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March 2010

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.




White Party, Wrong State


  Your Illinois Republican Party has done it again:

  With little fanfare earlier this month, the party of Lincoln swore-in a new, 19-member State Central Committee that does not include any African-Americans!

  The seats on the committee are elected in each of the state's congressional districts and the GOP could not elect a black person in even the 1st, 2nd or 7th Districts which are overwhelmingly black. 

  The absence of any African-American members is a major disappointment for newly-elected chairman Pat Brady.  Brady, who was first elected to lead the state party after Andy McKenna resigned last summer insists that republicans must embrace diversity as part of their overall rebuilding strategy.

  "That's our fault and our problem and we need to diversify", lamented Brady.  "We did add some Hispanic Americans but we need to have more African-American representation, no doubt."

  Actually, the committee "added" only one Hispanic-American:  Angel Garcia represents the 3rd Congressional District.  After reviewing last names on the membership roll he appears to be the single Latino on the committee.

  Brady, a good friend of Michael Steele, the national republican party's African-American chairman, is hopeful about getting black state committee members elected, especially in predominantly black congressional districts in 2012.

  "I think there are a lot of moderate to conservative democrats in those areas fed up with what the  democrats have not delivered for them in the past decade"

  But Brady insisted the appeal to African-Americans must not be race-based.

  "We need to attract them on issues and not on skin color", he said.

  A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau (2007) says that African-Americans make up 15% of Illinois, Hispanics around 15% while estimating the state's overall non-white population at 35%.   Demographers expect the percentages for non-whites, expecially Latinos, will increase dramatically after the 2010 census.

  But a look at the Illinois Republican Central Committee suggests the members were assembled from some other place. 

  Maybe that explains why their party doesn't hold a single statewide office.


Democrat Family Matters

  What's in a name? 

  A whole lot, apparently, if you're an Illinois democrat.

  The party's 38-member central committee voted by an overwhelming margin Saturday to nominate Sheila Simon to be Governor Pat Quinn's running mate in the November general election.

  Simon was the personal choice of Quinn, who looked beyond state representative Art Turner, the runnerup behind the resigned Scott Lee Cohen in the February primary.   Not only did Turner spend money and months campaigning for the nomination, he also has 28 years of legislative experience in state government that was discounted when the party bosses appointed Simon.  Her resume lists "Carbondale City Council Member" as the highest office she's ever held.

  But wow, the 49 year old S.I.U Law Professor is the daughter of an Illinois Democratic Party icon, the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon who also served as the state's Lt. Governor from 1969 to 1973.  She admitted her last name provided an advantage over Turner and other applicants.

  "The famous name gets my foot in the door but that's only the start. That's not the end of it", said Simon.

   Illinois democrats are notorius for promoting the political careers of their own children and the offspring of fellow politicians.  Daley, Madigan, Stroger, Mell, Berrios, Zalewski, Lipinski, Jones (as in Emil) are some of the family names that precede Simon on the party's even longer list of political "estates".  For some reason, Illinois republicans don't play the "name game" as often and they certainly don't play it nearly as well.

  But please, understand that loser Art Turner is not an entirely sympathetic character in all this.  

  When he decided to run for lieutenant governor, Turner backed his son Art Turner, Jr.'s successful Democratic Primary campaign to replace his father in the legislature.   Of course, the son blew away the other candidates who were not named Art Turner.

  Sorry, Pop.  In the name game... 

   ...what goes around, comes around.



Pension Reform: Credit Where It's Due

  Speaker Michael Madigan introduced the pension reform bill and raced it through his Illinois House of Representatives. Senate President John Cullerton snatched the baton and ramrodded the measure through his chamber. Now Governor Pat Quinn is calling the bill's lightning-like passage "a political explosion" vowing to sign it as soon as possible.

  Democrats are taking more than their share of bows for the landmark legislation that is projected to save Illinois taxpayers $100 billion in the next half century.

  The fact is that the lawmakers who proposed the most recent version of pension reform in Illinois are republicans. During interviews and news conferences In the past 14 months, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno and House Republican Leader Tom Cross literally have made hundreds of calls for reform while Madigan and Cullerton did not respond with an actual bill until March 24th, 2010.   

  Since he assumed office, Quinn has gone both ways on pension reform.  Shortly after his elevation, he performed one of his most notorius "flip-flops" on the issue as it applies to public school teachers.  But during the primary campaign, he was a relatively consistent supporter of a "two-tiered" pension system for current employees and those to be hired in the future.

  Republican Senators Kirk Dillard and Matt Murphy told reporters the only reason the dems moved with such dispatch this week was word from Wall Street that bond rating agencies were about to "double downgrade" Illinois' credit.

  The republicans say the bill passed this week includes virtually all the provisions advocated by Radogno and Cross and the party's seven primary candidates for governor.

