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February 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.




Burris Back on the Track

   What a difference a few days can make!  In our last post, Senator Roland Burris had lost control of his newfound career as the junior United States Senator from Illinois.  Even President Barack Obama's spokesman at the White House advised Burris to take the weekend (Feb 20-22) to give some serious thought to "what lays ahead" for the 71 year old lawyer who had been sworn into the Senate only a month earlier.

  Well, during that weekend Burris did more than give his future some thought.  He also hired a new political consultant, Delmarie Cobb, who immediately began re-shaping the debate over whether the appointed junior Senator should resign or remain on the job until the end of the current term in 2010.  Cobb is a longtime democratic strategist who had worked with Burris during one of his failed campaigns for governor and counts among her other past clients U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr..

  Simply put, Cobb played the race card.  When I interviewed Burris after following him to Washington earlier this week, he told me in an exclusive interview that it was important that he return to his job on Capitol Hill to vote on a bill that would add a member in the House to represent the predominantly black District of Columbia.  The next day, the solitary black voice in the U.S. Senate delivered a floor speech extolling the virtues of the bill.  A day later, Burris would sponsor a resolution passed by the Senate to honor the black slaves who carried and laid the stones in the construction of the very U.S. Capitol where the Congress meets.   Black folks in Illinois and around the country who watched C-Span presumably observed Burris with pride and approval.

  Meanwhile, back in Chicago, another race card hits the table.  Several African American city alderman, most of them members of the Cook County Central Democratic Committee, held a "Hands Off Roland Burris" news conference.  They issued a not-at-all-subtle warning to Democratic elected officials, including U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Governor Pat Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and any others is listening range:  either stop your demands that Burris resign or face a revolt at the polls by African American voters. (Keep in mind that in past statewide elections, black voters have comprised as much as 40% of the total vote in the Democratic Party primary)   The next day, African-American lawyers announced their support for Burris and on Sunday, the Senator will attend a rally at the New Covenant Baptist Church where organizers expect hundreds, if not thousands of supporters. 

  During the same few days it took Burris to mount his counterattack, the forces urging him to resign and calling for a special election began backpedaling in a confused retreat.  The Governor repeated his call for a resignation but said he favored a special election only AFTER Burris quit.  Republican elected officials pointed to an opinion by Democrat Attorney General Lisa Madigan saying there's no need to wait for a resignation to call an election.  But Quinn says he can't support a Madigan-approved election because of legal questions.   "I'm fearful there would be this infinite litigation", said Quinn.   Bottom line is, there is no special election legislation moving in either the State House or Senate, and of course, Burris is giving no indication that he'll give up his Senate Seat.

  It could be that by the middle of next month, the Burris resignation demands would have all but stopped and stories about the special election (estimated cost $40-50 million) would have faded because the governor and state lawmakers will be grappling with a reported $9 billion budget deficit.  

  And how's this for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat:  Senator Roland Burris would have consolidated his political base in the African American Community.



Wrong Way Roland

Imagine all the folks who want to be our state's next U.S.Senator as jockeys competing in a high-stakes horse race called the Illinois Political Derby. The diminuitive Roland Burris, who hadn't won a race in 18 years was allowed by the legally-challenged race starter to lap the field twice before any of the other jockeys could run in 2010.

But Burris was barely out the gate when the strangest thing happened: His mount suddenly raised its front hooves, turned on its haunches and ran back to the gate with Roland ranting and raving at the steed as stunned race fans screamed at him to jump off the uncontrolled beast to save himself.

Roland's horse ran at full gallop back through the same gate from which it bolted (the guy who allowed him the early start had been escorted away from the track by race officials). The other jockeys joined the crowd screaming at their old friend to get off before he caused himself irreparable injury or perhaps worse.

But "Wrong Way Roland" was still in the saddle when he disappeared in a cloud of dust. At last report, he was on his way to Washington, still trying to turn it around. Who knows how far behind he'll be when the starter's gun sounds for the rest of the field in 2010.

Or will he be around at all?


Standing Eight Count

  Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan delivered a near-knockout punch Tuesday to the political future of newly-appointed U.S. Senator Roland Burris. Madigan sent documents related to Burris' January testimony to the House Impeachment Committee to the Sangamon County (Springfield) State's Attorney who will consider whether a perjury charge should be filed against Burris.

