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Indiana Barrister Publisher Wins Journalism Award

by Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

The Indiana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has recognized Indiana Barrister publisher Abdul-Hakim Shabazz for best column writing.

Shabazz received the award at an event Friday night honoring Indiana journalism.

He won 1st place for his column, “Turning Snowflakes Into Something Stronger,” a piece about the growing trends regarding safe spaces and speech regulation on college campuses.

You can read it here.

This is the second year in a row Shabazz won 1st place for outstanding column writing.  His column “RFRA and Reefer,” regarding the creation of the First Church of Cannabis, won last year.

In addition to Indiana Barrister, Shabazz also publishes Indy Politics, a daily political blog.  He also contributes to several media outlets throughout the state.

 

Hogsett Offers More Hope (And More Questions)

by Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

As I sat down and watched Indianapolis Mayor Joe’s Hogsett’s second State of the City speech, two thoughts came to mind.   The mayor is a great at two things, giving an impassioned speech that reaches the heart of the listener and leaving me with more questions when he’s done.

In his first state of the city address, the mayor talked about public safety, poverty and getting the city’s finances in order.  He spoke about a new approach to fighting crime, addressing the mental health component of jail overcrowding, addressing poverty and improving the overall quality of life in the city. In his second speech, the Mayor stressed similar themes. He talked community policing, summer jobs for teens, increasing educational opportunities,  more street lights and tackling the problem of homelessness.  

I give the Mayor kudos for spelling out his vision, but he still gives me pause on some issues that are still left over from his first speech.

Take the proposed Criminal Justice Center for example.   The current cost of the project is $575 million, that’s  $167 million more than under the previous administration.   And while a big part of the overall plan is to treat mental health, no one knows for sure what the Trump administration and Congress will do with mental health funding.  Also, a big part of the “cost savings” was supposed to come from bail reform ordered by the Indiana Supreme Court.   The last I saw that program was still in limbo.   So how will the Mayor tackle this going forward?  Not mention under his first year Indy had its worst homicide record in history and we’re hovering near 40 to date, putting us on track for 135 by the end of the year, provided the bad guys have poor aim in the summer months.

Another question I have is when it comes to the issue of poverty.  If you’ve seen the stats, it’s not pretty.  Last year the Indy Star reported a 41 percent increase in poverty from 2005 to 2013.  I believe the Mayor wants to break the cycle just like the rest of us, but is he willing to have the discussion that a lot of people will find unpleasant?  It’s no big secret, if you break down the data, according to National Center for Children in Poverty 68 percent of kids in poverty live in a single-parent household.  Eighty-eight percent of kids in poverty have a parent with no post-secondary education, and  76 percent of kids in poverty have a parent who either only works part-time or has no job. IIs the Mayor ready to have the “tough talk” about lifestyle choices that contribute to a life of poverty? I hope so.

And when it comes to city finances, they get credit for cutting the structural deficit in half, but there’s an asterisk mark.  As I pointed out several months ago,  part of that hole is plugged, in part, with $13 million in state funds as part of a one-time distribution of local option income taxes.   And the city reduced its contribution to its rainy day fund by about $17 million which one could also argue helped close some of that shortfall.  Can the city do that again in next budget?   We’ll see.

As I have written before, I want the Mayor to do well.  Because when he does well, the city does well.  I like his ideas about making sure kids have jobs and know about their opportunities to get a good post-secondary education.  I also want safe streets and the true homeless (not panhandlers running a scam) to get the help they need.  I’d like to see some answers to my questions, because, at the end of the day, they will make Indy a better place to live.

 

Working Instead of Whining

by Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

I love it when people tell me that “there are no jobs out there”.  And even though I point to Indiana’s 4.1 percent unemployment rate and 64.4 percent worker participation rate, they still tell me that they can’t find a job because they’re black, have a criminal record or are an older person.  The excuses run like water.

And while I could cite more facts and data about wages and how in most cases education attainment is directly related to income achievement, instead I decided to use a few real-life examples to make my point.

You see this past week I emceed the Indiana Department of Workforce Development’s Work One awards.  It’s an event where they recognize employers and employees who’ve stepped things up when it comes to employment.

For example, I met Randy from LaPorte.   It took him more than six months to find a job.   He attended workshops, networked and met with DWD his career advisor three to four times a week. He also went on numerous job interviews. Guess what?  His hard work and perseverance paid off because he was hired as the General Manager at CHEP Pallecon Solutions North America, a leading container pooler in South Bend.

And then there was Scott, a veteran from Marion who served in the Navy for five years.  .He lost his job in October 2015 because of a legal issue surrounding his problem with addiction.   He went to DWD for job assistance and guess what?  He got it.  He took required assessments, enrolled into WIOA services, improved his résumé and worked on his confidence in interviewing. He remained diligent about finding a new job and working on his sobriety.  And it ended up with Scott found work in March of 2016 as a maintenance worker.

And Randy and Scott are not alone.  I could tell you about Raymond from Indianapolis and Doniell from Montpelier.  Both were ex-offenders, and both went to get help in finding a job to start a new life.  Both got help going back to school to get certified for new careers.  Raymond is getting his HVAC certification at Ivy Tech.  Doniell is working as a freight handler and within one year on the job got a promotion.

But what about the single mom?  I’m glad you asked.  Let me tell you about Priscilla,  a 23-year-old single mother of two boys.  She worked with a case manager set up a six-week work experience with a local daycare provider. After completing the program, Priscilla was hired on full-time and is currently employed there. She is now in the process of buying a house and wants to open her in-home daycare someday.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Robert or Lauren.  Robert was a homeless veteran, Lauren was out of work and living on public assistance.  Both got help with Work One.  Robert got help getting his commercial truck driver’s license while Lauren, who had a criminal background, got help with resume writing and job interviewing.  Robert is now a truck driver.  Lauren not only landed a job but did so well got a raise after 90 days.

Each one of these individuals that I mentioned is an example of what happens when a person is faced with challenges and decides to tackle them head on instead of sitting around and whining about their lot in life.   They took the initiative, got help and all are now in much better place in life.

Isn’t it amazing how that happens?

When Governments Get Left Behind

by Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

If there is one thing I’m learning coming out of this session at the Indiana Statehouse, is despite making a lot of progress on the fiscal and economic fronts, state government still has a long way to go to catch with the 21st century when it comes to understanding technology and consumers.

What exactly do I mean?

Think about how consumer purchasing habits have changed over the past 20-30 years. If you had to go to the airport and you couldn’t get a lift from a friend or family member, you picked up your landline phone and called a taxi. If you wanted to buy a car, you probably grabbed a copy of the newspaper, looked at the ads and then got that process started. If you were out of town on vacation, you probably stayed at a hotel.

Nowadays, if you want to go from point A to point B, you can use your smartphone app and call an Uber or Lyft. If you want to buy a car, say a Tesla, you can do it all online. And thanks to AirBnB, when I go on vacation I don’t have to get a hotel room, I can stay at someone’s home. And all of this can be done online.

And while we all see these changes as sort of matter of fact, governments seem to be slow to response. In fact, a lot of times government is the problem, not only stifling creativity and innovation but at times it appears that the powers that be are more interested in protecting the powers that exist.

I point to the debates in the Legislature this session over Tesla and AirBnB. Here are two companies that personify change and innovation and instead of being embraced, it’s almost as if someone was trying to put them out of business. Lawmakers wanted to craft a rule that you couldn’t sell a car in Indiana unless there were a middleman, i.e. a dealer. And the rules that were going to be put on AirBnB were so restrictive; you might as well not have bothered.

Now I am not saying that there should not be any rules for companies like Uber and AirBnB. There is something to be said about making sure that someone who is using their personal vehicle for commercial endeavors is properly insured, especially when they’re transporting someone else. And I am sure if you wanted to live next to a hotel, you wouldn’t have bought the house at the end of the cul de sac.

I think there is a happy medium where technology and innovation can properly co-exist with reasonable consumer protections. And as Indiana lawmakers go forward, I hope they always keep that in mind. Because at times, it did appear like lawmakers were more interested in protecting the status quo as opposed to figuring out how to modify the regulatory scheme in such a way that protects consumers and encourages innovation.

Next time we’ll talk about Sunday sales, cold beer, and Indiana’s alcohol laws.

 

The Road to Compromise

by Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

There are now two distinct plans circulating through the Statehouse with regards to road funding.  Both House and Senate Republicans have put forth proposals on how to pay for Indiana’s infrastructure, long-term.

The House plan includes a 10-cent increase in the gas tax, shifting the entire sales tax on gasoline to road funding, and increasing the cigarette tax by 60 cents to help indirectly fill the budget gap created by the sales tax shift.  

The Senate plan also raises the gas tax by a dime but does it over a two-year period.  There is no change in the sales tax on roads, and a cigarette tax is left out.   It also includes a $5 new tire fee, an additional $15 vehicle registration fee and $150 fee for electrical vehicles and $75 for hybrids.

Both plans also encourage the exploration of tolling.

