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May 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.




Deficit Defined

   I can't do this enough.  After all, we're the ones who keep using the word in virtually every report from Springfield this week.

    A "Deficit" in the Illinois budget occurs when the Springfield government does not collect enough money in taxes, fees, etc. to match the amount of spending by the state during the same period.

   The $13 billion figure that we use so often in our stories is actually an amount accumulated over several years.  It is the difference between actual revenues and expenditures that some experts say can be traced back to the late 1990's, believe it or not.

   During the current "Great Recession", Illinois and most of the other 50 states have experienced record shortfalls in revenue collections in sales, income and property taxes.  The deficits here and elsewhere have skyrocketed. 

  Without the political will to raise taxes, as recommended by Governor Pat Quinn or to drastically cut spending as demanded by republicans, the majority democrats in the House and Senate want to borrow money ($4 billion) to shore up the revenue shortfalls for at least one year.  The borrowing would specificially address one of the state's "structural debts" i.e. the pensions of its retirees.   Wall Street brokers can sell bonds for that purpose because they know the state is legally obligated to guarantee the bonds. 

  But the interest expense of the bond issue is a yet another, unfunded expense for the state government.  So conceivably, borrowing could increase the deficit.

  That's your annual, slightly updated, albeit oversimplified look at the Illinois budget crisis.

   Why do I think I'll be writing the same post this time next year?


The Perils of Pat Quinn

  "Members of the legislature, both parties (in) both houses, are reluctant to make cuts.  I am not reluctant  to do what has to be done..."

  Governor Pat Quinn said the above last week (May 21st) at the end of a sentence.  He wasn't mumbling but he spoke the words in something less than his usual declarative style.

  It was Quinn's indirect way of all but conceding that for the second year in a row, he had given up his quest for "new revenue" (income tax increase) and realized the inevitability of another half-baked budget from the General Assembly.

  As has become practice in recent years in Illinois--home of the $13 billion deficit--lawmakers approve a spending plan fully knowing there's not enough money in it to fund the government at its current levels for a full year.  Then, they leave it up to the governor to make the cuts they will not recommend.  The Governor, in turn, takes the political heat when the money dries up and/or the bills are not paid. 

   They call the as-yet-unwritten book on the Illinois style "Profiles in Cowardice".

   Wasn't this the same dynamic at the root of the last big pre-impeachment fight between former Governor Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan?

  Really, the only difference between Governors Blagojevich and Quinn is that Quinn, in his own words at the top of this post, appears to accept his place "as statutory fall guy" in the perilous world of Illinois politics.  The Governor, despite his executive office and the fact he won his party's primary, is NOT the boss in democratic-controlled Springfield when it comes to raising and spending the state's money.  Madigan is.

  And Madigan, the Illinois Democratic Party chairman, doesn't appear concerned that making the governor make unpopular cuts this summer and early fall might jeopardize Quinn's general election chances in November. 

  The governor likes to talk about the good relationship he has with Madigan and democratic Illinois Senate President John Cullerton.  He says the trio frequently shares breakfast at the governor's mansion in Springfield.

  I wonder if Quinn knows everything that's on the menu at what's supposed to be his table.






Preckwinkle, Promises and Politics

   Toni Preckwinkle sounded a lot like Todd Stroger.  

   The fact that she didn't get anywhere near the push back speaks volumes about Cook County politics and the unfairness of many reporters who cover it.

   The Chicago Alderman defeated the incumbent Stroger and two other candidates in the democratic primary for Cook County Board President in February.  She said today that if she's elected in November, she will NOT immediately seek the roll back of the remaining half cent of the one penny increase in the county sales tax.  Preckwinkle's promise to lead an effort to eliminate the tax increase championed by Stroger was a centerpiece of her primary election campaign.

   Now, Preckwinkle says the revenue generated by the half cent will be desperately needed to help fill a projected deficit in the 2011 budget.  She claimed that county government insiders have told her the shortfall next year could range between $250 million and as much as $500 million.  The earliest Preckwinkle says that consumers should expect a rollback is 2012 and there are no guarantees it will ever happen.

