- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Feb. 23, 2014

Chicago Sun-Times

Heroin scourge begs for answers

The hidden scourge of heroin addiction has been sneaking up on Illinois, and we need far better counter-measures before more people die needlessly.

As state Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) says, “What we are doing now is failing.”

The arrest Saturday of Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman obviously was a significant move in the right direction. Guzman’s Sinaloa syndicate is said to be responsible for the majority of heroin, as well as marijuana and cocaine, flowing into the Chicago region. But forgive us for suspecting the flow will continue, the money to be made simply too huge for the trafficking to be stymied by even Guzman’s arrest. Law enforcement alone cannot end the heroin scourge.

Signs of the problem are everywhere. DuPage County reported a record 46 heroin-related deaths in 2013. In Downstate Madison County, three victims of suspected overdoses were found within just a five-hour time period this month. In west suburban Riverside, a couple who authorities say were on a heroin binge were found slumped last week in a car stopped on a railroad crossing.

On Friday, the DuPage County Health Department hosted a roundtable event including the coroner, chiefs of police and state’s attorney to discuss the heroin epidemic. Two weeks ago, several DuPage County officials introduced a plan to crack down on heroin use and prevent deaths by targeting prescription-drug abuse and beefing up statutes that allow prosecutors to go after gang leaders. The officials would channel any additional revenues from forfeitures to fund substance-abuse treatment centers.

As for Lang, House Speaker Michael Madigan has appointed him to head an anti-heroin task force that will hold four hearings in the Chicago areas this spring.

The current system of relying on criminal penalties isn’t getting the job done. Heroin is everywhere, not just on seedy streets in bad neighborhoods. Some addicts are turning to heroin because crackdowns have made it harder to get prescription opiate painkillers. Others no longer can afford to buy illegally obtained prescription painkillers and are turning to heroin, which is cheaper.

The Mexican drug cartels, having made Chicago their Midwestern hub, are flooding the market with a relatively inexpensive heroin that can be snorted, so needles aren’t needed. Fatalities are going up partly because some heroin now is laced with fentanyl, an opioid that boosts heroin’s power but also makes it more hazardous.

Too often, families find their loved ones, particularly teens and young adults, have succumbed to addiction only after a fatal overdose occurs. The best-known recent death from heroin was that of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in New York on Feb. 2, but many Illinois families are dealing with the heartache of losing loved ones to the drug. And when heroin use goes up, so do related crimes such as burglary.

Illinois is not alone in its struggling with a surging heroin problem. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there was a 21 percent increase in fatal drug overdoses nationwide from 2006 to 2010. Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont, where addiction is up 770 percent since 2000, this month devoted most of his state of the state address to the epidemic.

In Wisconsin, lawmakers last week voted to set up quick sanctions short of prison for offenders who violate their parole or probation so heroin addicts can get treatment. They also voted to open opiate treatment centers in underserved areas.

One answer is to widen the availably of naloxone, which if administered in time can save someone having an opiate overdose. That proposal was at the top of the agenda at Friday’s roundtable event in DuPage.

But nobody would say that’s enough. The pressure is on Lang’s task force to propose more creative solutions.


Feb. 23, 2014

The (Bloomington) Pantagraph

Silence hardly golden in state legislature

Almost anyone concerned about good government agrees that lame-duck sessions are not the right way to make decisions.

Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, wants to do something about it. It’s doubtful his idea will gain immediate traction, but it’s worth considering.

The Illinois General Assembly has a long history of making difficult decisions during sessions when many legislators are leaving office. The most often stated example, and one of the more infamous, was when Democrats worked together to pass a 67 percent in the personal income tax in January 2011. That tax, which is supposed to end this year, was supported by many legislators that didn’t have to face voters again. Some of them spoke out against tax increases until the day they voted for one.

There are other examples and many statehouse observers are predicting January 2015 will bring about another lame-duck decision. The belief is that the General Assembly will not address the tax expiration issue until after the November election. If Gov. Pat Quinn is re-elected, the thinking goes, then Democrats will extend the tax in some form. If the GOP wins the governor’s race, then the ensuing budget problem will be dumped into the new governor’s lap.

Quinn hasn’t made it clear where he stands on the tax question. We’ll get a better idea when he delivers a proposed budget to the General Assembly.

Durkin, one of the House political leaders, has introduced a proposal that would place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to basically outlaw lame-duck sessions. Under Durkin’s proposal,, the inauguration date would be moved from January to the second Wednesday in December, about a month after the election. The General Assembly couldn’t meet that month unless it was an emergency. Such an emergency session would have to be approved by the four legislative leaders, be for a specific reason and action would be limited to that topic.

“Plain and simple, if a legislator wants to vote for a tax increase or other controversial bill they need to be held accountable to their constituents. Period,” Durkin wrote.

The future of the proposal is cloudy. To place a constitutional amendment on the ballot requires either a massive petition signing effort, or approval by the General Assembly. It’s unlikely the signatures can be gathered in time to get the issue on the ballot and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly usually isn’t keen on giving away any political advantages.

There’s no doubt that politics are a part of the Republicans’ proposal. It says a lot about the General Assembly, however, that it probably would take a constitutional amendment to force them to do the right thing.


Feb. 20, 2014

The (Springfield) State Journal-Register

Rutherford’s integrity on the line

Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford’s refusal to release the results of a taxpayer-funded investigation into allegations against him - results he previously promised to release - casts doubt his ability to handle the pressure and expectations that come with being governor.

Until recently, Rutherford was considered the No. 2 Republican candidate for governor in a four-man field. However, his handling of a still-unfolding political crisis involving accusations of political coercion and sexual harassment against him shows he is not ready for prime time.