While there seems to be agreement on the gas tax and fees, lawmakers are split on using the sales tax on gasoline for roads and the inclusion of a cigarette tax to help indirectly close a budget hole. The Senate isn’t crazy about the sales tax shift and wants to save the cigarette tax discussion for another day.   Governor Eric Holcomb seems to agree with the Senate.  However, it takes all three parties to get something done.

So if I may be so bold, allow me to offer a compromise for my friends at the Legislature.

While I fundamentally agree with the Senate that the sales tax on gasoline should stay as is there is the public perception that the sales tax on gasoline should go for roads.  So might I suggest shifting the all sales tax on gasoline to road funding, but over a 7-10 year period?  The logic being by doing that not only does this give revenue to work with, but you don’t blow a giant hole in your budget right away, and lawmakers can gradually adjust the state’s finances.  

You won’t need to play with the cigarette tax, and you can dip somewhat into your reserves, but still maintain the strong balances needed to keep Indiana’s AAA credit rating.  Also, everyone is well aware that the sales tax on gas drops off down the road as new fuel efficient standards kick in, so at least this way the bulk of that revenue can help shore up the infrastructure before it begins to decline.

And here’s the good news, by the end of the 10-year period we will have known what any federal infrastructure program looked like.  Also If there will be any tolling, it will take about that long gets all the proper groundwork laid.    And speaking of Toll Road, the state can create a formal toll road authority to oversee new tolling.  

I would also suggest Indiana lawmakers create an additional reserve fund for roads so that the state can have resources to dip into as gas prices and revenue collections fluctuate.

So there you have it guys and gals.  I have given you a path to reach a compromise on road funding, feel free to take that idea drive off into the sunset.

 

Let’s Level the Liquor Playing Field

by Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

Indiana’s alcohol laws will drive you to drink.

We all know how ridiculous it is that you can’t buy alcohol on Sunday or cold beer at a grocery store or gas station (make that most gas stations).  But did you know in a liquor store you can’t sell cold soda or bottled still water, but you can get by carbonated water in a bottle, it’s called a commodity restriction which limits what can and can’t be sold in a liquor store?  And no one under 21 is allowed in a liquor store, even if you’re accompanied by a parent, because exposing kids to liquor in a store is bad, even though when they go with their parents to the grocery store, it’s right there. Exactly.  All this is the result of competing business interests, and it is time to level the playing field once and for all.

Indiana lawmakers this week are planning a crackdown on Rickers, by “clarifying” the law so that Rickers can no longer sell cold beer at its gas stations in Columbus and Sheridan, even though it figured out a perfectly legal way to do it and did it all above board.  Instead of punishing Rickers, lawmakers should finally start to have the discussion about bringing this state’s alcohol laws into the 21st Century.  

The criticism has always been that liquor stores are under more restrictions than other places and allowing grocery and big box stores to sell cold beer or on Sundays would be unfair.  I agree, to a point, so let’s level the playing field.  There are quite a few things lawmakers can do to introduce sobriety to the state’s alcohol scheme.

Lawmakers can repeal the liquor store commodity restriction and let them sell whatever they want, just like the grocery and big box stores.  They can let minors enter a liquor store as long as they are accompanied by a parent or guardian.    Also, require anyone working in grocery or big box store who handles liquor to be trained and licensed to ring up alcohol.  Allow all retailers to sell cold beer.   And get rid of the prohibition on Sunday sales.

These are a quick handful of things lawmakers can do to bring some common sense to Indiana’s alcohol laws.  There are also needs to be a restructuring of the permit and distribution system, but that’s another blog post for another time.

But if the Speaker and Senate President ProTempore want to clarify the state’s alcohol laws, they could start with my suggestions.   Now if you don’t mind, I have to go online and book my next trip to Denver.  After writing about Indiana’s alcohol laws, I’m going to need a lot more than my usual scotch, gin, vodka and rum.

 

Hey Indiana Lawmakers, Thanks for Nothing!!!

by Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

Two years ago Indiana was in the middle of a level five political hurricane called RFRA.  A few years before that Democrats and Republicans deadlocked over “right to work, ” and Democrats fled to Champaign, IL bringing the government to a halt.  And just last year we were all pondering whether then Governor Mike Pence could survive a re-election bid.

How I miss those days.

Don’t get me wrong, the substantive public policy guy in me can fully appreciate coming up with a 20-year plan to fund roads and infrastructure, tackling opioid and heroin abuse, creating responsible early childhood education programs along with workforce development.   But then there’s the guy who loves the gossip, rumor and blatant political innuendo sprinkled with conjecture and wild-eyed speculation.  And lawmakers, this session, aren’t giving me a whole lot of that.

