• Does Gary have a chance in the airport game?

    Gary/Chicago International Airport has long been the third major airport in Chicagoland, behind O’Hare and Midway. Though if you didn’t know that, it doesn't come as a surprise. The airport has lagged behind its neighbors across the state line for years, and at this point in time doesn’t see any passenger air traffic.

    A long-gestating expansion seeks to make the airport a major transportation hub again. But an Illinois plan to build a new airport in the South Suburbs has long been in the works. Combined with the highly publicized Illiana Expressway presumably providing better transportation across state lines, such a plan could create a new major transport hub, and displace Gary as the new number three for Chicago.

    But is Gary’s downfall really so imminent? On paper at least, certain factors suggest Gary might have the upper hand.

    Despite some delays, Gary’s plan is currently moving forward, and has a long term plan. If it avoids any further road blocks, the planned runway expansion could be done by next year. The Illinois plan, meanwhile, is still in the land-buying stage (full details and a timetable are pretty vague).

    Support for the Illinois project also seems rather lukewarm. Governor Pat Quinn supports it and the Illiana expressway, while his gubernatorial opponent Bruce Rauner’s stance is less clear. It's possible the election in November could affect the plan's standing as a legislative priority. As for the citizens of Peotone, the town of just over 4000 people that the proposed airport will occupy, I couldn’t find hard figures regarding their approval. But this was one of the first outside links on the town’s Wikipedia Page. Not a good sign. And what of Gary’s plan? It had the support of former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, and seems to have the blessing of current mayor Rahn Emanuel, in addition to the support of Indiana officials.

    Still, I can’t help but have the feeling that in the end, if and when the Illinois airport is built, it will win out. Simply put, an in-state airport will have more claim to a Chicago connection. And whereas Chicago is a major city, Gary is barely on the map in the national consensus.

    Then again, that might be a big "if," as the project's been covered and talked about for years and seen very little progress. So for the time being, the Illinois third airport might be merely conjecture. On that level, Gary has the advantage...for now.

  • Drug crisis poses challenge for Indiana lawmakers

    The most vexing issue for the General Assembly in the coming session may not have anything to do with roads or RFRA.

    In a recent conversation I had with State Rep. Chuck Moseley, D-Portage, he spent some time discussing the state's drug crisis. The issue came to the forefront this year with Indiana earning dubious recognition for having the most methamphetamine labs in the country.

    We're not talking about the giant labs run by crime syndicates, as portrayed in the TV series "Breaking Bad." State Police say 99 percent of the labs are run by addicts. In one case, an active meth lab was found in a backpack in the bathroom of a Muncie Walmart. Part of the problem, Moseley said, is people who go from pharmacy to pharmacy purchasing the allergy medicine used to manufacture meth.

    Last month, House Speaker Brian Bosma said he would advocate for a bill requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine, the ingredient in current over-the-counter medicines like Claritin-D and Allegra-D. It would be an inconvenience to allergy sufferers, but it's a measure that has proven successful in other states in reducing meth manufacturing.

    Moseley also touched on the issue of heroin addiction and the public health approach of needle exchanges. Indiana ended its ban on needle exchangesthis year, but only in response to an HIV outbreak in southern Indiana's Scott County. Though needle exchanges have been proven successful in reducing the spread of infectious diseases, the Scott County program was approved reluctantly on a temporary basis. State approval would be required to expand the program to another county.

    Why not allow counties to institute needle exchange programs on their own if county health departments deem it a benefit? One only needs to look at the zero-tolerance approach exemplified by the search and seizure case before the Indiana Supreme Court where a man was convicted of a felony from having a single painkiller pill he collected among the possessions of a deceased relative. 

    The slow walk by Indiana of the obvious needle exchange solution reflects the central problem in Indiana's unsuccessful approach to drugs. The notion that drugs are a law enforcement issue first and a public health issue second needs to be reversed. If Indiana is to reverse the grim statistics, lawmakers must take a bold approach that puts public health and help for addicts first.

  • Early voting, same turnout

    The Midterm elections are next week, but if you live in Indiana, you can vote now. Maybe you have already.

    In our state, the polls actually open up four calendar weeks before Election Day. Many states have similar early voting periods, although most are shorter than Indiana’s. A good number of them also have an absentee ballot system in which residents can cast their vote by mail (Indiana does not have this).

    Ostensibly, early voting is held to give citizens plenty of time to cast their ballot. But does it actually increase turnout in states compared to states in which polls are only open on Election Day?

