John Gregg, former governor candidate, to drop watermelons New Year’s Eve

John Gregg, candidate for Indiana governor in 2012, is back in the news, this time for a watermelon drop on New Year’s Eve. Tim Swarens, columnist for the Indianapolis Star, writes about this in the Dec. 24th, interjecting that Gregg is “…contemplating another run for governor in 2016.”

I first became aware of Gregg when in 1999, without any previous invitation, I testified before the House Rules Committee which Gregg was a member of as well as Speaker of the House. The topic was abuse of executive sessions. In the days following I received this note from Gregg and I believe it reflects something about his character. He did not have to write it; he didn’t even know me.

This brings to mind the following comment from The Elkhart Truth regarding the 2014 election contest between Jackie Walorski and Joe Bock as to holding debates: “Candidates hire aides to craft position papers and consultants to shape their images for television ad campaigns. But in the end, those endlessly repeated talking points, those safe, scripted appearances before polite audiences mean nothing — it’s character, political skill and intellect that matter.

Now, the “watermelon” story…

Swarens: John Gregg, watermelons and a down-home New Year’s Eve

John Gregg, “the guy with two first names,” is one of the great characters of Indiana politics. And I mean that kindly.

So when a press release landed in my In Box this past week announcing that John would “splat” in the New Year by releasing 15 watermelons — yes, watermelons — from a 75-foot high platform in his beloved Vincennes, I just had to talk to him.

He didn’t disappoint.

“Mike Pence won the election and he got to go to the Holy Land for Christmas,” John said. “I came in second — it sounds better than saying I lost — and I get to go to Vincennes.”

Still, I teased, being the official watermelon-dropper has to be one of the defining moments of a long political career. “Absolutely,” the Democratic nominee for governor in 2012 said. “It rates right up there with frying fish at the Knox County fair.”

That’s John. Down home. And proud of it.

Not everyone was enamored with the flavor of Gregg’s 2012 campaign. It was heavy onsmall-town Hoosierdom and John’s self-deprecating sense of humor, and, for the most part, scooted past the heavy issues facing Indiana.

The “nice guy to have over for a cookout” approach was intentional. A poll early in the campaign showed Gregg’s statewide name recognition at a meager 7 percent — well behind not only Pence but also just about every other state and federal elected leader in Indiana.

“If the Lord ever wants to humble somebody, he just needs to take a poll,” Gregg said.

To counter the low name ID, Gregg and his team created a series of commercials that focused on his life in his hometown of Sanborn, population 415. The goal was to personalize a political unknown.

And Gregg says that it worked — in more ways than one.

His name recognition climbed to 72 percent by Election Day, and although Pence eventually won, the vote was much closer than many expected.

An added bonus, depending on your perspective, was that one of John’s buddies, a guy known as Hobo, became a minor celebrity after one commercial described his battle against cancer (it’s now in remission).

“Hobo got a letter from a widow in South Bend who offered to come to Sanborn and nurse him back to health,” John said. “Hobo’s wife didn’t find that as funny as everyone else.”

Still, Gregg admits, the country gold act wore thin on some. “Most of the people I met around the state told me they liked the commercials,” he said. “But the left-wing whack-a-doodles, the political types weren’t impressed by that.”

Left-wing whack-a-doodles? Did I mention that John is a Democrat?

Speaking of which, he’s contemplating another run for governor in 2016. He campaigned for the party around the state this fall (“You saw how well that worked out”). And he plans to make the call on his own political future next year.

But politics can wait for now. There are melons to drop.

The great Vincennes Watermelon Drop — think of the Southern Indiana version of New York City’s Times Square celebration — is in its seventh year and has attracted national attention from the likes of CBS’ “Sunday Morning” and Country Living magazine. CNN even covered it live last year.

So John’s decision to stay up late for the big drop — “we’re usually in bed by 10:30 on New Year’s Eve” — may be more politically crafty than it seems.

“You know, they’ve not invited Mike Pence to drop watermelons,” he said. “Score one for me.”

Trust or bust: Fixing the Highway Trust Fund

(On August 8, 2014 H.R 5021 became law supporting transfers of General Funds into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). This provides authorizations for transit, highway and highway safety programs to be funded through the end of May 31, 2015.)

