The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne. Feb. 1, 2015.
Fine-tune well-meaning ethics bill
Responding to concerns about ethical standards, the legislature's leaders claim to have committed themselves to passing stronger rules this session.
But the provisions for more training, disclosure and review are not enough. The legislature needs to set up a panel with some independence to make sure legislators are not crossing the line on financial involvements. Lawmakers can't seem to see their own potential conflicts.
First, The Indianapolis Star revealed that House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning last summer started an educational consulting business and had asked the House Ethics Committee for permission to solicit business in other states for Questar, a Minnesota company that does business in Indiana.
Last week, the potential conflicts of Rep. Eric Koch were revealed. Despite extensive energy investments, Koch wrote and introduced a bill to allow oil and gas companies to site wells without any say from local communities.
Behning withdrew his request, and Koch withdrew his bill Wednesday, saying the controversy was a "distraction" from other legislative work. If anyone needed evidence that legislators may have difficulty recognizing potential conflicts, here it was.
Those who resist stronger rules inevitably bring up the citizen-legislature concept argument: Because being in the Indiana General Assembly is a part-time job, its members need to rely on the full-time expertise their colleagues bring.
Indeed, this is vital. Farmers, businessmen and women, factory workers or managers - all could have something valuable to add to the debate. As long as they're not directly benefiting from the changes they advocate.
"We need some clear, bright lines," said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, who says the current ethics bill, HB 1002, is on the right track but does not go far enough. "Where you have to draw the line is a financial interest."
A significant, direct financial interest might seem easy to identify, but even the current version of 1002 allows some vagueness. Reporting could be made more specific. The bill lowers the reporting threshold of stock owned by a legislator or a family member to $5,000; it's currently $10,000 or more. The bill also lowers the percentage of income that must be derived from a particular source before it's reported by a legislator - from 33 percent to 25 percent.
Why not just set a dollar amount to trigger reporting? Common Cause suggests a logical threshold would be $5,000 - the same figure as the value of investments that the bill would recognize as significant.
Koch's and Behning's insensitivity to the appearance of conflict points to the other part of what's needed: independent review.
The Kentucky legislature has a completely independent ethics review commission. The legislature wouldn't even have to go that far to get better results. Just provide for some outside involvement and review when a question of ethics comes up. The bill could set up a plan to help legislators review questionable situations on a case-by-case basis.
The bipartisan bill moving through the House needs some tuning. But the legislature has the opportunity to get it right this session.
Indianapolis Business Journal. Jan. 31, 2015.
Refocus outrage over Pence's Just In news agency to watchdog work
A proposed state-funded news website dreamed up by the administration of Gov. Mike Pence was scuttled after it was met with bipartisan derision on social media and talk radio.
The episode is an important reminder of the role of a free press in society — as a watchdog and check on government power. This won't be the last attempt by elected officials to create their own narrative, making an end run around independent journalists. Such tactics have become increasingly common, and effective, as news organizations across the country scale back the number of reporters watching over government.
Critics of the proposed news service, Just IN, should now redirect their energy in support of three bills in the Legislature that would encourage government agencies to operate in the open — a critical ingredient for a factual, fair and independent press.
One proposal would eliminate a loophole that allows members of a public agency governing body to "meet" via email, skirting public-meetings laws. Another would make it a felony offense for a government employee to intentionally violate procedures governing the destruction of public records. A third bill calls for agencies that publish records online to use open formats and include catalogs of all available data.
Veteran journalist and Indiana University professor Gerry Lanosga, who highlighted the bills in a recent post on IndianaForefront.com, also warned about a pending bill that would set strict limits on public access to footage from body cameras worn by police officers.
The state's Access to Public Records Act starts from the simple premise that the people have a right to "complete information regarding the affairs of government." But in practice, government officials often err on the side of secrecy, seeking first to find a reason to deny access.
Communications people representing elected officials can be particularly reticent when they fear public records might cast their boss in a negative light. That's one reason Pence's plan for a state-run news agency_overseen by his own communications team — drew so much ire from so many journalists.
