Writing is the Right Stuff for This Guy

I came to the Indiana Chamber slightly more than 15 years ago partially out of a desire to return to my writing roots. Newspaper reporting and other writing had evolved into managerial duties that primarily included editing and page layout (that's another story for another time).

The writing part started on Day 1 and has never really stopped. If variety is the spice of life, I can skip the spice aisle at the local grocery. Fifteen years of BizVoice magazine have delivered numerous story opportunities on subjects ranging from education and taxes to economic development and business success stories.

But we do a lot more at the Indiana Chamber, which involves many forms of writing. Some of the ongoing projects/initiatives that we're working on for our members and investors:

These are a few example of what keeps life interesting around here. Not to mention the scripts, presentations, press releases, fact sheets and other items that help achieve the Chamber mission.

Weighing In (Over and Over) on RTW

What did you do Monday to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King? With the holiday providing a day of respite from picketing the Statehouse, right-to-work opponents decided to focus in part on this blog and "influence" (we’re supposed to stay away from negative words) the poll question asking whether respondents support RTW.

Through Sunday, the "yes" votes were 65% with about 300 total votes cast. By 5 p.m. Monday, there were nearly 1,000 votes with 79% or so on the "no" side. Quite an amazing reversal of fortunes, huh?

Although the admittedly unscientific poll is supposed to be one vote per person, it’s no secret that one can work around that caveat without too much effort. Congratulations to union advocates for a strong social media campaign, driving large numbers of people to vote (early and often as they used to say in Chicago). Leading the way, however, was the person who either found an automated way to impact the results or had little else to do on a Monday afternoon, voting about 100 times himself or herself in a short period of time.

Ingenuity gets an A; democracy a failing grade. 

With the poll removed for obvious reasons, attention has turned to commenting on various blog posts that explain the good aspects of individuals having the choice of whether they wish to join a union, etc.

For those pushing that no business should have to pay dues to belong to the Indiana Chamber, about 5,000 companies each year voluntarily pay dues while many others throughout the state do not. All businesses benefit from many of our efforts. If we do our job well, many will retain their membership or become new supporters.

Thanks for contributing to the debate; let’s hope just that takes place at the Statehouse this week as lawmakers make the determination on whether Indiana should become the 23rd right-to-work state.

1888 a Big Year for Pres. Harrison, Union Station and Indiana

I’m doing some writing in a volunteer capacity for the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site here in Indy. For the upcoming September edition of its newsletter ("The Statesman"), I wrote an article about Union Station — which was built the same year Harrison was elected. I’m reposting the article here with permission (and please consider visiting or volunteering at the Harrison Home; it’s a wonderful standing tribute to a past president and Indiana resident):

The image and landscape of Indianapolis was changing in 1888. The population had boomed in the middle of the century, and its place in a nation still on the mend – just a quarter of a century after the Civil War – was evolving. The year saw many developments in the city, in fact. U.S. Senator Benjamin Harrison thwarted incumbent President Grover Cleveland’s bid for re-election. Indiana limestone and oak provided the foundation for Indiana’s new Statehouse – and at the heart of it all for residents and visitors alike was a new Union Station. While Harrison traveled out of the old Union Station en route to his posts during the Civil War, as well as his later duties in Washington, D.C., his grand departure to the White House was out of the new station in 1889.

To understand why the new station was necessary, one must turn back the clock even further to 1860. Just a decade after rail first came to Indianapolis, the city’s population had more than doubled in size to 18,611. This is not only when it became the state’s largest city, but when it became the state’s central hub (as Madison and New Albany had been the most critical conduits before that time due to their locations along the Ohio River). Soon, five railroad trunk lines and about 40 smaller operations were running trains through the Hoosier State. Though one of the first belt railroads in America was built for the Union Stockyards in 1877 (and the Indianapolis Union Railway Company leased it for the staggering duration of 999 years), owners of the five main lines knew a new building would soon be in order to accommodate the increased traffic.

The man cited by many as the chief visionary for the new facility was James McCrea, president of the Indianapolis Union Railway Company (and later president of the Pennsylvania Railroad). In an 1886 article, The Indianapolis Journal credited McCrea’s persistence as being the driving force in the development of the new facility. Once legislative approval came in 1885 and the real estate was acquired, the wheels were in motion, so to speak, to erect the new station between Illinois and Meridian Streets – just north of where the existing facility stood.

The new station opened in September 1888. The Indianapolis Journal reported:

The station proper is 150 feet square, three stories high, with basement and attic rooms. The tower is 185 feet high, and besides this structure there are two baggage rooms, one at the west and the other at the east end of the train sheds. The baggage rooms are each 150 feet long by twenty-five feet wide.