   When President Stroger used virtually the same deficit projection numbers in his efforts to stop County Board rollback votes he was ridiculed by The Chicago Tribune editorial writers.  What will the newspaper, which endorsed Preckwinkle, say about her plan to retain, for the time being, what's left of the levy?

   Preckwinkle insisted that her rollback-related campaign promises were always conditioned on the state of the economy and the county's budget.   We asked the alderman if she believed, in restrospect, repealing the first half cent of the  increase was a bad move by county commissioners.

  "I think they made the best decision they could at the time", she replied as she abruptly broke through and walked away from a semi-circle of reporters.

  An unanswered question concerns why Preckwinkle would not make good on her promise to rollback the tax and use cuts to balance the 2011 budget.  The fact that she already plans to use revenue from the controversial increase appears to validate Stroger's push for it two years earlier.  

  One other note:

  I've written previously in this space about the unprofessional, unfair, "torch and pitchfork" coverage of the incumbent county board president during the past three and a half years. 

  It continues.  

  In a question to Alderman Preckwinkle, a very veteran colleague referred to recent actions taken by Stoger's administration as "shenanigans".   Another reporter repeatedly referred to the president by his first name "Todd" as opposed to using his title or last name.

  It's blatant disrespect.


Meter Made for 2011

  How many times during the past year have we heard Mayor Richard Daley say that Chicago would be a different place if his administration had not raised over a billion dollars with its controversial sale of the city's parking meter system?

  Without the extra cash,the Mayor says, the choice would be simple:  A tax increase or a reduction in the frequency of essential services such as trash pick-up, street cleaning and snow removal, and like in some other big American cities, layoffs of police and firefighters.

  Then there's the other difference the meter sale has made.

  The Mayor would not have at his disposal a multi-million dollar "kitty" to hand out goodies to potential voters in the 2011 city election.   Daley is officially undecided about 2011, but if he does run for an unprecedented seventh term, he's putting the parking meter "reserve" fund to good political use.

  Monday, hizzoner announced that the city would use $25 million dollars of the meter proceeds to underwrite a program to help unemployed, middle class workers re-train for technology-based careers.   The trainees, who average 42 years old, will be paid a $450 weekly stipend.  The mayor hopes the program eventually will enroll 30,000 unemployed Chicagoans.

   "You worked. You paid your taxes",  Daley told the first Career Tech class, "But, you don’t fit into all the poverty programs. And you don’t fit into all the rich programs. You’re like in limbo... . . . You’re very good workers."

   They also sound like Chicagoans who are very likely to be voters next February.

    Remember that the Mayor's 2010 budget set aside $35 million of parking meter sale proceeds for use in his Property Tax Relief Program.  That's the one (Precinct7, February 18th) in which homeowners who make less than $200,000 a year may apply for refunds of up to $200.

  Let's see, that's $60 million dollars suddenly available from strained city coffers to help soothe the agitated souls of thousands of recession-weary Chicagoans. 

  Barely nine months before the city elections.

  This guy is good.




Stroger's "Binge" Explained

  As the Chicago news media's "torch and pitchfork" gang makes another run at the 5th floor of the Cook County Building, it should keep in mind there are some logical reasons for what the Chicago Tribune called President Todd Stroger's "hiring binge".

  Remember that Stroger was the humiliated loser of the ridiculously-early Illinois democratic primary election on February 2nd.  His term does not end until next December.  The loss meant he would have to run the executive branch of county government for ten months, or nearly one fourth of his term, as a "lame duck".

  Spokesman Gene Mullins points out that the President has several hundred political hires (Shakman-exempts) serving "at his pleasure" running the executive branch of county government.  Because of attrition alone, Mullins explained, Stroger would routinely hire many replacements in the course of a three month period. 

