We Want Your (Our) Water

It’s water war time once again — maybe. We’ve reported in the past 18 months on a number of state battles over water resources, while all the time emphasizing the need for a comprehensive Indiana plan to ensure long-term supplies for our citizens and businesses. It’s part of our Indiana Vision 2025 blueprint.

The West and South are the locale of many such skirmishes, but the latest comes from the middle of the country. Namely, it’s the Missouri River and Kansas wanting to “divert” some of the water to irrigate crops in the western part of its state.

Some details, courtesy of the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper:

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has asked Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to back off of a feasibility study of Kansas taking water from the Missouri River to divert to western Kansas.

“The Missouri River is a resource that is vital to Missouri’s way of life and our economy,” Nixon said in a letter to Brownback.

Describing the Missouri River as the “lifeblood” of numerous communities, Nixon said the river provides drinking water and is used to ship goods to markets.

“We have worked for many years, and fought many legal battles, to ensure the River is managed properly,” Nixon wrote. “Thoughtful and reasoned discussion and cooperation, rather than unilateral plans for massive diversions, must be the guiding forces in planning for the River’s use,” he urged.

Nixon’s letter to Brownback was in response to the Kansas Water Office’s plan to commission a study on a proposal to divert water from the Missouri River and transport that water through canals some 360 miles to irrigate crops in western Kansas.

The so-called Kansas Aqueduct Project has been on the shelf for decades, but has recently been re-emphasized by water officials in Kansas.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, said the idea is to divert water at high flow or flood times on the Missouri River. That would help Kansas farmers and alleviate downstream flooding on the Missouri, he said. The water office is the state’s water agency, which conducts water planning and helps make state water policy.

But Nixon said while Missourians have suffered through flooding on the Missouri River, they have also depended on the river during droughts.

 

Parties Fight for U.S. Senate Majority

Republicans are vying hard to capture 51 seats in the U.S. Senate. Likely holding onto their House majority, a Senate victory would prove incredibly useful for them — even moreso if Mitt Romney were to win the Presidency, in what remains a very tight contest. Indiana is now a focal point as Richard Mourdock and Joe Donnelly are also in a remarkably close race. Brandon J. Gaylord of the Daily Caller opines on the chances of both parties:

Until “legitimate rape” became part of the political lexicon, the Republican path to a Senate majority was straightforward. Take the four Democratic seats in Nebraska, North Dakota, Missouri, and Montana, while accepting a loss in Maine, for a net of +3 Senate seats. This would create an even 50/50 split in the Senate. From that baseline the GOP would have needed to hold Scott Brown’s seat and win just one of the toss-ups in Wisconsin or Virginia. Other, less favorable options were open in Florida and Ohio.

In the past month, much has changed on the Senate landscape, but I’m still projecting the GOP will pick up three seats this November. Missouri is no longer a GOP lock. In fact, it barely qualifies as a toss-up. However, Republicans have expanded the map to compensate for the loss of one of their most favorable pick-up opportunities. In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson survived his primary and is a consistent favorite over the Democrat, Tammy Baldwin. Josh Mandel in Ohio and Linda McMahon in Connecticut have drawn even with their Democratic opponents in recent polling. The races in Virginia and Massachusetts have hardly budged and remain true toss-ups.

Democrats have also received encouraging news. Besides a much better chance to keep Missouri, Bob Nelson is maintaining his lead in Florida, although his numbers are still very shaky for an incumbent. Democrats are also hopeful that a new round of polling will validate favorable surveys taken over the summer in Indiana and North Dakota. Despite Republicans being expected to win in North Dakota and Nebraska, Democrats believe they have superior candidates and fundraising. In Nevada, Shelley Berkley’s ethics problems have not yet hurt her campaign. She consistently trails her Republican opponent, incumbent Dean Heller, by less than five points.

Effort to Slow NLRB ‘Ambush’ Fails

OK, there wasn’t much chance the amendment was going to pass the U.S. Senate and, if somehow it did, it would have been vetoed by the White House. But it was worth the old college try, as they say, and it did shine the spotlight once again on the runaway actions of the National Labor Relations Board.

The amendment was an attempt to overturn new regulations that dramatically reduce the time between union organization efforts and the actual election in that workplace. In other words, unions will still be able to make their case for why their presence would make sense during their organizing effort, but employers will have precious little time to respond prior to a vote taking place.

Currently, worker votes typically take place 45 to 60 days after a union gathers enough signatures to warrant an election. Under the new regulations, those votes could take place within a matter of a few weeks, or even days.

Indiana senators Richard Lugar and Dan Coats supported the resolution to overturn the NLRB action. The 54-45 vote to disapprove, however, was along party lines with the exception of one vote.

