Saturday, March 28, 2015

RFRA Fallout Stronger Than Expected

The passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has continued ever since Governor Mike Pence signed it into law. Proponents continue to push that is is modeled after the federal and previous states RFRAs but that goes up against reality, where an analyses shows there are three areas where Indiana's RFRA is significantly different.



The review from the business and political community has been mixed. A State Senator referred to Eric Miller, Republican activist and founder of the socially conservative group Advance America, as some misinformed activist with an opinion "from the right". But that misinformed activist somehow got a spot standing behind Governor Pence as the law was being signed. Miller took to his group's website to brag that the law will in part prohibit "a man [from using] the women's restroom".

Despite the overwhelming majorities that this law passed by, only a handful of state legislatures have taken to social media to defend this law. And none of the well paid lobbyists and activists are really doing themselves any favors.

In an column from The Indianapolis Star's Tim Swarens, Swarens says that based on his conversation with Pence, Pence's team didn't see any of the backlash coming. Some companies, such as GenCon, have walked back their economic threats in recent days. Others, such as Angie's List, have stepped up their game and called off a headquarters expansion that was receiving assistance from the State of Indiana. Pence also conversed with the Salesforce CEO who recently suspended all employee travel to Indiana but admitted that it did not change the policy.

Just like the JustIN boondoggle, Pence seems to have surrounded himself by a bunch of Yes-Men that have created a sort of tunnel vision where Planet Pence can do no wrong and that it is really only a problem with messaging.

How can a former radio host, who was well liked by Beltway media for how well they were treated by him and his staff, have so many scandals and fumbles that almost all seem completely self inflicted?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Religion and Freedom: What's the Fuss?

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has been in the news lately. The legislation, which proponents say is modeled on the federal RFRA and the 20+ states that have passed similar laws, has sailed through the Indiana General Assembly and will soon be on Governor Mike Pence's desk for him to sign, veto, or do nothing (where it automatically becomes law).

Proponents say that RFRA in Indiana is necessary so that religious organizations and organizations and businesses owned and operated by people of faith won't be forced to do something against their truly held tenants. Pundits have criticized the opponents of RFRA saying that the stories of hardship are exaggerated.

Just like the marriage amendment that was debated last year, there is a whole host of businesses and organizations that have come out against RFRA. The latest is Gen Con, who produced an open letter to Governor Pence saying that signing this into law may cause them to reconsider holding the annual convention in Indianapolis. Several faith based organizations have protested against it as well.

I think the debate surrounding RFRA (which I'm against because I think it does nothing in terms of legislation or restoring rights) is missing one thing from the proponents.

To their credit, proponents of RFRA have been very careful to not use examples of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. They've been using religious universities that can still obtain state and federal grants and other situations.

The question that I haven't heard proponents answer is that RFRA has been a known quantity on the federal and state level for around two decades. Why is this law necessary now when it hasn't been in the previously several years? Why now in the first legislative session after same-sex marriage is legal in Indiana?

To me, that is a concern that this specific proposal has something more sinister inside.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Hoosier Lottery Promotes Financial Literacy, I Spit Out My Coffee

The Hoosier Lottery announced today that they're kicking off a partnership with Ivy Tech Community College with a free online financial literacy course. In a media availability event that happened exclusively in my head, Hoosier Lottery Executive Director Sarah Taylor actually passed out the press release touting this partnership. That probably explains why nearly every single article looks nearly identical despite each one being authored by the individual media outlet or a specific reporter.

In an exclusive sit down interview that never actually happened, I asked Taylor to explain how this partnership with Ivy Tech came about and why financial literacy was chosen. After she droned on for several minutes, I asked her if this was her idea of a joke. "Actually, I prefer the knock knock jokes" Taylor said. When asked what part of the financial literacy course covers how to responsibly gamble the meager Social Security check Grandma lives off of away at a local gas station, Taylor reminded me that there's a 1-800 number on every Hoosier Lottery ticket for people who have an addiction to gaming. "Gambling only takes place on riverboat casinos", Taylor said, correcting me.

I also couldn't let this chance pass without asking why the Hoosier Lottery has targeted an aggressive expansion of Lottery retailers and self-serve kiosks almost exclusively in poor and minority communities. And why the media campaign behind the Hoosier Lottery is almost always in the parts of town that could use a lift up. I asked her why the State Fairgrounds electronic billboard screams Lottery promotion day in and day out near a part of town where many African Americans live and what passes for a grocery store around there are usually pimping Hoosier Lottery tickets day in and day out, while the few retail outlets in Hamilton County that sell the Lottery have a lot less flare beside it.

At that time, I was kindly escorted out of the completely made up media availability event.

The Onion might as well just pack on up and move to Indianapolis. Half of our actual news events look like an Onion article already.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Louisville and Indianapolis: Closer Than We Think



I recently went to Louisville to see Ben Folds perform with their symphonic orchestra. Folds has twice paid a similar visit to Indiana, once to play with Fort Wayne's philharmonic and another to Indianapolis to perform with our own symphony.

