- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

February 14, 2016

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Obama spreads his new gospel

Excited as they were about a presidential visit, legislators aren’t likely to be moved to action by his words.

President Barack Obama paid a visit last week to the Illinois General Assembly, where he delivered an admirable call for a different kind of politics that embraces a search for common ground in pursuit of the common good.

A clarion call for common sense is always welcome in Springfield. That’s particularly so as the state enters its eighth month without a budget.

The political process has failed the people of Illinois, and that pain is not mitigated by the fact that no one in either party feels good about the budget standoff.

Obama touched on that point as well. He went on at great length about the virtues of intra-party cooperation while identifying in a single paragraph why the words he uttered ultimately will ring hollow with the power players in Springfield.

Observing that Republicans applauded when he touted legislative redistricting reform and Democrats cheered when he advocated automatic voter registration, Obama went to the heart of the problem.

“Now, just during the course of this talk, it’s been interesting to watch the dynamics, obviously. In part because so much of our politics now is just designed for short-term, tactical gain. If you think having more voters will hurt you on Election Day, then suddenly you’re not interested in participation. And if you think gerrymandering is helping you instead of hurting you, then you’re not for those proposals,” he said.

In other words, it’s all about individual self-interest.

Legislators enthusiastically laughed at the president’s jokes, basked in his nostalgic recollections of the good old days, luxuriated in the presidential attention and nodded amiably when he talked of compromise. But when they come down from their sugar highs, it’ll be back to business as usual.

Does anyone seriously think that House Speaker Madigan will abandon his lifelong approach to Chicago-style, bare-knuckle politics? Can Gov. Rauner, a furniture-breaking, turnaround artist from the private sector, embrace the failed status quo Madigan favors?

Further, how many of our legislators would willingly give up their pay, perks, pensions and prestige as a condition of meeting the civics class ideal Obama recommended?

Politics has been defined as the making of decision by public means, and there’s much that goes into those decisions that is unattractive. How else would so many elected officials, particularly in Illinois, end up in prison?

If sinners can go to church to hear a rousing sermon, there’s no harm in Illinois legislators hearing appeals to set aside their self-interest to serve broader interests.

But the current stalemate won’t end until enough elected officials feel enough heat to persuade them to make concessions now considered unthinkable.

That’s not the kind of idealism Obama referenced in his high-minded calls for a better kind of politics. But it’s often what’s necessary to hammer out a deal when both sides start out so far apart.

___

February 11, 2016

Belleville News-Democrat

School funding formula is 30 years out of sync

Illinois’ school funding formula is out of whack because state lawmakers have failed to update it for nearly 30 years and because Illinois is so heavily dependent upon property taxes for school funding. Property taxes are so high because lawmakers have also failed to provide the major share of school funding as called for in the state’s constitution.

Let’s call that chicken and egg scenario No. 1.

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and lawmakers of both political parties all say they need to revamp the school funding formula. Some say they cannot do that without more money, and there won’t be more money until Rauner gets some of his reforms that Democrats refuse to consider and both agree to a new state budget - now 227 days late.

Let’s call that chicken and egg scenario No. 2.

Now add the elections and lawmakers fearing backlash from any school formula that robs from the rich to give to the poor. They will gain political capital by saying they plan to move fast, but in reality they will do nothing until after voters return them to their comfy seats in the statehouse.

Let’s just call that the chicken scenario.

Illinois leads the nation in the funding gap between rich and poor school districts, according to an analysis by the Education Trust. In fact with a nearly 20 percent funding gap, Illinois has nearly double the inequity as the next-worst state, New York.

While Rauner and others decry taking from one student to benefit another, the reality is that it costs more to educate a poor urban or a poor rural student. The state must fix its finances so that schools don’t continue balancing budgets by going to property taxpayers who see their burden amplified as municipalities strip away those taxes with tax increment financing for possible commercial development.

East St. Louis District 189 has been receiving U.S. Department of Education funding in the form of School Improvement Grants to the tune of $21.8 million. Trouble is, that money is temporary with the high school grant ending this summer and only four of the district’s 12 schools being targeted.

