- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 3, 2014

June 1, 2014

The (Bloomington) Pantagraph

Editorial: General Assembly needs to take budget seriously

The Illinois General Assembly has a few tasks that it has to perform every year.

One of those is putting together a balanced state budget. Despite being “in session” since January, the budget that appears to be headed to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk isn’t really balanced and was passed through the House so quickly that few, if any, members had a chance to study the 1,100-page document.

It’s also not a realistic budget. It employs a bunch of one-time financial and budgeting maneuvers that remind many of the Rod Blagojevich administration.

In addition, it makes no provisions for contracted wage increases or other increased costs. The budget practically guarantees that the state’s stack of unpaid bills, which has been whittled to $4.1 billion, will increase.

The path to this budget wasn’t an easy one. Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton supported making the temporary income tax rates permanent and using that money to approve a budget of about $38 billion. When House Democrats made it clear they weren’t going to support a tax increase right before an election, a so-called “doomsday” budget received only five votes in the House.

So the result is a $35.7 billion budget that one top Senate aide said is held together by “bailing wire and Band-aids.”

Actually calling this document a budget is generous. It’s really just a placeholder so that the tough decisions can be made after the November elections.

We have heard many of the Democrats say consistently that it’s impossible to cut the budget enough to make up for the lower tax revenues caused by rolling back the tax rates. But then we get another story, like the one by Springfield Bureau Chief Kurt Erickson, that millions of dollars have been spent in Medicaid payments to dead people. The savings are there; the General Assembly just needs to look for them.

Taxpayers and voters deserve a legislative body that takes its budgeting responsibilities seriously and understands the concept of living within its means. While we applaud those House members who refused to go along with the tax increases, we’re disappointed that they were not able to take the next step and develop a budget that addressed the state’s financial issues.

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June 1, 2014

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

No laws broken, but it looks wrong

Our front-page news story last Wednesday on the paid lobbying work being done by U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello was noticed by many readers. Data on website readership indicated the story from the Better Government Association was read by many and occupied their interest for long periods of time.

Such measures are not so readily obtained on readership of the printed newspaper, but the interest in the Costello story probably was just as strong - if not stronger.

Costello isn’t suspected of breaking the law. There is nothing prohibiting a former U.S.Congressman from working as a paid lobbyist. Costello made a good point in the story by explaining that his knowledge and experience have value to his clients, including those he helped while in Congress.

It wasn’t surprising to learn one of his clients was Boeing, which is paying him $10,000 per month as a lobbyist for the aerospace giant. Costello led a group of Illinois congressman to challenge a decision by the U.S. Air Force to award a $35 billion contract for an aerial refueling tanker to a European company. Eventually the decision was reversed and the contract was awarded to Boeing in 2011, a decision Costello publicly praised.

It also wasn’t terribly surprising to learn Costello is part of a lobbying team being paid $25,000 per month to protect Scott Air Force Base from an impending wave of military base closings. He succeeded in past efforts to ensure the survival of Scott and has a deep and broad pool of knowledge about the air base. Scott is a major economic engine for all of Southern Illinois and the region’s business community is wise to protect the air base, wise to hire the best possible lobbyists.

What’s troubling about Costello and other former lawmakers quickly switching gears between public service and lobbying for causes they supported in office is the appearance of impropriety. It looks like payment today for past services rendered. No amount of public demonstration of lobbying efforts and accomplishments will ease some suspicions about lucrative lobbying contracts. Private citizens look at such post-government employment as an entitlement of a permanent class of ruling elite who benefit far in excess of what they were paid as elected officials.

Here’s the bottom line. It doesn’t make sense to prohibit former office-holders from working as lobbyists. Their knowledge and experience greatly benefit the general public. Costello may be the most important member of the Scott Air Force Base lobbying team. We wish the team great success.

But it is not unreasonable in this time of crumbling faith in government to begin a dialogue on the ethics rules for lawmakers. Perhaps there is a period of time that could be required between elected office and private sector employment as a lobbyist. It still would be possible for society to benefit from the knowledge and experience gained in elected office. And it still would enable former lawmakers the opportunity to launch a potentially lucrative second career.

Most importantly, it would look better. Much better.

