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Voice of The Southern: Cairo searching for its hero
Carbondale Southern Illinoisan
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Editorial  |   STAFF
Federal Government (22A) , Housing (51)

Let’s cut right to the chase —  the situation in Cairo is untenable.

Residents of the city are upset that public housing is being torn down and nobody has been held accountable for the negligence and apparent malfeasance that led to the deterioration of the McBride and Elmwood housing complexes. City leaders are upset that razing public housing could destroy Cairo. And, the state’s elected officials are upset that nothing has been done.

Quite frankly, everyone involved has the right to be angry.

The residents of the McBride Place and Elmwood Place housing complexes must feel that nobody is on their side.

So, now is a time for the people of Cairo to make a stand and rise up above the mess not of their making. And, from what we’ve seen, they’re off to a good start.

“We have to start looking out for our own,” said Cairo community activist Steven Tarver at this past Wednesday’s tenant meeting in Cairo.

We agree. It is obvious the federal government isn't interested in allowing residents of the ill-fated housing complexes to remain in Cairo.

Tarver, who owns an establishment in Cairo called Talk of the Town, has put together a group called “Men of Power-Sisters of Strength” in order to find answers.

We’ve spoken to him and he has a lot of ideas that will help the city. His plan involves acquiring the land after the housing complexes are demolished and building anew.

He’s been in contact with developers and other business organizations in Illinois to see what they can do to help. There are no concrete plans yet, but at least someone is taking positive forward looking steps.

It’s this kind of leadership that gives us faith in the Cairo and its people. This is exactly the kind of leadership Cairo needs right now.

The McBride and Elmwood housing residents are in an unwinnable situation right now.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has stated the housing complexes will be razed and not rebuilt. Residents will likely be forced to find housing outside of Cairo — the place they want to stay because it is home.

Cairo is where their families are. For most of them, Cairo is where they’ve lived their entire lives. Cairo is where there hearts are.

That’s where the community comes in.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Tarver had a message for the angry residents: “I ask that you guys please don’t be fearful. Have hope. Have faith. Don’t rely on the government. Rely on yourself. When you go to these meetings, get your information.”

He’s right — the residents of the McBride and Elmwood housing complexes need to listen.

We get it. You feel angry and betrayed. That’s a perfectly understandable reaction. But, now is also a time to listen. Get all the answers, so that when it comes to time to make a decision, you are prepared.

Anger makes it difficult to look at the situation rationally, but reason is vitally important.

At the same time, Cairo residents have every right to be angry. They have been wronged so many times in the past, it’s hard to feel positive. They want to see justice served to those who created this mess.

And, quite frankly, it’s way past time that somebody was held accountable.

“They’ve had more than enough time to investigate this and the residents are upset and they should be,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., after a town hall meeting Friday with residents in Cairo. “We ought to know whether or not there is any action that is going to be taken by HUD or the Department of Justice for mismanagement of this housing authority.”

After visiting Cairo and meeting with the residents there, it’s very evident that the city is not a ghost town like many people think. Residents care about their home. They want to see a brighter future, and they want to help build that future.

Here’s the bottom line: Cairo needs a hero. Whether it be Tarver and his group, the community or an elected official, it doesn’t matter. Someone needs to step up — and someone needs to be held accountable for this mess.

The people of Cairo deserve better.


Coal-state lawmakers push to extend retired miners' benefits
Carbondale Southern Illinoisan
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Article  |   AP
Coal (20) , Pensions (70)

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from coal-mining states are pushing to extend health benefits for more than 22,000 retired miners and widows whose medical coverage is set to expire at the end of April.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and other coal-state Democrats threatened to shut down the government over the issue in December, but they retreated after winning a four-month extension that preserves benefits through April 30.

As lawmakers return to the Capitol following a two-week recess, Manchin says the time for extensions is over.

"We will use every vehicle we can, every pathway we can, to make sure we do not leave here ... until we have our miners protected," he said in a speech on the Senate floor before the break.

"We've been very patient," Manchin said. "I am not going to have another notice sent out to our retired miners, to their widows, saying we've given you 90 days or 120 days extension. That's not going to happen this time."

But as a Friday deadline looms to keep the government open, lawmakers have not reached agreement on extending the benefits. A plan pushed by GOP leaders in the House would extend health benefits for 20 months, through the end of 2018.

Manchin said Senate Democrats are against that idea because it's only a partial fix. At least a dozen Senate Republicans are willing to join Democrats in support of a more complete plan that addresses health benefits and a related issue over failing pension plans for nearly 100,000 unionized miners, Manchin said.

"This shouldn't be a Republican or Democrat issue," he said in an interview. "This is an issue of fairness."