The money has made an incremental difference, but how fair is it that your child be denied a better chance at academic success just because a neighboring school is worse? How wise is it to create hope and expect the effort to be sustained without the added resources?

Systemic problems need more than lip service and spot treatment. Lawmakers need to fix the school funding formula, and should be brave enough to do so before November elections rather than handing Illinois children yet another year in which where they live determines the quality of their public education.

___

February 14, 2016

The Quincy Herald-Whig

Declining ag economy reflects its volatility

Agriculture is, and always will be, a vital component of the overall economic health of West-Central Illinois and Northeast Missouri, which is why the prolonged drop in commodity prices and farm income continues to cause alarm.

And the region’s farm operators and ag-dependent businesses interviewed for The Herald-Whig’s annual farm section that appeared in Saturday’s edition expect to continue to feel a financial pinch in 2016.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that farm income plunged 38 percent last year to $55.9 billion nationwide — the lowest since 2002 and the steepest year-to-year decline since 1983. The slide reflected lower crop prices and softening dairy and hog markets.

It marked the second consecutive year of decline since income reached a record $123.3 billion in 2013. Lower prices cut crop receipts at U.S. farms by 8.7 percent to $18.2 billion and livestock receipts by 12 percent to $25.4 billion last year, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.

Moreover, USDA officials said last week that income is expected to fall another 3 percent to $54.8 billion in 2016.

Last year turned into a worst possible scenario for many of the region’s farmers with poor crop insurance coverage based on lower prices and delayed planting because of an unseasonably wet spring and summer.

Gary Schnitkey, a University of Illinois professor of agricultural and consumer economics, projects average net income on Illinois grain farms in 2015 and 2016 will be similar to the low period between 1998-2003. His projections put average net income on the state’s grain farms at about $20,000 per farm in 2015, considerably below the $104,000 per farm average in 2014.

Importantly, that decline creates a ripple effect. Many of the region’s producers won’t have the cash that once came from higher corn and soybean prices to pay for seed, fertilizer, land rents and other costs that have not fallen as much as commodities.

“It’s a tough situation for a lot of people,” Loraine farmer Brad Cassens told The Herald-Whig. “It trickles down to the machinery dealers and down the line because the farmer’s prices are short, so to speak. It affects us all. It’s not just the farmer.”

The region’s economy is closely linked to the fortunes of agriculture, which in turn is more and more reliant on an uncertain global economy. As lucrative as it was not so many years ago, the current roller coaster is a reminder of the volatility of the agriculture sector, where dramatic swings are the norm.

Despite that reality, the region’s agriculture industry is clinging to the hope that an upswing is on the not-too-distant horizon.

___

Feb. 10, 2016

Chicago Sun-Times

Hey, Governor, it ain’t workin’

You don’t smash the engine to make a car go faster, yet that is what Gov. Bruce Rauner is doing to Chicago, the engine of Illinois.

For more than a year, Gov. Rauner has been inflicting permanent damage on one of America’s great cities - and so too, then, on the entire State of Illinois - by holding the city hostage to a rigid “turnaround” agenda that is going nowhere. Rauner charged into office promising dramatic pro-business, anti-union reforms, but he’s fast shaping up as one of the least successful and most politically inept governors in the state’s history.

It is easy to say “a pox on both your houses,” as we have in the past, laying blame equally on the governor and the Democratic leaders of the state Legislature, especially House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. And certainly, as President Obama said in his speech to the Illinois General Assembly on Wednesday, there is a need across the political spectrum for “civility and compromise.”

But increasingly, with respect to Gov. Rauner, that is a false equivalency.

Both Democratic and Republican leaders over decades are to blame for the financial mess Illinois finds itself in, failing to sufficiently fund pensions and cutting overly generous deals with public employee unions. Nobody has clean hands. But Rauner’s performance as governor lies at the heart of the problem now. His largely inflexible demands are unrealistic and his coercive tactics ineffectual. His harsh rhetoric has made constructive compromise - the heart and soul of politics if not the private equity business - all the more difficult.