  Now, Governor Quinn and the democrats running for re-election to the General Assembly in November will claim they are the "party of reform".

   The voters will decide.


Springtime in Springfield - Part 2

  Wow. You'd think somebody in Springfield read yesterday's post!

  Both Chambers of the Illinois General Assembly performed as if the state was facing a fiscal crisis of "epic proportions" and suddenly got serious about pension reform legislation.  Only hours after a House bill was introduced by Speaker Michael Madigan, the legislature passed it by an overwhelming and bi-partisan 92-17 vote with seven members voting present.

  President John Cullerton's Illinois Senate received the measure yesterday afternoon, worked late Wednesday night and approved it 48-6 with three present votes.  Again, there was bi-partisan support with republican leader Senator Christine Radogno calling the bill "substantial reform".

   It raises the retirement age to 67 for a full pension and puts a cap on annual payouts to retirees, including teachers.  The bill only affects newly-hired workers.  It's projected to save the state tens of billions of dollars in the future but is not expected to significantly affect the current $13 billion deficit.

  But the general assembly votes for pension reform are critical to the overall budget-balancing effort in the Capitol.  That's because dozens of state reps and senators of both parties have made it a non-negotiable condition for their support of any effort to increase income taxes for education or anything else.

  Think about it.  Legislative leaders and their caucuses accomplished in one long day's work a reform that budget watchdog groups have demanded for at least the past 20 years.

  And they did it in Springfield.




Springtime In Springfield

  In case you hadn't noticed, today marks two weeks since Governor Pat Quinn's budget address in Springfield.  Remember, the speech in which he described Illinois' $13 billion dollar budget deficit as a fiscal crisis of "epic proportions".

  Apparently, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton were not impressed.  The democratic legislative leaders still have not begun consideration of Quinn's call for an income tax increase to support public education.  Only today did Madigan introduce a measure to overhaul the state employee pension system, considered a key "pillar" in the Governor's recovery plan.

  But don't expect lawmakers to get much work done on pension reform or any other budget-related matter in the near future.

   Despite the now $6 billion backlog of unpaid state bills (including invoices from school districts issuing pink slips to teachers) and other Illinois financial horrors, Madigan and Cullerton at this writing still plan to adjourn their chambers for "Spring Break".




GOP's Mystery "Majority"

  After listening on-line to dozens of pro and con Healthcare Reform speeches streamed from the U.S. House of Representatives Sunday, I was intrigued by a recurrent theme used by the Republican speakers:  The "majority" of Americans, they insisted, oppose the historic measure eventually passed by democrats to the delight of the White House.

  Perhaps the republicans thought anti-reform "Tea Partiers", thousands of whom made weekend trips to the Capitol to attend "kill the bill" rallies, represented the sentiments of most Americans.  At times, it may have looked that way during television news broadcasts.   

  But by Sunday morning, after reports of racial slurs and anti-gay epithets being shouted at certain congressional democrats, the GOP leadership tried to put distance between themselves and demonstrators outside the House Chamber who were part of the "majority".

  During their floor speeches, republicans sometimes cited "polls" to back up their claims that most Americans thought "Obamacare" was too expensive, a jobs-killer, and a "socialist".outrage.  

  Just a guess, but the vast majority (there's that word again) of Americans probably did not get a call from the polling companies whose surveys were so lauded by the republicans.

  But this much we do know:  Only 16 months ago, 53% of Americans voted for Barack Obama who insisted countless times during his presidential campaign that Healthcare Reform would be his number one domestic priority.   Also, understand that voter turnout, nationally, in the 2008 general election was the highest in 40 years.  And what's more, the same voters sent an overwhelming majority of democrats to Congress, presumably to support the new president's agenda.

  In a democracy, majorities are not made by screamers and pollsters.

  They are won on election day.  




Meaningless "Transparency"

  So what is the Illinois Democratic Party's public hearing "extravaganza" Saturday really about?

  The state party's 38 member central committee is sponsoring six hearings around the state to hear testimony from 260 people who have "applied" to be selected to run for Lieutenant Governor on the November ballot with Pat Quinn.  The committee will make its decision a week later, March 27th, in Springfield.

  This is the latest effort by the dems to convince us that they no longer do their deals in the proverbial "backroom" and that Chairman Michael Madigan and company are now some new age "transparent" version of their familiar, secret selves.

  Yeah, right.

  So what's with the Friday headlines in both Chicago newspapers that Governor Quinn privately interviewed another of his favorites, State Senator Susan Garrett?  And didn't the governor do the same several weeks ago with federal Veterans Affairs honcho Tammy Duckworth, who turned him down?   Granted, the governor should have a major voice in who his running mate will be, but in light of all the hoopla over the "open" process, how can he court candidates privately?  Are his personal favorites more than equal in the process?

  And could somebody explain how 38 central committee members can hear the testimonies of over 200 candidates at six different hearings (five locations) on one Saturday to make a decision only seven days later?

  At best, a handful of bosses will show up at one of the locations nearest their homes to hear a dozen or so candidates waste their time. 

  I thought about working this Saturday (my day off) to cover the hearings.  

  Forget about it.

  But I do plan to be in Springfield on the 27th to let you know what the dems decide... 

...after they meet in private.  


Chicago Housing Disaster

 Cameraman Ken Bedford and I visited Chicago's West Garfield Park neighborhood to do a story about the abysmal response so far to Mayor Daley's property tax relief program.  WGP is a high-unemployment, African-American enclave on the west side.   Because of the timing of its last re-assessment, the area has recorded some of the biggest property tax increases in the city.

  The skyrocketing taxes combined with the recession, joblessness, sub-prime mortgages and other shifty lending practices have ignited chaos in what only five years ago appeared to be a neighborhood in revival.  Drive along any block in WGP and see a dozen boarded-up houses and multi-unit buildings.   Knock on the doors of occupied houses and flats and talk to homeowners and tenants whose buildings are in various stages of foreclosure.

  Once homes and apartment buildings are foreclosed and "taken over" by mortgage insurers Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, they are boarded up and left unused.  I wondered what happened to the families who only a few years ago were living in those buildings.  Residents say the board-ups have so drained the available housing here that rents are skyrocketing in WGP as foreclosed residents look for new shelter. 

   Until March 31st, Chicago's Property Tax Relief program offers refunds to any homeowner who makes less than $200,000 a year and whose 2008 property tax bill showed an increase.  City officials estimate the average refund should be about $150 and that half the city's homeowners--about 200,000--would qualify.

  But so far, only about 20,000 have applied and the city has used only $700,000 of the $35 million dollars made available from the reserve fund set up after the Daley administration sold the parking meter system.

  The West Garfield Park homeowners I interviewed told me that they hadn't applied for the program because they hadn't heard about it.  But all insisted whatever amount of money the city might refund would certainly help in these desperate times.

  But they added a couple of hundred dollars would not come close to solving their individual financial problems or the much bigger housing crisis here.

   Its a disaster.


Just Askin'...

 Mayor Daley's Monday news conference to announce his appointments to fill two aldermanic vacancies ended before this reporter could ask a few more questions.  They concerned the naming of State Representative Deborah Graham (D-78th) to fill the 29th Ward vacancy on the west side, caused by the Isaac Carothers' guilty plea to Federal corruption charges.  Given her experience as an elected official, the mayor is more than confident she'll do a fine job.

  Here's what's curious about Graham:

  Her current "day job" is as a city employee:  the "coordinator of special projects in the Department of Planning and Development".   Whatever salary Graham makes there is on top of the nearly $68,000 a year she's paid to be a state representative.  She says she'll resign the Planning and Development gig when the council approves her appointment to the $110,000 a year alderman's job.

Hmmm.  Two levels of government at the same time.

Questions for Ms. Graham:

"What kinds of 'special projects' did you coordinate for the Department of Planning and Development?"

"How did you get your city job?" 

"In Springfield, how did you balance representing your 78th District constituents and your bosses at city hall?

Question for Hizzoner?

"Was Graham a political hack given a do-little city job to do your bidding in Springfield?"

  Just Askin'.


Cook County Good Government?

  A local government development of historic proportions happened last week and it deserves another mention in this space.  Sheriff Tom Dart announced that with the Cook County Jail's annual intake having fallen by 18.6% since 2004, he will close two of the sprawling correctional facility's buildings.  

  At its overcrowded worst, the jail had become the nation's largest, single site correctional facility with an average daily population of over 11000 inmates.  Today, with Chicago Police making dramatically fewer felony arrests, the average count is about 8600.  Shuttering two "divisions" initially will save about $15 million dollars a year and ease the pressure applied by the Federal Courts to hire more correctional officers.

  The downsizing is historic because the Cook County Jail had grown steadily for the previous half century costing taxpayers untold billions.   In fact, the jail and courts are second only to the county's Health and Hospital System in terms of expense.  Rarely will you hear of a public safety official, let alone an elected one like Dart, who will admit that his or her fiefdom is on the shrink.  

  But with his announcement last week, the sheriff and his staff have challenged themselves to manage the lower headcount to create some savings for Cook County taxpayers.  And credit Dart for putting good government over politics inasmuch as he for waited until a month after the primary election to deliver the good news. 


  How can the fact that there are fewer people being arrested for felonies and being held in the Cook County Jail  translate into improved management and efficiencies elsewhere in the criminal justice system?

  Will the Courts, State's Attorney's and Public Defender's Offices downsize and produce some more taxpayer savings?

  So far, we haven't heard a peep. 

  But rest assured that when budget hearings begin later this year, County Commissioners will remember Sheriff Dart's news conference and those two empty buildings at the jail.