- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

February 28, 2016

The (Bloomington) Pantagraph

Illinois’ higher education system vulnerable

One of the drivers of a healthy economy is an excellent college and university system.

Illinois has a mix of public and private universities and community colleges that educate citizens. Major research universities, such as the University of Illinois, can spin off job-producing companies at an astounding rate.

But that system has been one of the many victims of over-spending at the state level and the state’s ongoing budget impasse. Across the nation, tuition has increased at a rate much higher than inflation. Parents and students that pay college tuition struggle to keep up.

Add to that the state’s budget impact on universities and colleges, ranging from a lack of solid funding for the institutions to the uncertainty over MAP grants.

The immediate results are easy to see. Eastern Illinois University in Charleston has said it will lay off hundreds of faculty and staff members. Chicago State University has cancelled spring break and says it is concerned about meeting payroll and other bills the rest of the year.

The more far-reaching effect amounts to a “brain drain,” as high school students leave the state for educational opportunities that are less expensive.

A 2013 study found that nearly 40 percent of the most recent high school graduates left the state to attend college. At the University of Missouri, 20 percent of the freshman class is made up of Illinois residents.

Contemplate that for a moment. Students and parents are finding it is less expensive, in many cases, to pay out-of-state tuition. That’s especially disheartening if you consider many parents have paid taxes to the public university system for years and will continue to pay into that system long after their children have graduated. But instead of having their children, or grandchildren, attend college in their home state, they are obligated financially to send them to a neighboring state.

Public universities are not blameless. Although there are exceptions, the cost of higher education has been allowed to skyrocket and students, parents and taxpayers have often been treated like bottomless wallets.

So the time is ripe for reform. Universities need to understand they must lower their costs or at least maintain the increases to a reasonable level. State government needs to solve its budget issues and provide a reliable spending plan for universities and community colleges. Financial aid programs, like MAP grants, need to stabilize and funded at a level so students can depend on that aid.

The biggest problem with students leaving Illinois is that they often don’t return, taking new-found knowledge and skills to the state where they received their college education. It is those states that are benefiting from the bright students that create new companies and new jobs.

Illinois’ budget issues of the last decade - an inability to enact pension reform and unbridled spending - have put higher education in a vulnerable position. It is one areas where the state needs to invest wisely and keep more Illinois students here.

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February 25, 2016

Sauk Valley Media

Financial erosion threatens soil, water conservation work

The list of agencies and groups imperiled by the ongoing Illinois budget stalemate has gotten longer.

The state’s 97 soil and water conservation districts have gone without state funding since March — nearly a year now — because of the lack of a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

And now, those districts are running out of money. Whiteside’s district office might have to close in September or October, if funding isn’t restored.

Districts that cover Lee, Ogle, Carroll and Bureau counties are likewise negatively affected by the lack of state funds.

Soil and water conservation districts are an amazing success story. Born in desperate days of the 1930s Dust Bowl era, the districts have greatly reduced the waste of natural resources vital to our way of life.

District offices coordinate programs with landowners to conserve soil and water on farms, protect groundwater resources, conserve and restore wetlands, and plant trees and vegetation to hold soil in place.

Conservation districts also conduct fish sales, do wildlife habitat planning, and educate schoolchildren about the importance of natural resources and the need to conserve them.

Out of concern over the Whiteside district’s plight, its board and staff came up with a program that asks area friends and neighbors to become financial sponsors of the district.

Without an infusion of money to replace lapsed state funding, employees will have to be let go and services curtailed sometime in the fall.

And a program vital to the continued responsible stewardship of soil and water by landowners across Whiteside County may wither away.

Local districts should not have to beg for money, when it is so clearly in the public’s interest to promote conservation.

Illinois’ leaders need to come to terms on a budget soon so that important, far-reaching programs such as soil and water conservation districts can be properly funded to continue their important work.

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February 24, 2016

The (Kankakee) Daily Journal

Cameras in courtroom should be norm statewide

The Illinois Supreme Court announced Monday the state’s cameras-in-court policy will become permanent following a successful four-year trial run.

Kankakee County courts have participated in the experiment almost from the outset, and the people here have witnessed firsthand the positives and negatives of the presence of cameras. Yes, there have been drawbacks, but overall, it has greatly improved transparency toward our legal system. Making the policy permanent is truly the right choice.

There’s just one aspect to Monday’s announcement, which remains troubling. There are 24 judicial districts in Illinois, and of those, 15 participated in the pilot program and nine did not take part. The policy now will become permanent, but districts that don’t participate, won’t be forced to now.

Why? If the Supreme Court has endorsed the policy and the majority of circuit courts have adopted it, why shouldn’t all of them adopt it as well? A number of arguments could be made to defend continued restrictions, but ultimately, it will be transparency that is most restricted.

There also are arrangements like the one that currently exists in the 21st Judicial District, which covers both Kankakee and Iroquois counties. While Kankakee County quickly allowed cameras into the courtrooms when the pilot program was approved, Iroquois County has yet to do so. Now that the policy is permanent, Iroquois County should follow the lead of its district partner.

The further expansion of the cameras in the courtroom won’t lead to a free-for-all as many of its detractors fear. Cameras still won’t be allowed during jury selection and presiding judges will continue to have the final word about letting cameras in and under what conditions.

Those safeguards are sufficient enough. The time has come for cameras to be allowed in courts throughout the state. Hopefully, that will be the uniform choice of all the judicial districts. If not, other options should be explored to make it happen.

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