The irony here is that Rauner is championing some good stuff for which he might possibly, over time, cobble together bipartisan support. We’re with him on the need to reform the way legislative maps are drawn to make elections more competitive. We see merit in term limits for legislators. There’s a good argument that Illinois could go further in reforming its worker’s comp laws.

But Rauner came to Springfield and demanded it all, right away. Without even a nod to political realities, he front-loaded his entire agenda into the first year of his four-year term. And we’re troubled by his seeming obsession with curtailing the power of unions; is it so complete that he cannot see that he will never get a right-to-work law through the General Assembly?

This is Illinois, where Democrats control the Legislature - and more than a few Republicans stand with the unions, too. This is not Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker, one of Rauner’s role models, works with a compliant Republican legislature.

Bruce Rauner governs as if he were still a CEO dictating to underlings. It ain’t workin’.

Chicago, frankly, can’t take much more of this. Businesses are leaving or declining to set up shop here, wary of the uncertainties surrounding schools, higher education, taxes and public services. Even as the economy improves elsewhere across the nation, Chicago is losing or missing out on new jobs in every sector, from construction to white collar. Three weeks ago, as now widely lamented, General Electric took a pass on moving its headquarters to Chicago because, as one executive put it, “It seemed too big a risk.”

Our city’s safety net of basic social services is being shredded by a state budget impasse that is eight months old. Children, the poor, the elderly and the disabled are being harmed. And it’s bad for business. People like to live and work in a place that demonstrates a commitment to basic human decency.

When Lutheran Social Services must shut down 30 programs serving almost 5,000 people because the state won’t pay its bills, that’s not basic human decency.

Twice now Rauner has done damage to efforts by Chicago Public Schools to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars at a reasonable rate - money desperately needed to keep the schools open while CPS attempts to resolve its long-term financial problems.

In late January, the governor announced the state would “take over” the city’s public schools, sending a message to Wall Street that CPS was a risky mess. CPS put off its efforts to borrow.

A week later, when CPS again was negotiating a bond issue, Rauner again made a show of calling for a state takeover of the schools, which has zero chance of happening.

What was the damage from the governor’s grenade? Instead of borrowing $875 million, CPS scaled back the bond issue to $725 million. And instead of getting the 7.75 percent rate offered the week before, CPS was forced to borrow at a far more expensive rate of 8.5 percent.

Rauner’s frequent suggestion that CPS declare bankruptcy is in itself casually clueless. Bankruptcy can be a smart move in the private sector, but less so in the public sector. Bankruptcy would not necessarily save CPS significant money and, more to the point, families with options would bolt for the suburbs. No parent wants to send a child to a bankrupt school.

The fair assumption is that Rauner’s real motivation is to push the schools into bankruptcy to break the teachers’ union. If so, he will fail. But he is driving folks not entirely sympathetic to unions - folks such as Madigan - further into their corner.

Rauner’s grenades may not be intentional. Maybe he’s just a rookie pol goofing up. That would explain why the governor two weeks ago stepped to the microphones and announced that he and Senate President John Cullerton had come to agreement on a big pension reform plan. The two men had in fact agreed to a deal, but not exactly the one described by the governor, forcing Cullerton to shoot him down by press release. So much for trust, the bread and butter of politics.

Exacerbating Rauner’s inability to get anything done has been his penchant for ripping political opponents in personal terms. Most recently, he has said Mayor Rahm Emanuel “caved” when negotiating a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union, and he has said he’s “very disappointed” in how the mayor has handled a white-hot police misconduct scandal. Rauner added that he would sign legislation allowing Chicagoans to recall their mayor.

That would be the very definition of throwing a supposed friend under a bus.

Bruce Rauner is a governor now, not a CEO, in a politically divided state. He can’t tell everybody what to do. The only road forward is through compromise.

Gov. Rauner had better figure that out before it’s too late. Chicago, the engine of Illinois, needs fixing, not a beating.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide