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March 2009

They Run for the Money

  Have you noticed how quickly Illinois politicians move when it comes to raising taxes or fees?

  Take the Illinois Tollway Authority, for example, and how speedily it "closed" this week's decision to nearly double the rates drivers pay to use the system's highways.

  Board Chairman Paula Wolfe reminded me that her members had considered a toll increase to fund a $12 billion capital program since early 2010. 

  But public hearings on the 87.5% proposed hike did not begin until August 18th and the series of 15 sessions were crammed into the next five days ending on August 23rd.

  Incredibly, the Board met  two days later on the morning of August 25th to "vote" its approval of the 15-year program as if the members had given any real study or consideration to the public testimony, most of which was orchestrated by self-interested labor unions and roadbuilders.

  While covering what critics called the "done deal" at the Tollway's palatial Downers Grove headquarters, I could not help but think of the Chicago Public School Board's decision a day earlier to approve a "maximum-allowed" increase in the city property tax.

  On August 5th, only one week after Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Chicagoans were being "nickeled and dimed" by taxers, the CPS Board appointed by the Mayor proposed raising property taxes.  The new levy would cost the owner of an average home ($250,000) an additional $84 a year.  The increase would generate $150 million dollars of the district's projected $712 million deficit.

  Taxpayers barely had a chance to see the CPS budget on line, let alone on paper, before public hearings were scheduled five days later on August 10th, 11th and 12th. 

  Emanuel's Board voted and approved the tax increase unanimously August 24th. 


  The Tollway Authority and Chicago School Board may have learned from the "clinic" Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and the democratic legislative leaders held earlier this year on "the need for speed".

  Remember last January when the General Assembly reconvened for its "lame duck" session? 

  In a scant 48 hours ending before dawn on Jan. 12th, the democratic-controlled House and Senate had raised the Illinois corporate and personal income tax rates only hours before new members could be seated.  The next day, January 13th, the Governor signed the bill, which was retroactive to January 1st.


  Taxpayers never knew what hit 'em.

   Keep in mind that high-speed taxation is happening in Illinois as newly-elected state and city "reform" politicians use the word "transparent" to describe their new modus operandi.

  Its transparent, all right.

  Taxpayers should see right through it.




Shamrock Shocker!

  Out of the clear blue (or green) came the news this week that the 30 years old South Side Irish Parade would be no more.   Meeting just two days after the 2009 event that attracted an estimated 300,000 St. Patrick's Day celebrants to the Beverly and Mt. Greenwood neighborhoods, the parade organizers lamented that "the sheer volume had become more than the neighborhood could reasonably accomodate".  They also cited a "collection of issues that strain both the host community and those individuals charged with effectively managing the crowds".  Even Mayor Daley, interviewed by ABC-7's Ben Bradley at an Olympics-related meeting in Denver, expressed surprise at the sudden announcement.

  I've never covered or attended a South Side Irish Parade but through the years I've been enthralled by the bagpipers and "river dancers" strutting down Western Avenue during the live and taped coverage on ABC-7 and other stations.  I've also read my share of news stories about the event.  But howizzit that so many commentators and reporters in recent years have used the "a-good-time-was-had-by-all" angle in their stories with little to no mention of the major problems caused by the event?

  I spent yesterday morning at an awards ceremony at Chicago Police Headquarters and spoke to at least a half dozen officers who live in the Beverly-Mt. Greenwood neighborhoods.  They told me the parade became unbearable for their families at least a decade ago.  One said the available parking on his side street off Western Avenue disappeared by 7am on parade Sunday.  Then the busloads of suburbanites, many of them already drunk, arrived at mid-morning and kept arriving until the march began.  Another 19th Ward cop said he locked the kids and their bicycles in the house on parade day in fear of all the presumptive drunk drivers in the neighborhood.  Then there were all the empty bottles and cans not to mention the trampled lawns.  And while police arrested 54 people for "disorderly conduct" Sunday, my sources told me those were the absolute "most outrageous cases" that involved fights and property damage.  And the same officers, who were off-duty that day, said the number of "parade watchers" who could have been cited for drinking on the public way, underage drinking, and other alcohol-related offenses would have soared into the thousands if every violator was charged.

