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Attracting more teachers goal of proposed legislation
Bloomington Pantagraph
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |   Valerie Wells
Education--Elementary and Secondary (36) Rezin, Sue--State Senate 38 , Righter, Dale--State Senate, 55

Teaching jobs are going begging in Illinois.

According to Illinois State Board of Education, some 6,381 openings exist statewide, and candidates to fill them are few.

“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."

The board of education uses standards based on ACT and SAT testing for teacher candidates to enter an education program. Students also must 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 in particular, the struggles of rural districts 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.

The state board opposes the idea, said spokeswoman Jackie Matthews, because it is difficult to measure GPA fairly among universities' teacher preparation programs, which have their own standards.

“A 3.0 GPA in one program does not correspond to the same mastery of skills as a 3.0 in a different program," Matthews said.

"All Illinois students deserve qualified teachers," she added. "While ISBE supports eliminating barriers to entering the profession where possible, ISBE opposes lowering standards."

Not everyone considers the idea a lowering of standards, however.

Christie Magoulias, director of the School of Education at Millikin University, said there are highly qualified candidates for teaching who just don't test well, and are barred from becoming teachers under the current requirements.

“When we see those (students) who are excellent in classrooms and internships and just can't reach that test score, it's really heartbreaking,” she said. “I'm really heartened to see that this topic is alive and people are talking about this. I think the basic skills test is one of the barriers for some of our students.”

Barbara Meyer, associate dean in the college of education at Illinois State University in Normal, said teaching candidates have “many bench marks to meet” on the road to a career.

“Scoring well on the ACT or SAT is one of many hoops to jump through. It is difficult. Students have to meet that score in order to progress into teacher education courses and that’s a challenge sometimes,” said Meyer.

“Having that GPA requirement as an option could very well be a positive aspect for getting prospective future candidates into the profession and into classes in a timely manner,” said Meyer.

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Meyer recalled a former student who struggled passing the required tests. The student had to wait a year until the next test cycle to try again.

“She finally made the grade, but she lost a good year trying to pass that test. The amount of finances that takes up can also be a challenge.”

Meyer said if the bill passes, “there’s always a possibility” it could attract more students to the field.

“Everyone has different reasons for going into teaching or not. It’s a great profession and something I advocate for, but it isn’t for everybody,” she said. “For those who want to do the program and can’t — that’s when it’s frustrating.”

Proving yourself in college courses that will prepare you to teach means much more than passing a "one moment in time" test, said Olivia Mannlein, the parent of two daughters and a Decatur teacher.

"I'm a good test-taker, but that didn't make me a teacher," she said. "That test only shows what you know on that day. There are a lot of other contributing factors (to being a good teacher)."

The Teacher Pipeline provides mentors and training to students interested in teaching. Students live and work in urban districts so they'll feel at home and connected, and they take specific courses to teach them how to work with urban populations. It began in Chicago and also has a program at ISU, directed by Shannon Mittelman.

“High-stakes tests don't necessarily capture the qualities of a good teacher,” Mittleman said. “If a teacher candidate is passionate about learning, self-reflective, flexible, respectful and responsive to students, can create a sense of community in the classroom and believes that all children can and want to learn, then that candidate deserves a chance to become a teacher.”

Illinois State student Kayla Scardina agrees that more is at work in making a good teacher than a test score.

“I think a GPA shows a more cumulative representation,” Scardina said. “With an ACT/SAT or basic skills test, that is only one score and representation of you. When looking at a GPA, that entails many items: homework, quizzes, tests, projects, etc.

Righter said the proposal grew out of the calls he has been receiving in his office from parents and students affected by the rules as they stand now.

“We have, in the last decade or so, enslaved ourselves to the idea that the value of someone is completely dependent upon a standardized test,” Righter said.

“Did they circle in enough of the right ovals? For most people who know anything about education, and people who have been students, which is all of us, we know being a teacher is a lot more than that. It's about connecting with kids, recognizing the kid who has an extra gift, or the other side of the spectrum, the kid who needs more attention. None of that is determined by a standardized test.”

The House returns Monday, and the Senate on Tuesday.


OUR VIEW: EIU can move ahead even as state sputters
Charleston Times Courier/Mattoon Daily Journal
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Editorial  |  
Budget--State (8) , Education--Higher (37)

If the condition of Eastern Illinois University is to improve, in the short-term as well as the coming years, two things seem clear.

First, state legislators and the governor must craft a budget, something they have failed to do for almost 23 months. Yes, it is maddening. Second, EIU officials must find ways to bring back some of the thousands of students who in recent years have found other campuses on which to pursue their university educations.

For sure, a state budget that adequately funds all public universities in Illinois would help restore young people’s, and their parents’, confidence in EIU and the other 11 state-assisted universities of Illinois.

But EIU’s enrollment issues began even prior to state lawmakers fumbling their political football in the spring of 2015 and grasping ever since at a state budget as though it was a greased pig.

EIU enrollment hit a high-water mark of more than 11,000 students in the late 20th century. Ten years ago, on-campus enrollment was more than 10,000 students. The official 10th day enrollment in spring 2011 was 9,549. According to the JG-TC “State of the University” series this week, the current spring enrollment at EIU is 6,673 students.

That is a decline of almost 3,000 students since 2011, well before Gov. Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton began playing “chicken” with state funds.

According to the JG-TC series, EIU officials get it.

Josh Norman, fairly new as the associate vice president for enrollment, said EIU is hosting more events to build stronger relations with prospective and current students. Administrators and faculty need to drive home that personal connection that always has been a strength at EIU.

Paul McCann, interim vice president for business affairs, who has had to track the university’s lack of finances under the Rauner-Madigan-Cullerton funding fiasco, acknowledged that many of the challenges EIU faces could be eased by enrolling more students.

Lack of adequate state funding and less tuition/fee revenue from a declining enrollment have resulted in about 20 percent fewer employees at EIU. It is a challenge to maintain personal relations when there are fewer faculty/staff to assist students. Layoffs, early retirements and unfilled vacancies have contributed to the fewer number of employees.

Across campus this academic year, faculty, staff and administrators have been engaged in a “revitalization project” designed to focus on the best ways to move forward that will meet students’ needs and provide the best stewardship of funds.

Katie Anselment, EIU’s legislative liaison at the Capitol, summed up the “state of the university” very well in one installment of the series.

Area legislators, she said, are “very receptive” to working on adequate funding. Lawmakers from other state university regions also see higher education as a priority. But representatives and senators in other areas of the state? It seems they “don’t feel the impact,” Anselment says.

It’s a variation of the “Not in My Back Yard” dilemma. But higher education affects the back yard, the front lawn and the entire state of Illinois. Especially when thousands of students leave Illinois each year to enroll in other states’ universities.

EIU officials have much to work with. The university’s reputation, since the days of Livingston Lord, the first sitting president, has been excellent. U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 college rankings listed EIU as the best regional public university in Illinois and the sixth-best in the Midwest.

But, even the best regional public university needs public funds. State officials need to end this two-year-old budget stalemate and move Illinois forward again. But it’s up to officials, alumni and friends of one of the top public universities in the state and Midwest to show prospective students how EIU continues to be a wise enrollment opportunity.


Abortion bill could be thorny issue for Rauner campaign
Chicago Sun Times
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |   Tina Sfondeles
Abortion (1)

A thorny issue is already prickling Gov. Bruce Rauner’s side more than a year before what will likely be a contentious gubernatorial election — with some saying the Republican governor’s refusal to support a bill to remove an abortion trigger provision that also expands Medicaid coverage could cost him voters.

Rauner’s administration on April 14 said he planned to veto a House bill that eliminates a provision making abortions illegal in Illinois should Roe v. Wade be overturned and also allow women with Medicaid and state employees to use their coverage for abortions in any case. The state already pays for abortions for cases of rape, incest, to protect the mother’s health or to save her life.