 In boxing, they call it a "standing eight count" when the ref moves between the two fighters and counts off eight seconds while holding the wrists and looking into the dazed eyes of the guy getting the worst of it. Burris is not out yet...but he's getting real close.

  In a sworn affidavit earlier this month and in statements to reporters, Burris has changed his story on events leading to his appointment to the senate seat by since-ousted Governor Rod Blagojevich.  Burris has explained that he did not reveal contacts with the criminally suspect governor's political fundraising apparatus because Impeachment Committee members "didn't ask".

  Understand that Madigan is also the chairman of the Illinois Democratic party. He could have re-convened the Impeachment panel and allowed Burris to explain himself. But when he referred the matter for possible criminal charges to the Sangamon County prosecutor, who happens to be a Republican, Madigan was for all intents and purposes setting Burris adrift. State's attorney John Schmidt could take weeks or months to "decide" on a perjury charge...stealing precious time from Burris who needs to begin raising money and campaigning to run for a full Senate term in 2010.

  During the weeks since Burris' appointment by Blagojevich, democrats in Illinois and Washington have whispered that they do not believe the former attorney general and state comptroller would be the strongest candidate the party could field in 2010.

  Now they have all the reasons they need to jettison him.


What's Up With Mayor Daley?

  What's up with Mayor Daley and his weird refusal to admit that his administration wants and needs as much federal money as it can get to help put the O'Hare Modernization Program (OMP) back on track. 

   As recently as during a Monday afternoon news conference, ABC-7's Paul Meinke asked the Mayor point blank if the city would pursue dollars from the pending $800 billion Federal Stimulus bill for the OMP.  Daley muttered "no" for several seconds and that was the end of it.

  Then the very next morning, Daley was the featured speaker during a news conference in the Washington, D.C. office of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin.  A reporter asked the mayor again about stimulus bill money for O'Hare.  He pointed to OMP director Rosemarie Andolino (who just happened to have traveled to Washington with Daley and was sitting in the room) who answered that money for the modernization program was on the city's wish list.  Later, she told an ABC-7 producer that the project was "shovel ready" and "perfectly positioned" for stimulus grants. 

   OMP has been in serious trouble in recent months.  The major airlines, ravaged by recession, said they no longer had the money to pay their agreed-upon share of the cost.  What's more, the land acquisition has been delayed by lawsuits and according to Andolino, the overall project's 2014 completion date is threatened.  She projected that a $250 million dollar stimulus bill grant for OMP, would put 1400 construction workers on payrolls by April 1st and would keep them working for two years.

  So why is the Mayor so reluctant to talk about it?  Is he remembering his pledge not to use any taxpayer money for the O'Hare expansion project...even if it comes as part of a federal windfall?  Or maybe he wanted to "low key it" hoping not to rile airport expansion opponents.

  Well, they are riled up.  A group headed by Bensenville Village President John Geils is headed to Washington Wednesday.  He says they'll argue against any stimulus bill money for O'Hare expansion.


Dateline: Elkhart, IN

  Yes, there were a few vendors hawking what I call "Obama-bilia" at President Barack Obama's first Presidential trip. They had the T-shirts, buttons and other silkscreened, photoshopped mementos heralding the election of this country's first African-American President.

  But the sellers were ignored by the mostly white, working class crowd that packed the Concord High School gymnasium in Elkhart, Indiana Monday. They had come out to hear what the newly-elected President was going to do about the horrific unemployment in this part of the Hoosier state. During the past year, the double whammy of high fuel prices and tight credit has decimated Northeast Indiana's recreational vehicle industry. Joblessness has skyrocketed from 4.7 per cent in early 2008 to nearly 16 per cent in January of this year. And keep in mind that this is hard core conservative Republican territory. Obama lost Elkhart County to John McCain by some 60,000 votes out of about 700,000 cast.

  So this was an astonishing day for many of us who have wondered, worried and written about race relations in America for the past 50 years. Here we stood in one of the Ku Klux Klan "charter" states watching white folks who could not care less about skin color. All they saw was the President of the United States offering a chance for them to recover their piece of the American dream, that during the past eight years had become nights of sleepless worry about lost jobs, unpaid bills and foreclosure.