  But let's get back to the point of this posting.  I believe that so many people reacted with "shock" to the cancellation news because the live commentators, reporters and photographers assigned to cover the event in recent years had not adequately chronicled the parade's devolution from family-friendly to whatever it had become.  Were the paid observers really so taken by what was happening in the middle of Western Avenue that they never looked to the sidewalks and a couple of blocks into the neighborhoods?  I understand that nobody wants to be a killjoy at the biggest St. Patrick's Day event in a jurisdiction where the Mayor, the Governor, the State Senate President, the State House Speaker and so many other elected and unelected public officials trace their ancestry to the Emerald Isle.  But you've gotta tell the whole story including the not-so-nice parts of it.

  And there's something else:  Did politically-correct reporters and editors intentionally look away from the drinking and brawling at South Side Irish in an attempt to "tiptoe" around a certain stereotype? 




  Okay, so I'm the new guy.  I admit there's a lot more I'll need to learn about the protocols of political Springfield.  But will somebody please explain to me how the most enduring and powerful government leader at the Illinois capitol, a guy they call the "Speaker", gets away with saying virtually nothing after the Governor described a deficit-ridden state "facing its greatest crisis in modern times".

  Following Governor Pat Quinn's budget address, Senate President John Cullerton held a candid, half hour session with reporters in his office.  Cullerton conceded the likelihood of some kind of income tax increase but said his chamber would conduct a thorough review of the Governor's proposal and the actual need for it before signing off on a 50% increase and the proposed exemption amounts in the plan.  He also said a hike in the motor fuels tax, which Quinn opposes, is still on the table as far as his members are concerned.

  But House Speaker Michael Madigan's only post-speech media availability was during a live interview on barely-watched Illinois Public Television, answering soft ball questions lobbed by an okey-doke interviewer who actually told me ahead of time there were certain things he just wouldn't bring up during his scheduled eight minutes. (more on that later)  Madigan answered no questions from dozens of other reporters who had traveled to Springfield from around the state to cover the historic speech.

   Among the top three leaders, the 66 year old Speaker and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party would be expected to have the most profound input concerning how the state resolves its $11.6 billion budget deficit.  Madigan was first elected to the House in 1970 and has served as Speaker during all but one session (1994-96) since 1983.  He was actually in charge of the House the last time the Illinois income tax was increased in 1989.    Quinn, who was elevated to Governor only seven weeks ago and Cullerton, who was elected Senate President late last year are virtual infants dealing with such situations when compared to Madigan.

  So why does he try so hard to blow off the media.  In all the conversations I've had about the Speaker with my colleagues and various state lawmakers, there is not a whisper or the even the slightest hint that this most powerful of Illinois pols is trying to hide anything shady or corrupt.  In that category, he has been beyond reproach.  So is he trying to avoid questions about his daughter, Attorney General Lisa, and her reported gubernatorial aspirations?  How will he balance his consideration of the Governor's budget when whatever is decided could have a major impact on the 2010 democratic primary,  a contest that could involve Lisa and Quinn?   That's a valid question and one that I tried to get the softballer to ask in the IPTV interview. 

  On the Speaker's web page he writes:

"As Speaker, I want every citizen of Illinois to know this is a people's Legislature -- we are here to serve the public, openly, honestly and with the highest standards. I am accountable only to you."

When I read that quote after being blown off by Madigan on such an important day in Springfield, this reporter is left...