The Committee for A Responsible Federal Budget

…Highway spending has exceeded gas tax and other dedicated revenues regularly over the past decade, and this shortfall will only grow over time. Dedicated revenues currently fund less than three-quarters of total HTF spending, a concern that lawmakers have addressed in recent years by transferring $54 billion of mostly general tax revenue into the HTF (only $15 billion was paid for and partially with a gimmick). In FY2015 alone, highway spending could exceed revenues by nearly $15 billion, and over the next decade that gap will approach $170 billion.

There is broad bipartisan support for funding highways and other transportation infrastructure, which can both help to create jobs in the near-term and enhance long-term economic growth by fostering commerce, communication, tourism, and trade. Unfortunately, policymakers have so far been unable to agree on how to pay for desired levels of highway spending. In the coming months, Congress and the President must identify and agree to a fiscally responsible solution to close the HTF shortfall.

The best approach to address the shortfall would be a long-term highway bill that aligns dedicated revenues with transportation spending. Transferring funds from general revenue into the HTF would be an acceptable alternative if and only if those funds were fully offset with real spending cuts and/or tax increases elsewhere in the budget.Under no circumstance should lawmakers rely on a deficit-financed (or gimmick-financed) general revenue transfer to fund the HTF.

In addition to addressing the funding shortfall facing our highways, policymakers should use the highway bill to ensure better prioritization of funding projects and, importantly, to reform the budgetary treatment of highway spending. The HTF has a unique treatment in the budget, making it immune to the normal forms of budget discipline that ensure policymakers account for the full costs of legislation they pass… (more) (NOTE: Options for savings within the HTF as well as to offset General Revenue transfers are listed later in the article.)

12 Days of Budget Policy Riders: What Congress Gave Away in the Cromnibus

National Priorities Projectxmastree_large
(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

In the spirit of the Twelve Days of Christmas, here are twelve of the more bizarre or outrageous early Christmas gifts to special groups that lawmakers delivered through policy riders in the 2015 federal budget bill known as the Cromnibus:

  1. Provided a tax deduction targeted specifically to Blue Cross Blue Shield (which is never actually named) to offset costs the company may incur under the Affordable Care Act
  2. Exempted cattle farmers from reporting and permitting requirements for greenhouse gas and methane emissions (a major source of greenhouse gases)
  3. Ordered a study of small business classifications for providers of military footwear after an outcry about rule changes from Michigan lawmakers, where military footwear supplier Bates is located
  4. Made white potatoes eligible under Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food benefits, in a giveaway to potato farmers
  5. Reopened the door for U.S. government entities (OPIC and the Export-Import Bank) to fund foreign coal plants, providing a win for U.S. coal exporters and reversing an earlier rule change
  6. Prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the phase out of inefficient incandescent light bulbs that was signed into law by President George W. Bush as an energy efficiency measure
  7. Allowed schools to get around sodium and whole grain requirements for school lunches, delivering  win for “big food
  8. Prohibited classification of the greater sage grouse as an endangered species for the rest of the year, delivering a win for would-be developers in the bird’s habitats
  9. Overturned Washington D.C.’s voter-approved decriminalization of marijuana, delivering a win for marijuana legalization opponents
  10. Relaxed rules under Dodd-Frank financial regulation that require banks to separate their consumer-based, FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Commission)backed business from trading in financial derivatives
  11. Raised limits on campaign contributions to political parties by ten times
  12. Prohibited government from requiring businesses to disclose their political campaign contributions when applying for federal contracts – and a House summary of the bill lists this under “Good-Government Provisions”

These are but a few examples of what happens when Congress budgets behind closed doors instead of properly passing a budget that actually reflects Americans’ priorities. Maybe lawmakers’ New Year’s Resolution could be to do it differently next year.

Nearly $1 billion in Katrina, Rita aid under scrutiny

More than nine years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita decimated parts of Louisiana, the state has identified nearly $1 billion in federal housing aid where recipients failed to comply with the rules, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said Monday.

Purpera said the problems were discovered by the state Division of Administration. They totaled $939 million and involved 15,095 homeowners.

That is on top of $75 million in questionable costs identified earlier.

In addition, the auditor said his own office’s review of 45 homeowners who got the aid showed that 10, whose awards totaled nearly another $1 million, failed to provide adequate evidence that they were complying with regulations.

That means they failed to offer proof that the home was being repaired or evidence of flood or other insurance, among other things.

