INdiana Systemic Thinking

January 27, 2008

Sen. Patricia Miller Dissed by Senate on Ethics

Senator Patricia Miller (R-Indy) is a very, and I cannot underscore that enough, very powerful Senator in the Indiana Senate.  She chairs the Senate Health and Provider Relations committee, and is therefore very influential in all areas of health and healthcare policy for the state.  She is also powerful in other areas.  Some credit her with putting together a coalition that ultimately chose Senate Pro Tempore, David Long, as leader of the Senate.  Therefore, today’s news of the death of her bill to require a cooling off period for legislators (one year) before they can become lobbyists, comes as somewhat of a shock.

Sen. Marvin Riegsecker, the Goshen Republican who controlled the bill’s fate as chairman of the Senate Public Policy Committee, said he killed the proposal because he and other senators were angered by comments that “we’re taking money under the table. That’s the interpretation we had.”

Those members of the public who had pushed for the bill say they were talking about the legislature’s image, not making specific accusations.

“I guess we read between the lines,” Riegsecker said. “Either way, it angered my fellow senators, so I wasn’t going to subject them to a vote. I don’t think the bill would have passed anyway.”
It has elsewhere.

Twenty-six states have enacted one- or two-year cooling-off periods for lawmakers.

In Indiana, more than 30 former lawmakers have registered as lobbyists, including four former speakers of the House.

Supporters of the cooling-off period were optimistic when Miller’s bill was granted a hearing before the Senate Public Policy Committee.

Vaughn said she made sure members of the public came to testify, so lawmakers couldn’t say people didn’t care about such issues.

But, she said, the lawmakers were hostile “from the get-go.”

“To be honest, it almost seemed to me that they wanted to be offended so that they would have an excuse not to deal with the problem,” said Patricia Wittberg, a sociology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and a Catholic nun, who came to testify.

Wittberg said that throughout her 18 years of teaching, when she talks to her students about legislators representing them “in a fair and just way, and not influenced by special interests, the students laugh. They laugh.”

It was those words that Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Ellettsville, found among the most offensive.
“The testimony was so nasty and mean and personal that the committee members were furious,” she said. “It was a very unpleasant confrontation. That’s not how you get legislation passed around here.”

Sandra Mowell, a member of the League of Women Voters who also testified, said it was lawmakers who were “rather nasty.”

“I thought they just reacted rather violently without a whole lot of provocation toward us,” she said. “People in elective office may say they want people to participate in this process, but I went away with the definite opinion that that’s just talk.”

Miller said she may file the bill again next year.

Senate President Pro Tempore David C. Long, R-Fort Wayne, said the legislature will at some point have to take up the issue.

“I do think we’re going to have to take a hard look at how Indiana compares to other states and ultimately address particularly the issue of how soon you can go out into the hall and lobby,” he said.

Senator Miller is to be congratulated for sponsoring this measure and she is right on track with her reasons for the bill.  Other lawmakers should probably stop taking public comments so personally and realize, as hard as that may be, that the public perception of legislators to lobbyists so quickly looks bad.  In reality, it may not be, but right now there is an angry population out there, and they do vote.  Failing to address this issue looks like legislators are padding their own bank accounts (after they leave) while the rest of us pay more and more in taxes.  Is this a correct perception?  Probably not, but right now perception is reality and legislators would be well advised to realize that.

January 25, 2008

Govt. Screw-Ups, Unfair and Inconvenient

Aside from huge tax bills, another thing that gets people madder than heck is when government employees screw-up.  Now everyone is human and we all screw-up from time to time, but when a screw-up ruins someones life or bring to light a hugely unfair system is when people start becoming less and less forgiving.

Look at these two examples, the first if is from the Northwest Indiana Times.  The second, from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

A rural Crown Point man said he learned the hard way Wednesday taxpayers can only depend on themselves to have and hold their property tax deductions.

Norman R. Walters said the county failed to give him credit for his mortgage exemption for the last 13 years, but they still refuse to give him a complete refund.