Train Wreck

  I'm on my way to Springfield this morning to begin the long anticipated (or dreaded) "Budget Fest".  Tonight, we'll get our first glimpse of Governor Pat Quinn's spending plan that will attempt to close the now $11.5 billion dollar deficit in Illinois finances.  The estimated total shortfall is a combination of money the state spent but didn't collect in taxes and fees last year added to the projected amount it doesn't have or cannot expect to collect during the next fiscal year.  Between the end of last year and now, the deficit has grown steadily from the initially reported $3 billion.  Its impossible to tell if the rising number is a matter of a worsening economy or a situation that's spun totally out of control.  Its probably some of both.

  As a reporter, you learn early on to avoid hyperbole.  Politicians, on the other hand, exaggerate for a living.  They are telling us this is "the worst financial crisis in the state's history" and love to blame the disaster on recently-ousted Governor Rod Blagojevich, as if he alone was responsible for it.  But according to Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation, Illinois consistently overspends its revenues and systematically carries the shortfall into the next year's budget.   Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability called the system "structurally dysfunctional" and blamed the political cowardice of past governors and state lawmakers who have not modernized Illinois taxation.  Martire says Illinois, among the states, has the fifth largest economy but ranks 45th in the amount of revenue it collects from taxes and fees. 

  A quick "google" indicates that Msall and Martire might be on the money (no pun intended) in their analyses.  In 2003, Blagojevich inherited a $5 billion dollar deficit from his predecessor George Ryan's administration.   Later that year, Comptroller Dan Hynes reported a $9 billion dollar "net deficit" and called it "the highest (of any state) in the nation".   Three years later, Hynes scolded Blagojevich for the state's growing deficit during a national economic upswing when Illinois income tax revenues actually increased $1.3 billion dollars and other state revenues were up $833 million.

  All the state's current top officials including Quinn, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan have been involved in Illinois government during the past six years as the situation reached critical mass.   While Quinn and Cullerton assumed their leadership roles only recently, Madigan has presided over his chamber as the state's finances have gone from bad to worse to "worst".  It will be interesting to hear what he has to say about solving the mess.

  After the briefing tonight, the Governor himself will address the General Assembly Wednesday.  Stay alert.  Train wreck just down I-55 a piece.



Pat Quinn the Taxpayer's "Best Friend"

  I can see the campaign commercials already:

"Hi, my name is Jane the Janitor.  I'm voting for Pat Quinn because he lowered my state taxes and put money in my pocket when I needed it the most!"

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has tipped his political hand and let the Madigans and anyone else who's interested in running for his office next year that after 30 years in state politics he can play the game with the best of them.

  I wrote in this space several weeks ago that Quinn, who became Governor after Rod Blagojevich was impeached and convicted, was at risk of becoming the fall guy when the state income tax is likely raised this year to help fill the state's projected $9 billion dollar budget hole.  Quinn has not ruled out the tax increase but now says its his "philosophy" to levy taxes based on a citizen's "ability to pay".   And Quinn, who is still writing his budget plan to be delivered on March 18th, hinted that he favors writing rules that would not only protect low income taxpayers from an increase but actually reduce or perhaps remove some of them from the state income tax rolls.  Said Quinn:  "If you use the personal exemption to provide tax relief to famlies, especially parents raising kids, you can give tax relief to a lot of people who right now are paying too much."

  Right now, the state income tax is  a flat 3% of every Illinois worker's gross income.  It is estimated that each additional point would raise about $4 billion dollars in new revenue for cash-strapped Springfield.  But if low income workers are removed from the tax rolls...expect those on the upper end to get hit with a bigger increase, perhaps up to five per cent of gross income which would be a whopping 67% hike over what those people pay in state income tax today.

  But let's get back to the pure politics of it.  Quinn's opponents in the 2010 democratic primary (Attorney General Lisa Madigan et al?) and the republican contenders should he reach the general election campaign would find themselves engaged in a class war should they bring up the tax increase issue.  And if the current recession should persist well into to 2010 (as some economists predict), then the Governor would be right where he likes to be, fighting for the little guy.

  Oh, for the record, Quinn has not announced that he's running for a full term as Governor.  But clearly, he appears to be taking care of business in case he does decide to run.