- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 8, 2014

April 7, 2014

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Pension angst in Springfield

Our elected officials can run, but they can’t hide from the financial consequences of their bad decisions.

Illinois legislators took a tough vote in December, passing a pension reform package that outraged many public employees, retirees and their union leaders.

That bill now is being challenged in the courts.

Meanwhile last week at the General Assembly in Springfield, it was deja vu all over again - legislators are confronted with controversial pension legislation involving two of Chicago’s four public employee pension systems. Once again, legislators are skittish about passing a bill that could bring political opposition down on them. Once again, top state officials like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and House Speaker Michael Madigan contend legislators must act immediately to address the problem.

“Why would you want to slow it down? Why would you want to do that? What’s the problem with calling the bill today? What are you concerned about?” Madigan asked a group of reporters who queried him about the fast track the pension bill is on.

That was Madigan’s non-answer to reporters’ question about why legislators should pass a complicated, controversial pension bill just two days after the proposal was unveiled by Mayor Emanuel.

Democratic leaders obviously want to pass the legislation before union leaders and public employees have time to lobby against it. Chicago Democratic House and Senate members sense potential political problems; their legislative leaders do not want them to understand the extent of those problems until after they’ve voted yes.

Try as our public officials might, they can’t escape the consequence of years of bad decisions on public pensions.

The state of Illinois approved generous pension benefits for public employees and allowed them to retire early to collect them. But it neglected to properly fund the pensions, creating an underfunding problem that poses a long-term existential threat. The city of Chicago did the same thing, creating what Mayor Emanuel and others are calling an impending financial crisis. Emanuel’s solution to the problem, one that must be approved by state legislators, is to dramatically increase property taxes as well as boost employee contributions to fund the pensions while reducing benefits, particularly annual cost-of-living increases, to retirees.

Public officials’ first instinct on the public pension problems was to do nothing, and they did it for so long that the financial woes look unsolvable to many. Now they must act, but their options are so distasteful they can hardly stand to do so.

Unfortunately, what’s transpiring in Illinois and Chicago with respect to public pension is becoming more and more common. Our elected officials may have been irresponsible, but they are not alone. Some of the chickens have come home to roost and the rest are on their way.


April 5, 2014

(Peoria) Journal Star

Our View: Premature to declare ObamaCare success or failure

The White House announced last week that it had reached its initial goal of signing up more than 7 million Americans for the insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act as of the “deadline” - in Washington, of course, a deadline is not quite a deadline - while estimating that 10 million people who didn’t have health insurance before now do.

The news was greeted, as expected, with soaring trumpets from the left and disclaiming tubas from the right. We think both sides are trying way too hard, and as usual for all the wrong reasons. (You can read “politics” into that.).

Indeed, many Democrats have proven themselves all too eager apologists for a program that, if noble in intent, has in practice been enveloped in lies and incompetence and bureaucratic complexity (and we’d wager that many a Democrat - and Republican - on Capitol Hill still cannot tell us what exactly is in ObamaCare, Nancy Pelosi included). Chief among those wishful-thinking cheerleaders would be President Obama, who pronounced that “the debate over repealing this law is over … The Affordable Care Act is here to stay.” He will forgive those who equate that with George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier sign following the initial invasion of Iraq. Way, way premature.

Indeed, given recent history, it is difficult to know how reliable all the numbers are. And it is fair to ask how many of those 7 million are actually premium-paying customers, and how much progress can be read into that 7 million given that so many were forced into the exchanges by other provisions of the law. Meanwhile, the administration had to practically go to its knees these last few weeks to beg participation.

On the flip side, Republicans have been a bit too enthusiastic in their condemnations to failure. As with any start-up, bugs are inevitable, and ObamaCare is in a better place now than it was just months ago. Conservatives can come off as if they don’t want Americans to have health insurance, and don’t much care about those who don’t. Despite claims to the contrary, there is a fair amount of repeal without replace on their side of the aisle, with Paul Ryan’s recent budget proposal - which imagines a future America without ObamaCare - arguably an example of that.

How many times now have House Republicans tried to kill the law, knowing their effort was doomed by political realities? More times than the White House has unilaterally tried to change ACA or delayed certain aspects of it, even by the Wall Street Journal’s count.

Ultimately, the promise was made that ObamaCare would extend coverage and peace of mind to tens of millions of uninsured or under-insured Americans, and that it would contain skyrocketing health care costs. The worthiness of those goals aside, citizens and historians absolutely should hold President Obama and the Democrats who turned the bill into law accountable for that pledge. That 7 million Americans have signed up is not bad news. Now we get to see whether it works as advertised.

In the meantime, again allow us to lament the scarcity of statesmen whose views of this government program and so many others are clouded by what’s in it for them, not for us.


April 3, 2014

The (Springfield) State Journal-Register

Our Opinion: Naming DCFS chief must be a priority for Quinn

One of Illinois’ most-important and highly scrutinized agencies, the long-troubled Department of Children and Family Services, continues to lack a permanent director to guide the state’s child welfare efforts.

Gov. Pat Quinn is conducting a national search to find a new director for the agency, which has had four chiefs in less than a year and currently is under the leadership of yet another interim director.