    The numbers say no.

    Historically, Presidential elections have a turnout rate somewhere between 50 or 60 percent, and Midterms around 40 percent. There are a few outlier states with higher turnout (though still in the 70s, not even close to full turnout), but generally each state’s turnout hovers around the total rate, regardless of what early voting systems they have. Indiana’s early voting period is on the longer side compared to many states, but turnout in the 2012 election was only 56 percent, ranked 40th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C.

    In the last Midterm, which saw a 42 percent turnout, most counties in Indiana actually saw more than that, in the higher 40s or even 50s. Lake County, however, only saw a 37 percent turnout. And that was actually a high point since the turn of the millennium, as the 2006 and 2002 Midterms didn’t even crack 30 percent.

    Speculations can be made as to why this is, but the numbers are a little pathetic.

    If you want to help raise that statistic this election, don't forget to vote next Tuesday. Or if you want to vote before then, here’s some information how.

  • Finding media when it doesn't come to you

    How many fellow Region residents know who’s running for governor of Illinois?

    If you don’t, just watch any of your basic local network or cable channels for a half hour. Chances are you’ll see a campaign commercial about Bruce Rauner or Pat Quinn.

    Now how many can tell me what our governor is doing right now? This one might be trickier for a lot of residents.

    Northwest Indiana has always occupied a sort of limbo between the rest of the state and Illinois, especially with the media we consume. Almost all our television channels are Chicago stations (Lakeshore is one of the few exceptions), and all the major networks are. That’s just fine for getting all our favorite TV shows, but it leaves us lacking a medium to get something more vital: the news. Since Lakeshore’s nightly news ended due to lack of funding earlier this year, we don’t have a truly local nightly newscast anymore.

    We have several local radio stations in the Region, and The Times and Post-Tribune are still going. But they have to compete with what Chicago has to offer in both mediums. Plus, I don’t think I have to describe how newspapers aren’t what they once were.

    While it’s not a bad thing to be knowledgeable about a neighboring state or major city, what happens in our own state and affects us directly is more important to know. And while we get flooded with media from Chicago and Illinois, most of it tells us little that we need to know about our state or the area around us.

    Fortunately, we live in the age of an even further-reaching and more influential medium than any of these: the Internet. Citizens can use the web to get the news they want. But there’s still a matter of finding it amongst all the junk online.

    For me, I’ve turned my Twitter account into a tool for finding the media I care about. The way to do this is to follow all the news sources you want to read. That way, instead of having to read between the celebrity gossip garbage on your homepage, your newsfeed becomes a list of just the news that you want. If you live in the Region and want to get news about Indiana, for example, that means following the different newspapers and people (mostly writers) from around the state.

    For the analog, unconnected crowd, the Region’s lack of media options coming to them may be a problem. But for those with web access, there’s no excuse for not knowing what’s going on in your own state.

  • For Toll Road, public ownership is better than privatization

    It’s been nearly six months since the Indiana Toll Road declared bankruptcy, and it recently appeared obvious who would take over its operations. But at the eleventh hour, some new developments popped up almost out of nowhere.

    It looked like a partnership between investors and Lake and LaPorte Counties was the front-runner. If approved, that deal would bring in $5 million a year for each county, plus even more in excess toll revenue.

    That bid was going through the approval process in recent weeks, and it seemed all but inevitable that it would win the lease. But at the end of last week, the Australian firm IFM Investments announced that it had put in the winning $5.725 billion bid for the Toll Road.

    Proponents of the Lake-LaPorte plan insist that the decision is not made, that the IFM plan has yet to meet government approval. Even so, IFM’s statement sounds pretty final and confident, more so than those of the Lake-LaPorte backers.

    I must say, the Lake-LaPorte plan seems like a better idea. For one, the last attempt to privatize the Toll Road ended up losing money for the owners, so it seems a little foolish to try again. But more so, a public (or at least semi-public) Toll Road could benefit the local communities, whereas a private one can only really benefit the owners.

    I can’t help but be reminded of our neighbor Chicago’s infamous parking meter debacle, in which the city sold control of its meters to a private firm for 75 years for $1 billion. The idea was almost immediately revealed to be a bad one on the city’s end, as it could have raised more than that over the long run by running the meters themselves, money a state in such massive debt could have really used.