The problems could put the state on the hook to repay money to the federal government, Purpera said. (more)

Presidential news conference Dec. 19, 2014

Transcript of entire news conference
Video of entire news conference (52 minutes)

President Obama’s comments in part:

…Our investments in American manufacturing have helped fuel its best stretch of job growth also since the 1990s. America is now the number-one producer of oil, the number-one producer of natural gas.  We’re saving drivers about 70 cents a gallon at the pump over last Christmas.  And effectively today, our rescue of the auto industry is officially over.  We’ve now repaid taxpayers every dime and more of what my administration committed, and the American auto industry is on track for its strongest year since 2005.  And we’ve created about half a million new jobs in the auto industry alone…

…Meanwhile, around the world, America is leading.  We’re leading the coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL — a coalition that includes Arab partners.  We’re leading the international community to check Russian aggression in Ukraine. We are leading the global fight to combat Ebola in West Africa, and we are preventing an outbreak from taking place here at home. We’re leading efforts to address climate change, including last month’s joint announcement with China that’s already jumpstarting new progress in other countries.  We’re writing a new chapter in our leadership here in the Americas by turning a new page on our relationship with the Cuban people. And in less than two weeks, after more than 13 years, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.  Today, more of our troops are home for the holidays than any time in over a decade…

…In this interconnected, digital world, there are going to be opportunities for hackers to engage in cyber assaults both in the private sector and the public sector.  Now, our first order of business is making sure that we do everything to harden sites and prevent those kinds of attacks from taking place…And one of the things in the New Year that I hope Congress is prepared to work with us on is strong cybersecurity laws that allow for information-sharing across private sector platforms, as well as the public sector, so that we are incorporating best practices and preventing these attacks from happening in the first place…

…I think, talking to Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell that they are serious about wanting to get some things done.  The tax area is one area where we can get things done.  And I think in the coming weeks leading up to the State of Union, there will be some conversations at the staff levels about what principles each side are looking at. I can tell you broadly what I’d like to see.  I’d like to see more simplicity in the system.  I’d like to see more fairness in the system.  With respect to the corporate tax reform issue, we know that there are companies that are paying the full freight — 35 percent — higher than just about any other company on Earth, if you’re paying 35 percent, and then there are other companies that are paying zero because they’ve got better accountants or lawyers.  That’s not fair. There are companies that are parking money outside the country because of tax avoidance.  We think that it’s important that everybody pays something if, in fact, they are effectively headquartered in the United States.  In terms of corporate inversion, those are situations where companies really are headquartered here but, on paper, switch their headquarters to see if they can avoid paying their fair share of taxes.  I think that needs to be fixed…

…One other element of this that I think is important is…We’ve got a lot of infrastructure we’ve got to rebuild in this country if we’re going to be competitive — roads, bridges, ports, airports, electrical grids, water systems, sewage systems.  We are way behind. And early on we indicated that there is a way of us potentially doing corporate tax reform, lowering rates, eliminating loopholes so everybody is paying their fair share, and during that transition also providing a mechanism where we can get some infrastructure built.  I’d like to see us work on that issue as well.  Historically, obviously, infrastructure has not been a Democratic or a Republican issue, and I’d like to see if we can return to that tradition…

…With respect to Cuba…I share the concerns of dissidents there and human rights activists that this is still a regime that represses its people. And as I said when I made the announcement, I don’t anticipate overnight changes, but what I know deep in my bones is that if you’ve done the same thing for 50 years and nothing has changed, you should try something different if you want a different outcome. And this gives us an opportunity for a different outcome, because suddenly Cuba is open to the world in ways that it has not been before.  It’s open to Americans traveling there in ways that it hasn’t been before.  It’s open to church groups visiting their fellow believers inside of Cuba in ways they haven’t been before.  It offers the prospect of telecommunications and the Internet being more widely available in Cuba in ways that it hasn’t been before. And over time, that chips away at this hermetically sealed society, and I believe offers the best prospect then of leading to greater freedom, greater self-determination on the part of the Cuban people. I think it will happen in fits and starts.  But through engagement, we have a better chance of bringing about change then we would have otherwise… the whole point of normalizing relations is that it gives us a greater opportunity to have influence with that government than not…

