Gregg sends letter to newspaper editors

John Gregg, the 2012 Democratic candidate for Indiana governor who is said to be seriously considering another run in 2016, sent a letter to newspaper editors Monday morning.

Here’s what he wrote:

Dear Editor,

There are times in life in which we all feel we just can’t catch a break.  The cards are stacked against us. We can’t beat the system. We can’t fight city hall.  We feel powerless in the face of unfairness and injustice.

We want to give up.

And then something reminds us that we are blessed to live in the greatest country the world has ever known, where anything is still possible.

For me, that reminder came last week by way of a friend – and I wanted to share it with you.  On Tuesday, after years of court battles, Vernon ‘Hughie’ Bowman, a small farmer from my hometown of Sandborn, took his fight against one of the nation’s largest corporations to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And while we won’t know the outcome of the case for some time, Hughie Bowman is a great example of what is possible if you keep trying. Here’s a small farmer from a small town in rural Indiana who stuck to his principles and refused to back down.

Hughie’s fight is not only a great civics lesson that proves America can still work for the little guy, it’s an inspiration for all those that stand up to seemingly insurmountable odds. He’s the living embodiment of the old saying “It’s not the size of the man in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the man.”

I share this story because I know that in the coming years Hoosiers will continue to face struggles and frustrations as some misguided politicians in the Indiana Statehouse place greater emphasis on singling us out rather than bringing us together. There will be times when we want to throw in the towel or put our time, treasure and talent to other worthy causes. However, like Hughie, we can’t give up – no matter the odds. There is too much at stake.

So as the now second most famous person from Sandborn, Indiana I ask my fellow Hoosiers to stay in this fight, no matter what the odds, and protect our shared values and principles for this and the next generation of Hoosiers.  If Hughie can do it, so can we.

Sincerely,

John Gregg
2012 Democratic Nominee for Governor
Sandborn, Indiana

Lawmakers give courts first say on Rockport deal

Utility regulators could once again vet Indiana’s 30-year deal to with developers of the proposed $2.6 billion Rockport coal-to-gas plant – this time with a new set of instructions – under a measure approved Thursday by a legislative panel.

The Senate Utility Committee voted 7-2 to scrap the original version of a bill that would have stopped the project in its tracks, and instead to advance a new version authored by its chairman, Republican Sen. Jim Merritt of Indianapolis.

His measure, now headed to the full Senate, would postpone any further action until an ongoing court battle between the plant’s financier, Leucadia National Corp., and its opponents, a coalition led by Vectren Corp., reaches its conclusion.

That would likely give the Indiana Supreme Court the first crack at the issue. And if the high court agrees with an appellate court’s objection to a specific provision in the contract, Merritt’s legislation would then send the deal back to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for a full new review.

For Leucadia, that’s a win because it keeps the project alive – but it also means the regulatory process could last much longer than they’d hoped.

“There’s a lot riding on this piece of legislation,” Merritt said, acknowledging that his measure could be overhauled by the full Senate or in the House. “Some people may not like this – and people may love it.”

The deal negotiated in 2010 by former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration would have the Indiana Finance Authority buy the Rockport plant’s product for 30 years at a fixed rate, and then resell it to Hoosier customers on the open market.

It amounted to betting 17 percent of all Indiana ratepayers’ bills on the idea that converting coal into synthetic natural gas would be cheaper than utilities’ regular open-market prices.

Opponents have since argued that a nationwide shale gas boom has driven long-term natural gas price projections downward, and they’ve tried – both by lobbying lawmakers and in court – to force Indiana to abort the deal.

Those opponents complained Thursday that Merritt is “punting.”

“Everybody wants to shoot the turkey, but nobody wants to pull the trigger,” said Kerwin Olson, the executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, an Indianapolis-based consumer advocacy group.

“We’re disappointed with the amended bill and we’d prefer that the bill be returned to its original form, because that provided a real, clear guarantee to ratepayers that the amended bill does not provide.”

As it was introduced, Senate Bill 510 would have required the plant’s developers to reimburse ratepayers if they’ve paid higher prices every three years, rather than only at the end of the 30-year deal.

It was a thinly-veiled attempt to stop the plant’s construction in its tracks because the change would have made financing the project impossible, said Mark Lubbers, the Indiana project manager for Leucadia.

