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April 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.




The Daley Interview: A "Good Get"?

  Lots of people approached me over the weekend and early this week to congratulate me on ABC-7's exclusive interview with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.  I used the 20th anniversary of the Mayor's first swearing-in (April 24, 1989) as a "hook" and worked with his press office during the preceding two weeks arranging the time and place for the 30 minute session last Wednesday afternoon.

  Then, on Wednesday morning I'm on my way to work when I hear the much-too-familiar sound of my Blackberry.  Its my office forwarding a press release from city hall announcing that the Mayor has accompanied his wife, Maggie, to Northwestern Hospital where she would undergo a biopsy to determine, essentially, whether her cancer has recurred.  The release also said the Mayor was "at her side".  I immediately e-mailed the assistant press secretary with whom I had made arrangements to let her know that I assumed the interview would be postponed and that my prayers and thoughts were with the Mayor and his family.

  But the assistant e-mailed me and said that since she had not heard otherwise, I should proceed as though the interview would happen as scheduled at 3:00pm.  However, she did warn that things could change depending on developments at the hospital.

  Crewmembers Rich Hillengas and Jackie Denn and myself had no idea what to expect while waiting in the 5th floor conference room outside the Mayor's office.  Then at 3:05pm, the door opened and a surprisingly relaxed-looking Richard M. Daley walked in and took his seat opposite mine.   While he was being miked, I expressed my hopes for his wife's well-being and mentioned that I had offerred to postpone the interview.  He said not to worry.   But at the single mention of her name, the look of concern in his eyes was recognized immediately by the husband sitting across from him.   I could sense an agreement between us that would set the tone for the next 30 minutes.

  Those "issues facing the city" I had listed on the notepad in my lap meant nothing compared to the struggle that Richard and Maggie Daley and their family had waged for the past seven years.   This was NOT the afternoon to confront the Mayor on abused affirmative action programs, Meigs Field, patronage scandals, privatization, homicide rates, police unrest, etc., etc..  Instead, I wanted to give Chicagoans a glimpse of the husband and family man who has shared an incredible love story with the great city he has led from one century into another.

  When he took us on a brief tour of his inner office he only talked about his family.  There literally were hundreds of mementos and souvenirs from around the world including pictures of Daley posing with Presidents, Kings, Queens and assorted Potentates I could never recognize.  But the only photos and mementos he picked up to show me were those related to his beloved wife and family.  His grandfather "Big Mike" ( only 5'5" tall but obviously the giant in the Mayor's upbringing), a handwritten election day note from his late mother, "Sis" Daley, and a photo of Kevin, the three-year-old son who died from complications caused by spina bifida in 1981. 

   In the news business, we call an exclusive interview with a newsmaker "a good get".  The timing of last weeks encounter was such that this reporter cared more about the physical, emotional and spiritual health of Mayor Daley and his family than making sensational news.  To use baseball lingo, I admit pitching the Mayor a few more 80 mile per hour, centercut fastballs than I had planned.  And on that difficult day, he deserved to hit most of them out of the park.

  But then, the healthy, six-times-elected, 67 year old Daley also told me that he has no plans to retire any time in the near future.  So who knows, maybe he'll sit down again exclusively at the next milestone, when he tops his father's terms in office in December of 2010.


20 Years Later...

  Convictions, indictments, deficits, potholes, broken parking meters, the International Olympic Committee inspection tour and an ill-timed snowstorm have so overwhelmed Chicago city hall recently that an important anniversary was barely noticed as it came and went.  Twenty years ago, on April 4, 1989, Richard M. Daley was elected the 54th mayor of the City of Chicago. (He was officially sworn-in 20 days later on April 24th, 1989, his 47th birthday)  Two decades later, the six-times-elected Daley is confronted by more challenges and crises than in any comparable period of his tenure as mayor. 

  During the past month the mayor and his administration have been caught in a Chicago political whirlwind.  The biggest worry at city hall continues to be the recession-related revenue shortfalls which currently run in the neighborhood of $25 million a month.  The Streets and Sanitation Department, which laid off workers as part of the mayor's belt-tightening effort last year, appears unable to keep pace with this spring's pothole invasion.  Quite frankly, the city's streets in many places are more than frayed and that definitely is not what we've come to know as Daley's style.

  The police officers' union is in revolt, demanding a new contract and the resignation and/or firing of the mayor's hand-picked, $310,000 a year superintendent to which patrol officers gave an overwhelming vote of "no confidence" last month.   Union members also picketed city hall with chants of "Daley Sucks" on the same day the IOC committee arrived to begin its inspection tour of Chicago as a site for the 2016 Olympics.

   Meanwhile, the city's lease of its parking meters to a private company that the mayor force-fed to the city council has exploded in public outrage.  The rates have soared and the contractor has proven itself clueless on how to manage the system.  And another group of "privateers" who agreed to lease Midway Airport have failed to come up with financing for the deal.  The city will get to keep the "down payment" if financing can't be secured but the deal's collapse could put Chicago's long-range finances in some peril.

  And then there's the financially-troubled O'Hare Modernization Program (OMP).  At an estimated $15 billion, it's called the largest aviation-related public works project underway in the United States.  For years, the Daley administration has told anyone who would listen that reconfiguring and building new runways at O'Hare will reduce flight delays not only in Chicago but also throughout the country.   But apparently, the folks who wrote the rules for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan are unimpressed.  OMP has only been able to collect a relatively measly $12 million in Stimulus grants so far.  That's out of nearly one billion set aside for aviation nationally.

   But wait, there's more.  The mayor had to apologize for the misdeeds of his former Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez.  Sanchez, Streets and San boss from 1999-2005, was convicted in Federal Court last month for giving pro-Daley political workers hiring preference in the department.  Sanchez is the third Daley administration official in the past decade, and highest-ranking so far, to be convicted or implicated in illegal patronage schemes.  Former deputy water commissioner Donald Tomczak and former Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Robert Sorich were sentenced to federal prisons for the same kind of corruption.  The mayor has insisted he had no knowledge of any illegal activities by any of his subordinates as the parade continues to 219 S. Dearborn and on to various stops at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

  And like the mayor needs such headaches while he's trying to convince the IOC to stage the 2016 summer games in Chicago.  Then, boom!  "Mt. Blagojevich" erupts on the very afternoon that IOC inspection committee members begin arriving in Chicago.  The recently ousted governor, his brother, two former aides and two fundraisers are indicted.   Earlier, Daley said at a news conference indictments during the IOC visit wouldn't make any difference to the city's bid.  But hey, do you really want those 13 inspectors waking up and seeing a headline about an allegedly corrupt ex-governor on the front page of the newspaper laid outside their hotel room doors on the first morning they're here?

  And then came the freaky weather.  Chicago 2016 supporters really needed the IOC group to see the city in its sunlit best.  Surely, the visitors realized it doesn't snow here in August but I'd bet my dollars to your donuts that Rio, Madrid and Tokyo put on a better showing weatherwise when the tour visits those cities.

  So during his 20th anniversary month, the political gods are showing Mayor Daley that longevity in office doesn't make the job any easier.  In fact, from a political/administrative point of view, 2009 might be the most challenging year in office that he's ever had.