That decision led to Rauner being dubbed a liar by Personal PAC. The abortion-rights group also released a 2014 candidate questionnaire in which Rauner wrote that he’d support legislation to help expand abortion coverage for low-income women.

Rauner has denied being a flip-flopper, saying he’s “always been and always will be a strong supporter and protector of women’s reproductive rights.” But, he said, the state should instead focus on a budget, proper school funding, economic growth and job creation and not take on “controversial, divisive issues.”

His administration contends he has signed two bills protecting women’s reproductive rights — one mandating private insurance coverage for birth control and a right of conscience measure.

And the state’s Department of Healthcare and Family Services claims abortions won’t be outlawed even if Roe v. Wade is overturned. The department says the pre-Roe statute that prohibited performance of abortion procedures was invalidated in a 1973 case and was repealed.

Abortion-rights advocates — and some Democratic candidates for governor — are calling Rauner a flip-flopper. But many conservative supporters say they’re still with him. While Rauner’s stance on the bill is unlikely to affect his primary — in which, for now, he has no challenger — it may strip off some votes in the general election, specifically votes from college-educated younger women and suburban female voters, according to Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Abortion is one where inconsistency hurts more. So Rauner’s challenge is to say something like there’s something specific about the bill that is a problem. That even for a pro-choicer like me, there’s some reason why. Something that would sort of persuade suburban female voters that are the ones I presume he would lose that probably make the margin for a Republican governor to win or lose in a state like this,” Gaines said. “You’re starting off with a normal vote disadvantage and you have to poach away people who sometimes vote for the other people.”

According to CNN exit polls from the 2014 election — which offers just a snapshot of a small percentage of voters after leaving a polling place — Rauner had the support of about 44 percent of women voters. Among voters who called themselves moderates, about 52 percent backed Rauner. He was even able to secure the votes of about 11 percent of Democratic women who were polled.

Other polls conducted before the election showed Rauner had strong support from suburban women who were social moderates but fiscal conservatives.

Gaines said it’s hard to predict what campaign commercials might be used against Rauner but he said “flip-floppers” are sometimes highlighted in campaign ads. He called abortion and guns key issues to one-issue voters.

“It sets him up to potentially have to explain in the fall against whomever survives,” Gaines said. “It’s an issue that when you ask people who claim they only vote on one issue, then abortion and guns are the two things that pop up. There are people who will tell you there’s nothing else that matters to them nearly as much. Nobody says that about unemployment or minimum wage or having a budget at all.”

Others say Rauner is being consistent about his views — he’s often said he cares more about fiscal issues than social ones — and the issue won’t impact his race.

Republican consultant Collin Corbett said Rauner has always presented himself as a social moderate focused on fiscal issues.

“From the political perspective, this isn’t really going to affect his primary,” Corbett said. “He’s not going to get ‘primaried’ — or, if someone does run against him, they’re not going to have the support or funding necessary to make it a real race. I don’t think he’s doing this for a nod to the primary or even necessarily to secure his base. Right now, most people I know in Illinois who are conservative understand his stance.”

Corbett said the core conservatives are focused on the fiscal crisis in the state over everything else — and they support his war with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

“Republicans are with him. We know the fight they’re having right now with Madigan and we understand that. Anyone we get from the Democratic side is going to be nowhere near on issues that are important to us,” Corbett said.

Corbett said Rauner’s supporters will back him “because they recognize that this is a battle royale between Rauner and Madigan, and his base is going to be with him in that battle no matter what.”

Corbett also called the timing of the bill — which is expected to be voted on in the Illinois House next week — intentional. “The Democrats have been in campaign mode for a long time now and from the moment he took office their goal was to keep him from being re-elected,” Corbett said. “It’s always been about the governor’s race in 2018 and so this is surely to set him up and to hurt him in the election. And I can tell you from the people we talk to in the base, we get that.”

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown called Rauner’s stance on the bill “just the latest series of actions that have been the hallmark of his three years in office.”

Brown described those actions as “his inconsistencies, his inability to persuade anybody on his ideas, his misstatements, his backtracking on things.”

Delmarie Cobb, a political consultant and former spokeswoman to Hillary Clinton, said Rauner is doing whatever is “politically expedient, not what he believes ideologically.”

“It shows he’s just like Donald Trump. It’s all about the win. It’s not about the ideology,” Cobb said. “And it goes against what he said when he ran the first time because he positioned himself as being a moderate Republican on social issues.”

Cobb urged Rauner’s Democratic challengers to use his stance on the bill against him: “A Democrat should discuss it in the primary because you want to beat up your opponent with what you have, for as long as you can, because that’s what the governor is already doing. He’s already running commercials saying what a good governor he is and already talking about casting aspersions against the Democratic base overall, tying everybody to Madigan. It should come up in the primary.”


Can Bruce Rauner save himself?
Chicago Tribune
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |   John Kass
Rauner, Bruce

With Illinois in near financial ruin, as businesses and economic refugees flee the state in search of opportunity, there is at least one industry prepared to invest $200 million or more in Illinois' strangled economy:

 

Politics.

 

Political expenditures in the 2018 gubernatorial elections could reach that $200 million sum, perhaps exceed it, as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner seeks re-election, and Illinois Democratic boss House Speaker Michael Madigan welcomes big-bucks Democrats into the race.

 

Boss Madigan, thin, wizened and in his mid-70s, still runs things. And he plans on taking Rauner down in the great campaign to come.

 

So as it begins, with political consultants from across the country swooping in like pink condors in gray suits for a bite at all the political cash from the Pritzkers and the Kennedys and Rauner, I ask a question:

 

Can Rauner, the wealthy businessman who has had a brutal two-year war with Madigan, kick-start his political mojo to win re-election?

 

"Whatever it takes," Rauner promised a crowd of 500 or so at a Northwest Suburban Lincoln Day dinner last week as he ticked off how Madigan and the Democrats have blocked his every move in Springfield.

 

"Do we want a better future for our children and grandchildren? Or are we going to stay under the thumb of a group of corrupt, career politicians who've been dragging our state down the drain for decades?" he said.

 

There was polite applause during his speech. But it wasn't rousing applause. And ticking off lists of Democratic obstructions — no matter how valid — won't stir the hearts of voters numbed by Madigan Stockholm Syndrome.

 

Rauner needs something else. Something simple. Something direct.

 

Should he toss his establishment GOP political staff and replace them with street fighters and warriors? Perhaps.

 

Should he drop the kitschy campaign commercials he's been running, with the duct tape and the new bright flannel shirt?

 

Immediately.

 

And should he keep wasting his time squabbling with Madigan surrogate Illinois Comptroller Susana "Future Mayor Someday" Mendoza?

 

No. He's the governor, and she's not Madigan. For now, she's just a Madigan puzzle piece.

 

So what can Rauner do to turn this around?

 

"He can turn this around by focusing on what matters to people. And what matters to them are their homes," said Dan Proft, the WIND radio host and conservative political strategist who has been somewhat critical of Rauner's approach.

 

"In Illinois, your home values go up, your property taxes go up. Your home values go down, your property taxes still go up. Illinois is a home equity desert. The value of your home is being taken," Proft said. "And the government is taking your largest investment away chunk by chunk. If you can't stoke a revolution with that, then you've got me."

 

But that would require Rauner to refocus, to simplify his message and offer a restructuring of government priorities where the state — which is supposed to fund the great share of public education — actually comes through.

 

Democrats have taken care of their voters for decades by spending the state into hideous debt. But homeowners? They're stuck paying for schools. Illinois property taxes are among the highest in the nation, a reason cited by many refugees fleeing Madiganistan for Indiana, or Tennessee or other states.