Still, underMerritt’s proposal, unless the Indiana Supreme Court somehow grants Leucadia a major win – a move that would involve reversing an Indiana Court of Appeals objection to one clause in the contract – the deal would head back to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

If that happens and Merritt’s measure becomes law, the contract would arrive back at the commission with a new set of specific instructions from lawmakers.

The commission would have to consider whether the deal is in the “public interest.” That would mean determining whether the initial price assumptions behind the contract were valid and whether ratepayers are adequately protected.

Merritt’s legislation would also have regulators conduct an in-depth study of the natural gas market – one that would include a look at how both synthetic natural gas made at plants such as the one proposed for Rockport and shale gas, which is increasingly available nationwide, are affecting prices.

Lawmakers consider kicking Rockport decision to courts

Lawmakers could leave key decisions about the future of the $2.6 billion Rockport coal-to-gas plant in the hands of the Indiana Supreme Court under legislation set to receive a vote Thursday in the Senate Utility Committee.

The proposal is the latest wrinkle in this year’s wrangling over whether the state should try to get out of its 30-year contract with the plant’s developers. It would have the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission re-examine the deal if – and only if – courts ultimately declare it invalid.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, authored the measure as an amendment to a bill that would have left the plant dead in its tracks.

Compared to the original bill, it’s a victory for Leucadia National Corp., which is financing the plant, and a set-back for a coalition of opponents led by Vectren Corp. and including several natural gas companies and consumer advocates.

“All the air is out of the balloon, but I really believe the IURC should be making these decisions, rather than the legislature. They are experts – they do this 24/7,” Merritt told the Courier & Press.

The Indiana Court of Appeals last year voided the contract, citing a specific provision that developers and the state quickly sought to remedy. Last week, the court turned down Vectren’s push to vet other portions of the deal.

That leaves the contract’s status in doubt, as Leucadia officials insist that after the quick fix it’s now valid and Vectren argues it’s not. That could make the Indiana Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter.

“As I understand it, there’s no contract right now,” Merritt said.

His proposed amendment would also direct the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to launch an in-depth study of the natural gas market – with instructions to compare open-market prices to those included in the state’s deal, and to determine how both synthetic and shale gas will affect prices in the coming years.

The results of that study would have to be published online by the end of 2013, potentially teeing up more action when the General Assembly meets next year.

“It’s such a factor right now in our society that being really a coal state – it’s a volatile issue, but I think the legislature and I think everyone needs to know more about it,” Merritt said.

Lawmakers have internally debated how to handle the Rockport plant during the first two months of this year’s legislative session as opponents have maintained their push to kill the deal that the Indiana Finance Authority struck and Gov. Mitch Daniels signed in December 2010.

Jennifer Alvey, the finance authority’s former public finance director and Daniels’ lead negotiator on that deal, briefed Senate Republican on its details Tuesday during a behind-closed-doors caucus meeting.

And Mark Lubbers, the former Daniels aide who is the Indiana project manager Leucadia, has pushed lawmakers to keep it alive – insisting that the contract’s ratepayer protection mechanisms are sturdy.

Still, it was that issue – how the deal will affect Hoosier ratepayers – that initiated this year’s debate.

The 30-year contract would have Indiana buy the Rockport plant’s product at a fixed price and then resell it on the open market. It ties 17 percent of all gas customers’ bills to the Rockport plant’s rates, rather than utilities’ regular prices.

The deal requires Leucadia to set $150 million aside in an escrow account to reimburse ratepayers in case they’re paying more than they otherwise would have, and if customers haven’t saved money by the end of the third decade, the state could seize the plant.

At the urging of Vectren and other groups, Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown, filed Senate Bill 510. It would require Hoosiers to be reimbursed every three years, rather than at the end of the 30 years, if the rates related to the Rockport plant are higher than open-market natural gas prices.

That would kill the project, Lubbers said.

So Merritt and other GOP leaders have worked for weeks on an amendment that would rework the bill. Their product is the amendment Merritt finalized Wednesday and will offer in Thursday’s meeting.

He said the committee will vote on the amendment and the bill during that meeting – a necessary step, since Thursday is the Senate’s deadline to advance bills from the committee stage on to the full chamber for consideration.

New abortion regulations clear Senate panel

An effort to require clinics that dispense an abortion-inducing drug to provide ultrasounds and meet the same regulatory requirements as surgical clinics was approved Wednesday by a state Senate panel.

The bill does not apply to private physicians, and would specifically affect the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lafayette, Ind. – the only one of the organization’s four abortion-providing clinics in the state that only offers the procedure through medication.