…At issue in Keystone (pipeline) is not American oil.  It is Canadian oil that is drawn out of tar sands in Canada.  That oil currently is being shipped out through rail or trucks, and it would save Canadian oil companies and the Canadian oil industry an enormous amount of money if they could simply pipe it all the way through the United States down to the Gulf.  Once that oil gets to the Gulf, it is then entering into the world market, and it would be sold all around the world. So there’s no — I won’t say “no” — there is very little impact, nominal impact, on U.S. gas prices — what the average American consumer cares about — by having this pipeline come through.  And sometimes the way this gets sold is, let’s get this oil and it’s going to come here.  And the implication is, is that’s going to lower gas prices here in the United States.  It’s not.  There’s a global oil market.  It’s very good for Canadian oil companies and it’s good for the Canadian oil industry, but it’s not going to be a huge benefit to U.S. consumers.  It’s not even going to be a nominal benefit to U.S. consumers. Now, the construction of the pipeline itself will create probably a couple thousand jobs.  Those are temporary jobs until the construction actually happens.  There’s probably some additional jobs that can be created in the refining process down in the Gulf.  Those aren’t completely insignificant — it’s just like any other project.  But when you consider what we could be doing if we were rebuilding our roads and bridges around the country — something that Congress could authorize — we could probably create hundreds of thousands of jobs, or a million jobs. So if that’s the argument, there are a lot more direct ways to create well-paying Americans construction jobs. And then, with respect to the cost, all I’ve said is that I want to make sure that if, in fact, this project goes forward, that it’s not adding to the problem of climate change, which I think is very serious and does impose serious costs on the American people — some of them long term, but significant costs nonetheless.  If we’ve got more flooding, more wildfires, more drought, there are direct economic impacts on that… 

…Like the rest of America, black America in the aggregate is better off now than it was when I came into office.  The jobs that have been created, the people who’ve gotten health insurance, the housing equity that’s been recovered, the 401 pensions that have been recovered — a lot of those folks are African American.  They’re better off than they were. The gap between income and wealth of white and black America persists.  And we’ve got more work to do on that front.  I’ve been consistent in saying that this is a legacy of a troubled racial past of Jim Crow and slavery.  That’s not an excuse for black folks.  And I think the overwhelming majority of black people understand it’s not an excuse.  They’re working hard. They’re out there hustling and trying to get an education, trying to send their kids to college.  But they’re starting behind, oftentimes, in the race. And what’s true for all Americans is we should be willing to provide people a hand up — not a handout, but help folks get that good early childhood education, help them graduate from high school, help them afford college.  If they do, they’re going to be able to succeed, and that’s going to be good for all of us…Now, obviously, how we’re thinking about race relations right now has been colored by Ferguson, the Garner case in New York, a growing awareness in the broader population of what I think many communities of color have understood for some time, and that is that there are specific instances at least where law enforcement doesn’t feel as if it’s being applied in a colorblind fashion…The one thing I will say — and this is going to be the last thing I say — is that one of the great things about this job is you get to know the American people.  I mean, you meet folks from every walk of life and every region of the country, and every race and every faith.  And what I don’t think is always captured in our political debates is the vast majority of people are just trying to do the right thing, and people are basically good and have good intentions.  Sometimes our institutions and our systems don’t work as well as they should.  Sometimes you’ve got a police department that has gotten into bad habits over a period of time and hasn’t maybe surfaced some hidden biases that we all carry around.  But if you offer practical solutions, I think people want to fix these problems.  It’s not — this isn’t a situation where people feel good seeing somebody choked and dying.  I think that troubles everybody.  So there’s an opportunity of all of us to come together and to take a practical approach to these problems…

…America knows how to solve problems.  And when we work together, we can’t be stopped.

New $1 million Seymour marquee on I-65 met with mixed response from locals

Indiana Economic Digest

Love it or hate it, the new Seymour welcome sign near Interstate 65 is causing a lot of buzz around town.

Construction of the 13-foot wall and sign with surrounding landscaping, located on the north side of U.S. 50 just west of the interstate exchange, was completed in late November at a cost of about $1 million…

…The majority of funding for the welcome sign came from a state grant, Luedeman said, and was specifically designated by the Indiana Department of Transportation for the project.

“This is money that could have went to Columbus or Indianapolis, but it didn’t,” he said. “So we took it and ran with it.”