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said McConnell supports legislation to protect and permanently extend the health benefits, but had no word on the progress of talks related to the spending bill.

A spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan also offered no update.

President Donald Trump, who has vowed to revive the struggling coal industry, has given "verbal support" for the miners' benefits, Manchin said, but needs to do more.

"I need him now to either tweet or call Sen. McConnell and tell him it's time to act," Manchin said. "Mr. President, if you are listening, please tweet out: 'Mitch, help us. We need you.'"

Trump and Republicans have decried what they describe as a "war on coal" waged by the Obama administration, and have taken a series of actions since Trump took office to boost coal production and reduce regulations, including a rule to protect streams from coal-mining debris.

Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, told reporters that the White House is "happy to talk ... about pieces and parts of the miners' programs" as part of negotiations on a bill to keep the government open.

"I don't think we're very interested in the pension component of that but more interested in talking about the health care component of that," Mulvaney said.

Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said he is hopeful a compromise can be reached on health benefits, but he complained that Republicans appear unwilling to address the far more costly pension issue. Congress scrapped a $3 billion, 10-year measure to stabilize failing pension funds last year.

"The pension part is not going to go away. It only gets worse by the day," he said.

Account balances have dwindled amid the coal's industry steep decline, including continued layoffs and a rash of bankruptcy filings that have spread to the industry's largest companies. Without congressional intervention, some pension funds could run out of cash by next year, the union says.

For the moment, Congress appears focused on health benefits.

In West Virginia, about 8,500 retired miners and their families face loss of benefits if Congress does not act. Some mining families have been unable to make doctor's appointments after May 1 because of uncertainty over whether medical bills will be paid, Smith said.

Other states affected include Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and Alabama.

Teresa Anderson of rural McDowell County, West Virginia, told lawmakers that her late father, Donald Richardson, worked his whole life in the state's mines.

"I remember from a young age listening to him tell me and my brother stories about the mines and teaching us about his United Mine Workers benefits and to let no one take advantage of this most precious insurance that he fought and worked so hard for," Anderson said in a letter to Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va.

Her father died in 2012, but her mother, Mary, still receives the union benefits now at risk, Anderson said.

Jenkins, who read Anderson's letter on the House floor, said Congress "cannot let the clock run out on our miners and their families. They kept up their end of the bargain - now it's time for us to do the same."


Community education leaders meet to promote funding reform
Carbondale Southern Illinoisan
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Article  |   Barb Eidlin
Education Funding (36a) , Education--Elementary and Secondary (36)

MARION — Community education leaders on Tuesday held a town hall meeting at Crab Orchard High School to drum up support for a school funding reform campaign called “Fix the Formula.”

The gathering was part of a statewide series of town halls convened by Advance Illinois, a nonpartisan education policy advocacy organization. Locally, the town hall was hosted by Steve Webb, Goreville CUSD No. 1 superintendent; Derek Hutchins, Crab Orchard CUSD No. 3 superintendent; and Gary Kelly, Du Quoin CUSD No. 300 superintendent and former Illinois Association of School Administrators president.

According to a news release from Advance Illinois, the goal of the town hall was to provide community members and advocates with a better understanding of the current funding system, and to offer what they call an evidence-based model as a solution; advocates called on local lawmakers to get a funding bill passed this legislative session.

“Fix the Formula,” according to information presented at the town hall, is being promoted by Funding Illinois’ Future, a coalition of more than 200 school districts, school superintendents, and community- and faith-based organizations backed by Advance Illinois. The coalition is working toward fixing Illinois’ school funding formula with the goal of giving every student in Illinois the education they deserve.

Twelve superintendents, two regional directors and two directors of special education, as well as a Crab Orchard High School social studies class and members of the press and public viewed a PowerPoint presentation detailing reforms based on what advocates called an evidence-based model, or EBM.

According to the presentation, the EBM determines per-pupil expenditures by identifying how much “best practices” cost per pupil, given a state’s overall and regional labor market and other cost factors. Additionally, the EMB identifies and assigns a dollar amount to educational practices, which supporters say boost student achievement.

The formula also takes into account individual student needs and ensures that there are enough resources for each and every student, supporters say.

Additionally, it distributes new state dollars to school districts to help reach that target, takes local ability to pay into consideration, and directs new dollars to the neediest districts first.

“Right now, we’ve got two bills already filed — one in the House and one in the Senate — where no one loses any money, and the highest poverty level schools gain funding,” Kelly said.

HB 2808 passed the House Elementary and Secondary Education Appropriations Committee on April 3.