Lawmaker reactions were swift, calling the rule an "ambush" on employers:

Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri): "By speeding up union elections and removing important safeguards that ensure a fair election process, this unnecessary rule will restrict job creators’ free speech rights and limit workers’ opportunities to hear both sides of the argument to unionize — an issue critically important to their livelihood.

"It’s unfortunate that we have to spend time undoing this administration’s reckless job-killing policies when leaders on both sides of the aisle should be working together to pass common-sense, pro-growth solutions that will boost job creation and get our economy back on track," Blunt continued.

Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee ranking member: “This vote was an important opportunity to send a message to the NLRB that their job is not to tip the scale in favor of one party or another, but to fairly resolve disputes and conduct secret ballot elections."

Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina): The National Labor Relations Board seems hell bent on changing processes across the board, more for political reasons than for substantive reasons." 

Businesses Disapprove of Incentive “Border War” in KC

When an Illinois company, for example, moves to Indiana because of high tax rates or other business climate concerns, most consider that a good thing. When Missouri and Kansas battle over Kansas City area organizations, some businesses view it as wasteful spending on tax incentives. Governing reports:

Seventeen prominent business leaders, including top officials with Hallmark and Sprint Nextel, recently wrote a letter to the governors of Kansas and Missouri, asking them to put an end to the “economic border war.”

“Because of our unique bi-state community, too often these incentives are being used to shuffle existing business back and forth across the state line with no net economic benefit or new jobs to the community as a whole,” the business leaders wrote.

The fact that the business community has come out against this practice hasn’t moved politicians to stop devoting scarce tax dollars to it. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback denies that his state is “poaching” companies and is unapologetic about seeking new employers wherever they may be found, including just over the border in Missouri.

Sly James, the new mayor of Kansas City, Mo., says it’s time his city makes a move. His predecessor, Mark Funkhouser, was opposed to using tax incentives to lure businesses. (Funkhouser is a Governing contributor.) That opposition, James argues, handed Kansas an advantage. “The days of sitting back and watching it happen are over,” James told reporters at an economic development event. “Mutually assured destruction only works if both sides are armed.”

But some residents agree that their region should be presenting a united front. When a company’s interested in relocating, says Jeff Kaczmarek, the president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, there’s a “well worked out protocol” for banding together. If a company is moving in from Seattle or Denver, there’s no squabbling about which jurisdiction is going to try to lure it. “Everybody agrees that the best approach is a regional approach,” Kaczmarek says.

It’s only when a company is already established in the area that the bidding wars take place, it seems. “Money that goes to bribing some company to move 10 miles across some obsolete political border is money wasted,” says Richard C. Longworth, author of a book about heartland economics in the global era.

It may happen everywhere, but the practice of throwing tax dollars at companies has become so prevalent around Kansas City that it has, in fact, generated some new business. Realtors are benefiting by helping companies find short-term leases, which have become fashionable because businesses know they may be moving in the near future to take advantage of new incentives.

A Turn of Luck for the Gaming Industry?

Business and consulting firm Rubin Brown issued a release last week asserting the American gaming industry has seen a slight boost of late. However, note toward the end of the statement that Indiana gaming saw a slight downturn in 2010. Hopefully, 2011 will be a different story:

The nation’s gaming industry stabilized in 2010 with a slight increase in adjusted gross revenue (AGR) of 0.34 percent over 2009. This was the first time the industry has seen an increase in revenue since 2007 reports RubinBrown, one of the Midwest’s largest accounting and business consulting firms.  Commercial  and Tribal Gaming Stats 2011, available at http://www.rubinbrown.com, pools 2010 data from 448 commercial land-based and riverboat casinos in 14 states with legalized gambling. Data was compiled from state gaming regulatory authorities and the American Gaming Association.

From a regional perspective, the Midwest held steady again in 2010, with the five Midwest states referenced in the report comprising 25 percent of 2010 AGR of the 14 states with commercial gaming. Gaming in the Midwest experienced a $21 million decline in revenues during 2010, which is much improved compared to the $74 million decline in 2009. Missouri and Colorado were the only two Midwest states to see a boost in gaming revenue, with 3.35 and 3.4 percent increases respectively. Other states to see an increase in revenue include Pennsylvania, which led the nation in revenue growth with a drastic 26 percent increase; Nevada, which, although the state only saw a slight increase of 0.12 percent, is faring better than the double digit decrease it saw in 2009; and South Dakota, which experienced a moderate increase of 3.92 percent.