 

It could work. And I don't doubt Rauner has the guts to turn his politics around. But does he have the people around him to do so? And do they have the will, or are they just looking for their next political gig?

 

Whatever Rauner does, he needs to do it soon, by the end of summer if not before.

 

Because what he has been doing, letting Madigan drag him down, hasn't been working. Madigan wants him to do what he's been doing for the past two years, squabbling and complaining as a piece in the game while Madigan controls the entire board.

 

Rauner looks about 25 pounds thinner since he took office two years ago, when he promised to be that bull in the china shop in Springfield. Yet instead of all-out war, people convinced him he should finesse things.

 

But you can't out-finesse the master. And Madigan played it all like trench warfare in World War I, hunkering down behind the mud, using Democrat-friendly courts, using process, his majority control of the legislature to deny any Rauner pro-jobs regulatory changes. And the Boss was helped by the media, as reporters characterized almost every Rauner policy as an "anti-union" move.

 

"Rauner is about action in business," said a longtime Madigan friend. "Mike is about patience in politics. You can't finesse Mike out of anything. He's been doing this all his life."

 

And now, after sitting in the trenches, Madigan unleashes the hammering.

 

Democrat billionaire J.B. Pritzker is in, with all that inherited hotel empire cash and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's political spinners jumping into Pritzker's pockets. And Chris Kennedy, of the famous Kennedy political family, is also in, and what's left of the Daley clan will be with him. And the media still can't get enough of Kennedy nostalgia and that magic name.

 

There was so much Camelot wrapped in Kennedy's campaign announcement that I expected news outlets to hand out coupons for "Camelot" soundtracks and copies of T.H. White's "The Once and Future King."

 

Rauner has been battered, but he's not broken. He has to make his case, not with kitsch but with information and passion so taxpayers can see what is at stake.

 

And though it's still early, he really doesn't have a lot of time.


Morning Spin for Monday, April 24, 2017
Chicago Tribune
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Editorial  |   Editorial Board
Budget--State (8)

The speculation at the Capitol held that if the state’s budget impasse continues through next year’s election, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner will campaign on the fact that he blocked Democrats from hiking taxes.
 
End the speculation. Cue the campaign.
 
In a fundraising letter sent to Republican supporters from the governor’s campaign, Rauner says: “Speaker Mike Madigan and the Springfield Democrats REFUSE TO FIX our state. Illinois taxpayers deserve a balanced budget WITHOUT any tax increases.”
 
That’s a sharp contrast to what the governor previously has said, including his acknowledgment that the state needs more revenue as well as spending cuts to achieve a balanced budget. (He's not alone in that view — leading Democrats have said the same. The shortfall is just too big.)
 
Of course, Rauner has made as a precondition for approving a tax hike his list of “structural reforms” (previously known as his “turnaround agenda”), which include a property tax freeze, changes to workers' compensation, term limits for politicians and a plan to take much of the politics out of the drawing of legislative districts. Those demands have met with opposition from Madigan and the Democratic-controlled legislature, leading to the stalemate.
 
“In the midst of the ongoing budget impasse in Springfield, I don’t normally have time to write personal letters like this but I urgently need to hear back from you ASAP,” Rauner said in the form letter addressed to “Dear Fellow Taxpayer” and marked “Personal & Confidential, Urgent Reply Requested, Please Respond in 7 Days.”
 
In the letter, Rauner calls himself “the only leader in Springfield standing between Illinois and more job-killing, taxpayer-crushing policies!!”
 
“I’ve fought tooth and nail to bring back Illinois because I’m sick and tired of career politicians who are more concerned with taking care of their special interest allies than families like yours,” he wrote.
 
While most fundraising appeals start at the low-dollar end to generate at least a few bucks, Rauner — a wealthy former private equity investor who put $50 million into his re-election campaign in December — isn’t shy.
 
“Now, facing what could be the most expensive governor’s race in Illinois history, I urgently need you to consider partnering with my campaign with your most generous PLEDGE OF SUPPORT of $2,000, $1,000, $500 or $250 today,” Rauner wrote.
 
“Make no mistake: Illinois has come too far to allow Mike Madigan to install yet another liberal puppet in the Governor’s Mansion he can pull the strings on,” he wrote.
 
Rauner contended that “every tax-and-spend liberal in Springfield and nearly every liberal newspaper have called on me to capitulate to Mike Madigan’s demands, raise taxes on you and your family with no reforms to show for it, and pass yet another un-balanced budget.”
 
“I refuse to pass the buck to the next generation,” the governor wrote, adding that “after doing my level best not to fundraise for the last two years, I’m reaching out to request your immediate support.”
 
Rauner, who spent nearly $28 million of his own money in defeating then-Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in 2014, added a P.S. to his letter: “I won my first campaign for governor of Illinois on the promise to Shake Up Springfield — and delivered.”
 
By the way, don’t expect those ads featuring Rauner and a roll of duct tape to stop anytime soon. A report on cable TV ad buys shows the commercials running through at least the end of April. The ads are being paid for by an affiliate of the Republican Governors Association. (Rick Pearson)
 

What's on tap

*Mayor Rahm Emanuel will announce the renovation of the Cottage Grove Green Line CTA station.

*Gov. Rauner will appear at a Downstate school near St. Louis.

*Former President Barack Obama will talk to students at the University of Chicago at 11 a.m.

*Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications, will speak to the City Club of Chicago.

*The Illinois House returns to Springfield after a two-week break.

*The week ahead: On Tuesday, the Illinois Senate reconvenes and an Illinois Women March on Springfield is planned. On Wednesday, DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin plans to speak to the City Club of Chicago. On Thursday, Gov. Rauner has another Facebook Live session.

 

From the notebook

*On the Sunday Spin: Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson’s guests were Rich Monocchio, executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County; Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor; and Democratic U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg. The Sunday Spin airs from 7 to 9 a.m. on WGN-AM 720. Listen to the full show here.

*Another year: Belated birthday wishes to Democratic governor candidate Ameya Pawar. The 47th Ward Chicago alderman turned 37 on Saturday, according to his campaign. Turning 75 Monday: former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

 

What we're writing

*Airport security official left Tollway post amid sex-for-favors allegations.

*City inspector general subpoenas tollway on aviation deputy.

*Chicago visit Monday to start Obama's re-entry into public eye.

*Ex-President Barack Obama to hold first public event since leaving office, in Chicago on Monday.

*Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich loses appeal as judges quickly uphold 14-year prison term.

*Rauner won't say why he changed position on expanded abortion funding.

*Illinois unemployment dips below 5 percent for first time in decade.

*Emanuel, Preckwinkle unmoved by DOJ letter on sanctuary cities.

*Emanuel defends aldermen getting $1.3 million each for ward projects.

*Chicago State interim president takes office with $240,000 salary.

*Member of Decatur 7 elected to school board that once expelled him.

*Schaumburg village president pleads guilty to leaving scene of car crash.

*United misses Senate deadline on passenger-dragging inquiry.

 

What we're reading

*United CEO Munoz won't automatically become chairman.

*Rehabbed Millennium Park fountain reopens with new screens.

*Kogan on Chicago nightclub owners' rich stories from 1960s heyday.

 

Follow the money

*The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform tracks the week's big donations.

*Track Illinois campaign contributions in real time here and here

 

Beyond Chicago

*Putin-backed Le Pen, centrist Macron headed to presidential runoff in France.

*Trump approval rating at record low, but base holding as he approaches 100 days, according to the Washington Post.

*Comey tried to shield FBI from politics, ended up shaping election, NYT reports.

*House Democrats bullish after Trump stumbles, Politico finds.


Is the tollway getting cold feet on Route 53 extension?
Daily Herald
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |   Marni Pyke
Tollways (91b)

For months, the Route 53 extension has languished on the back burner at the Illinois tollway.