“This bill does not create winners or losers. We’re not taking money away from kids anywhere,” Kelly said. “We need to be cognizant that we have school districts that are dying — their enrollment is going down, and their poverty levels are going up. This funding reform allows us a way to serve those districts better, instead of sending everyone the same amount of money, and considering everyone an arbitrary number."

Webb said the EBM funding model addresses income inequality.

“Right now, for every dollar spent on a non-low-income student in Illinois, 81 cents is spent on a low-income student," he said. "This funding model changes that. The goal, by the year 2020, is to have adopted this funding model, have tiered the additional funding dollars to close that gap between the wealthier and lower-income districts.”

According to the presentation, that gap is closed by additional monies allocated to education — current budgets remain intact.

Additionally, the EBM does not tell districts how to spend the money, but it does designate three mandatory categories within which a district must spend, and it does ask districts to show how they are spending that money.

Cheryl Graff, regional superintendent of schools at Regional Office of Education No. 30, which serves Alexander, Jackson, Perry, Pulaski and Union counties, noted that in high-income school districts, teachers are often offered between 30 and 100 hours of continuing education.

“Very seldom do we provide that to our educators,” she said. “This funding model would allow us to provide that component so we can begin to provide support to our teachers to help them become higher-quality educators.”

Kelly said that the effects of adopting the EBM will reach higher education, as well.

“They will have to train people to fill some of the roles that this model creates, reading teachers, for example, as some of those programs are not yet offered in this state,” he said.

The EMB also affects a district’s ability to provide top-level teaching to its students. Webb said that higher-income districts have greater resources and lower class sizes, which affects the time and attention a teacher is able to provide to each student. The EBM changes that scenario, he said, in that the formula ties in resources such as professional development for teachers, instructional coaches at each school, and improved technology inside the classroom.

Matt Donkin, superintendent for Regional Office of Education No. 21, which serves Franklin, Johnson, Massac and Williamson counties, acknowledged that the funding model is complicated, but the results will be worth the time it takes to implement it.

"The EBM puts accountability into the system because local leaders have to prove where the money goes and what results expenditures have produced as a result of the spending,” he said.

“Our present superintendent understands what we are trying to do and the work that needs to be done,” Kelly said. "We need to continue to try to communicate this issue throughout the state and to our legislators. If we want to promote a first-class education in Illinois we have to put the dollars behind it. Springfield knows the problem, they just don’t know how to fix it. We just showed them how to fix it.”

More information about Advance Illinois may be found at advanceillinois.org; more information about Funding Illinois' Future and Fix the Formula may be found at fundingilfuture.org.


What to do with a former coal mine? Make it a solar farm
Carbondale Southern Illinoisan
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Article  |   AP
Coal (20) , Energy, Alternative Energy (93) , Environment (41)

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A former strip mine would be converted into a solar farm under a proposal announced Tuesday by an Appalachian coal company that says it wants to place hundreds of thousands of panels in the Kentucky mountains.

The Berkeley Energy Group, EDF Renewable Energy and former Democratic state Auditor Adam Edelen said they are looking at two mountaintop removal sites just outside of Pikeville in the heart of Kentucky's coal country.

It's the latest example of efforts to diversify the energy output of the nation's third-largest coal producing state, which has been hit hard by the economic impact of the declining coal industry. Last month, the state legislature voted to end the state's decades-long moratorium on nuclear energy. And earlier this month, the Kentucky Coal Museum installed solar panels on its roof.

"We can build solar on the foundation of coal," Edelen said. "Kentucky has long been an energy producer that has powered the entire country. There's no reason why we can't continue to be that, but we have to adopt an all of the above energy strategy."

Kentucky still gets more than 80 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants. But that percentage has been dropping steadily as coal plants are being replaced by natural gas.

The largest solar farm in Kentucky is based at Louisville Gas & Electric's E.W. Brown Plant in Mercer County. The 10-megawatt array of solar panels stretched over 50 acres produces enough electricity to power 1,500 homes.

Berkeley Energy Group Development Executive Ryan Johns said the proposed solar farm would generate between 50 and 100 megawatts of electricity that would be sold to power companies along the East Coast. He said the project would cost tens of millions of dollars and include "hundreds of thousands" of solar panels.

He said the strip mines under consideration cover thousands of acres. The company is doing engineering and cost studies on the sites to evaluate them for the new purpose.

The coal was mined using "mountaintop removal," a surface coal mining technique that uses blasting and heavy machinery to remove layers of dirt and rock to reach coal seams.

Most of the jobs associated with the project would come during the construction phase, but Edelen said officials at EDF Renewable Energy have pledged to hire as many former coal miners for the work as they can.

