a typical trucker’s work week to 70 hours, down from 82 hours.

UNITED NATIONS:

The perennial ban on providing money for the ongoing renovation of U.N. Headquarters in New York remains intact.

U.S. CAPITOL (AND RELATED AGENCIES):

There’s $21 million to continue restoring the cast-iron Capitol Dome. And $348 million for the U.S. Capitol Police (a force with 1,775 officers). Lawmakers also plan to save $10,000 by allowing the congressional Office of Compliance to email congressional staffers about their employment rights. Old rules required the office to send such notices by snail mail. Finally, for the first time the agency formerly known as the Government Printing Office is now officially known as the Government Publishing Office.

VETERANS:

After a year of embarrassing scandals at the sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs, lawmakers are making good on promises to provide more money and oversight. There’s a total of $159.1 billion in discretionary and mandatory spending. Of that, $209 million was added to address new costs related to the bipartisan veterans’ reform bill passed last summer. The legislation calls for adding medical staff and expanding dozens of facilities. In order to specifically addressing the “wait list” scandal, the VA’s inspector general is getting a $5 million budget increase to continue investigating lapses in patient care.

WHISTLEBLOWERS:

The bill includes language ensuring that government contractors are not barred from reporting allegations of waste, fraud or abuse if they sign a confidentiality agreement. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would receive a $500,000 increase for its enforcement of existing whistleblower laws.

WHITE HOUSE BUDGET:

There’s $222 million for executive mansion operations, a $10 million increase. The money pays for the National Security and Homeland Security councils, the Council of Economic Advisers, the vice president’s office and the executive residence. The bill doesn’t provide any new funding “to address security weaknesses at the White House complex,” according to Democrats. But the U.S. Secret Service would be allowed to use some of its funding “to prepare and train for the next presidential election campaign,” Democrats said.

WOLVES:

Well, only if you’re attacked. There’s $1 million in the bill “to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves.”

YUCCA MOUNTAIN:

There’s no new money for the site, but current money for it must be spent pursuant to a recent court decision. Republicans say that the bill continues to leave open the possibility that the site could be used someday to store nuclear waste — but that won’t happen as long as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is around.

Michael Fletcher, Matea Gold, Christopher Ingraham, Valerie Strauss and Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

What notable changes did we miss? What notable changes did you spot?Contact us or share details in the comments section below.

(Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections. As of this time there are 2,132 comments following the Post article.)

Why do out-of-district students keep enrolling at Caston Schools?

The Administrator of this website lives within the Caston school district and has served as principal, teacher and school board member for the district. Thus, at times news about Caston Schools will be featured here. 

Currently 91 of Caston’s students live outside the district. This is about 12% of the total enrollment of 742. In the fall of 2009 there were 11 students living outside the district. In subsequent years the number continued to grow to…24…33…59…75…and the current 91.

Curious about Caston Schools? You’re invited to check out Caston’s tri-fold brochure here. The Corporation website is here.

Want more information or a tour? Contact Mrs. Lucinda Douglass, Superintendent, at 574/857-2035, ext. 336 or Mrs. Katie Miller, Elementary Principal at 574/857-3025, ext. 334 or Mr. Dale Osburn, Jr.-Sr. High Principal at 574/857-3505, ext. 310.

(Rochester) downtown planning in motion

BY WESLEY DEHNE

Staff Writer, The Sentinel
12/13/14

The Rochester Redevelopment Commission voted to engage Strategic Development Group Inc., or SDg, to develop revitalization plans for downtown Rochester.

On Tuesday, the commission interviewed four consulting firms for the job. It decided to negotiate a contract with SDg, worth $45,000, on Friday. Lee said he’d like to have a contract signed by Dec. 23.

The other three firms who responded to requests for proposals: Remenschneider Associates Inc., HWC Engineering and Development Consultants Inc.

Commission members scored the firms based on such categories as understanding project requirements, design approach/methodology, key personnel and roles, pertinent experience, consultant/ in-house resources, technical project management, responsiveness to owner’s concern, what they charge for their services and subconsultant selection.

On Friday, the five-member scoring committee scored SDg with 2,640. Remenschneider Associates Inc. scored ten fewer points. The committee was comprised of Rochester Redevelopment Commission President Terry Lee, redevelopment commission members, Ben Woodcox and Evan Gottschalk, Rochester City Clerk Shoda Beehler and Fulton County Plan Director Casi Cowles.

A first round of scoring produced results so close that Amy Miller, grant administrator at Cornerstone Grants Management Inc., suggested the committee could re-score the candidates.

It did so, and Remenschneider Associates Inc. and SDg, tied. The redevelopment commission then voted 3-2 to negotiate with SDg, which scored higher in the first round.

“We need to make sure we’re happy with them before moving forward,” said Lee, “The scope of work needs to be agreed upon.”

SDg’s strengths – their approach to study, being heavily involved in planning, taking a broad look at the downtown area and then focusing on more specific projects – were noted. Commission members also noted some perceived SDg weaknesses, among them a lack of focus on historical preservation and a unique identity and a lack of engineering personnel.

Redevelopment commission members appreciated SDg’s comparison of Rochester’s downtown to the mall in Muncie, in terms of size and consideration for retail opportunities.

The commission plans to use a $40,000 grant from the Office of Community and Rural Affairs to pay for the redevelopment plan. A $4,500 match is required.

Woodcox said other downtown revitalization projects were successful because at least 10 percent of the community lived downtown. Cowles suggested focusing on housing and downtown events before providing retail opportunities is putting the cart before the horse. “Prerequisites for this being successful are someone to be a clear champion to spearhead the project and a steering committee to pursue and suggest ideas,” Gottschalk said.

FEDCO helps with train depot, Times Cinema, Rochester downtown

12/6/14

FEDCO (Fulton Economic Development Corp.) serves as a growth and development partner for business and industry and as a community development partner for cities and towns of Fulton County.

Following are several recent newspaper articles of recent efforts of which FEDCO has been a part.
Continue reading

Gov. Mike Pence proposes expanding vouchers and charter schools

Tony Cook and Stephanie Wang
IndyStar.com, 12/4/14

Indiana’s school voucher program is already the broadest in the nation — and now Gov. Mike Pence wants to provide even more money for vouchers.

In announcing his legislative agenda Thursday, Pence said he will ask state lawmakers to lift the cap on the dollar amount for vouchers and raise the cap on the choice scholarship tax credit program. He also proposed adding more funding for public charter schools.

“Together, these actions will make charters more available and more affordable, and make new choices available for many parents and their students,” Pence said.

But the changes could also have a significant impact on the state budget and shift money away from traditional public schools.

“It’s time to start debating the cost of these vouchers,” said Indiana House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. “They want to funnel all the dollars to private institutions. If they’re not going to slit the throats of those in public education, they certainly have the knife held there.”

Pence said the goal is to increase by 100,000 the number of K-12 students in schools with a grade of B or better on the state’s A-F school grading system.

“We do need to increase funding, but we need to do it the right way, the smart way,” he said. “We need to fund excellence.”

Indiana’s voucher program is already the most expansive in the nation, allowing nearly 30,000 students to attend private schools using public money. Unlike programs in many other states, it is not limited to students at failing public schools.

Right now, vouchers for kindergarten through eighth grade are capped at $4,800. Brian Bailey, the governor’s budget director, said lifting that cap would cost about $3.5 million.

The governor also wants to add a grant for charter schools to the state’s education funding formula, though his budget staff said the amount would depend on the state revenue forecast due later this month.

Charter schools, which are privately operated, already receive the same per pupil state funding as public schools, but unlike public schools, they don’t receive additional money for buildings or transportation.

At the losing end of both proposals is the state teachers union, a once-strong force in state politics that has been weakened in recent years by Democrats diminishing influence.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the expansion of charter schools and vouchers “continues to siphon away money from public schools.”

“It’s harming students that need to have schools that are strong in their communities,” she said.

Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated General Assembly were generally supportive of the proposals, but it’s unclear how much money will be available to fund them.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has already proposed more parity in per pupil funding between lower-income urban districts, which receive more, and higher-income suburban districts, which receive less. He also wants to increase the base funding amount that all schools receive.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, the Senate’s chief budget writer, said his support for Pence’s proposals will depend on how much money is available.

“If we don’t have the funds, then whether or not you want to do that is probably a moot question,” he said.

He said the state’s voucher program was once a money saver, since it provides only 50 percent to 90 percent of public per-pupil funding in a student’s district, based on family income.

But changes made since the program was approved in 2011 have allowed students who have never attended public schools to receive vouchers as well.

“It becomes a cost issue,” he said.

About 19,809 students received vouchers in the 2013-14 school year, more than double the previous year’s total. Those vouchers redirected $81 million in state aid from public schools to private schools.

While the program saved the state money in previous years, it cost the state an extra $16 million, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

Chuck Little, an education professor at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association, said he’s not enthusiastic about spending more money on charter schools and vouchers.

“I think that if the expansion of vouchers continues to come at a dollar cost to public schools, particularly financing youngsters who have never been in the public school system, the pool of money for education gets diluted. Less goes to the public schools, and the burdens to deliver become even more challenging,” he said. “It just dilutes the system, pulls away from the common good, and there haven’t been remarkable results.”

But Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said lifting the cap on vouchers would help low-income families better afford private educations.

“That cap is unfair to low-income families, and it’s arbitrary,” he said.

Enlow said the state is also approaching the cap on the choice scholarship tax credit program, where private contributions subsidize choice scholarships. The program is limited to $7.5 million in tax credits, which allows up to $15 million in donations, according to the state Department of Education website.

The governor said Thursday he wants to increase that limit, too.

Ultimately, the General Assembly will have to sign off on Pence’s proposals. The legislative session begins Jan. 6.

Potholes widen as (Indiana) struggles to pay for roads: Needs $7 billion in next 10 years

Maureen Hayden, News and Tribune CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief
12/8/14

INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Meece, a commissioner in rural Parke County, was happy when the Legislature funneled about $100 million extra a year into road funds last year.

The money didn’t go far. His county’s allotment — about $500,000 — mostly bought thousands of gallons of thick oil and crushed stone to fill potholes.

“There’s a lack of understanding of what’s happening out here in the boonies,” said Meece. “We have roads with more patches than blacktop. We have patches on top of patches on top of patches.”

He isn’t the only one waving a warning flag.

Last week, state Transportation Commissioner Karl Browning gave budget-makers some dire news. Without a significant boost in road-repair money, 1 out of every 8 miles of highway will be in critical condition within a decade, costing nearly as much to fix as replace.

Browning estimates he needs more than $3 billion over the next 10 years just to curb existing damage. He’ll need more than $4 billion to bring the aging road system up to standard.

That doesn’t include the price tag to repair local streets — or repair and replace more than 1,500 bridges. Half of the state’s bridges are 50 years or older and soon will approach replacement age of 75.

“We’re not in a crisis yet,” Browning said, “but we’re on the cusp of a major problem.”

Some might see that as understatement. In a state that calls itself the “Crossroads of America,” a shortage of highway money has halted new construction as dwindling resources instead go to maintenance and repair.

That means no money for widening the congested arteries — Interstates 70 and 65 — that cross the state, even though a commission appointed by the governor last year identified those projects as essential.

“Indiana’s economy totally hinges on a good solid road network,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville. “It’s just going to be a question of our willingness to face that issue.”

Legislators have long known they have a funding problem, caused in large part by declining revenues from an 18 cents per gallon gas tax, unraised since 2003, and the 18.4-cent federal gas tax, which has been static for more than 21 years.

Nine years ago, the state gas tax produced more than $624 million a year for state and local highway departments. Last year, it only generated about $500 million. Gas taxes have declined due in large part to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

During the last biennial budget session, in 2013, lawmakers moved to slow the drain. They diverted $135 million in annual fuel taxes that were going to the State Police and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. They also reallocated 1 percent of the current sales tax.

But it wasn’t enough. And the cost of maintaining and fixing roads has skyrocketed, officials say.

That’s especially tough on rural counties. The state uses a general formula to divide road repair money, based on miles of roads in each locale and the number of people who live there. It seems fair but doesn’t quite work.

In picturesque Parke County, home to historic covered bridges and 17,200 people, about 1 million tourists travel the roads each year.

Meece said county officials have had to let go of their promise to repave some of the asphalt roads that were ground into gravel in the past to reduce maintenance costs.

“As long as we’re so dependent on the gas tax, we’re not going to see any more money,” he said. “Just less and less.”

Over the last year, six states have raised gas taxes. Earlier this month, Michigan’s Republican governor called for doubling that state’s gas tax over the next four years to collect $1.7 billion a year in new revenue for infrastructure.

The idea is non-starter in Indiana, where Republicans who control the General Assembly have vowed not to raise taxes.

House Transportation Chairman Ed Soliday, R-Valpraiso, said raising the gas tax would be a temporary fix anyway. New federal fuel efficiency standards, which mandate an average of 55 miles per gallon, will kick in by 2025, resulting in even lower gas tax revenues.

Soliday wants all options explored. He’s awaiting an extensive study, due next summer, of alternative funding. Options may include raising vehicle registration fees, a user tax for owners of hybrid and electric vehicles, or adopting technology to track motorists’ mileage and tax them for how much they travel rather than how much gasoline they buy.

Soliday said Indiana can’t ignore the problem much longer.

“We need to be honest and say to the public, ‘Here are our choices, here’s what it costs,’ he said. “Then someone is going to have to exercise some political courage.”

Voters deserve more: Why Hoosiers should demand an end to gerrymandering

Star Editorial Board Opinion

Ind’pls Star
November 2, 2014

Politics and understatements seldom go together, but here’s one: It’s been a quiet election cycle in Indiana. In part that’s because none of the perceived big races — governor, U.S. Senate, president — are on the ballot this year. An even bigger reason, however, is the fact that the great majority of the contests that voters will decide on Tuesday aren’t truly competitive.

In most years, until recently, at least a couple of congressional seats in Indiana could be expected to flip from Democrats to Republicans, or vice versa. That’s not the case this year. Incumbents are heavily favored in each of the nine U.S. House races.

Don’t expect much change in the Indiana General Assembly either. The biggest Statehouse-related questions most political observers have going into Election Night: Will Republicans maintain a supermajority in the Indiana House? And will Rep. Eric Turner, embroiled this year in an ethics controversy, win re-election despite announcing he will resign after the election, no matter the outcome, to take a job in the private sector?

That’s not exactly scintillating stuff. Which helps explain why Tuesday’s voter turnout is likely to be abysmal.

Unfortunately, it’s also not anything new. In 2010, the last midterm election, only about 40 percent of registered voters in the state cast a ballot. That was six percentage points below the national average and, according to a study called the Indiana Civic Health Index, our state ranked 48th in the nation in voter participation in 2010.

Why is there so little competition in Indiana politics? It’s driven by both gerrymandering and decisions within each major political party not to go all-out in trying to win certain seats., Indiana tends to lean Republican, but the current legislative split between the parties is not a reflection of the true partisan breakdown. Gerrymandering has skewed the results.

Take the 5th Congressional District, for example. It consists of a large chunk of Marion County, Hamilton County, and rural areas and small towns to the north. Susan Brooks, a first-term incumbent, is almost certain to cruise to a second term. She’s proven to be effective and competent, but her easy glide to re-election also is thanks to representing an overwhelmingly Republican district and Democrats’ decision not to mount an aggressive campaign against her. In short, Brooks has a safe seat, and one that she likely can keep until she decides to move on.