The city chipped in with about $165,000 in taxpayers’ money from the general fund and TIF revenue from the redevelopment commission as matching funds, he added… (more)

Government grants…There is no “free” money

The Rochester Sentinel
Voice of the People

There is no free money

Federal grants. State grants. It seems like you can’t read the paper without seeing reference to government grants being sought and received. Recently this has been the case for our area: the Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the USDA announced in the Dec. 17th Sentinel, the revitalization of downtown Rochester, the development of the Nickel Plate Trail and many other projects of recent years. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a grant is sought and received for the Times Cinema restoration.

This is not unique to the Fulton County area. Recently the town of Seymour in southern Indiana received a state grant of about $800,000 from the Indiana Department of Transportation to erect a welcome sign on the edge of their community. No doubt the seeking of grants is occurring throughout our country. It is always easier to spend someone else’s money even though we’re fooling ourselves when we think this is the case with government grants.

The issue is not the projects but rather the means of funding them. We send money via a bunch of different taxes to Indianapolis and Washington D.C. and if “lucky” some of it is returned as grants along with a lot of bureaucratic red tape and stipulations to receive the grant and administer it. Our country has amassed a federal debt of more than $18+ trillion. There is no “free” money.

One of the most frequent uses of government grant money is the creation of walking and biking trails. This grant money comes from gas taxes. Yes, tax money for the maintenance and repair of roads, highways and bridges is being diverted to trails. Again, the issue is not the project but how it is funded. A favorite phrase of those who advocate for the grants is “enhancing the quality of life.” Make no mistake, this is a sales pitch.

It is a matter of priorities and when spending your own money, i.e. at the local government level, a mindset of priorities will quickly come to the fore. If it appears to be “free” money, i.e. from the state or federal government, then the concept of “priorities” quickly disappears.

This matter and other Fulton County as well as Indiana and national government topics are being explored at, a recent project created to inform my fellow citizens.

Russ Phillips

Those Pension Cuts and What You Need to Know

Congress recently carved a hole in a 40-year-old pension law that has prevented employers from cutting benefits earned by those already retired. This change applies to people covered under multiemployer plans that are in critical financial shape.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is a multiemployer plan? This is a pension covering workers and retirees from more than one employer in the same or related industries, such as trucking or construction. (Most of them were established under collective bargaining between a union and the employers.) There are about 1,400 multiemployer plans with 10.4 million participants… (more)

FEDCO gets $99K grant

The Rochester Sentinel

Fulton Economic Development Corporation has received a $99,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The grant money will be used to continue FEDCO’s low interest loan program and to provide funding for training to eligible businesses in Fulton County, FEDCO said in a press release. Eligible businesses include startups that have met application requirements or existing businesses based in Fulton County with less than $1 million in gross annual sales and less than 50 employees.

This is the third and largest such grant the USDA has awarded to FEDCO in the past five years.

FEDCO Executive Director Terry Lee said the funding will provide a boost to an already successful program.

“These additional funds are a vote of confidence from the USDA and will allow FEDCO to help more Fulton County businesses start and grow.

We’ve created a very comprehensive program for small businesses that includes a wide range of resources and the USDA’s grant is at the heart of what we offer,” he said.

For more information, contact Amy Beechy at amy@yourprojectmatters. com or 574-709-7955.

(Related article: ROCHESTER, Ind., 7/15/10 — A $75,000 USDA Rural Development Grant awarded July 6 (2010) to the Fulton Economic Development Corp…FEDCO received a $50,000 grant last October…) (more)

How much are fuel taxes? Is now “perfect” time to raise them?

The need for infrastructure improvements (roads, highways and bridges) is receiving increased attention due to their condition and the now substantially less cost for gas. Given the latter, some are now saying it is the ideal time to act.

A Monroe County Indiana County Council member presents a clear picture of state excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel and also, as of 2013, how some state fuel tax was diverted from road construction and maintenance and how the sales tax (yes, we also pay 7% sales tax on fuel in addition to the excise tax) on fuel does not go towards funding of roads at all.

With the current reduced gasoline cost some are saying now is the time to raise the fuel tax. It’s not just the state excise tax on fuel but also the federal excise tax on fuel. According to NPR, raises on fuel tax are on the table in many states around the country and have recently been approved in several. As a tax increase is contemplated the caveat is what will be the overall fuel price when oil prices rebound. It never pays to think only of the moment.

(Related source: Federal gas tax increase of 15 cents is coming…or is it?)