Quinn, in a meeting with The State Journal-Register’s editorial board Tuesday, did not elaborate on the status of the search but spoke well of acting director Bobbie Gregg.

“The person I appointed as acting director is a very, I think, responsible, well-regarded person. She’s a lawyer, she’s also a social worker,” he said. “We’re doing a search to find a permanent director, and that will happen.”

While it’s critical for Quinn to take some time to find the best-qualified person to run the agency, it is equally important that a new director be hired sooner rather than later. DCFS faces too many daunting challenges in the coming months and years for the search to drag on unnecessarily - the safety and well being of thousands of Illinois children chief among them.

A lawmaker earlier this year put it more bluntly, calling the agency’s challenges “horrendous.”

An audit in June revealed a series of troubling issues at the agency that merit the full attention of a long-term director. According to the audit, DCFS caseworkers missed the 60-day deadline to investigate child abuse claims nearly 900 times in 2012 - up from 115 the previous year. It’s the largest backlog since 2006.

The agency also lagged on initiating child death reviews. The audit showed about 70 percent of child death reviews in 2012 were conducted an average of 158 days after the close of an investigation. The reviews are supposed to occur within 90 days.

The agency also had lapses in its accounting.

DCFS in 2012 had just over 2,800 employees. That year workers handled more than 253,000 hotline calls and assisted nearly 17,000 children in foster care, relative care, residential placement, independent living situations and finalized adoptions, according to the audit.

As if that weren’t enough, the amount of money available to the agency is in question, as lawmakers consider whether to make permanent a temporary income tax hike to help the state make ends meet. Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who is chairman of the House appropriations committee for human resources, in March told The Associated Press DCFS could see about 15 percent of its funding eliminated if the tax is allowed to roll back.

Coupled with the absence of a long-term director, such cuts could make it nearly impossible for DCFS to initiate reforms that clearly are needed.

The most recent director, Arthur Bishop, an ordained minister and former DCFS deputy director, was appointed to the post in January, but resigned a month later after revelations that he had a criminal record for stealing from patients at a mental health facility and that he had fathered a daughter out of wedlock. He said he was stepping down to avoid being a distraction to Quinn’s re-election campaign.

Bishop replaced previous DCFS director Richard Calica, who died in December after a battle with cancer. Calica, a lifelong clinical social worker, had been in the post since December 2011. He was credited with reducing backlogs and caseloads, cutting middle management and modernizing the agency’s hotline during his tenure.

Calica replaced Erwen McEwen, who resigned as DCFS director in September 2011 after fraud allegations involving millions of dollars in state grants. McEwen had been in the job since November 2006.

Illinoisans should share the concerns of state Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, who oversaw hearings in the fall that were triggered by problems documented in the DCFS audit. She said that without a permanent leader, needed reforms within DCFS will be indefinitely on hold.

“It’s hard to get traction when you don’t have anybody that’s really leading this,” she was quoted as saying.

Quinn must name a replacement as soon as possible - one that is well qualified, reform minded and willing to stick around for the long haul for the sake of Illinois’ abused and neglected children.


April 2, 2014

The (Bloomington) Pantagraph

Editorial: Athletes’ union ruling puts spotlight on problem

Initially, the idea that college athletes are university employees and could vote to form a union seems absurd.

But the more you think about the multimillion-dollar business that major college athletics has become, the more you realize that the athletes have a point about their treatment.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that college athletes at Northwestern University are employees of the school. As such, they could form a union.

The ruling applied only to Northwestern athletes, will undoubtedly be appealed, and really doesn’t have much immediate impact.

That subtlety flew over the head of the NCAA, the college athletic governing body. Its response was strident, and in many cases inaccurate, proving that the NCAA doesn’t really understand what’s happening.

The argument that the athletes group made to the NLRB was that since the students are receiving scholarships from the university, they are in fact being paid. That, they argued, makes them employees. The students aren’t necessarily asking for more pay, although they do want the ability to make money from endorsements and appearances.

The athletes also want a better academic experience, easier transfer rules, and better medical care both during their time at the university and afterward.

It would be difficult for the union movement to spread nationwide. Northwestern is a private university so it falls under the rules of the NLRB. Public universities - such as the University of Illinois or Illinois State University - fall under state laws and are not governed by the NLRB. Presumably it would be much more difficult to form unions at the state-supported schools.

What’s at the core of this issue is a better deal for athletes. A lot of people - coaches, administrators, vendors and broadcasters - are making millions of dollars off college athletics. By comparison, the athletes receive a valuable scholarship, but little else.

There are plenty of examples where athletes are treated unfairly. Coaches who cheat often find other jobs, while the remaining athletes suffer the penalties imposed by the NCAA. Coaches can break contracts for a fatter paycheck, but athletes usually have to sit out a year to transfer to other schools.

The universities, and the NCAA, can make millions off the likeness of a college athlete, but if that athlete signs a few autographs for money the athlete can be suspended.

A college athlete labor union is unnecessary and unworkable. But the message from the Northwestern ruling isn’t that athletes are employees or that forming an athletes’ union is a decent solution.

The message is that universities and the NCAA need to pay more attention to the gifted athletes that are bringing in millions of dollars to their schools and organizations.



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