Editorial Roundup: Indiana

Terre Haute Tribune-Star. Aug. 3, 2021.

Editorial: Exclamation points for safety. Violating hands-free driving law now carries added penalty

Motorists on Indiana roads and highways who choose to use handheld devices while driving can’t say they weren’t warned.

And no one should dispute the necessity of consequences for the blatant and unsafe practice of distracted driving.

Indiana’s hands-free driving law reached its point of maximum impact late last week when penalties on violators began to include the addition of points to driver’s licenses. Those points are a big deal for drivers, because they can lead to suspended licenses, which means driving privileges are revoked for a period of time.

The legislature adopted the hands-free driving law in its 2020 session, and the law took effect later during summer months. The initial penalties for violators were somewhat muted, with warnings and citations, just to get motorists’ attention and raise awareness about the law and its purpose. The ability to have points assessed against a driver’s license was delayed for a year. But now, that grace period is over.

Points stay on a driver’s license for up to two years, and 20 points can result in a license suspension.

Indiana law enforcement agencies reported that they issued nearly 1,600 warnings and citations related to the hands-free driving law in its first year of existence. It’s clear from the report that traffic officers took the law seriously. So should motorists.

Driving is a risky undertaking in the best of circumstances. The massive growth in cellphone usage has made it even more dangerous because far too many motorists engage in the unsafe practice of using their phones while operating their vehicles. This type of distracted driving is the worst of all and has led to a disturbing increase in vehicle crashes, including fatalities.

Indiana lawmakers were wise to adopt a strict hands-free driving law, although the state should have done so much sooner. More than 20 other states already had such a law before Indiana joined them. The number of states now with a law banning cellphone use while driving is 24. The early-adopting states showed that efforts to curb distracted driving through such laws were successful and led to a decrease in crashes, injuries and fatalities.

The key to success is for the law to be enforced and penalties to be sufficient to deter the practice. The result of safer roadways clearly justifies the means.

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Anderson Herald Bulletin. Aug. 7, 2021.

Editorial: Visitors bureaus should be accountable

Bureaus promoting local tourism are all trying to get a share of the $13 billion spent (in non-COVID years) at destinations in Indiana. Tourism has been responsible for up to 5% of jobs in the state.

With a local bureau in nearly every Hoosier county, nine regional associations and about 16 Indiana associations compete to tell us how to spend travel dollars.

Most are funded through local food and beverage or innkeeper’s taxes, charged to folks dining out or visitors staying at hotels. The tax receipts are typically funneled through county treasurers and distributed through county fiscal bodies.

It should be simple, then, to follow the money — but it isn’t. These bureaus are sometimes protective of their financial successes or missteps. At this point, it might be informative to remind Madison County residents that one of the early intentions for the food and beverage tax was to build a civic center.

The Herald Bulletin recently sought to track the path of the funding for the Anderson Madison County Visitors Bureau, which has offices off Interstate 69 at 6335 S. Scatterfield Road. The bureau, funded through the 5% innkeeper’s tax, offers grants to groups trying to attract tourists. Boasting a staff of five, the local bureau is operated by a commission of residents.

In response to The Herald Bulletin’s request citing the Access to Public Records Act (APRA), the bureau at first denied the request, forcing the newspaper to seek an opinion from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt. But bureau officials then rethought their response and provided information about the amount of tax money received and how those funds had been spent.

Britt’s response to The Herald Bulletin showed how varied and confusing the state’s approach has been to public records and innkeeper’s taxes. The bureau, Britt opined, is not a public agency.

That view matches that of the bureau’s attorney, Ashley Hopper, who said we’re dealing with two separate entities. Legally.

The commission is a public agency when it comes to APRA. But the commission contracts with the Visitors Bureau, which spends funds. Therefore, the bureau is not required to be audited by the state because it technically is not a public agency. This also means that the bureau is not subject to the public records act.

The apparent discrepancy is intentional.

In a 2018 case, the public access counselor was asked to resolve a 9-year-old controversy over the public release of innkeeper’s tax information for individual hotels in Jay County. Indiana statutes were too ambiguous, Britt found.

The Indiana General Assembly should modify the statutes to clarify the public status of such tax information and should re-examine the process in administering innkeeper’s taxes.

Issuance of funds should be a local decision based on tourism-promoting needs. That distribution has relied too much on the tax’s source, coming in part from visitors just passing through who have little interest in where the tax is going.

There should be public accountability for tax-receiving intermediaries such as visitor’s commissions as well as the recipients of those monies. As it stands, these mid-level commissions are shields against transparency.

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Columbus Republic. Aug. 6, 2021.

Editorial: Delaying READI applications right call

Deciding how some $50 million in economic development grant funding will be used between three counties isn’t an easy task, but local leaders are trying to maximize the opportunity.

Representatives from Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties met last month to discuss priorities for their Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) grant application.

The state has dedicated $500 million to the initiative, which will go to counties, cities and towns that have partnered together as regions to apply for the funds. The regions listed above have come together to form the South Central Indiana Talent Region.

Regions are expected to attract a minimum 4:1 match, including a required 1:1 match from local public funding. The Indiana Economic Development Corp. will award up to $50 million per region. Proposals will be reviewed throughout October and November, and first round investment decisions will be made and announced in December.

While the counties in team South Central, and the cities within them, are a short drive from each other, each area has its own distinct differences that make them unique; making it difficult to pinpoint which projects will benefit all communities best.

Leaders from each county broke down the areas of improvement into talent/workforce attraction, housing, education and workforce development, entrepreneurship/economic vitality and quality of life in early July, but hadn’t come up with a final proposal by the end of the month.

With the original date for applications set for Aug. 31, three months after the program was even announced, it didn’t leave much time for analysis and planning between the three counties.

Thankfully, earlier this week, Gov. Eric Holcomb extended the deadline to Sept. 31.

READI is a tremendous opportunity for growth, but it’s important that time be taken to consider all options and opinions before submitting an application.

With the impact that these grants could have on Bartholomew and the surrounding communities, giving local groups more time to complete the applications is the right decision.

We look forward to seeing how the final proposal will impact not just our community, but the surrounding area that many locals work and live in.

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Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Aug. 7, 2021.

Editorial: A link in vaccine, government mistrust - even among government employees

MissionSquare Research Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on state and local government, recently asked more than 1,200 full- and part-time state and local government workers about COVID-19 vaccinations.

Good news: 70% of respondents said they’re fully vaccinated, and another 6% said they are partially vaccinated.

Bad news: 22% are not vaccinated. The rest preferred not to answer, according to the survey.

Of the unvaccinated, almost half – 48% – said they likely would not or definitely would not get shots.

Irony: Of the vaccine-resistant group, one-third cited “lack of trust in the government.”

Those who earn paychecks from the government – many, presumably, with benefits including health care coverage for themselves and families – don’t trust the government.

About half of eligible Indiana residents are vaccinated, according to state data.

A spokesman for Allen County said officials have not asked about vaccination status and do not have statistics on how many of its workers are inoculated. Fort Wayne also is not tracking whether its employees are vaccinated.

“To ensure that state and local governments have a resilient workforce that can respond to the current challenges and those that lie ahead, it is critical to understand how the public sector workforce views vaccines, their perceptions of the impact of Covid-19 on their jobs and finances, and their outlooks on the short- and medium-term impacts of the pandemic,” the MissionSquare report says.

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