That led opponents to complain that the measure would sacrifice women’s health – and require women in early stages of pregnancy to undergo an invasive vaginal ultrasound – in order to advance a social agenda.

“This bill definitely limits access to safe and affordable health care for low-income women,” said Sen. Vaneta Becker of Evansville, the only Republican to join the committee’s Democrats in voting against the bill.

It passed the Senate Health and Provider Services Committee on a 7-5 vote and now moves to the full Senate, which approved a similar measure last year.

It advanced with the backing of a cadre of anti-abortion organizations that argued the drug RU-486 poses more dangers to women than the surgical procedure.

“We’re just trying to control and regulate abortion-inducing drugs, which heretofore have not been regulated by the state of Indiana,” said the bill’s author, Republican Sen. Travis Holdman of Markle.

“I don’t believe we’re asking for anything that’s unreasonable. We’re talking about the life of the mother and the child.”

During Wednesday’s committee hearing, the bill became a proxy for the larger fight over abortion rights – with advocates of the bill saying they want to limit the drug’s use.

The drug is the “abortion industry’s method of choice” for the procedure, said Sue Swayze, the lobbyist for Indiana Right to Life.

“I’m not here to pitch surgical abortions by any stretch of the imagination, but if a woman’s choosing that abortion, I’d much rather choose to see her choose a safer surgical abortion,” she said.

Marc Tuttle, the Right to Life of Indianapolis president, decried the drug as among the “social tools to simply increase the number of abortions in our community.”

Opponents of the bill said it wouldn’t improve the quality of health care available to women seeking abortions.

The bill is an effort to “exert social control” and “open the purse strings of religious right political donors,” said Dr. Sue Ellen Braunlin, an anesthesiologist and co-president of the Indiana Religious Coalition in Support of Reproductive Justice.

She complained that requiring clinics that provide the drug to meet the same standards as surgical clinics is unnecessary.

“Does anyone think this bill solves a problem that actually exists? Let’s be honest: Nobody thinks the remarkable safety of medication abortion is going to be improved with wider hallways,” Braunlin said.

The committee approved another abortion-related measure Wednesday that requires clinics that offer abortions to provide women informed consent forms that include color photos of fetuses at various stages of development.

Both now move to the full Senate for consideration ahead of a key Tuesday deadline.

House GOP budget advances without Pence tax cut

Gov. Mike Pence’s proposal to lower Indiana’s income tax rate didn’t get a vote Tuesday – but a new state budget that drops that tax cut in favor of extra funding for schools and roads did.

A state Senate panel debated two tax cut measures: One that would carry out the new Republican governor’s plan to lower the individual income tax from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent over two years, and one that would drop the rate to 3 percent over four years.

There was no vote, though, and several of the committee’s members said they will proceed with caution – only giving the tax cut serious consideration if a new revenue forecast predicts an unexpected economic uptick before the April 29 deadline for lawmakers to approve a new budget and adjourn for the year.

“This is not a conclusion of the discussion,” said Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee Chairman Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek. “There’s an opportunity to continue this discussion as the revenue picture becomes clear to us.”

The budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, meanwhile, approved House Republicans’ two-year, $30 billion spending plan. It increases education funding by 2 percent in its first year and 1 percent in its second year and tucks in an extra $250 million per year to beef up state and local transportation funding.

Its omission of Pence’s tax cut – a decision in which the governor said he was “very disappointed” – sets the stage for an intraparty battle that is testing whether Pence has the political capital necessary to achieve the top goal on his first-year legislative agenda.

Advocates of the tax cut included Sen. Mike Delph, the Carmel Republican who is carrying the governor’s proposal.

He told the committee that as the federal payroll tax increases by 2 percent this year, lowering Hoosiers’ income taxes by 0.34 percent would help offset the new burden – and keep $520 million in taxpayers’ pockets each year.

“It would have a cascading, dynamic flow, and it would inject a half a billion dollars into the Indiana economy,” Delph said.

Key legislative leaders, including Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said they view the issue in a broader context.

Indiana is already phasing out its inheritance tax – a move that will be completed by 2022, but that lawmakers say they might consider speeding up.

“It just seems like we ought to finish that job,” Kenley said.

Sen. Lindel Hume, D-Princeton, also said the state also owes pension money to teachers who entered the profession before 1996 – and is requiring businesses to pay higher taxes to repay more than $2 billion borrowed during the recession to bolster Indiana’s unemployment insurance fund.