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May 31, 2014

The (Sterling) Daily Gazette

Trial revisits the shock, darkness, despair

Justice has been slow in coming for Nicholas T. Sheley. Very slow.

Thursday’s guilty verdict in four Rock Falls killings brings to six the number of murder convictions, all from a killing spree nearly 6 years ago, against the former Sterling man, now 34.

Next, after his sentencing on Aug. 11, Sheley will stand trial in Missouri for the killings of an Arkansas couple. If convicted, he could face the death penalty. (Illinois banned executions in 2011.)

The crimes all happened in late June 2008. It was a frightening time.

On Thursday, a Rock Island County jury convicted Sheley in the brutal and heinous beating deaths (he used a hammer) of Brock Branson, 29, his girlfriend, Kilynna Blake, 20, her 2-year-old son, Dayan, and Kenneth Ulve, 25, of Rock Falls.

Sheley was previously convicted, in separate trials, of killing Russell Reed, 93, of Sterling, and Ronald Randall, 65, of Galesburg.

Missouri prosecutors will next try Sheley for the deaths of an Arkansas couple, Tom and Jill Estes, in Festus, Missouri.

Whatever fueled the spree killings (prosecutors say drugs, alcohol and revenge were factors), their terrible, gruesome nature, as detailed in the testimony, continues to shock, sadden, and anger the community.

As we wrote in 2008, let the victims and their families be remembered.

Let the community be vigilant against evil.

And now, with four more convictions, let the healing begin anew.

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May 31, 2014

The (Peoria) Journal-Star

Illinois, where democracy goes to die? Let’s hope not

With regard to a citizen initiative to restore honest, fair elections to Illinois, we knew that it would be rough going, that those in power threatened by any change to the status quo would pull out all the stops to prevent voters from ever having a say.

Reformers hope to take the map-making out from behind closed doors and away from the politicians, who repeatedly have proven themselves incapable of crafting legislative boundaries that don’t pre-determine the winners, that have produced some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation, that discourage competitive contests, that overtly favor incumbents, that unduly benefit their guys at the expense of the other guys. It’s a bipartisan affliction. Illinois Democrats are the guilty party of the moment. The good-government types want voters to change that through constitutional amendment.

Alas, the Yes for Independent Maps campaign has run into its first major roadblock, with the State Board of Elections finding just 45 percent of its petition signatures - in a small sample of the some 507,000 submitted - to be valid for getting the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. Almost 60 percent, or nearly 299,000 legitimate John Hancocks, are required.

The not-so-subtle implication here is that the fix is in, and that the mysterious hand of House Speaker Michael Madigan - who’s also chairman of the state’s Democratic Party - is manipulating matters in some way. We can’t vouch for that, though it’s fair to say Madigan is no fan of the effort. His allies - specifically his former legal counsel - have already filed a lawsuit to thwart both this and a legislator term limit ballot initiative championed by GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner. All who call Illinois home can be forgiven their cynicism. The federal prison system may not actually reserve jail cells for former Illinois governors and other assorted elected officials, but who could blame Uncle Sam if he did? And so a lot of people affiliated with state government get tangled in that web of doubt and suspicion, sometimes fairly, sometimes not.

We’re inclined, at this juncture, to give the process the benefit of the doubt. Local Maps leader Brad McMillan acknowledges that “if we didn’t have 298,000 (plus) solid signatures, we don’t deserve to be on the ballot,” but adds, “We firmly believe we belong on the ballot.” Illinois makes it harder than most to bring a constitutional amendment, says McMillan. “If our due process rights are violated, we’ll go to federal court … We’re not going to sit idly by.”

As we have written before, if Illinoisans really want to take back control of a state government that has been anything but competent and ethical, nothing else on the November ballot is more important than trying to achieve independent redistricting. Eyes glaze over, it doesn’t sink in, and we get that. But McMillan is correct that “this strikes at the heart of democracy in Illinois.” Readers can judge for themselves why democracy is so threatening to Illinois’ political leadership.

If this effort falls short of the ballot, well, not only would that be sorely disappointing, but let’s just say no one could be faulted for concluding that Illinois is just an irredeemably hopeless place.

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