    Fortunately, Indiana isn’t in nearly as dire financial straits as Illinois. Still, local ownership of the Toll Road is a better option than privatization, because whatever profits are made go to the counties. True, $5 million isn't a whole lot in terms of government expenses, but it's still an extra $5 million that can go to our schools, our roads, or toward something else in the community instead of just into the pockets of some company.

  • Governor Plays Politics Over Sound Education Policy

    Indiana Governor Mike Pence announced his 2015 legislative plans for education in a speech last week (you can read it here). The meat of the plans, by which I mean the ones that affect school-aged Indiana children directly, should arouse skepticism.

    In his speech, the Governor spoke of the importance of pre-kindergarten programs, but announced no plans to try to obtain more funding for it. One might remember that earlier this year, the Governor rejected federal funding that would have gone toward expanding pre-K for low-income children in the State.

    Pence also strongly supports more funding for charter schools. This, despite the fact that charter schools statewide received much lower performances grades this year than public schools. Among the schools with “D” grades were a few in Gary and one in East Chicago.

    This isn’t to say charter schools as a whole are a bad idea, and that public schools are always sterling. But they don't seem to be working in our state, and spending more on something that isn’t working is like continuing to use teaching methods that aren’t reaching the students.

    Continuing to fund underperforming schools and denying funds for poor kids' pre-school doesn't sound like serving the state. What they sound like is political maneuvering from our Governor at the expense of it.

    In education alone, Pence’s resistance to Common Core and his stances that rankle teachers make him a polarizing figure, but nothing stinks of politics more than his working relationship with Glenda Ritz. Ever since the State Superintendent was elected in 2012, the Governor has tried to undermine her at every turn. He’s finally disbanded his alternative education committee which he created solely to challenge Ritz's authority, but he’s still trying to remove her from the picture.

    There are elected officials who govern, and there are those who are just ideologues. Our Governor, unfortunately, is the latter instead of doing his job as the former.

  • Governor should drop politics, accept Medicaid expansion

    Today was the final day for open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. But the status of the law in Indiana is somewhat nebulous.

    Certain parts of the law are supposed to be enacted through the states. However, many Republican-controlled state legislatures have refused to cooperate on them.

    One such element is a federally-funded Medicaid expansion that every state is entitled to receive. However, this part of the law hasn’t been so universally ignored. While some Republican governors have declined it, others have accepted it.

    And occupying the netherworld between the two is our Governor, Mike Pence. Instead of accepting it outright, he instead wants to rework the funds into the already-existing Healthy Indiana plan. The main difference between the two is that Pence’s plan would require eligible recipients to pay a bit into it, whereas the outright expansion would not.

    His plan almost collapsed in November because the state didn’t file for Federal review on time. Thankfully, the Feds granted an extension to keep the existing Healthy Indiana plan and figure out his proposed expansion. Still, it probably won’t be implemented for some time.

    All the while, Indiana’s uninsured rate stands at 15 percent. Here in the Region (Lake and Porter County), the U.S. Census lists it as above the state average. Estimates also suggest that the refusal to expand Medicaid led to thousands of deaths nationwide for people without healthcare access.

    At worst, Governor Pence’s actions seem like he’s just kicking the issue down the road until people forget about it. This could backfire hard, as with each new figure, the ACA appears to be embraced more with every passing year. At best, he’s just playing politics, trying to expand benefits while also appearing to not give in to the President.

    I’m guessing the latter, but all the time we wait on the Feds to approve Healthy Indiana is time poor Hoosiers don’t get Medicaid coverage. And on top of that, Pence’s political gambit appears to not be working, as polls on both sides are painting him as accepting the expansion. Considering those two factors, the Governor should just accept the expansion and move on. The state will be better off for it.

  • Indiana Toll Road bankruptcy shows downside of leasing highways

    If you spend as much time scouring the web for political stuff as I do, you know that roads have become a point of contention in the debate about government spending (“roads” being shorthand for public necessities that some say should be privatized). If recent events in Indiana are any indication, at least the issue of literal roads can go down as a loss for the privatization crowd.

    The Indiana Toll Road was sold in 2006, and it operations were transferred from the state to the private Indiana Toll Road Concession Company. The company is a subsidiary of two foreign companies: the Spanish firm Cintra and the Australian McQuarrie Atlas Roads.

    A quick perusal of the company website shows that Cintra is a major company that owns toll roads and parking (presumably the much more profitable of the two) throughout the world. In other words, they know the business well. McQuarrie, on the other hand, is just part of a larger investment bank. The site for their transportation company features some information about their private highway holdings, but seems much more designed to woo investors into buying a stake in their operation.