He said income taxes are a “regressive tax” because poor Hoosiers have to spend more of the money they earn, while wealthier Indiana residents can save more. Instead, he said, the state should consider cutting its sales tax – or should keep its taxes at their current levels.

“We have things that government really needs to do. Education is a terribly important part of government, and roads – the infrastructure of this state – are very important not only to our people but also very important to businesses that look at locating in Indiana,” Hume said. “Some of those things are more important than taxes.”

Pence has pitched the income tax cut as one that would help the 92 percent of Indiana businesses that file as individuals.

Business groups that are traditionally powerful Republican allies, though, offered lukewarm support for the tax cut.

Indiana Manufacturers Association lobbyist Tim Rushenberg said the proposal has his orgnaization’s “guarded support. Indiana Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Bill Waltz said the group “cannot not” support a tax cut, but that education and roads are vital to Indiana’s economy as well.

Other groups, including the Indiana Family Institute and Americans for Prosperity, said they support the tax cut.

“We support lowering the tax burden on Hoosier families and small businesses, and that includes lowering the individual income tax rate here in Indiana,” said Eric Miller, the head of Advance America. “It’s a good thing to let Hoosier families and small businesses keep more of their hard-earned money.”

Hershman said he won’t schedule a vote on the tax cut proposals that were the subject of his Tuesday committee hearing. The budget, meanwhile, moves to the full House floor for a vote in the coming days.

Ways and Means budget vote on Tuesday

The Indiana House Ways and Means Committee will vote on Republicans’ two-year, $30 billion budget on Tuesday, the committee’s chairman, GOP Rep. Tim Brown of Crawfordsville, said Monday morning.

He presented the budget to the committee Monday. It includes K-12 education spending increases of 2 percent in its first year and 1 percent in its second year — plus an extra $250 million annually for transportation.

The budget proposal speeds up the phase-out of Indiana’s inheritance tax, eliminating it by 2018 rather than 2022. But it does not include Gov. Mike Pence’s proposal to lower Indiana’s income tax rate from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent.

Battle brewing over Pence’s tax cut proposal

Gov. Mike Pence is at odds with Indiana House Republican leaders who opted not to include the top item on his first-year legislative agenda in their new state budget proposal.

The governor said Friday he is “very disappointed” that the two-year, $30 billion spending plan drops his plan to lower the individual income tax from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent in favor of extra cash for schools and roads.

“By leaving income tax relief out this early in the process, this House budget proposal does not contain the kind of balanced approach that will create jobs and opportunities for Hoosiers. With so many hurting in this economy, Hoosiers deserve better,” Pence said.

House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, unveiled the GOP’s budget proposal in a briefing with reporters Friday morning.

His plan would boost funding for K-12 public education – an area that accounts for more than half of Indiana’s spending – by 2 percent in its first year and another 1 percent in its second year, lifting the statewide total from $6.5 billion annually now to $6.7 billion.

It would also send more of Indiana’s 18-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax revenue to the Indiana Department of Transportation and into municipal infrastructure budgets, rather than diverting some of that money to pay for state police and license branches.

The biggest debate moving forward, though, will be over Pence’s tax cut – one that would save average single Hoosiers around $100 per year, and would cost the state more than $500 million per year.

The intraparty tension has built in recent months as legislative leaders have resisted the new governor’s top legislative goal.

They’ve said they prefer to address some issues that lingered prior to Pence taking office – including raising education funding up to its levels prior to the 2010 cuts that the economic downturn led former Gov. Mitch Daniels to make, and speeding up the phase-out of Indiana’s inheritance tax.

House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said Friday that Democrats will try to force an up-or-down vote on Pence’s income tax cut.

“We have not heard a lot of bold ideas either from the governor’s office or from the two supermajorities. This is the one bold idea that’s been brought forth. I think to ignore it is a mistake,” Pelath said of Pence’s plan.

“He has had an idea. He campaigned on it, he got elected on it, the people of Indiana have spoken – and we need to give that consideration.”

Long calls for convention to amend U.S. Constitution

A top Indiana lawmaker wants states to demand a constitutional convention where they’d work to limit the federal government’s power.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said Thursday that he’s introducing a measure that would call for a convention where states could propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The goal at such a gathering, he said, would be to keep Congress from abusing its powers to tax and regulate interstate commerce.

“I think it’s the only way that states’ rights can be protected in this country,” Long said.