My kingdom for a real divisive social issue!!!

Yes, there have been a handful of controversial issues concerning abortion, guns and school prayer.  But let’s be honest, this is Indiana, so that’s just par for the course.  And the two bills that could have raised a stir, permitless constitutional carry and a ban on all abortions didn’t make it out of the gate.  The gun bill went to a summer study committee, and the “ban on all abortions” bill didn’t make it out of the birth canal.  But just think of how much fun we could have had if they did?

Even Sunday Sales wasn’t brought up this session.  What’s a legislative session without Sunday sales, pretty darn boring if you ask me!

Instead of days and weeks of obsessing over lawmakers’ Twitter posts or the pictures of themselves that end up on their phones or adult websites, the conversation is about how much, if at all, the cigarette tax should be increased to reduce the costs associated with smoking and also indirectly help fill a budget hole created by shifting the entire sales tax on gasoline to road funding.

What kind of government is this?  Eric Holcomb, Brian Bosma, David Long, Scott Pelath, Tim Lanane, you guys are killing me by giving me nothing but substance to work with here.   And Suzanne Crouch, Curtis Hill, Connie Lawson, Kelly Mitchell and Tera Klutz you guys haven’t been much help either.  All you’ve been doing is your job as opposed to helping create political distractions that are fun to write about.

Even the big potential political land mine I am keeping an eye that could blow things up in this state (See my next Cheat Sheet) has nothing to do with lawmakers behaving badly, but everything to do with real, substantive public policy.  This is no way to run a government, folks.

A government where lawmakers come to work, have real discussions about the major issues of the day, have fully realized that kicking the can down the road doesn’t help and instead want to tackle major issues head on?  Look at this, a state with four percent unemployment, a near $2 billion state reserve, and jobs going unfilled because there aren’t enough skilled workers?!   Ugh!!!  What kind of world is this?!

The next thing you know this will become the norm.  Lawmakers will go to work, address major issues and then go home to their constituents while keeping the Statehouse drama down to a bare minimum.  If they keep this up, I may need to find a new line of work.

Oh well, I guess if you like a government that functions, the 2017 session of the Indiana General Assembly is for you.   I guess you can’t have everything.   Luckily, I’ll always have my home state of Illinois.

Hey Governor Bruce Rauner and Speaker Mike Madigan, I think we all need to get reacquainted.

 

Time for a Single-Payer Health Care System

by Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

(With Congress on the road to repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, I thought it was appropriate to dust off this column I wrote back in 2012.   It was brilliant then and is even more so now. )

As a conservative-libertarian leaning political pundit, I am now convinced more than ever that it is high time in this country for a single-payer health care system. Before you go into cardiac arrest, you might want to read the rest of this.

You know the Supreme Court upheld most of the President’s health care plan last week, I think the results will be horrible for Indiana because more people on Medicaid will put more pressure on the state budget to an estimated tune of at least $2 billion. The excise tax on medical devices will likely have a negative impact on places like Warsaw where the medical device sector is key to that region’s economy. And throw in the fact that more people will be on a government program just can’t be a good thing. So what’s a pundit to do? Advocate a single-payer health care system, with the single-payer being you, the individual, who goes out and gets your own health insurance. We can get there by ending employer-provided health insurance.

Most of us get coverage through our jobs, and if you have no job, odds are you don’t have insurance. And health-care costs eat up a significant portion of a business’s budget. If you eliminate the break, there really isn’t a reason for an employer to provide insurance and they will start dropping employees like a rock. The plus side of this is that health-care costs will also drop. Part of the problem with our health-care system is no one knows how much anything costs because a third party is picking up the tab; this is a recipe for disaster.

And I don’t believe employers dropping insurance will lead to fewer insured. That free market is an odd thing. You will be amazed at how many companies will pop up providing insurance. And since businesses no longer have the expense they can actually hire more people. As a small business owner, I constantly hear stories from people who want to bring people on board full-time but can’t afford to, primarily because of health-care costs.And when we are directly responsible for paying for our own health care, we tend to take better care of ourselves. By the way, you already buy your car insurance, homeowner’s insurance, and life insurance.

And for those of you wondering about those who really can’t afford insurance, I don’t see any reason why states can’t adopt a moderate plan where the working poor, for a small fee, can purchase a basic, bare bones plan.And there are some other things that can be done like allow insurance to be sold across state lines. Then, however, insurance companies would have to register in states where they sell their products, and we could eliminate mandates on what health insurance providers must cover. This approach makes a lot more sense in the 21st Century than more taxes and more government regulation.