Eastern Kentucky is filled with former coal mines that are being redeveloped for various purposes, including golf courses and housing developments. Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the proposed solar farm would likely not be possible if it weren't for "subsidies of this sort of energy," including federal tax credits.

"Coal has had the cards stacked against it for the last eight years," he said. "We need to start rolling back policies that essentially pick the winners and losers."


: First lady Diana Rauner ready to take on critics
Chicago Sun Times
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Article  |   Michael Sneed
Rauner, Bruce

She’s all in.

 

First lady of Illinois Diana Rauner is standing by her man.

 

Diana may be a self-proclaimed Democrat married to the state’s number one fiscal conservative, but Sneed is told it’s a huge mistake to doubt her commitment to her husband, Gov. Bruce Rauner.

 

“Comments in the media Diana has wavered in her support for her husband are dead wrong,” a source close to the Rauner family said.

“If you think Diana isn’t 100 percent ready for the fight, you don’t know Diana.

 

“She’s all in for Bruce’s re-election,” the source added. “She’s committed to her husband and what he is trying to achieve.”

 

Sneed is told Diana, a social service activist, has taken serious umbrage with what she called “baseless rumors” that she is not supportive of her husband’s agenda because of social services cuts stemming from the state’s budget war.

 

“Bruce and Diana are both deeply concerned about human service agencies and the education system, but she knows from her own experience that change is needed to support social services in the long term.

“And she wants people to know she will do whatever she can to help her husband achieve that.”

 

Those closest to the Rauner family describe Diana as being “fiercely protective and supportive of her husband.”

 

“They are two of the most driven people and have worked for years to help the families of Illinois — especially Diana in her work for women and children,” the family source added.

 

“She knows he needs more time to achieve change in Illinois for the next generation and the generation after that.

 

“As the leader of a human service organization, Diana understands better than most just how important the need for a balanced budget is and what that means for the state’s long-term health and growth.”

 

Hmmm . . .

 

Sneed hears Maggie Hickey, Gov. Rauner’s hand-picked Illinois executive inspector general, is emerging as the top legal eagle glad-handing her way to become President Donald Trump’s pick as the next U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

 

“Maggie was really working the room Thursday night at the farewell party for former U.S. Attorney Zach [‘The Hunk’] Fardon,” a top Sneed source said.

 

• Backshot: The highly respected Fardon was asked to resign last month by the Trump administration.

 

• Pop shot: U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, who will recommend his selection to Trump, wasn’t at the Fardon fete.

 

• Oops shot: Sneed is told the event was abruptly moved at the last minute to the second-floor jury room of the Dirksen Federal Building — accompanied by at least 10 U.S. marshals. “We were all wondering if there had been a threat of a security risk,” a source who attended the event said.

 

Ka-ching!

 

$$$: Sneed is told Dr. Sandra Hindman, a world-renowned manuscript dealer — who hails from Chicago — just negotiated the sale to the German government of a thousand-year-old national treasure for more than $3 million!

 

• The treasure: “The Gospel Book of Liesborn Abbey,” which was made in Westphalia in 980 A.D., “and is finally returning triumphantly to its homeland,” said Hindman, who owns the prestigious manuscript firm Les Enluminures — which opens its brand new Chicago headquarters next week at One Mag Mile.

 

“It was until now one of the oldest manuscripts of the Gospels still in private possession,” added Hindman, who heads the largest company of manuscript dealers in the world with offices in Chicago, New York, Paris and London.

 

Sneed exclusive . . .

 

It’s an Airbnb spree!

 

Sneed has learned Airbnb, an online marketplace for short-term lodging, just put the finishing touches on a major in-house Chicago report that shows there are currently about 770 active Airbnb listings on the city’s South Side!

 

• The bank shot: South Side Airbnb hosts earned a combined $3.7 million in 2016.

 

• “It’s really impactful because there are no hotels on the South Side for the most part; thus, travelers are now able to experience and stay in South Side communities — where people who live there are earning a significant amount of supplemental income,” said Airbnb spokesman Ben Breit, who added: “The typical South Side host earned $2,400 in 2016 by sharing their home on Airbnb, and they welcomed 28,000 guests.”

 

• Stat chat: The South Side neighborhoods with the most Airbnb listings are Hyde Park, Kenwood, Grand Boulevard and Bridgeport. But the troubled Auburn Gresham and Englewood neighborhoods also made the list.

 

Sneedlings . . .

 

I spy: Hall of Famer Andre Dawson spotted with Dutchie Caray at Harry Caray’s on Kinzie on Thursday night. . . . Ditto for Billy “The Smashing Pumpkins” Corgan. . . . Saturday’s birthdays: Marshawn Lynch, 31; Jack Nicholson, 80; and Amber Heard, 31. . . . Sunday’s birthdays: Gigi Hadid, 22; George Lopez, 56; Dev Patel; 27 and a happy Monday birthday to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, priceless.