Article V of the U.S. Constitution allows for a convention to consider constitutional amendments like Long is proposing. But it has never happened – and couldn’t unless two-thirds of all state legislatures were to demand it.

Long said so far he has spoken with legislative leaders in Tennessee and Texas, who he said called the idea appealing. “My intent is to spread it around like Johnny Appleseed as much as I can,” he said.

The move comes as Long faces criticism from conservatives who wanted him to allow the Senate to vote on measures he called “blatantly unconstitutional” because they would have Indiana ignore federal laws.

He said his list of complaints with the federal government includes the U.S. Senate’s failure to pass a budget in recent years, President Barack Obama’s health care law and more.

“It’s scandalous,” he said, “what they get away with.”

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he will carry Long’s measure if it reaches his chamber.

“There is general consensus that the federal government has reached into the corners of the room that it has no business going into,” Bosma said.

Manufacturers, farm bureau oppose Rockport deal

Two heavyweight organizations in Hoosier politics – the Indiana Manufacturers Association and the Indiana Farm Bureau – say they oppose the state’s current 30-year contract with the Rockport coal-to-gas plant.

The two groups’ lobbyists plan to testify Thursday at a state Senate committee hearing over the plant’s future. They say they want lawmakers to change Indiana’s deal to buy the plant’s synthetic natural gas at a fixed rate and then resell it on the open market.

Patrick Bennett, the Indiana Manufacturers Association’s vice president of environment, energy and infrastructure, said his organization is afraid its small and medium-sized clients will face higher prices as a result, although large industrial companies are excluded.

“Really, the message is going to be that it’s not the role of the state to subsidize the cash flow of a company or to attempt to hedge the commodity price. This project should stand on its own within the current economic development, like the state does with other companies,” Bennett told the Courier & Press.

He said he supports a bill by Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown – the one that’s the topic of Thursday’s hearing – to beef up the ratepayer protections in the deal by requiring the plant’s developers, Leucadia National Corp., to reimburse those ratepayers every three years if the plant’s prices top open market rates.

That would be a departure from the current contract, which requires Leucadia to set aside $150 million that would only go to ratepayers at the end of the contract. Leucadia’s top Indiana official, former Gov. Mitch Daniels aide Mark Lubbers, said Eckerty’s bill would kill the plant.

Indiana Farm Bureau director of state government relations Bob Kraft said he too supports Eckerty’s bill.

“Chances are good that in the first few years in particular, the ratepayers will be asked to underwrite the cost of the project through the rates,” Kraft said.

“That being the case,” he said, “our members who have access to natural gas are going to wind up paying a larger, higher rate and not receive any kind of reconciliation until the end of the 30-year period” unless Eckerty’s bill is approved.

The hearing is taking place Thursday morning in the state Senate chamber.

Pence: No Medicaid expansion unless it’s through Healthy Indiana Plan

Republican Gov. Mike Pence delivered federal officials an ultimatum: Let Indiana use its own plan instead of Medicaid to cover 400,000 more Hoosiers, or watch the state refuse to implement that portion of the health care law.

He set forth those two options Wednesday in a letter to Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Instead of a traditional Medicaid program that he called a “broken” budget-buster rife with “waste, fraud and abuse,” Pence said he wants to use the health savings account-based plan that Indiana launched in 2008 to provide expanded access to government-funded insurance.

It’s a demand that federal officials have declined in the past, but Pence’s administration is holding out hope for a favorable ruling on an appeal as state lawmakers advance measures that would trigger the expansion only if Indiana gets what it wants.

“I believe that the Healthy Indiana Plan should serve as the starting point for all future discussions of health care reform in Indiana,” Pence wrote.

“While our administration has committed to fully funding Indiana’s current Medicaid forecast, we believe that expanding coverage absent significant reforms would not be in the best interest of Hoosiers.”

The move sets Indiana apart from its neighboring states, all of which are moving toward implementing the Medicaid expansion that was a key part of President Barack Obama’s health care law.

And it differentiates Pence from the two Republican governors next door – Ohio’s John Kasich and Michigan’s Rick Snyder – who are doing so despite strenuous objections from conservatives who complain of the Medicaid expansion’s price tag.

The Indiana House and Senate public health committees advanced bills Wednesday that would set in motion the Medicaid expansion if the federal government allows the state to use its Healthy Indiana Plan as the vehicle.

That and more on this story on courierpress.com.