But separate events last week -- a survey showing support for extending the road north and a public protest against it -- have thrust the controversial project back into the spotlight.

In December 2015, tollway board directors voted to spend up to $50 million for a comprehensive study on extending Route 53 into Lake County. Despite Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawlor's dropping support for the project in May, tollway leaders reaffirmed their commitment, indicating they'd hire consultants by last summer, but nothing's happened.

That begs the question: Is the tollway all-in or getting cold feet?

Proposals from consulting firms are still under review, a spokesman said.

If officials needed ammunition to pull the trigger, they got it with the release of a report last week from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a think tank whose board members include labor unions, the construction industry, lobbyists and utility companies.

The institute polled 400 voters in Lake County in February and found 66 percent favored the project, 18 percent opposed it and 16 percent didn't know or refused to comment.

"The public is overwhelmingly supportive of the project," institute policy manager Frank Manzo said.

That's not what members of Livable Lake County think. Volunteers mailed off 3,000 petitions to Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday asking him to kill the plan.

"Gov. Rauner, please hear us. Let us choose a better future," Livable Lake County's Evan Craig said.

Opponents say the new road would pollute the air and nearby preserves. Others aren't happy with proposed toll rates of 20 cents a mile compared to the 6-cent average elsewhere and a $2 billion-plus shortfall to be potentially subsidized by a gas tax or higher tolls in Lake County.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group included the extension in a list of nine of the most "wasteful" highway boondoggles in the nation. Supporters are convinced the extension would cure traffic congestion, create jobs, spur economic development and reduce travel times.

When pollsters informed people of the gas tax and higher tolls, 64 percent still supported the plan and 29 percent opposed it, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute reported.

Why is there so much noise about Route 53 now?

For one, the complicated, politically volatile reconstruction and widening of the Tri-State Tollway is starting to suck up oxygen at the agency.

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute feared the 53 project "was slowly becoming another Illiana," said Manzo, referring to the shelved Illinois/Indiana expressway.

Former state Sen. and tollway Director Bill Morris of Grayslake thinks the 2018 governor's race is a factor given that Rauner appoints the tollway board.

"There is a push being made by special interest groups, developers, road speculators and unions to pressure the governor to support the study and move forward on Route 53 as a condition of support for his upcoming election. It's all about next year," Morris said.

The governor doesn't interfere with votes, tollway Director Joseph Gomez said. The Northfield banker thinks the road extension makes sense on its merits and that benefits outweigh any negatives. Meanwhile, concerns about higher tolls are being readdressed, Gomez said.

Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said, "We have a variety of contractual issues to consider and hope to address it (Route 53) in the future."

Significantly, Lake County's George Ranney, who headed up a blue-ribbon committee that reached consensus on a four-lane, tolled parkway with a 45 mph limit in 2012, recently withdrew support for the project.

Ranney stated he thought state and tollway officials were not committing to those conditions, breaking with an "understanding we worked so hard to achieve."

"People are struggling with it," IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn said Friday.

There still is interest in the project, but overall "there are concerns about where the support is," he said. "To move this project forward in any way we have to be seeing support from the local officials and local communities. It doesn't make sense to build something that doesn't have that support."

Got an opinion on Route 53? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

One more thing

Petra ... I mean Metra ... will expand a program allowing small dogs and cats on trains to weekdays. The railroad started allowing pets in carriers on weekends last year. A lack of yipping, howling and complaints led to the changes that will begin on May 1 for a six-month trial.

Pets will be permitted before 6:30 a.m. and after 9:30 a.m. on weekday trains heading downtown and on outbound trains before 3 p.m. and after 7 p.m.

Gridlock alert

In Lombard, IDOT is closing lanes on Butterfield Road under Highland Avenue nightly starting at 6 p.m. for bridge painting. Work wraps up this summer.

And in Des Plaines, resurfacing means temporary lane closures on Wolf Road between Rand and Golf roads now until later this spring.

Tri-State forums coming

Learn about the Illinois tollway's plan to widen the Central Tri-State from Rosemont to the South suburbs at three open houses this week. The forums are: 6 to 8 p.m. today at the Hinsdale oasis; 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Lipinski Community Center, 7256 Skyline Drive, Justice; and 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the O'Hare oasis.


Eastern Illinois University attempts to boost enrollment
Effingham Daily News
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |  
Budget--State (8) , Education--Higher (37)

CHARLESTON, Ill. (AP) — Eastern Illinois University has boosted its marketing campaigns, social media outreach and events for admitted students in an attempt to reverse a recent trend of declining enrollment.

The university's figures show that total enrollment has declined from more than 8,500 in the fall of 2015 to fewer than 6,700 this spring. Enrollment numbers usually drop a bit each spring due to December graduations.

Josh Norman, associate vice president for enrollment management, told the Journal Gazette and Times-Courier the university is facing statewide economic and political issues that have resulted in Illinois being the second biggest exporter of students among the 50 states.

"You are dealing with an increasingly competitive environment when it comes to recruiting college-bound students," Norman said.

The university's efforts to be more competitive also include offering new courses to meet student demand. For example, the university plans to expand its criminology minor into a new criminology/criminal justice major this fall.

"It really opens new opportunities for them to continue their education," said Vicki Shaw Woodard, a university spokeswoman. "They are traditionally the courses that fill up the fastest because the students don't have to fit them into their schedule."

Norman said the university holds open houses for incoming, transfer and undecided students to help connect them with their academic and extracurricular interests.

"We have some really specialized events designed for those students so they can learn more about those academic interests here," Norman said. "It is that personal connection we are really trying to drive home."


Health insurance subsidies at risk in budget bill to keep government running
Effingham Daily News
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |  
Health (49) , Insurance (53) , Obamacare, Affordable Care Act

WASHINGTON – Health insurance is the last thing Linda Inness wants to worry about.

The chemotherapy pills her husband, Gabe, takes for the colon cancer that spread to his liver costs more than $1,000-a-month.

Yet the couple, who reside outside Knoxville, Tennessee, live daily with distress over the real possibility they could lose their subsidized insurance next year and won’t be able to make up the difference.

It is the same anguish millions of other low to middle-income Americans face if President Donald Trump follows through on his threat to not fund $7 billion in subsidies to insurance companies that participate in the national Affordable Care Act.

Humana, the only insurer offering subsidized coverage to Linda and Gabe Inness and 40,000 others in rural Roane County, announced in February it plans to leave the federal insurance marketplace.

Inness said her husband will qualify for Medicare next year, but she doesn’t know how much it will cost to buy supplemental insurance to cover chemotherapy. Or even if she’ll be able to find insurance given her husband’s condition.

“It’s not the turn you expect your life to take,” she lamented.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about a third of the nation’s counties have only one insurer selling subsidized coverage and are at risk of having none if federal payments to insurers end.

Insurers have until June to decide whether to continue offering insurance through the federal marketplace in 2018. Few are expected to do so absent subsidies.

The federal subsidies, which currently benefit seven million people, compensate insurers for offering reduced premiums to individuals who cannot afford to pay full boat. The premiums can range from $7,150 to $2,350 per year, depending on income.

Without the subsidies, insurers will either raise premiums or require individuals to make up the difference from the lost federal payments, said Kristine Grow, spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry group.

Larry Levitt, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, predicts many people will drop their insurance policies, creating a national health care crisis for millions of individuals without the financial means to buy private insurance.

“It’s likely we’ll see more insurers leaving,” Levitt said in a call with reporters last week.

Linda Inness, who owns a trucking business with her husband, said she’d have to sell some of the company’s trucks to pay for supplemental insurance if subsidized coverage ends. That, in turn, would cut into the company’s income.

Cynthia Cox, a Kaiser health policy expert, said many individuals don’t have a similar option. She said they simply could not afford non-subsidized insurance premiums.