That’s not the kind of stuff that inspires strong voter turnout. And it’s a story repeated throughout Indiana in both congressional and state legislative districts.

So is anything likely ever to change? That depends on what voters, and even non-voters, demand from state legislators.

The General Assembly is charged once a decade with drawing new district maps, both for Congress and the Statehouse. As it stands, the party in control of the Indiana House and Senate — in 2011 it was Republicans — gets to draw maps that tend to favor its side. Not surprisingly in 2012, House Republicans emerged from Election Day with commanding margins of victory, and more seats than they had controlled in many years.

But not all states allow those already in power to ensure their own path to future victories by creating safe districts. Iowa, for example, relies on a nonpartisan commission to draw district maps, and it’s achieved two important results: Voter participation is higher than the national average, and more races are truly competitive.

Hoosiers should demand no less in our state. Voters should have the ability to pick their elected representatives, and not the other way around.

Commentary: A day for the disenchanted voter

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com
November 5, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS – The 2014 election has a clear winner.

Anger.

None of the candidates for office at the state or national level elicited much enthusiasm. In fact, the polls tracking public approval ratings for Democrats and Republicans indicate that both parties are just slightly more popular than the common cold. 

The public’s disgust with – and distrust of – politicians, regardless of their political affiliations, rarely has been higher.

In Florida, for example, the two candidates for governor – Republican incumbent Rick Scott and former-Republican-governor-now-Democratic-candidate Charlie Crist – spent more than $100 million on their campaigns, the bulk of it spent on negative advertising bashing each other. The end result was that voters decided they didn’t trust either man and, in a classic case of choosing the lesser of two evils, opted to retain Scott for another four years.

That was a storyline repeated across the country. People didn’t much care for the choices they had when they went to polling places and wanted a way to express their anger, but found there was no easy way to do that.

When the smoke cleared, it appeared Republicans would control both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives with the White House in Democratic hands – making it likely that the federal government would improve upon its already record standards of dysfunction.

And, in the process, increase the levels of frustration and distrust among the electorate.

Closer to home, here in the Hoosier state, it appears that the GOP will hold onto its supermajorities in both the Indiana House of Representatives and the Indiana Senate.

Perhaps the day’s highlight was the apparent election of a man under a huge ethics cloud who didn’t even want the office for which he was running – Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero. Turner has been slapped on the wrist – hard – by the leadership of his own party for being less than forthcoming about his personal financial interests while he lobbied for legislation that would affect those interests within the House Republican caucus.

Thanks in part to some skillful gerrymandering, Turner was able to hold onto his seat despite announcing his intention to resign as soon as the votes were counted. Turner’s maneuver means the citizens of his district will be represented by someone for whom no one other than a handful of precinct leaders has voted.

That sort of cynicism has a cost.

Earlier in the day, I hosted a radio program that dealt with the subject of supermajorities in the Indiana General Assembly.

Once people began calling and writing in to the program, it became clear that their disenchantment went further than mere partisanship.

They were frustrated with what they saw as a government more interested in political game-playing than it was in serving their interests. They were angry about a government that wasn’t responsive to their concerns.

One caller lamented the fact that gerrymandering meant she didn’t even have a choice in regard to who represented her because only one party fielded a candidate. Another caller said he didn’t even know how to connect with legislators because it seemed to him that they only wanted to hear feedback from voters that tracked with lawmakers’ preconceived notions.

And still another listener made the argument that elected officials often seemed to work to thwart her hopes rather than create opportunities to fulfill them.

Nothing that happened Tuesday is likely to erase or even ease those frustrations. The vote in 2014 did little more than set the stage for more bickering, more posturing, more gridlock at the federal level and more strong-arm maneuvering at the state level.

All of this raises an interesting – and troubling – question.

At some point, the campaigning is supposed to end and the governing is supposed to begin.

Now, though, it appears the campaign never will end.

So how are we supposed to govern?

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.