    Though this might not be a good investment, if the Indiana Toll Road is any indication: today, the Indiana Toll Road Concession Company filed for bankruptcy.

    I can’t say I’m surprised. The toll road costs a few bucks to use each time. Even if you use an I-Pass or E-ZPass and get a discount, that adds up if you use it a lot. Whether you regularly or only occasionally commute to Chicago, of course you’re going to take the cheaper (i.e., free) routes. As for cross-country driving, a quick search on any map program can find a similar route across Northern Indiana on toll-free roads that’s only a few more miles and a negligible amount of time longer.

    There are times when a private road nearby isn’t a bad thing. Quite often when there’s a long traffic delay or construction, it might be worth the few bucks for a faster trip. And during one of the crippling blizzards we had last winter, when the public roads were covered in snow and all but shut down, the Toll Road was relatively cleared and made for a smooth ride into the city. But when trying to turn a profit, you can’t just rely on being the alternate choice. Traffic jams clear, construction doesn’t last forever, and it doesn’t snow all the time.

    Something to think about before the Illiana toll road construction starts up.

  • Issues In Our Region

    It's the end of the month but still the beginning of a brand new year. If you haven't already begun thinking about the plans for it maybe take some time to look around you. Improvement is a step-by-step, incremental process that to be holistic is often times also slow. It can seem weighted down under it's size or scope, depending on the project.

    Now is the time to consider large scale plans but also the small-scale efforts we as individuals make. Geographically speaking our region is vibrant and unique, unlike other suburbs or metropolitan regions. So too must our schematics for regional evolution reflect this unique perspective. What 1% change for the better can you make?

  • ISTEP debacle presents standardized testing reform opportunity

    You might have seen headlines recently about the state legislature wanting to cut the length of ISTEP testing for Indiana students. If you haven’t been following this issue, the gist of it is that Indiana’s decision to reject Common Core wasn’t very well thought out. The rejection meant the state had to hastily draw up its own curriculum and standards, and with that its own standardized testing.

    The resulting exams are estimated to take up a whopping 12 hours of classroom time to administer. Now, amid bad press and criticism from the education community, the factions of government are blaming each other while rushing to mend this debacle.

    Indiana’s specific case aside, the effectiveness of standardized testing like ISTEP has been a topic of debate for years. I’m not a teacher, and I don’t know the numbers offhand about the success rate of ISTEP or other tests (if there are any solid numbers). All I can add to the conversation is my experience in school.

    I think the best example would be the Spanish classes I’ve taken. In high school, I took Spanish for three years. I had three great teachers, and all three years, the classes consisted of assignments that involved either writing words and sentences or speaking in front of the class in Spanish. In other words, we learned by actually using the language.

    In college, I took four semesters of Spanish. I had good professors each time, and we did some similar coursework to what I’d experienced in high school. But the majority of our curriculum consisted of homogenized (you could say “standardized”), one-size-fits-all online multiple choice exercises. I passed the classes, but while I actually learned at least some Spanish from high school, I mostly just forgot everything from college as soon as I finished each assignment. Similar, I’d imagine, to how many students forget all the stuff on ISTEP or any other big test as soon as they finish taking it.

    The difference significantly affected my opinion on standardized testing and curriculum. The way to effectively learn anything is to practice, to utilize it in daily life.

    Governor Mike Pence’s decision to reject Common Core very well may have been political (Common Core has become a target of the conservative movement of late), but since Indiana’s in the position of creating new curriculum, we should take this opportunity have a real conversation about how to effectively teach our kids. A conversation that includes the issue of standardized testing.

  • Journalism alive and well, at least in Indiana

    A major story right here in our state, one with possibly huge implications for journalism as we know it, came and went so fast last week that you might have missed it.

    The state of Indiana announced plans to launch its own taxpayer-funded news site, Just IN. Memos seemed to suggest that the site would produce stories which could then be republished by other news sources.

    The reaction was swift and universally negative. Blogs and social media across the country raised comparisons to the infamous Soviet propaganda newspaper Pravda, while Governor Mike Pence was depicted in caricatures ranging from a toga-clad Roman Emperor to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. In response to the backlash, Pence clarified that the site would operate more in a press release capacity than as a full news source.

    We’ll never know for sure, for Just IN was killed before the week was over. Even so, the idea of a state-run media source remains very frightening. The idea probably arouses visions of some authoritarian regime in another country. The reality is in the current state of media in America, government-written content could theoretically supplant independent journalism without trampling on the First Amendment one bit.