The fate of subsidized insurance lies with the president and a divided Republican majority in the House. If they can’t agree by April 28 to include subsidy payments in the short-term spending bill to keep the government running through September, the outlook is bleak for sustaining the program.

Democratic leaders insist on including the $7 billion for insurance subsidies in the spending bill. If it isn’t, they are prepared to drag their heels on the legislation and create the prospect of the government shutting down.

“The window is quickly closing” on funding the subsidies, America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association wrote to congressional leaders and Trump last week.

Insurers lost money under the Affordable Care Act, largely because not enough healthy people signed up for insurance to offset the expense of covering individuals with pre-existing conditions and essential health benefits such as maternity, mental health and prescription drugs.

A House Republican plan would have offered insurers some relief by allowing them to cover fewer conditions and benefits, and also charge older people higher premiums. But the legislation died last month when conservatives said it didn’t go far enough and moderate Republicans said it went too far.

Earlier this month, Aetna and Wellmark Blue Cross & Blue Shield announced they will stop selling subsidized insurance in Iowa, citing costs and the uncertainty over national health care. That left Medica Insurance as the only insurer in the marketplace in all but five of the state’s counties, according to the Iowa Insurance Division.

Medica spokesman Greg Bury said Wednesday the company is “exploring our options.” He said a guarantee to continuing cost-sharing federal subisdies “is necessary for insurers to feel confident offering products in the individual market.”

The company is the only provider in Mahaska County, around Oskaloosa, and Wapello County, around Ottumwa.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma, the only insurer offering the subsidized coverage in that state, declined comment of what it might do if the federal subsidies stop.

That’s a large if given Republican control of Congress and the presidency.

House Republicans in 2014 sued to overturn the subsidies, arguing they were created by the Obama administration without congressional approval. The litigation is still pending.

Trump could effectively end the subsidies by withdrawing the government’s defense of them in the suit and giving weight to his prediction that the Affordable Care Act is unsustainable.

Linda Inness said residents of rural Tennessee would see that as an unfriendly outcome.

“People in Washington live inside a bubble,” she said. “They have no idea how people in the hinterlands feel. Without some future that looks better, people get bitter.”


Letter to the Editor: Governor did the right thing
Effingham Daily News
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Letter to Editor  |  
Abortion (1) , Rauner, Bruce

I read your article on Page A3 of the Effingham Daily News entitled, "Rauner opposes controversial bill." (Associated Press, April 15, 2017.) It talked about HB40, which was a Democrat-backed measure that would allow the state to cover abortion for its employees and Medicaid recipients.

The governor vetoed it.

What a nice present for Easter and to honor Jesus on the Easter holiday.

I told the governor in a letter that I would pray for him and have a mass said for him for his spiritual protection.

He was backed by all the Illinois state representatives and senators of the Republican party. That was just icing on the cake.

The Right to Life movement all across the nation and in Illinois is slowly on the march. Pray that all the abortions will end soon.

Write your governor and representatives and thank them for their vote.

Albert Buening Jr.

Effingham


State foreclosure rates among worst
Jacksonville Journal-Courier
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |   Cole Lauterbach
Banks (7) , Housing (51)

Illinois is one of the few states in the nation still to have home foreclosure rates higher than pre-recession levels.

A real estate agent in one of the hardest-hit areas of the state believes high property taxes send people away.

Bob Nieman has been a Realtor in the Rockford area for decades. While the recession was years ago, he says there still are a high number of foreclosed homes there. In a city where the average home price is less than $110,000, he says people still tell him the monthly mortgage payments are too high.

“On a $100,000 home, the taxes are going to be around $4,000. Normally, that’s an objection,” he said. “It has a damper on whether they’re willing to buy it at all. The tax bill is high but the price per square foot, compared to other areas, is low.”

ATTOM Data Solutions’ latest foreclosure information for the first three months of 2017 says Illinois has one foreclosed home for every 317 housing units. That’s worse than all but three other states.

Rockford is one of the worst areas for foreclosed homes in the nation, with one foreclosure for every 631 homes in March alone. Winnebago County had one foreclosure for every 217 homes in the first quarter. Nationwide in March, one in every 1,604 properties had a foreclosure filing.

“U.S. foreclosure activity on a quarterly basis first dipped below pre-recession averages in the fourth quarter of last year, and this report shows that trend continuing for the second consecutive quarter,” said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president with ATTOM Data Solutions. “The number of local markets dropping below pre-recession levels continues to grow, up from 78 a year ago to 102 in this report.”

A separate report by ATTOM showed that the Rockford area’s average property tax was almost 3 percent of a home’s value. This was the third highest rate in the nation.


Illinois Democrats aim high with minimum wage proposals
Joliet Herald News
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |  
Business (10) , Minimum Wage (10) , Rauner, Bruce Guzzardi, Will--State House, 39

SPRINGFIELD – Amid a national push by unions and worker advocates for a $15 minimum wage, Illinois Democrats hope to pass an ambitious hike during the spring legislative session, despite a warning from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner that he opposes an increase of any kind.

The proposal would lift the state’s minimum wage from its current $8.25 to $15 over the next five years, a more accelerated leap than previous adjustments in Illinois. It also would constitute a larger jump than increases toward $15 approved last year in New York and California, where the rates had been $9 and $10, respectively.

But as with previous efforts in Illinois, the measure likely is will be tied up in the state’s electoral politics.

Sponsors of the legislation acknowledge Rauner’s opposition but have signaled they want to force him to act on the measure ahead of next year’s gubernatorial election, in which he already faces half a dozen Democratic challengers.

“We will get a really good opportunity to see where the governor stands,” said Rep. Will Guzzardi, a Chicago Democrat sponsoring the wage bill in the House. “Does he side with the 2.3 million people in this state who need a raise now or does he side with the big corporations?”

In the past, Rauner has said he supported minor increases in the minimum wage. But he told the audience at a business forum on April 13 that requiring employers to raise pay is out of the question.

“That’s not gonna happen,” Rauner said. “Companies will just leave.”

Democrats say they have considerable support for the $15-per-hour measure in the House, and expect a floor vote in May. The Senate also is considering two minimum wage bills, one similar to Guzzardi’s and a less ambitious one that would raise the wage to $11 by 2021.

In 2014, Democrats placed an advisory referendum on the Illinois ballot asking voters whether they supported a minimum wage increase in an effort to motivate their base to go to the polls. The referendum secured 67 percent of the vote in the same election that Rauner won his first term in office. During the campaign, Rauner was criticized by his rival, former Gov. Pat Quinn, for statements supporting a reduction of the minimum wage.

Illinois has raised its minimum wage above the federal floor, currently $7.25 per hour, twice in recent history – first in 2003 and again in 2006 to $8.25, where it’s remained since 2011. That leaves Illinois with a lower rate than 20 others nationwide, but above every state it borders.


Letter: Legalizing harmful marijuana not the answer
Joliet Herald News
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Letter to Editor  |  
Drugs (32)

To the Editor:

Marijuana is addictive and harmful, especially for teenagers. National Institute on Drug Abuse director Nora Volkom, M.D., said 9 percent of those exposed to marijuana become addicted, 19 percent if used as a teenager, 50 percent of teens who use it regularly.

An article in the April 16, 2014, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience reported large amounts of marijuana can create high levels of fear, anxiety and panic. A Northwestern Medicine study found young adults who smoked marijuana daily for three years scored 18 percent worse on a test of memory processes.

Wayne Hall, professor and director of the Center for Youth Substance Abuse Research at the University of Queensland in Australia, found adolescents who use cannabis regularly are twice as likely to drop out of school, experience cognitive impairment and psychoses as adults. Studies also linked regular use in adolescence with the use of other illicit drugs. 