  Also, owing to the coming change in the president's office, understand that virtually every one of the political hires began looking for a new job on February 3rd.   As the key members of his administration (including department heads) find new jobs, they must be replaced.  Its logical  to expect that the resignations will increase during the summer and fall and that Stroger will have to find people to keep county government up and running.  And given the politically-driven, temporary nature of the appointments, the appointees are more likely to demand top dollar. 

  It helps explain the President's veto of the county board-imposed hiring freeze on his office.

  Three months after voters humiliated Stroger at the polls, county commissioners might think it politically popular to put the President on a short leash when it comes to hiring and setting salaries.   And its not at all surprising that Stroger's media critics would use the "issue" to drop a few more lashes on the local politician who is their favorite "whipping boy".

  But Stroger-haters at the county building and in the media mob also should explain the circumstances.

  Its the fair way to do it.







Mark Kirk, Dodgeball King

  You've gotta hand it to him.  U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kirk's no-show at the Illinois Republican Party's lovefest for Sarah Palin was a political masterstroke.

  The Northshore Congressman claimed "prior voting commitments" hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C. for his absence at the Rosemont fundraiser that featured the half-term Alaska Governor, former GOP vice presidential candidate and author spewing her brand of new age, tea party-style conservatism.

  Observing Kirk's absence with some frustration were strategists for democratic U.S. Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias.  Assuming that most voters in "blue state" Illinois don't subscribe to Palin's right wing views, a major component of their campaign is to link Kirk to the conservative elements of the republican party base.  Both sides share the theory that the Congressman will need to combine that base with independents and straying democrats to beat Giannoulias in the fall.

  "When it comes to Sarah Palin and Mark Kirk, the two of them could not be closer in their opposition to President Obama and the major issues that I think Illinois families want to hear about," said Giannoulias campaign spokeswoman Kathleen Strand.

  But so far, Kirk has kept his public distance from the most conservative elements of his own party.  

  On the day of the Palin visit the Congressman e-mailed his supporters a missive titled Doing what's right.  He recalled how in the past he "stood up" to powers of his own party and "joined with Democratic colleagues" on issues while claiming his belief that "our country needs leaders who do what's right regardless of party or politics".

  If Kirk had attended the Palin event and appeared within three feet of her, the snapshots and video would have been a cinch to be used in Giannoulias mailers and TV commercials later in the campaign.  The same way that photo of the Congressman and former President George Bush is used in ads we've seen already.

  The Republican candidate is watching the company he keeps.

  Forever, the artful dodger. 


Bye, Bye Broadway!

  Will somebody please tell me how to get to the Broadway Bank?

  Its stunning how quickly the "signature issue" in the Illinois U.S. Senate campaign disappeared after federal regulators took over the bank owned by the family of democratic hopeful Alexi Giannoulias.  Both Giannoulias and his republican opponent Mark Kirk held news conferences today during which neither candidate mentioned the bank.

  That's especially interesting in the case of Kirk who before his meeting with reporters delivered a 30 minutes-plus "powerpoint" speech to the Chicago City Club without using a "noun-verb-Broadway Bank" sentence.  The Northshore Congressman actually talked about jobs, restoring faith in government and national security!

  And how about those fickle political reporters?  During Giannoulias' three most recent "availabilities", the journalists that dogged him for months about Broadway's impending bust asked nary a question about the family business from which the Illinois Treasurer resigned four years ago. 

   Been there, done that?

   After some editorial criticism, even Kirk's campaign spokesman Eric Elk appears to have called off the Broadway dogs.  For weeks between the February primary and the end of April, Elk's persistent e-mails and others several times a day from the Illinois Republican Party made it seem as though the global economic slowdown was caused by bad loans made by a community bank on Chicago's north side. 

  This reporter fully expects the Broadway Bank story eventually to re-surface in the campaign.   After Labor Day, the Kirk strategists are likely to resurrect and re-tell the story of the bank's dealings with shady characters, its demise and the purported role of its former chief loan officer in classic, black and white negative television commercials. 

  In the meantime, we'll actually get a chance to hear what the candidates think about the real issues facing the people of Illinois.