    The new millennium has seen the rise of blatantly ideological sources, be they cable news or those viral stories you see all over social media. Such sources seem to have no problem promoting stories that bend the truth or are even outright false if it supports their point of view. It’s unlikely they’ll have any qualms about republishing state-approved content, either, if they support the party in office.

    Even worse, a state news source could conceivably infiltrate legitimate ones. The state of the newspaper industry in the age of the Internet has forced publications (especially small, local ones) to reduce staff and rely increasingly on wire services. So, what if such a service is set up by a government? The very thought should sicken any student or practitioner of journalism.

    In neither of these scenarios would anybody’s freedom of speech or the press be violated. And while just a cursory bit of research can tell you where your news comes from, a lot of people don’t look into what they read, so they might not even realize it if they’re reading exactly what the state wants them to think.

    Fortunately, the outcome for now turned out to be hopeful. While the outcry on social media sometimes veered into immaturity, it’s still very heartening that the populace cared. Also, before Pence’s clarification and the site’s cancellation, many Indiana papers (including The Times) stated they wouldn’t publish any stories from Just IN.

    With all the talk we hear of the death of journalism, it’s nice to know the principles and enthusiasm for a free and independent press are very much alive.


  • Policy sets up Indiana for poor voter turnout

    Next month, voters in Indiana's cities and towns will go to the polls -- as long as they're already registered to vote.

    In Indiana, voter registration ends 29 days before an election, which is on the high end of advance registration requirements among states. Thirteen states currently offer same-day voter registration. As the map here shows, all those states had substantially higher voter turnout than Indiana in 2014.

    In fact, Hoosier voters turned out in historically low numbers in 2014, 28 percent, the lowest in the nation. That fact has led to questions about why voter apathy is so high and what can be done to remedy it.

    Some of those questions lead to the mechanics of getting to vote: early registration requirements, along with our 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. polling schedule, among the shortest in the nation.

    Other questions lead to the lack of competitive Congressional races. To the victor go the spoils, and Statehouse Republicans in the majority have drawn Congressional lines to favor GOP wins. Among the changes in 2011 was the shifting of Democratic-leaning Michigan City from the 2nd District to U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky's 1st District. Getting those voters out of the 2nd District helped Republican U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski win what had been a swing district in previous election cycles.

    And then there's Indiana's 2005 voter ID law, which has been the model of similar laws enacted in other states. Passed with the intent of preventing voter fraud, the law did nothing to address the proven voter fraud that occurred in Indiana. You'll remember the 2003 East Chicago mayoral primary between Robert Pastrick and George Pabey that was nullified due to rampant absentee ballot fraud. Whatever the intent of Voter ID, it doesn't help turnout numbers.

    If you want to increase voting, proven solutions are out there. Oregon, which had 70 percent voter turnout in 2014, holds all elections with mail-in ballots and recently passed a law to automatically register any adult that has had an interaction with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

    Public officials may pay lip service to promoting voter turnout, but public policy tells a different story. In Indiana, increasing the number of voters is just not a priority.

  • Pre-K benefits should outweigh politics

    Last week, Governor Mike Pence rejected $80 million in federal money that would have gone toward providing pre-schooling for low-income children in the state.

    Indiana isn’t exactly a stranger to cuts in education at all levels, both have occurred under Pence’s term and in the Mitch Daniels' era before that. And yet, despite being lower end on education spending per student among the 50 states, Indiana still has a graduation rate in the upper eighties, which is high. However, the state’s public pre-kindergarten services are slim to none.

    There is debate on the merits of Pre-K for academic performance. However, studies have shown that beneficiaries of such programs are less likely to break the law, and have better developmental, motor and cognitive functions. In other words, the benefit is in socialization and mental development.

    I discussed before how other countries have government programs operating at more advanced levels than we do, and similarly, another country is a good model for how Pre-K works. This time it’s France, where public preschool is provided to all children. They are guaranteed to learn all the beginner lessons and motor skills that they’ll need for regular school, whereas in the U.S. only those whose parents can afford to send them are so lucky. And it costs less per student than most public schools here.

    So it’s no wonder support for Pre-K programs (maybe not programs as good as France’s, but at least something) crosses political lines more so than other issues. It’s also no surprise that the Governor’s decision has been met with disappointment from many state businesses that are generally supporters of his. His rationale for doing so sounds like political speak, like it was more out of an anti-federal ideological position than pragmatic. But frankly, what’s most important is that children get the best education, not that each plan fit within one ideology. And it would be best if children’s education gets started on the right foot when they’re most impressionable.