Plan would lower teacher standards to help fill jobs
Decatur Herald Review
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Article  |   Valerie Wells
Education reform (38)

Teaching jobs are going begging in Illinois.

“When I was a superintendent in my first few years, if we had elementary openings, we had 50 to 100 applicants for that one job,” said Dan Brue, superintendent of Meridian schools. “Now we have 10 to 15 applicants."

According to Illinois State Board of Education, about 6,000 openings exist statewide, and candidates to fill them are few.

"And with regard to problem areas, like math, science, middle and high school, we have a hard time getting a candidate, or one we feel is qualified enough for an interview," Brue said. "We've had a middle school science position open for over a month and only one applicant.”

The state board uses standards based on ACT and SAT testing for teacher candidates to enter an education program. Students must also pass the Academic Proficiency (TAP)/Basic Skills Test. Teacher candidates may submit scores for tests taken any time in the past 10 years.

State Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, and Sue Rezin, R-Peru, are proposing a third avenue based on grade-point average, citing particularly the struggles of rural district to hire teachers. Senate Bill 1123 would use a minimum GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale in the core education curriculum classes at the universities students attend for those students to qualify for certification as teachers after graduation.


Downtown tax credits should be permanent
Freeport Journal Standard
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Column  |   Chuck Sweeny
Blagojevich, Rod , Economic Development (35) , Local Government (60) , Quinn, Governor (44) Madigan, Michael--State House, 22 , Stewart, Brian--State House, 89
State Rep. Brian Stewart’s proposal to create a “Lincoln-Douglas” tax credit for Freeport and other cities where one of the 1858 Senate debates took place is a good idea. It just doesn’t go far enough. Stewart, R-Freeport, based his bill on the “River’s Edge” tax credits created under then-Gov. Pat Quinn and awarded in 2010. Rockford, Elgin, Aurora, East St. Louis and Peoria have used these tax credits to spur development in their downtown areas. Rockford’s aggressive use of the tax credits has spurred more than $120 million in redevelopment that is rapidly turning downtown into an exciting multiuse district. Soon, a 160-room Embassy Suites hotel will occupy the former Amerock factory on South Main Street. The River’s Edge credits were extended and are now scheduled to expire at the end of 2017. They need to be extended again — permanently. But if you thought the cities chosen for River’s Edge tax credits were selected mostly because of political considerations, I shall not try to disabuse you of that notion. Quinn, the lieutenant governor, was promoted to governor in 2009 after Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and turfed out of office. In 2010, Quinn had to get elected in his own right against state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington. It was in October of that year that I was scheduled to ride along with Quinn during a campaign swing to Fox River cities and Rockford. Instead, when I arrived at Quinn’s Chicago campaign headquarters in the 600 block of North LaSalle Street, a campaign aide drove me down the street to the J.R. Thompson Center and handed me off to the governor’s staff. The trip that day would not be with candidate Quinn, but with “Governor” Quinn. That meant a State Police car driver who could turn on the lights and siren to speed through expressway traffic. We traveled to Elgin, Aurora and Rockford, where “Governor” Quinn dispensed millions of dollars in River’s Edge tax credits. Although these were not technically “campaign” events, they had all the trappings of campaign rallies, complete with Democratic officials and lots of Quinn supporters. The cities picked for the River’s Edge credits were key to a Quinn victory over Brady, and the election turned out close: Quinn edged Brady 47 to 46 percent. But regardless of the motive, the tax credits were a success, helping to drive downtown renewal and adding tax value to formerly depressed areas. For his tax credit bill, Stewart chose cities that have enabled him to put together a coalition with six other representatives who represent the eligible cities of Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy and Alton. Stewart reasoned that these cities are smaller than the ones chosen for River’s Edge tax credits. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2013, Freeport had 25,035 people; Quincy, 40,915; Galesburg, 31,665; Ottawa, 18,562; Jonesboro, 1,788; Charleston, 21,961; and Alton, 27,290. Lawmakers might consider the arbitrary nature of this list of communities, the same way other lawmakers continue to question why some cities on rivers got tax credits in 2010 and others didn’t. Both are valid questions. If I were a legislator from, say, Decatur or Carbondale, I would be disinclined to care much about a bill that dealt my city out. Don’t get me wrong. These tax credits are a splendid idea; they’re so good, in fact, they should be made available to any city or village that wants to redevelop its older core. Here’s why: Nearly all Illinois cities need downtown revival to generate more activity and more spending and to add taxable value for local governments, all of which are being squeezed by the ever-increasing cost of providing services with fewer and fewer tax dollars. Cities have always been judged by the look and feel of their downtowns, something that continues to be true today, even if those cities can boast regional shopping malls on the outskirts and the triad of home improvement giants, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Menard’s. If half the buildings downtown are boarded up and 25 percent of the other half are vacant, that tells me the town is not a place to which I want to return. If buildings are occupied by interesting businesses and people are about, I am more interested in spending time there, and if I’ve got a job interview, I’m more likely to consider a job offer that requires me to live in that place. Stewart’s bill isn’t likely to be acted on during this spring’s legislative session, which ends May 31. It’s been sent to the Rules Committee, said Brad Cole of the Illinois Municipal League. The panel is a steel trap used by House Speaker Michael Madigan to stash bills he doesn’t intend to consider for a while, or forever.

Wide-Ranging Issues Await Illinois Lawmakers' Return to Springfield
NBC 5
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Article  |   Mary Ann Ahern
Abortion (1) , Budget--State (8) , Medicaid, Managed Care

The Illinois General Assembly - unable to reach a budget deal in more than two years - will make one more try this week.

As legislators return to Springfield on Monday following a two-week recess, the Illinois Senate is expected to amend the stopgap budget and send it back to the House, but there's no clear indication that a deal has been reached.

At the same time, lawmakers are also expected to tackle a controversial bill on abortion.

House Bill 40, which cleared committee in February, would allow the state to cover abortions for its employees and Medicaid recipients, as well as protect access to abortion in Illinois should the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing it be

overturned.  The legislation has made headlines in recent weeks, as Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has said he planned to veto the bill if it passes, because he does not support expanding Medicaid expenses for abortion - a position in direct contradiction with what he promised during the 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

Legislators also plan to discuss several measures to increase the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour before the end of the spring legislative session in May.


The longer we wait, the worse it will get
State Journal Register
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Editorial  |   Editorial Board
Budget--State (8)

Every time we think Illinois’ financial picture can’t get worse, someone hits the accelerator on the vehicle that is driving the state ever-closer toward perdition.

Last week, a new report made it crystal clear — if it hadn’t been already — that our leaders’ failures at passing a budget has put public higher education in Illinois on a high-speed collision course likely to end in a devastating crash.

The 2016 State Higher Education Finance report released Thursday by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association identified our state as an outlier, saying: “It’s impossible to examine state higher education finances in 2016 without separating the collapse in Illinois from a more nuanced picture across the rest of the country.”

The report noted that thanks to the 22-month long budget impasse, appropriations per full-time student dropped by 80 percent in Illinois. Enrollment in public institutions dropped by 46,000 students. Illinois was so horrible it weighed down the rest of the country: If Illinois is included, overall public support for higher education fell by 1.8 percent. Remove Illinois, and overall support increased by 3.2 percent.

That’s mortifying.

The blows kept coming Thursday, as S&P Global Ratings downgraded the bond status of six public universities and the Chicago community college system. Five of the state’s universities now are in junk bond territory, which means if they want to borrow, they’ll pay more in interest. Ominously, earlier in the week Moody’s Investors Service placed seven of the state’s universities on review for potential downgrades. The bad news is far from over.

And yet, no visible action on a budget. The main priority appears to have shifted to next year’s gubernatorial race, with pleas to compromise on a spending plan shoved to the side. They are fighting to take over a state that will be in ruins by the time the next governor is elected: If the now-frequent prediction by many Statehouse insiders that a budget won’t happen until after that election comes true, the victor could inherit a state with an estimated $24 billion backlog of bills. Where does one even start to come back from that?

It’s likely going to take a combination of cuts, economic innovation and, unfortunately, tax increases, to get on the road of fiscal stability. It’s always been clear that journey would require pain — but it’s easy to say make cuts, and another to actually find some. What gets placed on the chopping block: Helping seniors who need meals, or parents who receive child care assistance so they can work or attend school? Grants to low-income college students, or addiction treatment services for those hooked on opioids?

There are few easy choices. Even more discouraging, when cuts are suggested, the amount saved tends to be minimal. An Associated Press analysis found that the roughly 40 areas of cuts suggested by Gov. Bruce Rauner in his February budget proposal would total $242 million — or one-half of 1 percent of what the state spends in a year. That solves nothing. And more than half of that total, $125 million, would come from reductions to university budgets — a move that would further cripple our limping public universities.

That’s not to say higher education shouldn’t be subject to cuts. There likely is bloat at the administrative level. The state should consider Rauner’s proposal to reduce program overlap at universities by having each specialize in certain areas. Like all areas of state spending, higher education should not be absolved from scrutiny.