The governor instead should deploy those investments to beef up the offerings of the Indiana Public Access Counselor's office — which advocates on behalf of citizens and journalists seeking public records or access to public meetings.
Meanwhile, journalists who took to Twitter to express indignation over Just IN should update their Freedom of Information Act Request templates and redouble efforts to uncover stories that don't originate from press releases.
And for outraged non-journalists: Demand that the news organizations you rely upon invest in journalism that holds government officials accountable
The Herald-Times, Bloomington. Jan. 29, 2015.
Health plan OK is good government team effort
The federal government's approval of the improved Healthy Indiana Plan, otherwise known as HIP 2.0, will benefit more than 350,000 Hoosiers who will now have access to insurance. People on both sides of the political aisle recognize this as good news.
But they view HIP 2.0 through different lenses.
Republicans see it as a rebuff of the Affordable Care Act and a strong victory for Gov. Mike Pence's anything-you-can-do-Indiana-can-do-better song to the feds. For example:
Speaker of the House Brian Bosma: "I am glad the governor stood strong in his decision not to enact the Affordable Care Act in Indiana and pushed for a consumer-driven program that has a proven, positive history for our state."
U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, a consistent critic of the ACA: "Indiana is leading the way nationally by creating state-based, innovative ideas for governing."
Democrats see it as proof that the Affordable Care Act has had the desired effect of making sure more people have health care. For example:
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly: "I thank the governor for embracing this opportunity through the Affordable Care Act, so more Indiana families will have access to health insurance."
Indiana Democratic House Leader Scott Pelath "... (T)oday we can announce that the Affordable Care Act has fully arrived in Indiana. Now we can contemplate the possibilities of a healthier, adequately insured workforce. And the specter of medical bankruptcies can now slowly drift into history."
Ninth District Rep. Todd Young, R-Bloomington, really nailed the reality with his comment, which acknowledged that adults on both sides worked together for the benefit of people who need health care. He said in part:
"I applaud Gov. Pence for his tireless efforts on this front, and commend the White House for demonstrating an openness in this instance to reworking our nation's health care laws to give Hoosiers more control of their individual health care."
Both sides can take some credit for this positive outcome.
Without the pressure of the ACA, the Healthy Indiana Plan covered 40,000 Hoosiers. With the pressure it created, Gov. Pence and Hoosier lawmakers developed a better plan that will serve 310,000 more people.
That's about as many as would have been served by the ACA's expansion of Medicaid, but it has the added benefit of encouraging Hoosiers to take charge of their health care through three levels of insurance from free to very low cost.
Getting to this point was messy at times, with positions taken in favor of and strongly against Medicaid expansion to cover more Hoosiers. But the result was worth celebrating.
Evansville Courier & Press. Jan. 28, 2015.
Indiana should pass on 'canned' hunting
Indiana has a wealth of outdoor resources. It's a place enjoyed by hunters and fishermen and women who take to the benefits of living in a Midwestern state where wildlife is readily accessible. And that is why it is difficult to imagine the necessity of hunting deer on fenced-in game preserves. It's simply not necessary.
And yet, some in the Indiana Legislature are proposing a measure that would legalize high-fenced deer-hunting preserves.
What we end up with is trusting deer raised on these farms being are hunted down by individuals for the most part looking for the easy way to hang antlers on a den wall. Shame on them. There is nothing wrong with such hunting trophies, but not when taken in the confines of a fenced preserve.
This week the House Natural Resources Committee heard testimony on a bill that would have the state Department of Natural Resources license the preserves where farm-raised deer could be hunted. That is according to the Associated Press.
Similar efforts in past legislative sessions have failed to pass.
To their credit, the legislation is opposed by such groups as the Indiana Deer Hunters Association and the Indiana Wildlife Federation, among others. Doug Allman of the Indiana Deer Hunters Association said that farm-raised deer are used to being around people. "They just shoot them for the antlers," he said.
We support those who enjoy the sport; just not those who do it with too little effort.