South Bend Tribune. June 10, 2015.
Shameful effort to skirt public records law
Some lawmakers in the General Assembly think it's their job to do the people's business ... in private.
As ridiculous as it sounds, members of the Indiana House have been secretly working to exempt themselves from a public records law that entitles the public to "full and complete information regarding the affairs of the government."
This comes in the midst of a lawsuit by the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana and the Energy and Policy Institute, which filed an open records request in January seeking correspondence regarding a solar power bill.
Specifically legislators are attempting to keep their internal correspondence — including email, voice mail, text messaging, notes and other records from public view. And they're doing so by furtively changing the definition of "work product."
Indiana's Access to Public Records Act, passed in 1983, offers one specific exemption for "the work product of individual members and the partisan staffs" of the legislature. Lawmakers are using this exemption in an effort to shield nearly all their communication from public.
This after Luke Britt, Indiana's public access counselor, had offered up the advisory opinion that the open records law does apply to lawmakers. Britt also noted that the act allows them to shield some documents as work products, but that legislators should make transparency the goal.
Clearly, House members have ignored Britt's advice.
According to Steve Key, executive director and legal counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, the legislators are "trying to define everything they do as work product, which is very unfortunate."
It's also a misuse of the power and authority given by the Hoosiers who put them in office. And if lawmakers find abiding by the rules and responsibilities that come with public office too restrictive, a return to private life can be easily arranged by voters.
The Times (Munster). June 12, 2015.
Support better mental health care for troops
Fresh from his success last year of getting additional mental health screening for troops returning from battles overseas, U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is pressing his advantage.
In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Donnelly remembered two Hoosier service members who committed suicide and pushed for his Service member and Veteran Mental Health Care Package.
The "care package" includes incentives for private mental health care providers to be educated in treating service members and veterans, requires that Department of Defense providers receive instruction in suicide-risk recognition, and encourages the Pentagon to develop psychiatric physician assistants to meet the demand for mental health care among military members and their families.
Donnelly has cited Defense Department figures that show an average of 22 veterans a day commit suicide. That number is alarming.
Donnelly has been outspoken in pushing for mental health benefits to support our military and their families, but he isn't the only one.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is among them. She is a 23-year veteran of the military and knows what our troops are going through.
"Currently, there are over 2 million post 9/11 veterans across the country, and this number will only increase as our military force structure continues to draw down," she said last December. "As the nature of war changes, the injuries our warriors sustain also change. Increasingly, theirs are invisible wounds, which do not have simple treatment and do not always manifest immediately.
"Just as these veterans remained faithful to our country on the battlefield, it is our turn as their representatives to remain faithful to them and it is our responsibility as a nation to, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, 'care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.'"
It is difficult to forget that the Civil War of which Lincoln spoke ended 150 years ago.
Merrillville farmer Israel Pierce, who served as a sergeant in the 99th Indiana Infantry during the Civil War, committed suicide 20 years after the war ended following a long and unsuccessful effort to obtain veteran disability benefits.
Donnelly told of two Hoosier veterans whose suicides were much more recent — Spc. Chancellor Keesling and Spc. Jacob Sexton.
It is clear that the mental health of servicemen and women and their families is of utmost concern. War is hell, and the Americans transitioning from war to peace need our support.
Donnelly's care package seems like the least we can do for those who have served their country under extremely difficult conditions.
Kokomo Tribune. Jun 9, 2015.
Legislators make a bad pass
Indiana legislators passed a law in 2010, aimed at cutting back on the number of motorists texting while driving. It hasn't worked.
Two years after that law went into effect, we reported Kokomo police officers had written just five citations — three in all of 2012 and two in the first six months of 2013.
The problem, they say, is the law is nearly impossible to enforce.
While the law forbids drivers from typing, transmitting or reading texts and emails while their vehicles are in motion, the law also states officers can't confiscate phones or other mobile devices to determine whether a person was breaking the law.
That means police would have to subpoena phone records to issue a citation, they say, and the only time they're likely to do that is in the event of a wreck.
Well, legislators passed a bill this past session that takes effect July 1, and like the texting law, it probably won't be enforced.
Call it the "keep right" law. With the threat of a ticket and $500 fine, a slow-moving vehicle in the left or passing lane must move to the right and out of the way of faster traffic. That means a person driving the posted speed limit on a highway could be ticketed for not making way for a motorist driving 5, 10 or 20 mph faster than the slowpoke.
Gubernatorial candidate and Democratic state Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage called it "the silliest, most unjustifiable proposal of the entire session."
We recognize that motorists who impede the free flow of traffic can be a safety hazard. But are they honestly more dangerous than those driving 15 mph above the speed limit, a speed so excessive that it's categorized as driving recklessly?
Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, says his law gives slower drivers incentive to stop living life in the fast lane. But even one of the law's supporters, Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, said it probably won't be enforced by state police, who are more likely to watch for speeders or intoxicated drivers.
Laws that won't be enforced — or can't be, as in the case of the texting law — aren't really laws at all.
The Herald Bulletin (Anderson). June 11, 2015.
State GOP leaders say LGBT rights not worth summer study
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act divided the state along political and religious lines in March and April like few issues before. The backlash at home and abroad was enormous, and the state is still licking its wounds from the fallout.
Critics of the law maintained that it would enable Indiana businesses to cite religious beliefs in refusing to serve gay, lesbian or transgender people. National and international organizations, corporations and leaders lined up in opposition to RFRA.
When the potential economic impact became clear, Gov. Mike Pence and lawmakers at the Statehouse realized altering the act to clarify that it could not be cited as a defense for discrimination was best for the current and future business of Indiana.
How quickly they forget.
When legislators released a list of issues to study over the summer term last month, expansion of the state's civil rights law was inexplicably missing. Somehow, Republicans, the state's majority leaders, found no need to even talk about equal protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. After all the time devoted to RFRA this past session, a conversation about basic human rights seemed like a no-brainer as a topic for a summer committee.
Republican lawmakers just don't seem to get it. Aside from the philosophical and religious ramifications of gay marriage or recognition of transgender individuals, this is an economic issue. It's what's best for business.
Officials at the local level get it. A recent gathering of town and city leaders in Kokomo included a conversation about adding sexual orientation and gender identity to local human rights ordinances. The mayors and others involved in the discussion understood that an environment of inclusiveness is needed to attract jobs and young talent to their area.
An increasing number of companies aren't just looking for tax incentives when searching for a place to locate their business. They want their employees to have good housing, good schools, parks to play in. And they want them to feel accepted in their community.
How can anyone in the LGBT community feel safe in Indiana when our lawmakers won't even discuss protecting them?
Ultimately, reasonable Hoosiers expect the Legislature to draft and approve a civil rights law for LGBT people. It's simply the right thing to do for human rights, and for economic development. The coming summer is the right time to discuss the language of that bill to give lawmakers a head start when the next legislative session begins.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said in an Associated Press story that he anticipates the drafting of a civil rights proposal next year.
But by refusing to talk ahead of time about protection for LGBT individuals, Republican state lawmakers are again showing that they have no idea what's best for Indiana or its business environment.
The decision is indefensible.