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Social agenda's not going away

Hot-button issues intrude on focus on jobs

Indiana's candidates for governor would much prefer to talk about jobs than social issues.

After all, that's what voters want to talk about, and the major-party candidates are in general agreement on the hot-button social issues.

Democrat John Gregg and Republican Mike Pence both are pro-life and both oppose same-sex marriage.

But a sidelines position isn't an option. The truce Gov. Mitch Daniels called for on social issues was increasingly strained as the GOP-controlled General Assembly took on immigration, creationism instruction and an effort to strip Planned Parenthood funding.

Even Democrats concede the Indiana House could pick up a super-majority that would allow its increasingly conservative members to push the boundaries. The next governor will face social issues whether he wants to go there or not.

For Indiana voters, the question becomes: Which candidate will emphasize his jobs agenda and which will embrace the measures they don't want to talk about today?

Candidate Rupert Boneham is true to his libertarian leanings in limiting rather than expanding government's reach; he supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

The Libertarian Party, however, won less than 3 percent of the vote in the 2008 gubernatorial contest.

On abortion

Gregg, former Indiana House speaker, fails the litmus test pro-life supporters impose because his running mate, Sen. Vi Simpson, is staunchly pro-choice. But Gregg makes an important distinction between abortion rights and women's health care. Legislation sponsored in 2011 by 54 House members, including Pence running mate Sue Ellspermann, sought to cut funding for Planned Parenthood. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the new law, agreeing that it conflicted with the federal Medicaid statute ensuring beneficiaries the right to choose their own health care provider.

"I support Planned Parenthood's use of tax dollars," Gregg said in an interview. "I always have. This other idea that the money supports abortion is not true. It goes for things like family planning and cancer screenings and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Do not let them get away with framing this as a pro-life issue."

Pence, a six-term congressman, attempted to do just that at the federal level. He sponsored a bill last year to strip Planned Parenthood of Title X funding. In an interview, he stressed that his primary aims address spending, but are shaped by his personal views.

"I've also been pro-life throughout my public life, and I've sought to take stands on spending that reflect those issues and I've opposed public funding of abortion and public funding of abortion providers and I continue to hold those views," he said.

Risky business

It would seem there's little either candidate could do to expand opportunities for Hoosiers to gamble – the state is saturated with casinos, racinos, charity bingo, off-track betting parlors, lottery retail sites, and pull tabs and tip boards at bars and taverns. The current governor's decision to privatize the Hoosier Lottery undoubtedly means an aggressive sales push for scratch-off tickets and more.

But the gaming industry hasn't stopped digging deeper into Hoosiers' pockets since voters first authorized gambling here 24 years ago. Gregg, with 16 years' experience in the General Assembly, is in the best position to understand the industry's motives and its effects on state revenue. As House speaker, he played a unique role in Indiana's landmark 2002 tax restructuring package – working with Minority Leader Brian Bosma to get the deal approved, but personally voting against it because it expanded gambling.

"There's no doubt we'll have to do a few things to deal with it," he said, referring to the loss of revenue because of casino competition from other states. "I do view it as a business."

Gambling legislation is rare at the federal level, but Pence is a reliable vote against anything that would expand the practice, including a vote to ban the use of credit cards for online gambling.

"Gambling is an addiction that destroys families across America, and unfortunately, gambling on the Internet has been allowed to go on unregulated," he said at the time of the vote.

If elected, Pence will have to accept the fact that – addicted or not – Indiana balances its budget on legalized gambling and thousands of Hoosiers depend on it for their livelihood.

Protecting children

Gregg called for the immediate dismissal of James Payne when the Indianapolis Star reported last month that the director of the Department of Child Services had improperly intervened in a case involving his grandchildren. Even before the story broke, Gregg called for reform at the agency.

Pence, however, referred questions about Payne's conflict to the Daniels administration, and when asked directly last week whether the former director would have a role in a Pence administration, the congressman didn't take the opportunity to rule it out.

"If we have the privilege of starting on Nov. 7 to having to think about personnel issues, we'll be looking for the best people, the best men and women with the background and experience to take Indiana to the next level in every agency in government and in every role."

Pence also made a point to praise the current administration's work.

