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January 2011

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 Other Residency Issue

 There's another residency issue being talked about this week by the candidates for Mayor of Chicago.

 Gery Chico said Tuesday that if elected, he was willing to "talk" about changing the residency requirement for Chicago public employees.

  The former School Board President had just received the endorsement of the Chicago Firefighter's Union, an organization not known for its embrace of diversity, and one of several public employee unions who want their members to have the right to live where they wish.

 But wait. 

 The next day Rahm Emanuel virtually echoed Chico.  The Northside's entry into the mayoral sweepstakes said he'd be "open" to a discussion of ending the rule that says if you collect a city, park district or public school district paycheck you must live in Chicago.

  The two millionaire candidates in the race for mayor apparently were not thinking of the hundreds of thousands of unemployed and underemployed people in the recession-ravaged city who think the idea of even discussing the idea sucks.

  Lets see:  Rahm and Gery are willing to discuss expanding the pool of potential city workers from the city's population (2.8 million) to include the entire metropolitan region (10 million).

  I'm no math wiz but if you change the residency rule it would seem that the chances of a Chicagoan to get a job in his or her own city would be reduced dramatically.  Chicago taxpayers in Englewood, Humboldt Park and Hegewisch would suddenly find themselves competing for the work their tax dollars support with suburbanites from Evergreen Park, Naperville, Waukegan, etc.

  And what happens to the effort to correct the racial imbalances on the Police and Fire Departments?  The racial make-up of Chicago's public safety workforce doesn't come close to reflecting the city's minority population (70%).   Add the majority white suburban population to the applicant pool and true diversity may never happen.

  Mayoral Candidate Miguel Del Valle--who supports the residency requirement--suspects Chico is "pandering" to selfish, already-on-the-payroll public employee union members who oppose the rule. 

 And a Carol Moseley Braun statement warned that allowing city workers to live in the suburbs would mean "a mass exodus of city employees and the rich diversity they contribute to the city."

 By Wednesday, Chico tried to tamp down the controversy he'd ignited the day before.

  "When we say talk about the idea, that doesn't mean do the idea. We said talk about it," Chico said.

  Chico and Emanuel also "talk" at great length about job creation in their campaign rhetoric.   An emerging question is...

  ...are you talking about jobs for voting Chicagoans...

  ...or suburbanites?


Daley's Chinese Transit Authority

  Last Wednesday in Washington, Chicago's Richard M. Daley was smiling and gracious as he became only the 19th American mayor in nearly 80 years to receive the U.S. Conference of Mayor's Distinguished Public Service Award. 

  Later, Daley would admit that during the ceremony, his thoughts wandered to other places:

  The White House.  China.  Chicago.

  That evening, the Mayor and wife Maggie Daley would join other guests at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a state dinner honoring Hu Jintao, the President of China.  

  The next day, Thursday, Daley would become the only American elected official other than President Barack Obama to host Hu when the leader of the planet's most populous country arrived for an overnight visit to Chicago.

  In fact, Daley--a longtime proponent of increased economic ties between the U.S. and China-- would have considerably more face time with Hu last week than Obama.

  But to the point of this post:

  Daley told me during our interview--eavesdropped upon exclusively by the Chicago Suntimes Lynn Sweet--that he's pressing his case for Chinese investors to underwrite the construction of a high-speed rail line from O'Hare International Airport to the Loop.

  As widely reported during Hu's visit, the Chinese--with the world's fastest-growing economy--are poised to invest tens of billions of dollars in the U.S. and around the world.  Mayor Daley  is selling the idea that public infrastructure projects in the U.S. should be included among the prime investment targets.

  Remember how last fall, during and after his trip to Chicago's sister city of Shanghai, hizzoner raved about the high speed train that whisked passengers in seven minutes from the airport to the center of China's largest city.

  A construction project of such magnitude in Chicago would be a jobs generator the likes of which the region has not seen since the "deep tunnel".

 While Daley's vision continues to be a work in progress, there are major questions:  Would all or part of the CTA's Blue Line to and from O'Hare need to be ceded to the developers?  What happens to the local El on the Northwest side during and after construction?  Would the privateers raise the high-speed train's ticket price as high as a one-way cab ride between the airport and the Loop ($35-40)?  And finally, what amount of disruption would happen to traffic and neighborhoods along the right-of-way?

 After the deal to lease the parking meter system, any discussion of transferring control of public assets to private hands ignites political fires at Chicago City Hall. 

  But lame duck Daley remains steadfast in his belief that private ownership of certain infrastructure will lower the city's bonded indebtedness and provide a longterm shield for homeowners against property tax increases.

  After Chicago's failure to land the 2016 Olympics, a worsening city budget deficit and a school system in disarray, Mayor Daley's legacy could use some fine-tuning during the last few months of his 22 years in office.

  A billion or so Chinese dollars for a high-speed rail system to and from the airport could do the trick.

  And Chicagoans could still refer to it as "The C.T.A."


A New Mayoral Frontrunner?

 Where was Rahm Emanuel at 7:00pm New Year's Eve (CST)around the time that Congressman Danny Davis announced he was dropping out of the race for mayor of Chicago?

 Was Emanuel, the mayoral "frontrunner", still vacationing with his family in Thailand where it was eight o'clock in the morning on New Year's Day?

  Or had Chicago's would-be first family already returned to its "home" in Washington, D.C. where the time was 8:00pm (EST)?

  It really doesn't matter where the former White House Chief of Staff received word about the Davis decision. 

  For the campaigns of Emanuel, Gery Chico and Miguel Del Valle to become Chicago's next mayor, the moment was a political "game-changer".  

  The stunning announcement that couldn't wait for New Year's Day (when it would have been given banner headlines in the heavily-read Sunday newspapers) said simply that Chicago's African-American political and business leaders had actually chosen a "consensus" candidate to run for mayor on February 22nd, 2011.

  She is former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun.

  As recently as two days before Christmas, there were three (3) major black candidates running for Mayor of Chicago.  With the trio threatening to divide their natural base of support, there was muffled laughter in the other candidate camps at the political disorganization and disunity in the African-American community. 

  Then on December 23rd, State Senator James Meeks bowed out in the name of unity.  Meeks was joined by the Reverend Jesse Jackson and others in secret negotiations and eight days later, Congressman Davis withdrew adding his endorsement to Braun's campaign.

  It leaves Braun as the major African-American candidate running for mayor in a city where black voters routinely make up 40-45% of Chicago's election turnout.

  She also is the highest-profile female candidate running for mayor.

  Braun's emergence as the "consensus" African-American candidate would seem to virtually assure a first or second place finish on February 22nd.   And if she is able to consolidate her base in the black wards, it is not unfathomable that she could reach out to enough voters citywide to win a 50-percent-plus-one victory in the first round.

  As for Emanuel, his first order of business in January will be a poll to measure how much of his "frontrunner" status he may have lost during the last eight days of 2010. 

   And if he finds out he's just another mayoral "wannabe", he'll certainly re-think his campaign tactics. 

   Will Rahm reconsider participating in those candidate forums he so far has not had time to attend?  (To play catchup, he'll have to play)

  And if Braun does show progress in consolidating the black vote, will Emanuel play his "ace of spades" meaning President Barack Obama? 

   The plot thickens.