Dan Repay, tax director for the county auditor’s office, confirmed no taxpayer can be compensated for 13 years of overtaxing.

“The law only lets us go back to correct three years,” Repay said. “I apologize to the gentleman, but I can’t go beyond the law.”

Repay said his office struggles to manage a variety of exemptions on 240,000 separate parcels of land. He said it is ultimately the taxpayers’ responsibility to ensure their exemptions are in order.

The retired steelworker said he has more than an average attachment to his house, sitting on more than an acre in Holiday Creek subdivision southeast of the city limits. He said he has been living there since 1974.

“I built my own home,” Walters said. “I’ve never missed a tax payment, and this last bill went up 26 percent.”

Walters, 66, living on a fixed income, said he began investigating whether to pay off the remainder of his mortgage or keep it and the mortgage exemption — $3,000 subtracted from the property’s assessed value — as a hedge against the rising property taxes.

His investigation led to the discovery he didn’t have a mortgage exemption.

“They told me I hadn’t had one since 1979,” Walters said.

Walters said he couldn’t believe what he was told, so he rummaged through his records and found a receipt, dated 1994, that he had filed for an exemption when he refinanced his home under the administration of former county Auditor Anna Anton.

Walters said he took his 1994 document back to the county complex and was told he is entitled to a refund — but only for the last three tax years, with interest, or about $194.

“It should be four times that amount, and they said I have to pay taxes on my refund,” Walters said. “Look, its not my fault.”

And now the second one:

A Muncie woman says she is trying to make ends meet after the government mixed up her Social Security benefits following her supposed death.

Toni Anderson, 60, said her problems began after her husband, John, died Nov. 8. She went to a local Social Security office to enroll for widow’s benefits and was told that records indicated she, not her husband, had died.

Anderson, who is disabled, already received supplementary security income. The Social Security office secured those benefits for December, she said, but she has not received any more – or widow’s benefits – since that $623 check, which was made out to her husband.

The government also sent a letter to her deceased husband, dated Nov. 16. It begins, “Dear Mr. Anderson: Our condolences on the loss of Mrs. Anderson …”

A Chicago-based regional communications director for the Social Security Administration declined to comment when contacted for a story by The Star Press.

Anderson said the regional official and a manager at the local Social Security office both contacted her this week and said they were working to correct the problem.

“In their eyes, I don’t know whether I’m dead or not still,” Anderson said. “Last I heard, I’m still dead.”

Any wonder why taxpayers are up in arms?

January 24, 2008

FW Mayor Buys Conflict of Interest…or Condo

From the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:

Mayor Tom Henry might become one of Harrison Square’s first tenants.

Henry handed over a $1,000 refundable deposit Wednesday, making him No. 55 on the list interested in buying one of the 62 condominiums at The Harrison.

Henry said he and his wife, Cindy, are interested in downsizing from their 3,800-square-foot home and it made sense to look at a project where the city will invest millions of dollars. He said he was unsure whether the couple would move to the building but said this wasn’t just a publicity stunt.

Um hmmmmm, and it’s not a conflict of interest either.  For those not in Fort Wayne, this project is highly controversial and, as the Blogmeister understands it, is some form of city-private development started by the former administration and inherited by Mayor Henry.  Still, does this really look so good to opponents?

January 22, 2008

Mid-day Musings: Dems Debate, Lobotomies, Etc.

Last night I was flipping channels between the Democratic debate and a PBS documentary on lobotomies.  Seriously, I was, I’m not just making that up for some punch line.

First, the debate.  Because I was switching channels, I obviously didn’t get to see the whole thing.  BUT WOW!  Can Hillary and Barak be more hateful toward each other?  On one hand it was entertaining to watch…sort of like a schoolyard fight, but on the other hand, has the Democratic party really sunk so low that two out of the three top contenders have to interrupt each other so much that they can’t even carry on a civilized conversation?  Someone needs to remind these two it was a debate, not an argument.  There is a distinction there.  The first is an exchange of ideas with mutual respect where, at the end, two people can agree to disagree.  The second, well, looked a lot like what we had last night.  Oh, and John Edwards didn’t come put looking too good either.  He appeared to agree with whoever had the best “gotcha” or the most applause.  All the time though, never getting his hands dirty.  If I continue with the schoolyard fight analogy, he is the kid in the back, yelling the loudest, but never putting himself out there to either throw a punch or take one in the gut.  Some would say that is smart, but where I went to school we had a rather unflattering name for people who did that.