Rutherford’s first misstep was a Jan. 31 news conference during which he denied unspecified allegations by an unspecified person and refused to provide further details. He pledged to order an internal investigation, conducted at taxpayers’ expense, to get to the bottom of the allegations and vowed to release the results, which he said would clear his name.

A few days later, the accuser, former Rutherford aide Edmund Michalowski, filed a federal lawsuit against Rutherford and his chief of staff Kyle Ham, accusing Rutherford of repeated sexual harassment and forcing him to do political work on state time.

The internal investigation - which reportedly involved interviewing treasurer’s office employees - now is complete, but Rutherford refuses to make it public, saying his attorney advised him not to release it because of pending litigation. Pending litigation also happens to be one of the exemptions in the state’s sunshine law.

Rutherford insists he hasn’t read the results and has no idea what they say. What he’s succeeded in doing is putting his own interests before those of Illinois taxpayers. The investigation cost $250 an hour, with a final cost cap of $19,999. Nothing is stopping him from going against his attorney’s advice on this matter of public information and keeping his promise to Illinoisans.

Any voters who now question whether Rutherford is committed to being an accountable and transparent public servant, especially when the chips are down, certainly are correct to do so.


Feb. 20, 2014

(Peoria) Journal Star

The soap opera sidebar in the GOP gubernatorial race

Until now we haven’t touched on the legal and political troubles that have been visited upon gubernatorial candidate and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, with a former employee bringing a federal lawsuit against him alleging that he was sexually harassed and compelled to do campaign work on the taxpayers’ dime.

Rutherford, of Chenoa, has vehemently denied the allegations, their timing just weeks before a primary election is suspect, they don’t necessarily square with a political career otherwise characterized by competence and caution over a few decades. Without being able to ascertain their validity in this compressed time frame, we generally try to avoid poisoning the stew at this stage of the game. An accusation is not a conviction, and voters will have their say on the matter soon enough.

But now Rutherford has refused to make public an investigation he authorized with public funds, an investigation he repeatedly insisted would “have this whole thing opened up” and clear his name. He has, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “lawyered up.” As such he has made letting this go, for the time being, no longer an option.

From the beginning this whole story has been bizarre, adding a tawdry twist to one of the weirder, if least noticed gubernatorial campaigns in memory.

It started with a preemptive press conference at the end of January in which Rutherford warned us that allegations were coming that he would not detail, on behalf of someone he wouldn’t identify, though he did hint at a demand for hush money while attributing it all to the Machiavellian manipulations of competitor Bruce Rauner, for which he provided scant and not terribly persuasive evidence.

What followed was a federal lawsuit from his soon-to-be-former director of community affairs and marketing, Edmund Michalowski, 43, who in rather graphic terms alleged sexual harassment on Rutherford’s part while describing a “hostile work environment” that included pressure to do political work on the public’s time, which is a big no-no, if one we suspect many an elected official winks at. Also named in the lawsuit was Michalowski’s immediate supervisor and Rutherford’s chief of staff, Kyle Ham, who has Peoria-area connections. Then questions were raised in media reports about Rutherford’s relationship with another, 28-year-old male staffer, particularly regarding their extensive travels and room-sharing arrangements, which the treasurer says amount to nothing more than a “cost-saving measure.” By the way, that employee was rewarded with a 50 percent pay hike.

Rutherford then hired an ex-IRS agent to do a supposedly independent investigation at $250 an hour, paid for by taxpayers. But then his Chicago attorney - for whom Rutherford also wants taxpayers to foot the bill - advised him not to share the investigation’s findings on the premise of “pending litigation.” And so he hasn’t, so far.

We don’t know all the parties involved, can’t vouch for their credibility or lack thereof, and no one comes away with an enhanced reputation here. But this soap opera all adds up to a world of political hurt for Rutherford, though he has maintained that there is “zero chance” he will drop out of the race. The allegations detailed in the lawsuit are a horrible, unethical cheap shot if there’s no merit to them, but beyond that, Rutherford will forgive GOP primary voters who conclude that the actions and judgments seemingly on display here, before and after it was filed, were not cautious, common sense, conservative or transparent. In any case, his campaign has been wounded, perhaps mortally so.

Rutherford should recognize his mistake and make the investigation’s results public immediately. On the basis of principle, taxpayers paid for it, they own it and have a right to know. Pretty bedrock stuff. Pragmatically and politically, voters will likely fill the information vacuum he’s created by letting their imaginations be their guide, which is unlikely to benefit him.

And Rutherford - a political veteran who had been running second in many polls, and who had some money to spend - must appreciate how bad all this looks, and how his failure to be more forthcoming will be interpreted as his having something to hide, after all.


Feb. 19, 2014

(Danville) Commercial-News

Pull politics out of districts

Anyone who looks at a map of districts within the Illinois House of Representatives can tell much thought and effort went into configuring the districts - to be sure they favor whichever party happened to be in the majority at the time. As an example, there are all or parts of three House districts and two Senate districts within Vermilion County.

Illinois law requires the General; Assembly to redraw House and Senate districts after every federal census. The practice, in reality, becomes nothing more than a way to lock in incumbents by drawing the districts’ boundaries in their favor.

A group recently organized to change all of that. They want to place the Illinois Independent Redistricting Amendment on the ballot to pull the task of redrawing the legislative districts and hand it to an independent, transparent and non-partisan 11-person commission. More information is available at the group’s website, independent maps.org. Former Gov. Jim Edgar has tossed his support behind the effort.

As more of the state’s population concentrates in the area around Chicago, downstate areas will find it more and more difficult to be heard in Springfield. This effort to create fair, non-partisan legislative districts that keep local government units - such as cities - intact as much as possible, would help.

This effort deserves the public’s support.

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