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February 18, 2018

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Illinois’ budget blues

Political posturing never gets old in our sorry state.

Gov. Bruce Rauner last week proposed a $37.6 billion spending plan for the 2018-19 fiscal year beginning July 1 that was not warmly welcomed by legislators.

Democrats, not surprisingly, rose to new rhetorical heights of outrage in denouncing Gov. Rauner’s proposal, particularly an idea he borrowed from Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Speaker Madigan first and now Rauner have suggested transferring pension costs the state now pays for local schools and universities to those entities.

That would, no doubt, be a significant relief for the state and a heavy burden for universities and public schools. But skyrocketing pension and Medicaid costs are destroying the state’s ability to function, a reality that prompted Republicans to ask Democrats if they have a better idea on how to address the state’s disastrous, effectively bankrupt status.

They don’t, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else has a pain-free way to fix what ails us.

Illinois is a sinking ship that for years has spent more than it brought in while, simultaneously, ignoring its duty to properly fund public pensions and pay its bills in a timely manner. It’s been reduced to borrowing money to pay off debts, a sure sign of desperation.

It took a while for the chickens to come home to roost. But many already have landed while thousands more are waiting for clearance to come down.

This, however, is an election year, no time to level with the public about the governmental malpractice that’s been going on for years. So Rauner critics, acting as if the treasury is overflowing, will complain that he’s cutting this and won’t fund that.

That’s why the upcoming budget process will, almost certainly, be another exercise in sleight-of-hand gimmickry designed to calm the public’s nerves until after the November election.

What, specifically, will happen between now and then is difficult to predict. But Senate President John Cullerton, no doubt, spoke for Democrats in both the House and Senate, when he cited a litany of Rauner proposals and said, “We’re not gonna vote for that.”

Well, what else is new?

Majority Democrats in the General Assembly last year wrapped up a two-year budget standoff with Gov. Rauner after they persuaded a handful of Republicans to join them in passing their version of a budget and an income tax increase to go with it.

They swore up and down the 2017-18 budget was balanced. Of course, it wasn’t and is somewhere around $2 billion in the hole. Look for them to try to run that play again, and here’s the reason why.

Democrats can’t do anything else. The state does not have enough money to do all that which legislators want to do. At the same time, they’re extremely reluctant to push pension costs from the state on to universities and public schools because of the financial burden and political blow-back it would generate.

Of course, Gov. Rauner doesn’t have clean hands on the budget issue either. He’s clearly positioning himself for re-election, the best example being his suggestion that if his budget plan is adopted it will lay the groundwork for a slight state income tax reduction.

That’s not just hard to swallow — it’s impossible to swallow. But it makes a nice political point because Democrats will write their own budget plan and dare Rauner to veto it.

It’s a shame the state is a mess. But the reality is that governance in Illinois has been reduced to a political kabuki theater in which each party points fingers at the other as they vie for power while trying to avoid the responsibility that goes with it.


February 15, 2018

Chicago Sun-Times

We are complicit in murder when we let the NRA call the shots

Nikolas Cruz, 19, bought his gun legally.

Imagine that. We live in a country where a young man can walk into a store or go online and buy an AR-15, a gun capable of killing people as fast as the trigger can be pulled, should he have murder on his mind.

Shomari Legghette, on the other hand, came by his gun illegally. That’s a safe assumption. Even in the United States, a convicted armed robber can’t buy a gun legally. Legghette’s gun was fitted with an extended magazine that could hold 30 bullets.

Cruz and Legghette, that is to say, were decked out to kill.

On Wednesday in Parkland, Florida, Cruz allegedly killed 17 people in and around a high school. On Tuesday in Chicago, Legghette allegedly killed a police officer, Cmdr. Paul Bauer.

The two shootings were separated by 1,243 miles, but the common denominator goes like this:

There is no way in hell either man should have had access to such guns. Our nation’s gun laws are stupid, and we are all complicit in murder — every American — if we allow the stupidity to go on.

Defenders of all guns all the time will make different arguments. They will ask why Legghette, who had a long criminal record, was walking the streets. Good question. They will ask why counselors and school administrators didn’t flag Cruz for the disturbed young man he was. Good question.

But other developed nations have criminals. Other countries have their share of dangerous young men.

What they don’t have is our guns. Or our nation’s murder rate.

The number of guns held in civilian hands in the United States is about 310 million, according to the National Institute of Justice. That’s about half of all the civilian-owned guns in the world.

Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns — legally obtained or not — than people in other developed countries, studies show. In Germany, for example, the chances of being killed by a gun are about the same as being killed in the United States by a falling object.

About a third of all mass shootings in the world have occurred in the United States. If you define a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are shot — though not necessarily killed — the number of mass shootings in the last five years has topped 1,606, with at least 1,829 people killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Why then is it so hard to ban the sale of guns such as the AR-15, the weapon of choice of mass murderers? Every honest national poll shows that Americans would be fine with that. An AR-15 is designed only to kill people, as most of us know.

It is not designed to ward off home burglars or hunt deer.

Why then is it so hard to ban the easy sale of weapons at gun shows and garage sales?

Why then can’t Congress pass a bill that would require gun shops to lock up their inventory at the close of every business day? Burglars steal some $164 million worth of guns each year from gun shops, and the guns enter the illegal gun market. They are moved across state lines — Northwest Indiana to Chicago is a hot route — and are used to commit crimes.

Why then is it so hard in Illinois to crack down on the small handful of gun shops that are known sources of many of the guns that turn up at Chicago crime scenes?

Why then can’t the state Legislature create a state license for gun shops?

None of this is radical. None of this violates the Second Amendment’s fundamental protection of gun rights. It is nothing more than a sane balancing of interests in today’s real world, where guns are not muskets but killing machines.

We blame the gun lobby. The National Rifle Association pulls in millions of dollars from gun and ammunition manufacturers and distributors, and it showers that money on legislators in Washington and in state capitals, including Springfield. If a legislator offends the NRA, it showers even more of that money on the legislator’s opponent in the next election.

Politicians are not brave. They slither along the path of least resistance.

And we — all the reasonable American people who take a middle position in this debate, who understand that guns are deeply embedded in our culture but need not destroy us — allow the gun lobby to call the shots. Quite literally.

Cmdr. Paul Bauer is dead. Seventeen people are dead in Florida.

We have ourselves to blame.


February 16, 2018

Shaw Media

Local government should pay its way

If you’re at a nice restaurant with a friend who tells you to get whatever you want and they’ll pick up the tab, the surf and turf can be mighty tempting.

But when you’re the one footing the bill, you might find yourself looking more closely at the sandwiches.

In Illinois, local government officials have ordered a lot of surf and turf over the years, with the state assuring them it would pick up the tab. Unfortunately, the state of Illinois’ credit card is now maxed out – and then some.

Pension spending consumes about 25 percent of the total state budget, and Illinois’ public pension systems have the greatest unfunded liability of any state in America. The rich benefits guaranteed workers, many who retired in their mid-50s, is growing far faster than we can raise taxes.

So maybe it’s time for local school districts and cities to start paying their own way – and looking a little closer at the sandwich menu.

The idea to make local government more responsible for its pension obligations isn’t a new one, and it’s far from the ultimate solution.

A better proposal would be to amend the state constitution to allow the state to set a ceiling on pension benefits that can be paid, and to decrease the annual increases granted pensioners from 3 percent a year to the rate of inflation, capped at 3 percent.

Such an amendment seems to have little hope of passing, however. Pensioners would almost certainly come out in droves against it, making the argument that the state was reneging on employment terms that were agreed upon in good faith.

That’s presuming that legislators even let it on the ballot.

In his budget address this week in Springfield, Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed shifting the burden for pension obligations from the state to local governments. With the exception of Chicago Public Schools, this liability shift would be phased in over four years.

It’s time for local government control to also mean local government responsibility.

There is justifiable fear that such a shift would lead to increased property taxes locally. But that presumes that local leaders will choose increased property taxes.

Rauner has said increased funding would be provided to schools, but we doubt it would be enough for each school district to cover its pension liability.

There are other options for making up deficits, however. How employees, including union employees and managers, contribute to their retirement and health insurance benefits is a point of negotiation. So, too, is consolidating units of government to make things more efficient.

Illinois needs laws that make these kind of adjustments possible. Rights of teachers unions to strike also should be curtailed – most states already prohibit or severely limit teachers’ ability to halt classes with a strike.

It might not be the ultimate solution, but making local governments more responsible for the wage and benefit decisions they make could help alleviate our state’s pension woes in the long term.

The days of paying out rich salaries and counting on someone else to pay the pension tab should come to an end.