Missouri continues to lead the Midwest in casino revenue growth, bringing in over $1.7 billion in revenue and more than $450 million in commercial gaming tax revenue in 2010. Due to the opening of the River City Casino in St. Louis in early 2010, the St. Louis region increased its AGR by 7.52 percent to lead the market in Missouri, comprising nearly half of state-wide revenue. The Kansas City region followed behind with almost 40 percent and other communities in the state made up the remaining 10 percent. However, with the surrender of St. Louis’ President Casino license and the development of the Isle of Capri Casino in Cape Girardeau, which is expected to bring in over $67 million in new gambling revenues, these breakdowns may change in 2012.

Colorado, the only other state to see an increase in AGR, experienced an increase of $25 million during 2010 and generated more than $107 million in commercial gaming tax revenue. The passage of Amendment 50 by Colorado voters in 2009, which allowed the maximum bet at casinos to be raised from $5 to $100 and permitted properties to remain open 24 hours a day, can be attributed as one of the main causes for Colorado’s revenue increase in 2010.

The report credits the slight increase in overall gaming revenues to the continued economic recovery throughout the nation. Although operators have felt the impact of the Great Recession with reduced consumer spending, mergers, bankruptcies, strict lending requirements and stalled capital projects, the rebound for the gaming industry is starting to occur.

“Gaming continues to expand through changes in gaming legalization, updates in technology and expansion into new markets,” said Chelle Adams, partner-in-charge of RubinBrown’s Hospitality and Gaming Services Group. “One of the trends that we’re currently seeing and expecting to see more of in the next few years is an expansion of non-gaming amenities at casinos, such as entertainment venues, restaurants, spas and golf courses. These additions are being utilized to draw patrons to the casinos’ complete destination experience as several patrons are cutting back on traveling and vacations.”

Despite the growth in Missouri and Colorado, not all Midwest states experienced similar success in 2010. Indiana saw its gaming revenues decline again by a slight 1.27 percent and overall admissions decreased by 0.4 percent, a significant change from the 4 percent increase in 2009. Although AGR and admissions declined in 2010, 1.59 and 3.59 percent respectively, Iowa-based casinos saw patrons spending more per trip on average from the previous year.

Colleges Look to Cut Costs

Taking a close look at expenditures is something Indiana’s colleges and universities have been concentrating on in recent years. In Missouri, efforts are focusing on elimination of rarely used degree programs and increased collaboration between various academic institutions. Stateline reports:

Last August in Missouri, Governor Jay Nixon told state universities to look at making some hard choices they’re not accustomed to having to make. Nixon, a Democrat, wants to eliminate “low-producing” academic programs in order to save money. To that end, he asked universities to review any program that fails to award an average of ten bachelor’s degrees, five master’s degrees or three doctorates per year.

The results of this review aren’t due on the governor’s desk until February, but preliminary results offer an interesting look at what may lie ahead. Institutions have volunteered to terminate 61 of the 353 programs that fell below the threshold, including programs in French, engineering physics, public administration, antiquities, sociology and recreation. More courses are expected to be on the chopping block as the schools conduct follow-up and explore opportunities to consolidate or share programs. Instead of all of the state’s institutions of higher learning trying “to be everything to everybody,” Nixon says, “we have to take a good hard look at what we do well.”

This review is only the beginning of a major efficiency initiative that Nixon is pushing across Missouri’s 13 four-year universities and 21 two-year colleges. So far, these institutions have been spared the worst of the state’s budget crisis, thanks to an agreement they made with the governor two years ago to freeze tuition rates. Now, with that agreement set to expire soon — and Missouri facing a budget deficit of up to $700 million next year — higher ed is bracing for a funding reduction of as much as 20 percent next year.

While some of that gap may be filled with increases in tuition and fees, there’s a growing sense, both in Missouri and across the country, that state colleges and universities can’t go on simply charging students more. Increasingly, school leaders acknowledge that they need to cut their underlying cost structures, and that saving money on classroom instruction has to be part of the mix. As David Russell, Missouri’s commissioner of higher education, puts it, “The last real area of higher education that’s remained relatively untouched, the academic enterprise, the core of our reason for existence, is in danger of suffering some severe reductions."

Climb Aboard the Internet Bus

Looking back at the times I rode the school bus during my high school years reminds me of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – not the Clint Eastwood movie, but my own version. There was the good (spending time with friends), the bad (rowdy passengers) and the ugly (I’ll never forget the time an unsuspecting upper classman making his way on board was greeted with a chorus of, “Junior on the bus!”; apparently, it wasn’t cool to ride the bus past the age of 16). But what could have made those trips pass more quickly and perhaps curbed some of the mischief was riding bus No. 92 – known as the Internet Bus – in Arizona.