Two Democrat state of Illinois legislators who sponsored medical marijuana now are sponsoring a recreational marijuana bill. They say it will help solve our financial problems. Democrats said the same thing for gambling and the last tax increase. We still have the same problems. The money just goes to government employees and political cronies.

Colorado’s legalized recreational marijuana brought in considerable revenue and considerable problems. The Denver Post report on the Safe Schools Summit conference said there is a growing problem of dazed and confused students. It’s the No. 1 problem in schools right now.

Arizona recently rejected legalized pot after it found sneaky wording of the bill would prevent them from dealing with marijuana in candy form being used by children, problems with safety at work, or making changes to the law.

There now is great interest in preventing opioid or heroin addiction, so why legalize recreational marijuana that is a gateway drug?

Robert C. Lemke

Joliet


Former addict takes recovery to community
LaSalle News Tribune
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |  
Drugs (32)

When Luke Tomsha addressed La Salle City Council this month, he faced a daunting challenge.

Tomsha was not used to speaking in public and figured a small crowd at a nighttime government meeting would be good practice.

It so happened he chose a night when, unbeknownst to him, people packed the council chambers for about La Salle’s police dogs. Tomsha spoke for a few minutes about his new foundation, Perfectly Flawed.

“I get really nervous,” he said.

Experience counts

Tomsha, 39, of La Salle has worked in information technology and at his family’s restaurant in Spring Valley.

He also has 14 years of experience as a heroin addict.

“What we’ve done these past decades to combat substance abuse has been somewhat ineffective,” Tomsha said. “I feel there are certain disconnects we need to focus on such as really getting to the root of why so many people are abusing drugs rather than just trying to stem the demand.”

Tomsha’s recovery began more than a year ago. He attended a rehab clinic. Last year he started an online blog, Perfectly Flawed, making public his addiction and recovery.

“I almost feel this duty to share my experiences,” he said.

Giving back

Tomsha applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and was approved in March. His blog became a charitable foundation www.perfectlyflawed.org to help children and adults affected by substance abuse.

“I was always planning on finding ways to give back,” he said.

He began with $11,000 in donations, including one for $6,000, and hopes to receive grants. Tomsha said he is aware some might be reluctant to support a foundation managed by a former addict. So, funds will be managed by a finance committee of local leaders and business owners, he said.

“I want there to be some kind of accountability,” he said. “I’m looking forward to putting this into action. I’m also an ex-substance abuser so people who don’t know me, they have to realize they’re not just giving money to support my living.”

Extra boost

Tomsha hopes to provide make-a-wish-style giving to children affected by drug addiction.

“We’re going to be working with the schools and police to help identify some of these children who could use an extra boost,” he said.

Tomsha wants to fund community projects. He held an Earth Day cleanup Saturday in Utica. The second event will be a fundraising auction in November.

He wants the foundation to award scholarships to individuals and help pay for an addict to attend rehab, he said.

“We want to find someone who does want to improve,” Tomsha said. “Tell us what you can give back to your local community.”

Volunteering will be encouraged, he said.

“We have to find ways to reintroduce people back into society,” Tomsha said. “These children, they’re going to grow up 20 years from now and they’re going to be in our communities.”

Getting help

To help organize the auction, Tomsha assembled a committee.

“I was fortunate to have people help me with that,” he said.

Help came from Lori Christopherson of La Salle. Christopherson worked for March of Dimes for 33 years. For 13 years, Tomsha served on the March of Dimes chef’s auction committee.

“Luke has a passion for what he’s doing,” Christopherson said. “He wants to be available with resources for those that want help. Substance abuse has touched my life and I believe there’s a very strong need for this program in this community. As Luke always says, our community is like our family and we need to be there for our family.”

Help also came from Mary Jane Marini of Spring Valley, a member of the BureauCounty board, a retired teacher and a friend of Tomsha’s family.

“I am really excited about this,” she said. “As his project evolved, it never left children. He approached me to be involved and I was thankful to do anything I could. Luke is all about giving back right now.”

Happiness

Rehab staff taught Tomsha that addiction is a behavior and the result of poor choices, he said.

“They don’t believe that you are broken,” he said. “They don’t believe you have to hide from this debilitating disease your whole life. What they talk about is managing levels of personal happiness.”

Happiness can be broken down to short term and long term, he said.

“Your short-term happiness is happiness like shopping, drugs, gambling, sex, booze, food,” Tomsha said.

Gambling every day is abusive, but an annual trip to Las Vegas is more manageable, Tomsha said. Long-term happiness might come from achieving a goal, like Perfectly Flawed, he said.

“I don’t get that immediate gratification from it, but it holds more gratification in my life,” he said. “You have to moderate that because people inherently are going to do what makes them happy.”

Tomsha opens up a mind-mapping computer program, which illustrates his ideas linked together like branches on a tree. Tomsha said the foundation is the best job he has ever had.

 “I could probably get back into information technology and I could probably make eighty to 90,000 dollars, but it’s a career that I don’t enjoy,” he said. “This is more purpose-driven and it gives me satisfaction. That’s very important. My whole journey is being involved with something that gives me purpose.”


Ratings agency downgrades credit of 6 Illinois universities
LaSalle News Tribune
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |  
Bonds, Bonding, Borrowing, Debt, Credit Rating

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois’ continued state budget problems have prompted S&P Global Ratings to downgrade the credit worthiness of six state universities and the City Colleges of Chicago .

The credit house said it took action Thursday with the schools because it's possible lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner will fail to agree on an annual budget by the scheduled end of the legislative session May 31.

S&P downgraded the state-flagship University of Illinois to “A’' from ”A-plus.“ It said it was keeping the rating three notches above the general state rate of ”BBB."

Other schools affected are Eastern Illinois University, Northeastern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University, Governors State University and Western Illinois University. Illinois State University retained an "A’' rating.

S&P downgraded City Colleges four notches. The colleges’ credit hours dropped 22 percent from 2010-16.


Cheers & Jeers
Moline Dispatch/Rock Island Argus
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Editorial  |   Editorial Board

CHEERS to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and others who late last month, citing the actions of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, joined the push for the elimination of statutes of limitations on child abuse and assault crimes. Cheers also to state Sen. Neil Anderson (R-Rock Island) who is one of the co-sponsors of Senate Bill 189.

Under current Illinois law, sexual offenses against children must be reported and prosecuted within 20 years of the victim turning 18 years old. Ms. Madigan testified before the Senate Criminal Law Committee in support of Senate Bill 189 which was later passed by the Senate 54-0 and currently is assigned to the House Rules Committee.

We agree with the attorney general and others who believe children who suffer sexual assault and abuse often spend a lifetime recovering from the violations. Ms. Madigan said Mr. Hastert inflicted "unbelievable pain" on the youth he molested at the school where he coached wrestling before entering politics. The 75-year-old is serving a 15-month sentence in federal prison for violating banking laws as he sought to silence one of his victims with hush money.

We encourage our local state representatives to move this bill swiftly, too.

JEERS to public office holders who waited until right after the recent local elections to resign their elected position. We understand that there are circumstances in which someone finds they must move because of a new job or family issue. But for those who hold off just so that their cronies on the board can appoint their replacement instead of having one elected by the taxpayers, is just an abuse of the democratic process.

The people should be able to pick the people who represent them. In several cases lately, a new appointee could take office the same time or shortly after those elected April 4, thus becoming an appointed incumbent long before they ever have to run for public office. That's not good government and should be avoided whenever possible.

CHEERS to Mercer County Sheriff Dave Staley for his efforts to implement a program to benefit the county's senior citizens. TRIAD is a program of the National Sheriff’s Association that combines the resources of law enforcement, the criminal justice system and social agencies that support senior citizens to promote cooperation and assess the needs and concerns of citizens 60 and older.