Next up, Lobotomies.  Wow, what an interesting, if not gut wrenching show from PBS’s American Experience.  Everything anyone wanted to know about the procedure was presented in detail.  I have to admit, at times, I was glad to flip over to the debate as descriptions, pictures, and video were presented about the procedure.  It’s one thing to academically study something from the psychiatric past, but another to have it so blatantly explained.  I’d recommend watching it if your in the field, although ever being confronted with someone who had one is rare nowadays (they aren’t performed anymore).  Luckily, if you follow this link, PBS is promising to allow the show to be viewed online in a few days.

January 21, 2008

Shiney Stuff Gone From Minn. Hospital Network

All I can say is N-I-C-E!

 From WTHR:

When a Duluth-based operator of hospitals and clinics purged the pens, notepads, coffee mugs and other promotional trinkets drug companies had given its doctors over the years, it took 20 shopping carts to haul the loot away.
The operator, SMDC Health System, intends to ship the 18,718 items to the west African nation of Cameroon.

The purge underscored SMDC’s decision to join the growing movement to ban gifts to doctors from drug companies.

SMDC scoured its four hospitals and 17 clinics across northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin for clipboards, clocks, mouse pads, stuffed animals and other items decorated with logos for such drugs as Nexium, Vytorin and Lipitor.

Trinkets, free samples, free food and drinks, free trips and other gifts have pervaded the medical profession, but observers say that’s starting to change.

“We just decided for a lot of reasons we didn’t want to do that any longer,” Dr. Kenneth Irons, chief of community clinics for SMDC, said Friday.

So SMDC put together a comprehensive conflict-of-interest policy that, among other things, limits access to its clinics by drug company representatives. Employees suggested the “Clean Sweep” trinket roundup, Irons said.

Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, had heard of hospitals and clinics banning promotional items before, but said SDMC’s purge was unprecedented.

Read the whole story by clicking the link.

January 20, 2008

Ethics: Inside SB 65, SB 159, & HB 1063

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has an editorial this morning regarding three different ethics bills in the legislature.  These bills would place limits, or require reporting, on legislators regarding what they accept and what goes on in the world of lobbying.  Here are the bills:

Senate Bill 59: Reduces from $100 to $25 the minimum reportable amount for total daily gifts to a legislator or a legislative employee given by a registered lobbyist or a single gift received by a legislator or legislative candidate.

Senate Bill 165: Provides that an individual who has served as a member of the General Assembly may not register as a legislative branch lobbyist during the period that ends one year after the date the legislator leaves.

House Bill 1063: Provides that a member of the General Assembly, a candidate for a legislative office, an officer or employee of the General Assembly or a member of the immediate family of any of those individuals may not accept a gift from a lobbyist. Provides that a lobbyist may not give a gift to any of these persons. Provides that violations of any of the prohibitions on giving or accepting gifts is a Class B misdemeanor. Provides that an individual who has served as a member of the General Assembly may not register as a legislative branch lobbyist during the period that ends two years after the date that the individual ceases to be a member.

The article also goes on to state:

The odds aren’t good for the legislation. The Senate lobbying bill, with only a one-year “cooling-off” period, met opposition Wednesday in the Commerce and Public Policy Committee. The committee chairman said the bill needed its own cooling-off period. He didn’t call it for a vote, essentially assigning it to oblivion.

Stricter ethics laws need no more consideration. Legislators who think otherwise should look to the lobbyist scandals in Alaska and Tennessee to see how their own reputations might be tarnished by misdeeds in their midst. They can enhance the General Assembly’s reputation with voters by first approving strict and straightforward restrictions on gifts and lobbying. Then they can get to the hard work of fixing property taxes.

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