The train sheds are 741 feet long by 200 feet wide, constructed of iron with a tin roof. The station proper rests on a granite foundation, the stone coming from Iron Mountain, Missouri. The walls above are constructed of pressed brick, with brown-stone trimmings, which were shipped from Pennsylvania… Under cover of the sheds are ten long tracks, 741 feet long, and two short tracks…

Furthermore, The Indianapolis Sentinel explained:

Ticket-agent [Daniel] Donough is much pleased with his quarters. “It is absolutely,” he says, “the finest ticket office in the United States.” Tom Taggart’s lunchrooms are open this morning, fully prepared for the multitude who are already coming for the fair. The rooms on the upper floors, with the exception of the telegraph room, are not ready for occupancy.”

While most publicity was positive, this admonishing note was published in the September 22 edition of The Indianapolis Journal, although it likely seems comical to today’s reader:

There is a good deal of complaint among the male population who are not admitted to the ladies’ [waiting] room in the new Union Station. This is a rule at all large railway stations in this country and will doubtless be enforced until men have better habits. There should be one room at a large railway station, in fact, at a small one as well, where a lady can move about without her skirts dragging in tobacco spit.

As it pertains to Harrison, the station played a major role in his campaign. Oddly enough, it wasn’t because he travelled a great deal – but because he opted not to. In choosing to run a locally-based – or “front porch” – campaign from his home in Indianapolis, reporters, delegates and celebrities instead came to the city to see him, thus bringing more traffic through Union Station. His exposure proved to be just enough as he lost the popular vote, but was victorious in the all-important Electoral College.

Though he triumphantly left the station en route to his new accommodations in the White House in 1889, he would soon make a very forlorn return to the facility, coming back for his wife Caroline’s funeral in October 1892. (She died in the White House following a yearlong battle with tuberculosis.) Her death occurred just two weeks before the 1892 election, which he lost to Cleveland.

For more on the history of Union Station, read Indianapolis Union Station: Trains, Travelers and Changing Times, by James R. Hetherington.

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BONUS FUN FACT: An energetic, inquisitive 17-year-old Thomas Edison worked at the old Union Station as a Western Union telegraph operator for a few months in 1864.

Ice Chills Big Day at Statehouse

What was shaping up to be a day of MAJOR committee hearings at the Statehouse on Wednesday fell victim to Mother Nature. Among the bills that were scheduled for debate — and we mean real debate:

  • A lengthy immigration battle was set for the Senate chambers; it has been moved to the afternoon of Feb. 9. Senator Mike Delph had promised a few weeks ago to pursue Arizona-type legislation, but word in recent days was that some of the more stringent provisions were being deleted. Either way, passions will be on display.
  • Assignment of benefits was scheduled to reappear in the House. This controversial health care billing procedure would potentially raise costs for employers and employees.
  • An education double-header was on tap. Teacher quality was to be the focus of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee in the afternoon, following the House Education panel tackling reform initiatives in an early gathering in the House chambers.

All these issues may end up on committee agendas next Wednesday, or some special meetings may be arranged.

Some legislators were scattering for home on Tuesday after General Assembly activity was cancelled. Ice in Central Indiana and massive snow in the north did not make for a good combination. We would expect activity to resume today but some legislators, particularly from the north, may not be able to return if indeed they vacated earlier in the week.

Adding Up the Election Numbers

Chamber members had the opportunity earlier today to hear from two guys in the election trenches during our monthly Policy Issue Conference Call. I can’t share all they had to say, but did want to recap some of the numbers and insights they offered.

Jeff Brantley is director of political affairs for the Chamber’s Indiana Business for Responsive Government, focused on electing pro-economy, pro-jobs candidates to the Indiana General Assembly. Michael Davis previously was in that position before moving to Washington earlier this year for a role with BIPAC, focused on congressional elections and working with states on their political programs.

Among the offerings:

  • Michael cited "enthusiasm gap" polling that reflects the mood of the electorate. Typically a strong advantage for Democrats, it’s currently in the +2 to +10 range for Republicans. In 1994, when a major GOP swing took place in the mid-term election, the "gap"  was +4 for Democrats.
  • There are between 120 and 125 competitive U.S. House races (at least twice the norm). The striking difference is in which party currently controls those competitive seats — 105 for Democrats and 18 for Republicans.
  • At a minimum, there will be 15 new U.S. senators, 43 new reps and a continuing trend in governors who were not in power as recently as two years ago.
  • At the state level, Jeff notes there are "very competitive races in places we’ve not seen competitive races before." He also points out the absence of the traditional human services and education issues; the attention is focused on the economy and jobs, jobs, jobs.
  • The "change" mantra in Indiana is strongest in the southern portion of the state. There are very competitive Statehouse races along the Ohio River and in other southern areas. Change, of course, can mean a backlash against incumbents — no matter the party.
  • Turnout, as always, will be crucial. But turnout takes on a whole new meaning with the growing number of voters who cast their ballots well ahead of Election Day.

The bottom line: November 2 and its results will be most interesting and important.

A Little Less Talk, a Lot More Action at Statehouse?

Tuesday morning at the Indiana Statehouse was a good time for catchy phrases. Whether the rest of the week will see substantive legislative action is yet to be seen.