"I think we need to make a relentless commitment to improving the Department of Child Services, but I also strongly hold the view that in the last eight years Indiana has made measurable progress in child services," he said, noting that it is important to recognize the progress and why the state made it.

"The fact is, we reorganized the program from being largely a county-based program to being a unified system – and I think that's been proper. I also think the focus in DCS to move people into permanent placement is right."

Gregg's platform calls for a statewide adoption promotion effort, restoration of mental health services for children and creation of an Office of the Child Advocate. Pence would promote adoption by lifting the school-voucher income restrictions for families with adopted or foster-care children.

In the area of child care regulations, Pence has troubling ties to Advance America, a political action group headed by former Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Miller. The group opposes any attempt to place common-sense regulations on Indiana's faith-based child-care ministries, mobilizing its members with misinformation and outright lies. A toddler drowned in the baptismal pool at one such program in February, and an Indianapolis couple operating the Little Miracles child care ministry is under federal indictment for fraud.

As keynote speaker for the organization's 30th anniversary celebration last year, Pence praised Miller's successful effort to thwart required background checks on employees and limits on the number of children each care-giver could supervise – minimal and reasonable requirements, particularly where taxpayer-funded child care vouchers are involved.

Pence denied that his comments meant that he would not support any regulations.

"I strongly support faith-based organizations and the roles they play in the support of our communities. I strongly support maintaining that proper relationship between church and state," he said. "But I'm open to discussions with legislators."

Pence said he will have "an open mind, not an empty mind" about any kind of common-sense regulations.

"I bring a heavy bias in favor of preserving the independence of churches in Indiana and I bring a heavy bias in favor of child safety," he said. "I don't think those things are necessarily in conflict."

Family engineering

Both candidates wisely emphasize plans to focus on jobs, but the congressman has another policy proposal falling squarely in the social-engineering arena: An executive order requiring a "family impact statement" in drafting new rules and regulations.

"Agencies would be required to address whether or not this new policy would have any negative impact on people's ability or if it would serve, even unintentionally, as a barrier to people getting married, staying married, waiting to have kids until after they are married," Pence said. "We don't want the state putting up hurdles."

As rationale for the new requirement, Pence proclaims that "no governor or state agency anywhere in America has made the success equation the basis of its anti-poverty strategy."

For good reason. The line between promoting intact, two-parent families and stigmatizing those who aren't part of one is indiscernible. Citing studies that link childhood poverty and single-parent families assumes an unproven cause and effect. Single parents don't cause poverty, and enacting government regulations that attempt to promote marriage portends all sorts of unforeseen consequences. If discouraging births outside of marriage is the goal, why attack Planned Parenthood?

Gregg is right when he vigorously objects to Pence's quest to promote marriage.

"He's got a program that he wants to focus on families, but it's on a mom-and-dad family – a married couple," Gregg said at Wednesday's debate in South Bend. "I'm a single parent, too, and I take great offense that, kind of, his family plan doesn't consider me and my boys a family.

"Maybe he doesn't think you and your kids are a family, either. That's a road we don't want to go down."

Maintaining priorities

Both candidates have well-considered economic plans, but voters would be right to worry that Pence's inclusion of a marriage-promotion plank is a sop to the conservative voices decrying government's role in some areas while demanding it in others.

His insistence that requiring a family impact statement "in no way would diminish the state's commitment to coming alongside single parents or diminish the heroic efforts of single parents" is surely sincere, but the fact that it's never been done elsewhere should serve as warning of a treacherous path.

Gregg, whose personal views fall far to the right of the Democratic Party, also is sincere when he states his approach.

"I do not want to wake up every morning wanting to deal with social issues – they don't put people to work," he said. "When we deal with them, we miss the opportunities in the areas I like to talk about."

He also understands the influence the governor wields in discouraging pursuit of a social agenda.

"I would make it clear to the legislative leadership that I don't want to see it," he said. "The governor has a bully pulpit. If it means getting in a state police cruiser and driving up here to talk to you people, I'll do that to drive public opinion. If we're going to be worrying about the Girl Scouts and license plates, we can't get done what we need to get done."

Karen Francisco has been an Indiana journalist since 1982 and an editorial writer at The Journal Gazette since 2000. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email, kfrancisco@jg.net.

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