While there, I only drove by car to grab breakfast on Sunday morning and that's only because I was leaving the hotel. While my view of Louisville was limited, I felt that I found a lot of similarities to my home city of Indianapolis. In some ways they were good, and others not so much.

Similar to Indianapolis, Louisville has a consolidated city-county government that took place in 2003, with the Sheriff and Clerk still retaining their separate roles due to the Kentucky state constitution. Louisville is also the only first class city in the state of Kentucky, allowing the state legislature to craft specific legislation that will only impact Louisville. While our Indianapolis-Marion County Council has 29 (soon to be 25), they have 26 councilors as well as a Mayor. Unlike our system, their council is election so that half of the members are up for election every two years.

Politically, Kentucky has a viable Democratic party at the state level even though the state hasn't gone "blue" for a Presidential election since Bill Clinton in 1996. It has a Democratic Governor who won election in 2011 with 55% of the vote while the last two US Senate elections have been won by Republicans with 55% and 58% of the vote. In Louisville, a Republican hasn't been elected Mayor since the 1960s and Republicans only hold nine seats on the council.

While walking around the city, I noticed several parking meters were bagged under the authority of the "Parking Authority of River City". The authority is a board appointed by the Mayor that oversees the parking regulation division of the city government. The board manages the meters, municipal garages, and neighborhood parking permit programs, among other things. Talking to some of the locals, most of them couldn't tell me when electric meters (which also still take coins, from what I could tell) were installed, but had been there for several years. One resident did note some areas are still using the old coin only meters.

While Indianapolis privatized the entire arm of parking services and management, the city of Louisville owns the meters and other assets but contracts out the day-to-day operations to a private company.

There's a story from the Courier Journal about how Saturday parking meter fees have been allowed for a long time, but only local police could write tickets on Saturday rather than Parking Authority workers. That has recently changed. However, the meters all read 7am-6pm Monday through Saturday. It does not seem like any section of the city gets special meter times, like some of the cultural districts do in Indianapolis.

I also found it interesting how similar their "NuLu" district is with our Fountain Square or Mass Ave district. NuLu is just outside of the heart of downtown Louisville and the area is dotted with areas to grab a meal, a drink, candy, and other kinds of retail, as well as residential and lodging. A street corner that previously housed a maintenance shop is now what appears to be a very hip, very cool looking bar. Many of the buildings seem to have remodeled interiors while trying to preserve the exteriors.

I also came across what appeared to be an abandoned building. Instead of leaving it to rot in the middle of their downtown, they gutted the interior and turned it into what appears to be a playground or gathering place. It wasn't open to the public at the time, but that seems to be a great idea.

They also have a recently remodeled convention center. I didn't go inside, but they did appear to have a cafe that serves beer, pastries, and coffee that seemed to be generally open to the public. But unfortunately, if it was open on Sundays, it wasn't at the time I drove by.

One thing I didn't notice a lot of is green space. Downtown Indianapolis is very fortunate to have several blocks of green space between Central Library and the federal court house between Meridian and Pennsylvania.

I don't want to seem like I'm trying to make a sell on Louisville, because I'm not. There were two things that I felt were negatives for the city.

One was the lack of affordable restaurants outside of business hours. It seems that many of the decently priced restaurants, where you can grab some soup, a sandwich, or your basic fare without ordering a several course meal, closed up shop on Friday at 5 when the workers left for the weekend. Even among the fine dining I saw, many of them didn't open until 4-6 in the evening. The district surrounding the sports stadium had several bars and restaurants open until the wee hours of the morning, but that was about it.

The other thing I noticed is a lot of "For Sale" or "Leasing opportunities available" in commercial buildings. Even in a very commercial corridor with several hotels, a sports stadium, and a Performing Arts Center (along with other landmarks I surely missed or overlooked), there sure seemed to be a lot of empty and underutilized office space. I don't know if that is part of a building boom whose bubble popped, or if Louisville is still struggling with the lagging economy. But it wasn't a very encouraging sign. Surely if a very well-off part of Louisville had signs of hardship, I can only imagine that areas that aren't as tourist and business friendly might be hit even harder.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Consolidated Primary? I'll See Your Consolidated and Raise a "No"

My friend Abdul Hakim-Shabazz has recently written about having a "consolidated" primary for Indiana's municipal elections. What he's really proposing is doing what many other states do and take the labels away from municipal politics. I really don't love this idea because partisans and party workers honestly and truly believe there is a difference in how the political parties view their role as election officials and how government works. I also don't like the idea of someone claiming a "non-partisan" mantel even though we all know what jersey they are wearing.

But I think there is some tinkering that can be done with municipal city and town elections that are held in Indiana. Some of it is proposed in the Indiana General Assembly.

House Bill 1038 would move many of the municipal elections held in off, odd numbered years to even numbered years. It appears that they aren't all moving to the same year. Some offices would be moving to the Presidential year and others would be moving to the non-presidential year.

Personally, I'd like to see Mayor in one election cycle and have the municipal legislative body in the next cycle. That way one can serve as a referendum on the other.

But one bill I don't see being proposed in the general assembly, or elsewhere, is the elimination of publicly funded primaries.