According to a New York Times story, a district – comprised of 18 schools and 10,000 students – mounted a mobile Internet router onto one of its buses last fall with the goal of reducing misbehavior and enhancing students’ academic performance. It’s working. Officials are finding that students are making more of an effort to complete homework assignments during long commutes to school (the one mentioned above has a 70-minute route each way) and on the way to sporting events. Plus, they are less likely to hassle one another because the technology provides a distraction.

The investment was relatively minor, given the potential returns: $200 for the router and a $60 per month Internet service contract. Schools and districts in Florida, Missouri and Washington, D.C. also are planning to take advantage of the technology, provided by a company called Autonet Mobile.

Now, I know disobedience won’t magically disappear and kids won’t automatically become dedicated students just because Internet access is available. But, so far, it’s making a difference on bus No. 92. Maybe somewhere, there’s a “junior on the bus” tuning out the mocking chatter by picking up his laptop and escaping into something educational.

Expansion Now “Front Burner” Issue for Big Ten Conference

How can I justify putting this post on our blog? Hmm, well it’s sort of education-related … and it’s definitely profit-related.

The Big Ten athletic conference is looking seriously at expanding to 12 teams. The last team to join was Penn State in 1990. Schools reported as top candidates to fill the current void include Rutgers, Syracuse, Missouri, Cincinnati and Louisville.

Brian Kelly’s boys in South Bend remain doubtful. The Chicago Tribune explains the rationale behind expansion:

Jim Delany never will be a contestant on "Top Chef," but the Big Ten commissioner frequently has used a cooking analogy when asked about the prospects of Big Ten expansion.

"A back-burner issue," he has called it.

Not anymore. According to a league official, the Big Ten will release a statement Tuesday saying the matter has moved to the front burner.

The first sign of change came from former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, who told Wisconsin’s athletic board on Friday that Delany "is going to take this year to really be more aggressive about it. I just think everybody feels [expansion] is the direction to go, coaches and administrators."

A league source on Monday cited a "growing groundswell" of support among athletic directors for expansion.

In 1990, the Big Ten became the Bigger 11 by adding Penn State. (The Nittany Lions had to wait until 1993 to vie for their first Rose Bowl.) In 1999, Notre Dame stiff-armed the league’s overtures, and that put the issue on ice.

Why is it being revisited now?

The biggest reason, as always, is the stuff that doesn’t grow on trees: money. If the league expands to 12 teams and two divisions — like the SEC, Big 12 and ACC — it would create a Big Ten title game that could be worth $5 million or more to the league. The Big Ten Network would love to televise it, and the conference has a 51 percent ownership stake in the network.

Personally, I must admit that I love the Big Ten Conference. So much so that even though I’m an Indiana man, I even root for Purdue against "outsiders." And I think the conference embodies the characteristics of many Midwesterners like myself — the competitiveness, the penchant for good sportsmanship, and the plight of being terrible at football.

So I have mixed feelings about this move (should it happen). The money would be nice, but I think mega conferences like the Big East can get so convoluted they lose their identity, so expansion should be treaded lightly. Your thoughts?

Maybe Should’ve Sat This One Out

Like those in public school districts throughout the nation, Indiana’s superintendents and educators often find themselves being frugal, attempting to get the most out of their budgets. And it’s an effort that Hoosier taxpayers certainly appreciate.

So if you’re one of these folks and are looking for tips toward school budget success, here’s a little hint on what not to do from the Show Me state: You might start by not sending 16 educators to a conference in Los Angeles, thereby costing local taxpayers over $30,000 — especially when it’s well-known you have minimal funds and other local districts only sent one or zero people to said conference.

Worse yet, you might want to be ready to explain some things when a local TV reporter presses you about it. Check out this tough-to-watch educational PR disaster in St. Louis. It’s a piece I like to call, "So You’re Saying A Group of Teachers Attended the Conference."

Hat tip to Ragan’s PR Junkie.

Ohio Truly Qualifies as Battleground State

Presidential politics and intrigue have been rarely used together in Indiana in the last 44 years. Hoosiers have backed the Republican candidate for the White House every four years since 1964.

While Hoosiers are back in the spotlight this year, our neighbor to the east has been at the forefront in the last two election cycles. Ohio has a few interesting election facts of its own:

  • No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio
  • Ohio (along with Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee) is one of four states to back the presidential winner in each of the elections since 1964
  • John F. Kennedy was the last Democrat to win the presidency while losing the vote in Ohio

It will be interesting to see what happens in both states this time around, in regard to potential vice president nominees and the November vote.