The department soon will have a program called Are You OK? to check on each senior citizen in the county each month. There’s no overtime involved and no extra people to hire. "It gives a way for my deputies, my dispatch staff -- it gives them a way to connect with the community out there."

Familiarity is important, he said. “If they’ve got a connection to us, they (seniors) will call us and ask before they do something foolish and maybe send somebody money or let someone into their house.” To find out more about the program, call 309-582-5194.


S&P hammers Illinois again
Quad City Times
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |   Rich Miller
Bonds, Bonding, Borrowing, Debt, Credit Rating

Congratulations, everybody! Illinois now has five public universities with junk bond credit ratings. That has to be some kind of record.

 

Last week, S&P Global Ratings lowered the credit score of both Southern Illinois University and Western Illinois University into junk bond status. Eastern, Northeastern and Governor's State were already in junk bond territory and their ratings were lowered even further last week. The University of Illinois, the state's flagship, was also downgraded to just three notches above junk status and, like all the other universities, put on a "credit watch with negative implications," meaning it could be downgraded again within the next 90 days.

 

All of the downgrade reports noted that none of the universities have received any funds since their partial "stopgap" appropriation in June of last year. The reports also seemed to advocate for another stopgap funding bill this fiscal year.

 

For instance, while noting in the U of I's report that a stopgap had been passed last year to cover the first six months of this fiscal year, S&P went on to write: "the state has yet to pass a budget for fiscal 2017 and has not conclusively communicated plans for stop-gap funding to support the state's public higher education institutions."

 

As you may know, Gov. Bruce Rauner and his legislative Republicans are adamantly opposed to another temporary stopgap budget that would use existing special state funds that are currently piling up in bank accounts to help out struggling universities, college students and human service providers and recipients.

 

Their argument is that distributing the money would take the pressure off everyone to pass a real budget with the governor's demanded reforms. At the same time, Rauner and GOP legislators want to take state employees out of the "pressure" equation with a continuing appropriation, which means those salaries would essentially be funded throughout eternity. But since the lack of funding for social services and higher education over the past two years hasn't spurred anyone in Springfield to action, it might be that only an actual government shutdown after state employees can't come to work will actually move the needle.

 

"If state operating appropriations are received in fiscal 2017," S&P declared in its SIU downgrade report, "we will incorporate the impact of those appropriations at that time," suggesting that some money thrown at the universities via a stopgap plan could forestall another immediate ratings downgrade.

Junk status means many investment institutions, like pension funds, cannot buy those bonds. So, while the state hobbles the universities by refusing to make full appropriations, it's also undermining their ability to borrow at semi-reasonable rates. Speculators looking for relatively high returns on bonds that have to be repaid will gladly buy those bonds and rake in the dough. Meanwhile, precious dollars that the universities cannot afford to spend have to be used to make higher interest payments. It's a horrific fiscal cycle and, in our case, it's completely man-made.

 

It could take our universities a decade or more to recover from these body blows. At the very least, we need a stopgap budget now and then a full, "real" budget before the beginning of next fiscal year.

 

The governor is currently running all over the state proclaiming to anyone who will listen that a deal is "very close." He said at an Elk Grove Village event last week that "a big comprehensive package” was being prepared. Democrats say they have no idea what he’s talking about.

 

Rauner had better be right because, even though the Democratic Party has its own dirty hands here, the governor is the state's chief executive, so he will wear the jacket for failure. He’s come up with excuse after excuse for more than two years now for why he can’t get a budget passed, or even why he won’t propose his own balanced budget. No more.

 

And if you dig a little deeper at those S&P reports, you’ll see that the ratings agency had some very specific warnings for state government as well.

 

Illinois’ credit rating is just barely above junk status. And S&P warned in several of its downgrades that the universities could be in for a “multinotch downgrade” if the state’s rating is lowered. Another downgrade report warned that there was “at least a one-in-two likelihood of a rating change within the next 90 days,” more than implying that action against the state’s credit rating could happen soon.

 

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.


Getting smart about college planning
State Journal Register
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Letter to Editor  |   Eric Zarnikow
Education--Higher (37)

College commencements are just weeks away, and many graduates will leave with significant student loan debt. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, graduates of Illinois colleges and universities in 2015 who borrowed had an average student loan debt of $29,000.

Student loan debt can delay important milestones like home ownership and marriage. Parents can help reduce or even eliminate the the debt burden by planning early for college costs.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission’s mission is to help make college more accessible and affordable, so we are offering a few planning ideas as part of Money Smart Week® (April 22–29):

* Start early: If you are a parent of young children, you might still be paying off college debt. Your child’s college education may seem light years away, but it will arrive before you know it. Even small amounts put away helps.

* Recruit help: Grandparents, for example, can play a vital role, as studies show many pitch in on their grandchildren’s educational costs. If friends and relatives are looking for gifts for your child, consider having them give to your college savings or prepaid plan.

* Enjoy the tax benefits of a 529 plan: state-administered 529 college savings and prepaid plans can offer significant tax advantages, so consider these options. Illinois offers both types of plans.

Planning now can help set your children up for success, minimize their future student loan debt and save you money in the long run.

Eric Zarnikow

Executive director, Illinois Student Assistance Commission


Lawmakers forget responsibility that comes with publicity
State Journal Register
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Letter to Editor  |   Gary Stritzel
Education Funding (36a) Manar, Andy--State Senate, 48

How many times in the last few years have we seen “Manar introduces education funding bill,” or “Pension funding bill heads to House,” or “Grand Bargain is still alive” as a story in the State Journal-Register? Unfortunately, way too many times to count.

These and other similar headlines have been repeated over and over in the SJ-R and newspapers across the state of Illinois for way too long and each one has the same ending — nothing gets done. Our legislators seem to love the publicity that these headlines bring, but they forget the responsibility that goes with it. Henceforth, the citizens of Illinois are now stuck in a two-year long stalemate with no end in sight.

I have an idea that could really cause suffering to these clowns. I would love for the media to stop covering any news that comes out of the Statehouse unless it actually addresses a compromise that everybody agrees to; the House, Senate and governor. No more stories about education funding, or pensions, or other possible compromises. No more television coverage of them explaining their positions. And certainly no more pictures of any legislator on the front pages of our newspapers.

Instead, to really put those pictures to use, may I suggest that we put them on our toilet paper?

Gary Stritzel

Springfield


Lawmakers return from spring break; ‘bargain’ remains unresolved
State Journal Register
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |   Doug Fink
Budget--State (8)

After a two-week spring break, state lawmakers return to Springfield this week to resume work on an end to the budget stalemate that has eluded them for nearly two years.

Just before departing the Capitol, the House approved another stopgap spending bill that would provide more than $800 million to higher education and human-services programs.

But an overall state budget along with issues like school funding reform, pension changes, a higher minimum wage and other things that were all part of the Senate’s “grand bargain” remain works in progress.

At the same time, the 2018 campaign for governor is already kicking into gear with campaign-style advertisements and appearances by candidates.

“The calendar says it isn’t an election year. The governor’s itinerary for the last two weeks says it is an election year,” said Kent Redfield, retired political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Redfield was referring to a series of appearances Gov. Bruce Rauner has made while the General Assembly has been on break.

With the specter of the 2018 campaign and its cost, both for statewide offices and the legislature, already hanging over the Capitol, Redfield said he isn’t optimistic about the General Assembly reaching an agreement to resolve the state’s financial problems.

“I think this big money and who it comes from and how it’s controlled makes it less likely that you’d get compromise and independence in terms of solving the budget problem,” he said. “I think it intensifies the conflict.”

Against that backdrop, here are some of the issues still facing the legislature as lawmakers return.

Grand bargain

Efforts to pass the dozen interconnected bills of the Senate’s “grand bargain” suffered a major setback in early March when Republican support evaporated nearly overnight. Democrats pointed the finger of blame squarely at Rauner for pulling Republican senators off of the deal in an effort to extract more concessions from Democrats on his reform agenda.