House Speaker Pat Bauer has reconfirmed his plan to adjourn this session by the end of Thursday (10 days before the March 14 deadline date for such action). His closing words to House members (before calling for a recess until 2:30 today) as he urged them to work diligently on conference committees: "If you can make an agreement, so be it; if you can’t make an agreement, so be it."

Prior to that, House Minority Leader Brian Bosma said his caucus was not opposed to a Thursday ending as long as all the needed business was taken care of. He cited five priorities, led by a clean and clear delay in the unemployment insurance tax increase, that would thwart the "go home early" plan. His final comment: "It’s better to be a little slow and right than quick and wrong."

The Senate has not publicly weighed in today (it has a light calendar with a 1:30 beginning), although President Pro Tem David Long has previously stated there is nothing wrong with an early ending, but not before key issues are addressed.

The real work is taking place in conference committees and in negotiations among leadership. Stay tuned for the outcomes.

Creative Budgeting Government Style; A Statehouse Up for Sale?

A few years ago, some Hoosiers raised an eyebrow when Gov. Daniels successfully proposed the lease of the toll road in northern Indiana to boost the state coffers. Yet, it pales today to the bold (or desperate) actions some states are attempting and taking due to dire financial straits – the likes of which they have never seen.

Hands down, the “winner,” if you will, with the most outlandish gimmick to come up with quick cash is Arizona. The state is seriously considering SELLING its Capitol building and other state properties for $735 million and then leasing them back for $60 million a year.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the problems with this. Sure, it’s a major short-term windfall, but the state is only adding to its debt with the building lease. And what if Arizona can’t come up with its rent money? Will the governor and Legislature have to relocate to less fancy digs – say, a Phoenix strip mall?

The motive is sheer desperation. While California has the title of most beleaguered state budget in terms of actual dollars in debt, no state tops Arizona for percentage of budget shortfall (30% of a more than $10 billion budget). Arizona has also started borrowing from Bank of America to help pay the state’s bills and staggering $3 billion shortfall.

(Learning all this almost makes me want to hear Jim Nabors’ sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” and commit to eating a unique fried food at our state fair next year!)

While Arizona’s possible money “solution” comes from left field, there are plenty more commonplace practices – some legitimate, some a bit sketchy – that states take that can bite them and taxpayers in the end. 

California has tried myriad creative accounting maneuvers to try to make a dent in its nearly $60 billion black hole:  from borrowing from special accounts and local government property taxes to adding to payroll withholdings.  The state also pushed the last month of payroll (June) into the first month (July) of the next fiscal year.  This trick is akin to what used to be a regular occurrence in Indiana: the delaying of local government payments month after month (which ceased with the Daniels administration).

Meanwhile, Illinois legislators recently decided the state should simply not pay its $3.8 billion in bills until the next fiscal year.  Just like when a personal credit card is paid late, there is a price to pay.  For Illinois, that means its vendors may charge up to a 5% penalty.  Now, that’s a late fee that will hurt!

Bottom line: States’ budget quick fixes often come with consequences – steep ones.  Indiana, fortunately, is in better fiscal shape than nearly all others. I guess that’s another thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

At Least They’re Not Messing with the Days on Task

Education funding is always a contentious issue at the Statehouse, but the battle is rising to a new level this time around (as we have heard over and over and over). Past disagreements largely centered on the level of spending increases. With fewer dollars available, it’s a case of where are they going to go — to students or districts.

The budget is filled with education measures beyond the funding fight. One issue thankfully not on the table, at least for now, is minimizing the 180-day school year. Chamber education expert Derek Redelman reported it this way following the end of the regular session.

In recent months, we have heard from a new president, from a new secretary of education, from a film comparing Carmel students to those in India and China (see here) and from multiple other sources that American students spent far too little time in school. So it was a bit shocking to see at least six different bills filed this year that would have allowed Indiana’s school year to be shortened.

The Chamber fought these bills vigourously and most never even got a hearing. The one bill that did get a hearing was talked about by House Education Chairman Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis), who acknowledged that a reduced school year would be most harmful to the low-income students he represents.

Things all changed when Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett announced mid-session that the Indiana Department of Education would enforce current law and would no longer allow schools to count parent-teacher conferences and professional development days as student instructional time. He also announced much less flexibility in the waiver of inclement weather days. It was a decision backed by 20 years of Indiana law and one the Indiana Chamber applauded loudly, but it was also widely criticized by House Democrats, who vowed to block it through legislation. Though Rep. Porter offered the legislation intended to accomplish that goal, it ultimately failed.

The Budget and Education: What You Need to Know

During Monday’s Statehouse debate on the budget, Sen. Connie Sipes (D-New Albany) made an impassioned plea that "money should follow the programs." The former educator added that the "money following the students sounds really good," but it doesn’t work.

Chamber education expert Derek Redelman tackled that issue (funding on a district vs. student perspective) and much more in a recent comprehensive overview of K-12 as it relates to the budget. Read here for a much clearer understanding of these key topics.