I think many people mistake primaries as some sort of election where one candidate goes up against another (or ore) candidate of the same party, they duke it out, and whoever gets the nomination goes on to face the other nominated candidates in November.

What primaries actually are a system designed for the benefit of a political party, which is supposed to be a private organization with its own rules and regulating laws. Political organizations should have full and complete control over who they nominate. I believe these organizations can efficiently nominate candidates in a low cost way without the public having to dig out the massive amount of resources to pull off a public election in which not one public official is actually elected.

Some people may scoff at this idea but it is the exact same system that is often used to fill political vacancies. It is also by the major parties of Indiana to nominate candidates for all of their state-wide office candidates besides Governor. The minor parties that are recognized in Indiana also decide their candidates by a political convention.

And a number of states do this as well when nominating for President. They are called the "caucus" states. Yes, the Democratic and Republican parties of Iowa actually pay for their caucus.

So can we have that discussion, Indiana?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Downtown Business Owner Joins Indy Mayoral Race

Word has leaked on Monday that the Marion County GOP is set to announce local businessman Chuck Brewer as their surprise candidate for Indianapolis Mayor. Brewer originally announced a City-County Council candidacy in the south side in District 23. He will be participating in the Marion County GOP slating convention, set for January 31st. As with all things political, I will be out of town that day.

Brewer, who owns Potbelly and Soupremacy in downtown Indianapolis, will be facing competition in the Indianapolis Mayoral race from several fellow Republicans.

Deputy Mayor Olgen Williams has announced his candidacy as a Republican. Williams has been a Deputy Mayor through the entire length of the Greg Ballard administration, but has not publicly been at the front of pushing the administration's policies. Williams has been non-committal about participating in slating.

Reverend Charles Harrison of the Ten Point Coalition filed for an exploratory committee but has hesitated on if he'd be running under a party banner or as an independent. Recent reports say Harrison will not run if Williams is nominated. There are increasing rumors that he'll be nominated as the Libertarian candidate for Mayor. 

Terry Michael, who formerly held office in Hamilton County, has also filed as a Republican candidate for Mayor. Michael has also been non-committal on slating.

The question facing any of these Republicans is can they build a base in the 9 months and change left before the November election to make a serious election bid against presumed Democratic nominee Joe Hogsett?

Welcome to the race, everyone. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Sunday Sales: Why Not?

Once again, the start of the Indiana General Assembly has led to some buzz about Indiana further tinkering with the odd set of alcohol regulations the state has shackled itself with for a long time. Visitors and newcomers alike often wander why all the liquor store parking lots are empty on Sundays, and why the alcohol section at Kroger is blocked off by a chips display?

It is because the state of Indiana does not allow alcohol sales on Sundays at the retail level. Over the last several years, our lawmakers realized that prohibiting alcohol sales for one day a week could be bad for business. They've made exemptions for bars and restaurants, for breweries, wineries, and distilleries. You can get your drink on at the Sunday Colts game or any sporting event that has an alcohol license. But the ban on retail purchases still remains.

A bill has been introduced in the Indiana General Assembly, but it is by the same representative who has sponsored it before. This NPR Article from two years ago highlights the main arguments pretty well from two of the leading lobbyists, one from the convenience and grocery stores and another from the package liquor stores.

You're familiar with the argument by now. That allowing the retail sale of alcohol on Sundays could be devastating to the package liquor store industry, that it could be a job killer, that up to 25% of them could end up closing and that this is a mega corporate takeover trying to push down the little guy.

Welcome to the big boy world, package.

Can I call you package?

Listen, I'm sympathetic to the argument. I am no fan of corporations trying to beat down independent, locally owned competition. I personally have gone out of my way to support mom and pop shops, even if it costs me a few extra bucks. I think consumers will pay a premium for premium service. I think a package liquor store, being smaller, will be able to more quickly respond to consumer demand than a gas station chain or a grocery chain. The guy who does the ordering for the chains might not even live in the same city as the store, or even the state!

But if you provide a quality service, people will come. They'll come and they'll spend their money.

Look at the cultural district of Broad Ripple within Indianapolis. There is a Starbucks right in the heart of it. But there's at least three independently owned coffee shops within blocks of it, two of which have been open for business for several years.

Look at music stores like Luna Music and Indy CD and Vinyl in Indianapolis, Landlocked Music in Bloomington, and Von's Records in West Lafayette. Music sales, including digital, are plummeting. Megastores that used to be major shopping attractions in some of the biggest cities in the country are closed. Music and entertainment chains like Sam Goody or FYE are either shut down or closing shops across the country. Even the music selection at chain stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart now takes up a much smaller space than what it used to be.

But these music stores are thriving because they are adopting to consumer demand. Admittedly, it is a niche market concentrated on vinyl records, used music, and in-store performances by local, regional, and national acts. But these stores stand strong despite stiff competition.

So if you are a package liquor store and you become like, THE one stop shop to get HOOSIER craft beer or some other niche, and you have a knowledgeable and friendly staff, I think you'll do fine. Mr. Livengood (can I call you John?), I won't even charge you or your association for that advice.

If all you do is charge $1-3 for a pack of Coors than what the grocery store is selling it for, then good luck with that.