Recently, Rauner has been making appearances around the state repeating that he believes a deal is once again close.

“We’re negotiating in the Senate right now. Democrats and Republicans are coming together,” Rauner said last week. “We’re very close. We could get it done in the next couple of weeks.”

Sources from both parties said that while individual senators may discuss issues connected with the bargain, they weren’t aware of formal negotiations taking place.

Spokesmen for both Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said they continue to work on a bipartisan solution to the state’s problems.

Stopgap budget

Even though an overall state budget is still unresolved, the House has moved a bill that authorizes more than $800 million for higher education and human services. The bill would still have to be approved by the Senate before it could go to Rauner.

The $800 million could come from two special state accounts that each get a small part of state income tax revenue as it comes into the state. The money can only be used for education and human services, and proponents say the money should be spent rather than allowed to sit unused in the accounts.

However, Rauner and a number of Republicans believe passage of a stopgap measure will take pressure off of lawmakers to come up with a full budget.

“We believe there needs to be a comprehensive solution. A stopgap does not solve the needs of the state or give job creators any hope that Illinois will have stability in the near future,” said Radogno spokeswoman Patty Schuh.

Democratic Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill disagrees.

“There will not be pressure removed from passing a sustainable budget until that actually happens,” he said.

Abortion

There could be fireworks this week if the House takes up a bill that would provide public money for abortions and to protect abortion rights in the event Roe v. Wade is reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Already a controversial bill, the measure’s profile was heightened last week when Rauner said he would veto it. Rauner said his reason is the sharp division that exists over whether public money should be used to pay for abortions.

Abortion-rights proponents accused Rauner of reneging on a position he took during the 2014 campaign in which he expressed support for abortion rights, including Medicaid funding of abortions, in a candidate questionnaire.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, had said she would call the bill for a vote Tuesday when a large women’s rally is planned in Springfield. That was before Rauner’s veto threat was made, though.

Even some proponents of the bill say they do not believe there are enough votes in the House to override a veto, even if the bill passes that chamber and the Senate. Some Republican lawmakers also said they believe the real reason for the bill is to put Rauner on the spot.

Minimum wage

Increasing the state’s minimum wage is one of the bills that make up the Senate’s grand bargain. That bill would gradually increase the wage in Illinois from the current $8.25 an hour to $11 an hour.

As part of the grand bargain, the higher minimum wage would have to be signed into law along with the other components, such as school funding reform, tax hikes, pension changes and other measures.

Since then, separate bills are pending in both the House and Senate to gradually raise the wage to $15 an hour. Supporters say the state’s current minimum wage is no longer sufficient for people to live on and that increasing it would also serve as an economic stimulus.

Opponents argue that the minimum isn’t intended to be someone’s primary source of income and that raising it will result in job losses as businesses contract if they are forced to pay higher wages.

School funding

It’s another issue that is part of the grand bargain, but is also in bills that are separate from the bargain.

The bills differ in their details but are all aimed at directing more state money to school districts with the greatest need. Critics of the current school funding formula say it does not do the job of directing the most money to the neediest schools.

Manar, who has been working on the issue for years, said he thinks funding reform could pass on its own, even if it isn’t tied to an overall deal.

“I don’t think the obstacle here is the substance of school funding reform any longer,” Manar said. “I think we’ve effectively worked through the substance. The only thing missing right now is the willingness on the part of leadership to accept compromise.”

-- Contact Doug Finke: doug.finke@sj-r.com, 788-1527, twitter.com/dougfinkesjr.


Statehouse Insider: Let the show resume
State Journal Register
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |   Doug Fink
Legislature (56)

Psst. Don’t tell anyone, but the General Assembly is returning to Springfield this week.

Didn’t notice they were gone? That’s understandable, since lawmakers weren’t doing a whole lot of memorable stuff before they took off for a two-week spring break.

Both the House and Senate are coming back now to begin the big push to the scheduled end of the session on May 31. Well, at least the Senate will. It’s scheduled to be in Springfield every week from now until the end of May. The House, meanwhile, will be in session this week and then will take another week off.

You’ve got to pace yourself in this business.

* Gov. BRUCE RAUNER spoke last week to a group of business leaders in the Chicago suburbs.

Most of the speech was a rehash of his favorite talking points that you’ve heard, and heard, and heard again, if you’ve been listening at all during the last two-plus years.

The speech included a little discussion of the current contract stalemate between the Rauner administration and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. As he has before, the governor said he wants to avoid having the union go on strike against the state, but it could come to that.

“We might miss you, but we might not,” Rauner said of the AFSCME workers. “We’re going to keep the government running.”

Doesn’t sound exactly conciliatory.

* Rauner then added that “we’re going to prevail, but they’ve got us in court. They’re dragging it out.”

No doubt, but that’s the way the process works.

A little later, Rauner was asked about surprises he’s encountered as governor. He mentioned that one of them was the legal system. He said he “didn’t know how much the judges micromanage. They’re part of the system.”

Good thing judges have to decide cases on the law, not on the basis of who says they’re part of the problem.

* Rauner also beefed, again, about how the General Assembly blocked formation of a state fair foundation that could raise money privately that would then be used to fix up the dilapidated state fairgrounds.

OK, that’s true. Over time, there were bills in the legislature to create a fair foundation and they never were approved. Ostensibly, there were unanswered questions about details of how the foundation would work. And as with most everything else, politics no doubt played a role.

But remember that Rauner announced formation of a fair foundation during last year’s fair. It’s in existence. And whether there is a fair foundation pales next to some other fairly significant problems facing the state right now. Why the Democratic-controlled legislature’s failure to pass a fair foundation bill is still so irritating to Rauner is a mystery.

* “I will never leave.” Rauner explaining his love for Illinois to the business gathering, no doubt sending a cheer to Republicans and a chill to Democrats.

* “When I started this job, I was 6-8 and had a full head of hair.” Rauner explaining the toll the job of governor has taken on him.

* During a brief question-and-answer period at the event, Rauner was asked what surprised him most about working in Springfield.

“The biggest surprise is how much I enjoy this,” Rauner responded.

At least someone is having a good time.

* The good news/bad news for the week concerns state-funded pensions, which normally is all bad.

The good news comes from a Pew Charitable Trust survey of state pension funding. It found that Illinois only had the third-worst funding ratio in the country. New Jersey and Kentucky were worse.

The bad news is the figures were from 2015, and Illinois officials have already said the state’s pension debt is worse than it was in 2015. Oh well.

— Contact Doug Finke: doug.finke@sj-r.com, 788-1527, twitter.com/dougfinkesjr.


Political Experts Predict Bleak Outlook On Remaining Days of Session
WICS
Monday, April 24, 2017  |   Article  |   Akilah Davis
Budget--State (8)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WICS) — We're now more than halfway through the spring legislative session and time is running out to pass a budget. Lawmakers return to the Capital City after their two-week spring break, but, still, there's no signs of them reaching a spending plan.

With only six weeks left in spring session, experts are predicting the outcome could look a lot like what we've seen in the past, which is no budget.

The House approved a $817 million spending plan that would funnel money into higher education and human services. Meanwhile, the Senate continues working on a measure called the grand bargain. It ties workers’ compensation, pensions, a budget and several other key components together in a package deal.

Experts say the state’s finances get worse every day, causing many to suffer at the hands of a General Assembly that can't work together.

"We have to decide if we're seriously trying to fix this in terms of a budget or go into election mode and point fingers at each other," said Kent Redfield, UIS Professor Emeritus of political science.

The state continues to suffer as a result of the 22-month long budget stalemate. Just last week, ratings for several state universities were downgraded. That's because these universities aren't getting the state money needed to support some of its operations.