But we also need to see acknowledgement that higher education will play a key role if Illinois is ever to recover. Innovation is born at universities. Employers want a pool of talented, ambitious graduates to help realize their goals. Illinois cannot offer that when tens of thousands of students flee to other states because they don’t have faith in the education system lawmakers have abandoned.

Legislators return to Springfield this week after two weeks of “spring break,” although what they needed a break from is mystifying. Their only focus should be the budget. We feel like a broken record, but a framework is there with the Senate’s Grand Bargain proposal. Amend and adjust as needed, but get something done.

The longer it takes to hammer out a budget, the larger the implement will be needed to curtail spending. At the rate Illinois is going, we’ll need to borrow Death’s scythe to get the state into the black.


2018 Illinois governor’s race likely to be most expensive in U.S. history
State Journal Register
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Article  |   Brian Robbins State Capitol Bureau
Candidates--Statewide (12)

Not only is next year’s Illinois gubernatorial election already crowded on the Democratic side, it also might be the most expensive governor’s race in American history, some experts are predicting.

According to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, Illinois is No. 1 in the nation for most candidates who have officially filed their candidacy and started fundraising. It’s also No. 1 for dollars raised, nearly doubling the next-closest state.

The group says the candidates, who include at least three who are independently wealthy, have raised more than $61 million toward the 2018 race, with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner leading the pack with $50 million of his own funds donated in December and Democrat J.B. Pritzker, who just entered the race, personally chipping in $7 million.

The next three states are Texas, where one gubernatorial candidate has reported raising more than $34 million; New York, with nearly $24 million raised by one candidate; and California, where three candidates have raised about $17 million.

Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said spending for next year’s governor’s race is already more than half the total from 2014, when Rauner was elected.

“In 2014, the entire race cost about $100 million, and here we are a year from the primary looking at $61 million in funds raised,” Brune said. “Certainly there’s no sign of it slowing down. A lot of these candidates are just getting started.”

Brune said this kind of spending could be hard for most Illinoisans to understand, especially in the context of the state’s financial problems.

“I think it’s really mind-boggling for the average person,” she said. “It’s hard to see that type of money going toward political ads and mailers when there are so many organizations in the state, including higher education, that are being totally starved for funds.”

Kent Redfield, retired professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the 2018 governor’s race in Illinois could be historic.

“I don’t think there’s any question that in 2018, the Illinois election will be one of the most expensive races in history, and by some metrics, it could be considered the most expensive,” Redfield said. “If you look and see what the most expensive governor’s race in the country is, it will probably be Illinois.”

Redfield said that because of the amount of money being spent by both parties, it will be difficult for independent voices to be heard.

“Democrats are even more dependent than ever on their traditional sources of funding. The Republicans are almost entirely dependent on Governor Rauner for their money,” Redfield said. “That means that spending and decision-making is much more centralized.”

Out of the seven declared candidates, the only Republican is Rauner, a former private equity investor seeking a second four-year term. On the Democratic side so far are state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston; Robert Daiber, regional superintendent of schools for Madison County; businessman Chris Kennedy; small-business owner Alex Paterakis; Chicago Ald. Ameya Pawar; and Pritzker, a billionaire private venture capitalist who is one of Illinois’ richest men.

In 2014, Rauner invested $27 million of his own funds as part of a campaign that spent $65 million in total.

A majority of campaign spending goes into paid communication such as direct mail, internet advertisements, radio and television ads.

Just last month, Rauner launched new 30-second and 15-second television advertisements. In the ads, Rauner called out politicians who want to use “duct-tape solutions” to fix Illinois.

Brune said the campaign fundraising and spending for the governor’s race is only going to get bigger.

“This is exceptionally early. We’ve looked at gubernatorial races in other highly populated states, and none of them have as many candidates who are actively fundraising as we do,” she said. “Certainly none of their races are as expensive as ours. It’s only going to get crazier from here.”

-- Contact Brian Robbins: 782-3095, brian.robbins@sj-r.com, twitter.com/brianrobbins9.


State workers highest paid? A look at the stats
State Journal Register
Sunday, April 23, 2017  |   Column  |   Bernard Schoenburg
Rauner, Bruce , Unions, labor (55)

During his recent campaign-paid tour of the state, Gov. BRUCE RAUNER talked to a group in Springfield, including many state employees or relatives of state workers, and addressed pay for the state workforce.