  The two or three thousand people at the Concord High gym were in some ways a miniature version of the diverse throng in Washington last month at Obama's inauguration; more of the living proof that while race remains an issue in America, clearly, its no longer THE issue.

   Not even in Elkhart, Indiana.


Update on the Budget Mess

   Following up on the earlier post, Governor Quinn said today that "an honorable person and an honorable state pays its bills" and does not "run away from its responsibilities".   It sure sounded like deficit-ridden Illinois under his administration would not pull a California-style "sorry, you'll have to wait for your state income tax refunds".  That's the good news.  The bad news is that Quinn would not rule out an increase in either the state income tax or an 8 cents a gallon hike in the gasoline tax.

  Jim Tobin of the anti-tax National Taxpayers United of Illinois says the governor and the democrat leaders of the state house and senate want to raise the state income tax rate from three to five percent of your paycheck. (That would actually be a 67% increase over what you now pay).  Senator James Meeks of Chicago, who supports an increase, says senate bean counters estimate the higher levy (5%) would raise about $8 billion dollars in new revenue.

  All of this should be resolved in the next six weeks.  Governor Quinn promises a budget address on March 18th, when he will reveal his plan to fill the $9 billion hole in the Illinois budget.


Broke as a Joke!

If you're expecting a refund from your 2008 Illinois income tax return you might want to pay very close attention to what's happening in Springfield these days. Illinois comptroller Dan Hynes reported this week that the state is facing a $9 billion dollar budget deficit and the worst financial crisis since statehood 191 years ago. As they used to say in my old neighborhood, Illinois is "broke as a joke". Unlike municipal and county governments, states are considered "sovreigns" and do not qualify for protection under federal bankruptcy laws. The only options for Springfield at this point are to cut services and/or raise taxes...OR...the state may "renounce" its debt. Renounce is a fancy way to say the state can simply tell its creditors that it doesn't have the money, it can't pay and there's nothing you can do about it. Vendors, contractors and other people who do business with the state have very obvious reasons to be worried. But those waiting on refunds of overpaid income taxes should also be concerned. In California, land of a $40 billlion budget deficit, taxpayers have already been told that refunds on their 2008 returns have been "delayed" indefinitely. Will the powers-that-be in Springfield use the same strategy to help them buy time in the Illinois financial crisis? To help make sure you get paid...pay some attention!


O'Hare Bailout?

   As recently as last September, the City of Chicago's multi-billion dollar O'Hare Modernization Project (OMP) was in serious trouble.  Not only had the lawsuits caused construction delays and increased costs, more critically, recession-wracked United and American Airlines issued statements declaring there was no way they'd be able to pay their promised shares of the big and growing price tag.

   By October, the economy had worsened.  By November, it had really gone into the tank.  It appeared that OMP, an essential element in the city's bid to attract the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago, was as stalled as a passenger jet on a snowbound O'Hare runway in December.

  Then suddenly, in the midst of the worst U.S. recession since the early 1980's, democrats and republicans in Washington began talk of a massive federal stimulus plan ($800+ billion) to put millions of people to work rebuilding the nation's infrastructure.  And blessing of blessings, a Chicago guy had just been elected President of the United States and had chosen an Illinois congressman (Ray LaHood, R-Peoria) as his Transportation Secretary.

  I spoke recently to U.S. Congressman Mark Kirk (R-Northbrook) who told me that he would consider OMP one of the most eligible public works projects in the country when it comes to money from the stimulus plan.  He says OMP is "shovel-ready", could put thousands of people to work within weeks and would serve the national interest because more runways to lessen congestion at O'Hare would reduce it at airports around the country.

  I learned this morning that OMP director Rosemarie Andolino traveled to Washington to discuss the project with Obama Administration officials before the inauguration.  Mayor Daley and other members of the city's Capitol Hill delegation are not saying much publicly, but the Mayor did indicate this week (Tuesday) that one possible problem would be oversight.   What amount of control would the city have to give up if it accepted billions of federal dollars to expand O'Hare which has always been a project controlled by city hall? 

  And one other thought:  With the words "Chicago" and "Illinois" mentioned so often in recent days in the same sentences as the words "corruption" and "Blagojevich"...its easy to understand why the powers-that-be in Washington would think twice, or maybe three or four times, before sending billions of dollars here.