Nonstop Strife For Stroger

  Sometimes I wonder what many of my colleagues will do after Cook County Board President Todd Stroger leaves office in December.   After being routed in February's democratic primary, three months later the lame-duck Stroger remains the Chicago news media's favorite whipping boy.

  He asked for some of the latest lashes when a few days after his catastrophic re-election run he hired Carla Oglesby, a spokeswoman for the campaign, as a $116,000 a year deputy chief of staff.   And raising more eyebrows, the county's check register revealed that Oglesby's public relations firm, CGC Communications, had been paid $24,975 as part of a no-bid contract  to do work for the county. 

  Hmmm.  Were the job and contract payoffs for previously-performed political work? 

  Stroger denied the suggestion but would comment no further until the county's Inspector General completes an investigation.  Oglesby, meanwhile, has been placed on unpaid leave.

Missing Furniture?

 Then the outgoing County Board President takes another undeserved lick. 

  In her April 25th Chicago Sun-Times column, rumorist Michael Sneed questioned why "new desks, chairs and cabinets had arrived for Stroger and his executive staff at his fifth floor office. 

  Sneed even quoted a "source" who witnessed, "It's really, really nice stuff....quality, quality wood."

  Well, Stroger held a news conference in the office yesterday, May 4th, and reporters saw the same old furniture that has been there since Richard Phelan's term as county board president ended in 1994.   

   Stroger told us that new furniture to replace the 20 year old pieces in the president's office was ordered months ago as part of the county's ongoing capital program which was approved by vote of the county board.  He dismissed the inaccurate "Sneedling" as just another unconfirmed, newspaper cheap shot.

  Let's see...about seven months to go until the new County Board President takes office.

  What will Stroger's critics do without him?




A Prayer For Vouchers

  The event did not get nearly the amount of news coverage it deserved.

  Five Republican lawmakers were guests at the Reverend Senator James Meeks' Salem Baptist Church yesterday in a symbolic show of bi-partisan support for school vouchers.  There is a bill, passed by the state Senate and pending in the House to allow a voucher system for students in the worst Chicago public elementary schools.  Republican State Senators Dan Cronin, Matt Murphy and Dan Duffy along with State Representatives Ed Sullivan and Mike Connelly were given a warm welcome at Salem's cavernous House of Hope during the 11:30am service that was televised live from noon to 1pm.

  Conservative republicans have advocated for decades in support of voucher systems, in which the parents of public school children may transfer their kids to private or parochial schools and have their tuitions paid by the state in the same per-pupil amount the state would have distributed to the public schools. 

  Since the mid-20th century, most African-American civil rights leaders have opposed vouchers, suspecting they would be used by white parents opposed to integrated schools.  Powerful teacher unions, whose public school jobs would be threatened, joined the opposition arguing that permitting vouchers eventually would undermine the entire public education system in the United States.

  But Reverend Meeks, the democratic chairman of the Illinois Senate's Education Committee, stands as one of the most powerful black elected officials in the United States to buck the conventional wisdom.   With the Chicago Archdiocese and any number of private schools ready and willing to accept the 20-30,000 potentially voucher-eligible students, Meeks maintains that whatever changes are needed to ensure the kids' quality education should be enacted immediately.

  But Senate Bill 2494, supported by the fragile coalition anchored by African-American and republican state reps, is reportedly on shaky ground.  The cash and clout-heavy Chicago Teachers Union has a feverish, election-year lobbying effort underway and some African-American and GOP lawmakers are wavering. 

  And passing a voucher bill would be a political slap to the face of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley who has spent the past 15 years telling anyone who will listen what a great job he has done since taking over the city's public schools in 1995.   Meeks has spent the entire 2010 legislative session telling anyone who will listen what a lousy job Daley has done and that the Chicago Public Schools should be run by professional educators and not politicians. 

  If House Speaker Michael Madigan calls it, SB2494 will come up for a vote later this week. 

  Passage of the bill would mean a revolutionary change in public education in the Chicago. 

  Reverend Meeks and his republican "amen corner" are hoping for just that.