 

 

A Toll Instead of a Tax

by Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

As Indiana lawmakers enter the second half of the 2017 session, the big focus will continue to be on roads and infrastructure and how do we pay for them.    Indiana has $1 billion in annual road needs and needs a long-term plan to make it happen.   House Republicans get major kudos for have the courage to raise the gas tax to help pay for part of the costs.  And anyone who thinks this can be done without a tax increase has been inhaling too many fumes.

Where I do have concerns is the use of raising the cigarette tax to indirectly plug the hole created by immediately shifting all the sales tax on gasoline to roads.  The sales tax on gasoline contributes about $300 million to the general revenue fund.  Increasing the cigarette tax would allow Indiana to pay for Medicaid while shifting dollars back to the general fund.   The problem is that raising the cigarette tax could put the state on bumpy ground down the road.

When Indiana increased the cigarette tax in 2007 by 44 cents to 99.5 cents a pack, revenue jumped from $359 million to $515 million.  However, over the past ten years, those numbers have dropped.  In 2015, the cigarette tax took in an estimated $431 million.  The good thing is that the declining revenue means fewer people are smoking, but the bad news is also that fewer people are smoking and bringing in less revenue.  Of course the trade off is the costs to the state and business is that fewer people smoking means lower health care costs and more productivity.

I think tolling is the better route to take instead of relying in part on a declining tax to help fill a budget hole.    As I have written before, tolls are the ultimate “user fee” because if you don’t use the road, you don’t have to pay the toll.  Tolls also help you capture out of state traffic, which is estimated to be about 25 percent of Indiana’s interstate use.   Secondly, tolls are a much more stable, long-term source of funding.  And third, no one pays a toll until the road is built.  That way you see and get to use what you paid for.  Now how much and what you would toll remains to be seen, but if you tolled everything possible you could generate more than $1.3 billion.

So as lawmakers go forward to figure out how to pay for Indiana’s infrastructure, I strongly suggest my friends at Capitol and Washington move tolling to the forefront of the conversation and perhaps put the cigarette tax increase on hold.   Tolls are a much more stable source of funding, and with more people driving, more people will pay.  As opposed to a cigarette tax where if it’s effective, you end up getting less of it.

Donnelly Will Be Tough to Beat

by Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

I have some friendly advice for my Republican friends regarding Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly.  He is not going to be a pushover come next year. Allow me to elaborate.

Opioid abuse and veterans suicide.  We all know that no part of Indiana has been spared the impact of heroin, opioid, and prescription drug abuse.  In fact, I would argue they’ve had even more of devastating effect in the rural and suburban areas than in the “big city.”   Donnelly authored several measures that were part of the bi-partisan Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act to help communities hit hard by the heroin and opioid epidemic the help they need.  He did the same for veterans impacted by post-traumatic stress disorder.  Donnelly has worked to improve access and the quality of mental health for veterans and has done it in a bipartisan way.

Trump appointments.  Donnelly hasn’t been an automatic no vote.  In fact, a check of the record shows he voted for more Trump nominees than he voted against.  He voted for Trump’s nominees for Transportation, UN Ambassador, Homeland Security, Small Business Administration, CIA, Defense, Commerce and Veterans Affairs.   Donnelly voted against Trump’s nominees for Education, Treasury, Management and Budget, Health & Human Services, Attorney General and State.  It would have been a 50-50 split had Donnelly been present for a vote on Trump’s EPA pick, Scott Pruit, but he was in East Chicago with Governor Eric Holcomb for an emergency meeting on the lead contamination crisis hitting the city.

Constituent Service.   This is an area that can make or break an elected official.  And while Republicans may not be crazy about Donnelly, they all respect his office’s constituent service operations. They hit all 92 counties in 2016, either hosting or participating in more than 550 events in 122 cities over 223 days.   They also resolved more than 2,065 cases for Hoosiers that were having issues with the federal government and got more than $2.5 million in benefits to the people who needed them.  Donnelly also stood by the workers at Carrier and was extremely vocal about jobs sent overseas.

Now while all this help Donnelly, he is by no chance a shoe-in in 2018 as demonstrated by the 2016 results.  However, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton will be on the ballot to either help or hurt the down the ballot races.   And although Indiana is a traditionally red state, Democrats can win here under the right circumstances.   And mid-term elections tend to benefit the party out of power.    I expect the Senate race to be extremely competitive.   My Republican friends should be well aware of that.  I can assure you Donnelly is.