In his speech at Fulgenzi’s Pizza & Pasta, he talked about how he had reached contract agreements with many state unions, but not the largest — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“I want to make sure we treat our hard-workin’ state employees well with respect and pay them well,” he said. “And it doesn’t bother me, necessarily, that they’re the highest-paid state employees anywhere in America. I’m happy to pay more, but I want ’em paid not on seniority, but based on productivity.”

Are Illinois state workers the highest paid in the land? I asked the Rauner administration for some backup.

What I got was a link to a table of 2015 annual averages from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the numbers showed Illinois’ annual average weekly wage for state government workers came in sixth — seventh if top-placing District of Columbia is included.

But, said the Rauner administration, it applied a cost-of-living index from a group called the Council for Community and Economic Research. The administration said that index for Illinois was 95.5 percent — though that appears to be their own calculation based on numbers the council released, which are not statewide values. I was told by the governor’s office that dividing the “state salary” by 0.955 ranks Illinois highest because the state’s cost of living is a bit below the national average.

The research director for AFSCME, MARTHA MERRILL, said the No. 6 ranking in the Bureau of Labor Statistics should speak for itself.

The cost-of-living survey used by the governor’s office, she said, “is supposed to compare cities, not states, and the population they are looking at is someone who is professional or executive. I think that’s problematic. That upper percentile ... has a different consumption of goods than what I would say the average state worker has. Even if the governor’s office was using the survey correctly, which they’re not, it would be the wrong survey to use.”

“It’s the governor trying to manipulate those numbers to fit his narrative,” Merrill said.

I called the council, based in Arlington, Virgina, and spoke with JENNIE ALLISON, program manager. She confirmed that the council’s numbers deal with metropolitan areas, not states. And, she said, the index “is modeled for an upper-income, professional/managerial household.” Her organization is a nonprofit membership association, with members including chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, utility companies and state agencies.

With the 2016 data published in January, the council calls its index “a useful and reasonably accurate measure of living cost differences among urban areas. ... Weights assigned to relative costs are based on government survey data on expenditure patterns for professional and executive households.” And survey areas are “where chambers of commerce or similar organizations have volunteered to participate.”

The metro areas in Illinois in the survey are Springfield, Rockford, Peoria, Decatur, Danville, Champaign-Urbana and two Chicago-area regions, one centered in the city. If ratings for each are added together, as if they are all equal, the average rating comes to 95.5. But doing that also avoids taking into account population differences in the regions. With 100 being a nationwide average, the Chicago-centric region has a 118.5 rating, while Springfield’s and Danville’s are each 89.4, and Rockford’s is 89.9.

As for the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, the “annual wages per employee” number for Illinois in the 2015 report was $66,765. The top two states were California, at $71,790, and New Jersey, at $70,277. The number in D.C. was $75,790.

The bureau includes in “gross wages” items including the value of meals and lodging.

The wage numbers for state workers do not include health care or pension costs, but do include full- and part-time workers, said a BLS economist.

And I noticed that the table the governor’s office sent listed the “annual average employment” for Illinois state workers in 2015 at 116,573 people. I asked the governor’s office if that includes college and university employees. The response was that the BLS could better tell me how it defines state employees.

As it turns out, the chart from that federal agency does include people who work in higher education. The Illinois comptroller’s office says the number of state government workers now, not counting higher ed, is 62,325.

The governor’s office says it oversees about 50,000 workers of the total, and maintains that the average salary for them is — like the numbers in the federal chart — $66,000 to $67,000. It also says the AFSCME average salary was $66,803 as of December 2014.

This is a lot of numbers, but even Rauner’s narrative has changed since he was going around the state in his first year in office, pushing a 44-point “turnaround agenda.” A binder of information from the governor’s office in 2015 includes a chart listing Illinois “state employee salary average” for 2012. In that chart from the Pew Center on the States, Illinois, at $63,669, was listed third behind New Jersey and California. The governor’s office says those numbers were not adjusted for cost of living. A Pew website still has those 2012 figures.

In the BLS table, Illinois was also 11th in total state worker wages paid, even though Illinois is the fifth most-populous state. Again, that includes higher education. But it could also reflect the relatively low number of state workers in Illinois. According to Merrill, of AFSCME, Illinois has the second-lowest number of state employees per capita in the nation.

The state workforce — outside higher ed — has declined dramatically in recent years. It was more than 81,600 in 2002.

Meanwhile, as I sought other comparisons, I learned that the National Conference of State Legislatures doesn’t have any recent research on the topic, but there was a 2016 study done for the state of Missouri by CBIZ Human Capital Services. It counted only full-time employees, and didn’t count those in higher education. Illinois state government salaries ranked fifth overall, and third — behind Iowa and California — when adjusted for the average cost of labor in the state.