  • Religious freedom bill is doublespeak legislation

    Indiana’s first legislative session begins this week. One issue on the docket is quite troubling.

    Our statehouse is one of many nationwide considering a religious freedom bill, which would give businesses the right to refuse customers on religious grounds. Even supporters don’t seem to argue that it’s aimed mostly at LGBT people.

    You might have seen some news stories about local bakeries forced to close their doors for refusing to serve gay customers. Well, this bill would protect Indiana businesses who do just that. It could also conceivably allow adoption agencies to refuse to let gay adults adopt children. Those are the known components of such a law, though more appeals to it will probably come should it pass.

    You might also recall Arizona’s state legislature passed such a bill last year, and the reaction was swift and negative. Public figures and politicians in both parties denounced it. Celebrities and businesses threatened a boycott of the state. The NFL even talked about moving this year’s Super Bowl. Amidst the outcry, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill.

    Indiana is far from the tourist destination that Arizona is, but passing this bill could be bad for business in our state, too. Indiana likes to tout itself as business-friendly to attract outside investment. If a boycott similar to Arizona’s takes shape, or if business owners are simply more socially-minded, people might think twice about coming to our state. So might prospective residents. Many Illinois small businesses and residents have found a new home here in Northwest Indiana. If this bill puts people off, they might look elsewhere.

    Its effect on business is only the beginning, there are social issues as well.

    Imagine if a law gave businesses the right to refuse customers of a certain skin color, specific ethnicity or a particular religion. Or if someone had the power to prevent those same groups from creating a family unit. In fact, you don’t even have to imagine it. Just read a history book about miscegenation and segregation laws. Today such laws are likely abhorrent to the majority of well-meaning people.

    Now replace those persecuted groups with homosexual and transgender people. How is that any more acceptable? Or any different?

  • Richard Marrell | RLM Prosthetics

    Preparing the deceased for services and visitations can be very sensitive work. But like any occupation, the purveyors of this craft seek to do their job the best and most efficient way, as well as the most respectful.

    One such individual in Northwest Indiana is Richard Marrell, the owner and founder of RLM Tissue Bank prosthetics. Based in Valparaiso, Marrrell’s company fills a specific need in the process of preparing a body for a funeral and cremation. And his products have changed the process, as well as this specific industry, worldwide.

    These products specifically target tissue donors. Like organs from organ donors, tissues such as bones, skin, heart valves and other tissues are collected from tissue donors at their death for use in various medical procedures. RLM manufactures an array of pieces to replace the tissues that are taken out.

    Richard Marrell in the RLM workshop“Our parts help reconstruct the body so they’re stable from the trip from the hospital to the funeral home,” Marrell said. “Also, they make them viewable at the funeral.”

    Marrell got the idea for his products while working for Gift of Hope, then known as the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois. It was his job to collect tissue from donors at hospitals in Lake County, as well as Northern Illinois. At the time, parts used in this process were not environmentally sound.

    “We were using a plastic product which was clogging the crematory system,” Marrell said. “Burning them also gave off a dioxin, which is toxic. People were starting to go for crematories on an increasing basis. So I thought why not make cremation-friendly parts?”

    RLM manufactures bone pieces—everything from arms and legs to pelvises—out of wood, which burns naturally through cremation. Additionally, all the sawdust is collected in combustible bags, which are placed in spots of the body where tissue has been extracted.

    “It’s not just a crematory friendly product,” Marrell said. “We make sure to not waste anything. We go through about two miles of wood every month and we don’t waste any of it.”

    After Marrell left Gift of Hope, they became RLM’s very first customer. Now, RLM employs over 60 transplant teams and ships over 5000 pieces around the world every month.

    The demand for his products has led to the emergence of competitors with similar products. However, to their customer base, RLM is still the most trusted name.

    “We have such a great relationship with our customers,” Marrell said. “They know they can call me, say they want X amount of product, and can have them by tomorrow.”

    Away from the job, woodworking is still a hobby of Marrell’s. His love of the craft led him to another, more personal business venture: a vintage wooden ski shop set to open in Valparaiso.


    “I always wanted to do a local business,” Marrell said. “I make furniture once in a while, but I like functional things that people can use, and skis are perfect.”

  • Search and seizure heads to IN Supreme Court

    The Indiana Supreme Court decided to hear a notable case last week. Unlike the case I already discussed in my last post, this one’s outcome is sure to have further-reaching effects than just our corner of the state.

    Garcia v. State centers on Antonio Garcia, who was pulled over and arrested on the misdemeanor charge of driving without a license in 2012. While being searched during his arrest, the police found a small container, which they opened to find a hydrocodone/acetaminophen pill. This painkiller is considered a controlled substance, possession of which without a prescription is a felony.

    Garcia testified that he had found the pill among a recently deceased family member’s effects, and carried it with him so his child wouldn’t find it. Though he was able to produce prescription records indicating the family member did, in fact, have a prescription for the drug, he was still convicted of felony possession.

    The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned that conviction on the grounds that it violated the Indiana Constitution’s stipulation against search and seizure. Specifically, the ruling stated that the container aroused no reasonable suspicion or threat to the arresting officers, therefore searching it violated Garcia’s Constitutional rights.

    The Indiana Supreme Court will have the final say, though a decision probably won’t come until next year.

    Before trying to tie this case in to high-profile police and civil liberties controversies of recent years, one should take a closer look at the facts. While Garcia contends that regular search and seizure protocol went too far, he isn’t contesting his misdemeanor charge or alleging grave officer misconduct. The arresting officers also testified that Garcia was cooperative. And in fairness to the police, similar medicine containers frequently are used as containers for illegal drugs. So this case occupies a grey area.

    Personally, I’m leaning toward the side of Garcia, not due to any personal biases, but because if I have to choose a side, I always choose the one of civil liberties.

  • Supreme Court Cases of Interest in the Wake of SB 101

    It’s been less than a week since the passage of Senate Bill 101, and the outcry hasn’t abated. The local and national reaction has been almost uniformly negative, and talks of boycotting the state seem to be getting bigger by the day.

    I said my piece about the law a while ago, and seemingly every argument against it has been put forth in the last week or so. It remains to be seen if the backlash pushes the state legislature to backtrack. But even if it doesn't, with the onslaught of recent legal victories for gay rights, it's fair to wonder whether the law will stick anyway.

    To that, some legal precedent:

    The face of so-called “Religious Freedom” bills seems to be eateries looking to deny service to homosexuals, which has elicited comparisons to segregated lunch counters from the Civil Rights Era. Well, in the 1964 decision Katzenbach v. McClung, the Supreme Court found 9-0 that customer discrimination in restaurants is unconstitutional, as per the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But, it should be noted that the Civil Rights Act, while outlawing discrimination on basis of race or sex, does not specifically mention sexual orientation.

    There were few rulings on sexual orientation until the 1996 case Romer v. Evans, in which the Court ruled 6-3 that an amendment to the Colorado state constitution allowing discrimination based on sexual orientation was unconstitutional. Of the five current Justices who were on the Court at the time, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Anthony Kennedy voted with the majority, while Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

    Romer v. Evans wasn’t completely all-encompassing, as several states still have laws that are in some way discriminatory (in many states, it’s still legal for employers to fire workers for being gay, for instance). Still, the decision was cited as precedent in many high profile gay rights cases. Among them were the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision striking down anti-sodomy laws in all states, and the Massachusetts case Goodridge v. Department of Public Health which legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

    Between those two cases, it would seem SB 101’s days could already be numbered. But, last year’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. set a big new precedent pertaining to what constitutes religious freedom, one that allowed private businesses to opt out of certain legal requirements that go against the owners' religion. So if SB 101 or a similar law should make it all the way to the Supreme Court, it's hard to say what would happen.

  • The easiest thing you can do today…that could make a difference

    To vote in the Indiana Primary on May 3, today is the deadline to register. And this year, the primary might actually matter.

    Well, it always matters. Sure, it can seem like a mere formality at times, such as when candidates for certain offices run unopposed. Or, since our primary is on the later end of the schedule, if the Presidential nominations are already decided and several people on the ballot aren’t even still running. But in either case, the votes are still counted.

    This year is different, however, as both major party races are far from settled. The battle for the Democratic Presidential nomination is still competitive, and since Democratic pledged delegates are awarded proportionally, every vote truly does count. On the Republican side, it realistically looks more like a contest between Donald Trump and a brokered convention at this point than between him and any other candidate. Still, every last vote matters in that contest as well.

    Aside from the national elections, there's still the matter of choosing candidates in state and local elections. Here's a little refresher you can use to familiarize yourself over the next four weeks if you're unfamiliar with them.

    Turnout for the Indiana Primary has been pretty low in Presidential election years, usually hovering around 20 percent since the start of the millennium. The one exception was in 2008, when Hillary Clinton won a close contest in the state, but not by enough of a margin to weather the campaign of then-Senator Barack Obama. Our state played a part in what was widely considered the last stand of the Clinton campaign by pundits and the media.

    And the turnout form that Primary? 40 percent.

    The Republican race that year was already decided before the Indiana Primary. This year, with both parties having incentive to get out and vote, there's no reason we can't top that.

    So, if you’re eligible to vote but not registered, do so. You don’t even need to go out on this wintry day to do it.

    If, however, you’re reading this when Monday has passed…well, register to vote anyway, so you can do so in November.

  • The minimum wage is not enough in Indiana

    Not too long ago, there was chart that went viral showing how many hours one would have to work in each state earning minimum wage to be able to rent a two-bedroom apartment. In Indiana, the number was in the seventies. But our state was actually on the low side, as several states required more than the equivalent of two or even three 40-hour workweeks.

    That made the point of how minimum wage workers can afford very few luxuries. What it doesn’t illustrate is how difficult it is to simply live on minimum wage.

    According to MIT, a living wage (meaning it covers all regular expenses) for a single person living alone in Indiana is $8.44 an hour. The state’s minimum wage is at the federal level of $7.25 an hour. The rate where they’d be considered below the poverty line is lower than that. However, the living and poverty wages increase as more people enter the picture. Basically, if there are any more than two people living together, the minimum wage is below the poverty wage.

    President Obama’s proposed increase would bring the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. In this scenario, an Indiana resident living alone would now have a living wage, and most households with two adults working minimum wage could theoretically double their income to a livable level. However, a single parent with even one kid would still be below the livable wage. Plus, anyone with kids knows how hard it is to have both parents working.

    The model doesn’t take into account life’s little caveats like this and others. For example, the calculation for a single-person household sets aside $306 a month on transportation. In real life, one month you might only pay for gas, then the next month your car might need expensive maintenance. Same with medical spending: you might not get sick one month then unexpectedly suffer a serious illness or injury the next, costing more than the $135 per month the model estimates.

    Indiana’s poverty rate is over 14 percent. Even at $10.10, the minimum wage probably still won’t lift them out of it. But to those who work for minimum wage and have to watch every cent they make, even less than an extra three bucks an hour would make a difference. If the federal government doesn’t raise the minimum wage, Indiana should.

  • Things our state and governor did this year

    This Friday will be the start of an election year. So if you’re already sick of the campaign cycle, get used to it, because it’s about to get worse. All I have to say is thank the maker this era of near-unlimited spending on political ads is also the era of DVRs that allow us to skip commercials.

    In the midst of all the ads, grandstanding, attacks, and other irrelevant noise to come in the next ten months, it’s important to not get distracted and to keep track of the things that really matter: the issues. To that end, I’m here to help.

    Here are a few of the things Governor Mike Pence or the Indiana state legislature did in 2015:

    • Accepted the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, used to augment the existing Healthy Indiana Plan.
    • Announced, then cancelled, JustIN. Though to be fair, it was never clear if the site was really a state-run news source or, as Pence claimed, simply a press release service made out to be something it wasn't.
    • Stripped the Superintendent of Public Instruction, an elected office, of its power after fighting Glenda Ritz at every turn since she took office.
    • Abandoned Common Core standards without much a plan to replace them. The state later adopted a new curriculum heavy on standardized testing.
    • Passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, effectively legalizing LGBT discrimination in Indiana and resulting in a nationwide backlash against the state. The legislature hastily added anti-discrimination language to the law to save face, but later in the year, a proposed expansion of the state’s nondiscrimination policy left exemptions allowing some forms of discrimination.
    • Created a needle exchange to help stem an HIV outbreak in the state.
    • Repealed the state’s Common Construction Wage law. 
    • Announced that Indiana would not take in Syrian refugees (and was ignored).

    You might agree with some of these, disagree with others. I myself have different opinions on each issue. But these are things that happened in Indiana this year. So regardless of whatever pageantry 2016 has in store on the campaign trail, just remember everything that went down this past year when you get to the voting booth, whichever way you vote.

    And if you're not registered to vote, go do that. Call it a New Year's resolution, one that you might actually keep.