• Casino money is a gold mine for state, local budgets

    In Illinois as well as many other corners of this country, talk of opening casinos or legalizing gambling always seems to arise when states are at a budget impasse. And honestly, it’s a wonder more casinos don’t dot the landscape of this country.

    Here in Lake County, the Horseshoe Hammond employs about 1500 people, and the Ameristar in East Chicago has just under 1100 employees. For a county of 490,000 (about 75% of which are 18 and older, or working age), that doesn’t put a huge dent in the total employment figures, not to mention the possibility that surely some workers might be from surrounding counties in Illinois or Indiana. Still, casino jobs are highly in demand in the area, and are certainly a benefit for those who hold them.

    The real impact is in taxes, however. Indiana casinos pay two types of taxes. The larger wagering tax is split, with 75 percent going to the state and 25 percent to the host city. The other, admissions tax, is split three ways: for every dollar going to the state, another dollar goes to the county and to the host city.

    According to the Casino Association of Indiana, the state received over $685 million in wager tax and $66.7 million in admissions tax last year. And that’s actually down from peaks of nearly $800 million in wagering tax and over $80 million admissions tax before the Great Recession. Even after you subtract the local taxes, that’s a pretty good chunk of the estimated $15.7 billion in tax revenue collected by the state in 2013.

    It would still be a pretty big chunk if a smaller piece went to the state, and local communities got to keep more. I mean, I’m sure Hammond isn’t complaining about the $36 million it rakes in from the casinos each year. Still, counties in Indiana have to pay for certain services with local taxes, do why can’t they raise more revenue for themselves?

     I realize gambling is a special case with heavy oversight and regulation. But it raises an interesting question: how much does Lake County Pay in taxes, and what does the state give us in return?

  • On infrastructure, mere repair is a low bar

    The issue of fixing the nation’s infrastructure (roads, highways, and bridges in need of repair) has steadily gained traction within in the past decade or so. If you haven’t heard much about it, well, the need to do so has hit home in our state in the form of the current problems with I-65.

    This problem isn’t going to go away, so sooner or later, something will have to be done about it. While we’re having this debate, however, we should consider another factor going forward.

    A recent study named Chicago and Northwest Indiana one of the ten worst regions for traffic congestion in the country. The list is made up of other major metropolitan centers nationwide. The study also concludes that congestion has only gotten worse over time.

    Just fixing our transportation infrastructure wouldn’t eliminate these traffic issues, which not only make for more time spent in the car for drivers, but also compound the amount of car exhaust spewing into the atmosphere due to vehicles running for longer. So instead of merely fixing it and keeping it the way it is, this is a prime opportunity to drastically remake our transportation infrastructure.

    How so? Well, turning public transit systems from mostly a city thing into a suburban thing would be a good start. High-speed rail lines between major metro centers is a good idea, too.

    But, this all won’t happen. Undertakings like these would take time, effort, and, most importantly, money, and when was the last time people were supportive of a tax, even if the thing it was paying for would arguably benefit them? Heck, the reason even necessary infrastructure repair has moved so slowly is because it would require raising the gas tax, which pays for it.

    My guess is that at some point, we’ll see a major infrastructure repair plan, when the problem is too big to ignore anymore.  Hopefully, that will happen before another tragedy like the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota, which seemingly jumpstarted this debate in 2007.

    But wouldn’t it be nice if people were more willing to work together toward long-term and ambitious but beneficial projects, instead of only going for what’s most convenient for them in the short run?

  • The (possible) soda tax next door

    A few years ago, you likely heard about New York City trying to enact a ban on the sale of sugary drinks above a certain size (the plan was eventually struck down in the state’s courts). That was the most public example of efforts to curb Americans’ consumption of such unhealthy beverages, but they most often take the form of taxes, which have been proposed but rarely adopted by local governments.

    Just last week, a proposal of just such a tax hit close to home—still safely across the state line, but close nonetheless—when Chicago considered a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. That may not sound like much, but it adds up quickly, from over a dime more per can to an extra couple bucks per 24-pack.

    This issue brings to mind so-called “sin taxes” on products such as cigarettes, and while drinking pop is certainly more publicly acceptable than smoking, some health advocates have supported adding health warning labels to soda just like tobacco products. Another eerie similarity between the two arose this summer when it was revealed Coca-Cola reportedly paid millions to scientists who downplay the role of cutting pop from one’s diet while trying to lose weight. The story elicited comparisons to yesteryear when Big Tobacco funded studies arguing against their products’ health effects.

    I don’t think many would argue that pop or other drinks loaded with sugar are good for you, but there is still one distinct difference from smoking: while secondhand smoke affects everyone in the vicinity of a smoker, secondhand drinking is not a thing. The personal choice argument is much more airtight with soda because it only affects the person who chooses to drink it.

    Still, I can see where proponents of soda taxes are coming from. People don’t want the government in their lives, but living an unhealthy lifestyle can make for more medical procedures and bills, and since healthcare is so costly in this country, people often have to turn to government services. It makes some sense to try to push people away from unhealthy habits, and in doing so potentially preventing problems like obesity or diabetes rather than spending the money to treat them when they manifest. And the personal choice crowd won't like to hear this, but having to pay a little more for a Coke doesn't take away one's right to choose whether or not to pay for it or drink it.

  • The State of Referendum

    If you have driven around the region these last few years during the month of April, you may have seen signs in yards asking voters to vote “yes” on a school referendum.  

    In 2008, the state legislature passed a law that changes the ways that a district is able to levy taxes for the operation of schools within the district or for the cost of construction.  Since that time, several districts within the state have had referendum votes for small tax increases to offset the limitations set by the law. I live in Hebron and it took two separate elections to pass one in our school district.

    The first vote in 2013 failed by only four votes- 547 to 543.  The defeat resulted in Metropolitan School District of Boone Township having to make several cutbacks.  The greatest of which was the termination of six teachers, which meant some classes would be overcrowded.  In a town with nearly 2,500 residents, voter apathy may have played a role in the measure being defeated the first time.  In our family's case, we did not vote in this election, and thus did not vote for the measure at all.  At that time, our home was not affected by passage or defeat, since our oldest child was not yet in school. 

    The measure did pass the following April, and it did so by just 23 votes.  The passed measure called for an increase of $0.21 per $100 of assessed property value.  This meant that a home with an assessed value of $135,000 would see an annual tax increase of around $130.  We did vote yes on the second referendum, because our son was about to begin Kindergarten that following August, so we wanted to ensure we were investing in his education.  On his first day of school, his class size consisted of only 22 children.  

    These two elections brought out much emotion on opposing sides of the measure.  For us, we were looking out for what we felt was in the best interest of our children.  For a couple in town on a fixed income, whose children have already been through school, I can certainly understand the reason for them voting no.  Although these referendums are fairly new, it is still too soon to tell if there will be a long-lasting impact. In the case of our district, seeing exceptional grades on our son’s report card is a great start.