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Recent editorials published in Indiana newspapers

May 7, 2019

Terre Haute () — Tribune-Star. May 2, 2019

Infusion of accountability

Indiana’s system of township government is both inefficient and ineffective. Few have been able to mount a persuasive argument that it’s not.

Despite that, reform has been a hard to achieve. Of the 11 bills introduced in the recently concluded session of the Indiana General Assembly, only one passed. The others didn’t get past the committee stage.

The bill that did survive, however, is a good one. It was signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb on Monday.

As CNHI Statehouse reporter Scott Miley reported this week, townships with seemingly massive budget surpluses will now need to submit plans to show the public how the money will be used.

The legislation authored by Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, requires townships to file a three-year capital improvement plan with the state if their surplus is 150 percent over the annual budget estimate and more than $200,000. The plan would affect 88 of Indiana’s 1,005 townships.

The goal of the law is to inject greater accountability for township funds to the taxpayers.

The principal purpose of township government is to supply funding for fire service where necessary, maintain cemeteries and provide poor relief to residents. But a number of townships have been shown to collect large amounts of money from taxpayers while rarely putting those funds to productive use.

Miley reported that last year, townships across the state ended with balances totaling $481.3 million. On average, township trustees end their year with a surplus of 111 percent over their adopted budgets.

Across the state, townships had budgets totaling $389.3 million in 2017. But they had a total cash balance of $453.6 million, more than 16 percent above their budgeted amounts. That was enough for 14 months of operating revenues, as much as seven times the generally accepted threshold for government units.

Last year, the number rose as townships recorded total budgets of $402 million and cash balances of $472 million, according to records kept by the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

Even lawmakers reluctant to take on the township system recognized the problem and were willing to take action to address it. If a township is amassing a huge surplus, at least it now has to explain why the money is there and what it will eventually be used for.

Additional reforms in township government will take time. But this law is substantive and brings more accountability to the system.

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The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette. May 3, 2019

Pace of power conversion continues to accelerate

A bill calling for a 20-month moratorium on new electric-generation projects surfaced in the last month of the legislative session, proposed by Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, and passed out of committee without discussion. The bill, it was said, would allow legislators time to study the fast-changing electricity-generation industry. But it was hard to tell who was supporting it.

The Indiana Energy Association, which represents investor-owned utilities, expressed concern about the bill. Environmentalists were worried too, suggesting that coal interests, seeking to slow the conversion to alternative power sources, were behind it. They pointed out that the measure would pause Merrillville-based NIPSCO’s plan for three large wind farms as part of the utility’s effort to become coal-free by 2028.

“It’s something we were watching very closely,” NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said Wednesday of the moratorium efforts. The wind projects were part of an integrated research plan it had taken the company almost a year to develop. NIPSCO is confident its plan, which comprises wind, solar and storage strategies, will be both economical and reliable, he said. But, he said, “we can’t make last-minute decisions.”

Environmentalists were of two minds about the measure because it also would have paused the plan by Evansville-based Vectren to build a massive, natural-gas powered electricity plant. The plant would replace aging facilities that burn more than 100 million tons of Indiana coal. But though coal-burning is the dirtier form of pollution, production of electricity with natural gas also produces greenhouse gases. Vectren’s plan would have locked the utility in to natural gas use for the next three decades.

“We were staunchly opposed to that plant,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Indiana Consumers Action Coalition. “The coal companies were also opposed to that plant.”

In the end, Soliday’s measure had so little support, the Republican-supermajority House approved an amendment offered by a Democrat, Rep. Matt Pierce of Bloomington, to strip the moratorium language.

Then, just as the legislative session drew to a close, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission announced it was rejecting Vectren’s proposed plant. The company, the commission said, had not looked closely enough at alternative power sources and did not include “enough flexibility for the company to respond to rapid technological changes in power generation.”

Environmentalists rejoiced at the commission’s decision. Vectren will go back to the drawing board. Meanwhile, NIPSCO is free to seek approval for its wind farms. As the cost of alternative sources continues to drop, utilities are closer to producing cleaner, cheaper energy.

“In the end,” Olson said, “wind and solar are going to win out.”

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South Bend Tribune. May 5, 2019

The hits, misses of Indiana’s recently concluded legislative session

A look back at the recently concluded legislative session reveals what Indiana lawmakers accomplished during the four-month period.

And what they failed to do.

Lawmakers approved the state’s two-year, $34 billion budget bill, which adds millions to education funding and pulls back on planned increases for Department of Child Services.

The list of what didn’t get done includes redistricting reform (again) and payday lending reform (again), both sorely needed in the Hoosier state. Lawmakers also failed to raise the state’s cigarette tax, a move that supporters say would reduce the smoking rate and generate revenue that could be used to tackle such health issues as infant mortality.

A brief recap:

DCS. The Indiana Department of Child Services had requested an additional $286 million per year in funding to help keep up with its rising caseloads and address lingering issues within the child welfare system. The final budget bill, however, cut that increase by $40 million. Lawmakers also passed House Enrolled Act 1006, which limits DCS workers’ caseloads, allow young people to receive foster care services until they are 21 and gives caseworkers more time to respond to child abuse.

Education. House Enrolled Act 1001 includes $539 million in additional student tuition support, a spending plan that House Speaker Brian Bosma called “historic.” It’s hard to square his description with the fact that the funding boost does not specifically direct any money to teacher pay raises — this despite Indiana ranking near the bottom in teacher pay. Which brings us to ...

Teacher pay. House Enrolled Act 1003 sets a goal for the percentage of money that schools spend on classroom expenses — the largest being teachers’ salaries. But the legislation makes no mandates and provides no new money. House Enrolled Act 1008 will let schools apply for grants to create new “career ladders” to keep veteran educators in the classroom while advancing professionally. It comes with a pay stipend and an incentive to stay in the classroom, rather than leaving for administration. The budget appropriated $3.5 million for the program in its first year.

Bias crimes. Gov. Eric Holcomb had prioritized getting a hate crimes bill on the books and said in January he preferred one that reflects a full list of race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental disability or veteran status. Senate Enrolled Act 198 doesn’t explicitly include age, sex or gender identity.

Infant mortality. Lawmakers took a small step toward addressing Indiana’s shameful infant mortality rate — the state had the seventh-highest rate in the nation in 2017, with 620 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. House Enrolled Act 1007 authorizes a pilot program pairing high-risk pregnant women with individual health care workers in the 13 ZIP codes with the state’s highest infant mortality rates — which includes one in St. Joseph County. This is positive movement, but the state still has a long way to go to reach Holcomb’s goal to take Indiana from the worst state in the Midwest for infant mortality to the best by 2024.

South Shore improvements. The good news for supporters of the commuter railway that connects South Bend to Chicago: The budget bill includes up to $205 million available for the railroad’s major capital projects, such as the double-tracking between Gary and Michigan City. More troubling are the changes made to the board that regulates the South Shore, shrinking it from 11 members to five — allowing the governor to appoint all of them. We’re concerned about this diminishing of local control.

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