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The Journal Gazette

  • Raymond Scheele

  • Joseph Losco

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 4:18 pm

Northern Indiana leads push for stronger ethics

Raymond Scheele and Joseph Losco

While Hoosiers are evenly split on whether public officials are held accountable for their misconduct, a clear majority believe Indiana needs stronger ethics laws.

There’s a definite gap among Democrats, Republicans and independents on the issue, with those out of power supporting stronger laws by 76 percent (in the case of Democrats) and 70 percent (independents). A majority of Republicans also favor stronger laws, though by a smaller majority (57 percent).

Looking geographically, residents in Indiana’s northern counties are far and away the strongest proponents of strengthening the laws that define ethical behavior of public officials.

Seventy-three percent of them want the General Assembly to act on ethics reform, while 65 percent of central Indiana residents are on board, and 58 percent of those who live in southern counties agree.

But however you slice it, a distinct majority of Indiana residents – 66 percent – are on the side of stronger restrictions on the actions of public officials.

Now in its seventh year, the nonpartisan WISH-TV/Ball State University Hoosier Survey gauges the opinions of Indiana residents on issues facing state leaders and legislators in the coming year.

When legislators come together in session, knowing what Hoosiers think about the issues helps provide a road map for the General Assembly.

It’s perhaps not surprising to see such clear endorsement of stronger ethics laws. Indiana has seen its share of high-visibility misconduct by public officials in recent years. Secretary of State Charlie White was removed from office in early 2012 after he was convicted of six of seven felony counts involving theft and voter fraud. On appeal, three of the convictions were upheld, along with White’s one-year home-detention sentence. It was perhaps especially ironic that the three counts were those involving voter fraud, since the secretary of state is Indiana’s chief elections officer.

Former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was already out of office, denied re-election to a second term in November 2012, before his ethics troubles became public. He was found to have used state equipment and personnel in his unsuccessful campaign. Bennett had moved on to a similar position in Florida when it came to light that his flagship "A to F" grading system for schools might have been altered to improve the score of a charter school championed by prominent Republican donor Christel DeHaan.

Most recently, State Rep. P. Eric Turner resigned after winning re-election last November. Although an ethics investigation cleared Turner of wrongdoing, he had been accused of using his position to enrich his family business. He had served in the House for 24 years.

House leaders have promised to tackle ethics reform in this year’s General Assembly.

The Hoosier Survey has been a part of Indiana’s landscape since 2008, reflecting the Bowen Center for Public Affairs’ determination that communities thrive when citizens are involved, prepared and informed.

The 2014 Hoosier Survey was a partnership between the Bowen Center for Public Affairs and WISH-TV, conducted by Princeton Survey Research International between Oct. 7 and Oct. 15, 2014.

Six hundred residents age 18 and older with landlines and cellphones were interviewed with a margin of error of 5.1 percent.

Full results are available on the Bowen Center’s website (www.bowencenterforpublicaffairs.org).

Raymond Scheele and Joseph Losco are co-directors of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University. They wrote this for Indiana newspapers.