- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2016

June 20, 2016

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Beware the zealots

Just a few weeks ago legislators in Springfield briefly raised the idea of levying a new tax on soft drinks. The controversial proposal - one that would increase the cost of sugary drinks by roughly 40 percent - apparently was too hot to handle, and it was suddenly dropped from discussions.

But the curious coalition of money-hungry legislators and moral arbiters who like to dictate other people’s choices was merely down, not out.

It came back to life in Philadelphia last week when the city council approved a special levy of 1.5 cents per ounce on sweetened beverages. That’s an extra 18 cents per 12-ounce can, $1.08 per six-pack.

The new tax will reportedly apply to “regular sodas, diet sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks and other non-alcoholic beverages with sweeteners,” according to news reports.

The move in Philadelphia follows similar action in Berkeley, Calif. Meanwhile, the California cities of Oakland and San Francisco as well as Boulder, Colo., are considering following suit.

Then, of course, there is Illinois, where Chicago Democratic state Sen. Donne Trotter argued that his “soda tax” proposal is “no different than how we look at the detrimental effects on cigarettes.”

Really? There’s no difference between a Coke and a Camel?

That kind of analogy shows just how bold the moral Puritans have become and how desperate our legislators are.

Two issues drive this debate - revenue and health.

Opponents of the Philadelphia soda tax object for a variety of reasons, one of which is that consumers will merely purchase their soft drinks outside the city. The net result, they argue, is that consumers still will purchase Coke or Pepsi, but not in Philadelphia. Thus, they argue that the legislation is hurting local businesses and costing the municipality revenue it otherwise would have received.

That’s a reasonable claim. It stands to reason that soft-drink consumers, just like smokers, will make it a point to buy where taxes are lowest. But Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kennedy rejects that claim, arguing that consumers may initially - acting “out of anger” - go elsewhere but not for long.

“Out of convenience, they’ll go back to shopping at their corner stores,” he said.

Just like ever-higher taxes on cigarettes, proponents of the soda tax see the measure as a means of increasing revenue. If smokers in Illinois suddenly quit buying cigarettes, the state legislators who insisted they raised tobacco taxes to discourage sales would go into collective shock over declining revenues.

The second issue is health - soft drink foes have decided the beverage industry is responsible for obesity, and they want to damage or destroy it through taxation.

Soft drinks surely play a role in that undeniable problem. But how large?

What about the ground beef that goes in the hamburgers people love? How about the buffets that restaurants offer their customers? What about mashed potatoes and gravy, roast turkey and cranberry relish served on Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Is society going to limit portion size through legislation? Or regulate consumption of burgers and fries through World War II-style rationing?

So far, smokers have proved an easy target for taxes and restrictions. Most people have been educated about the health risks, the consequence being that only a relatively small percentage of the population still smoke. But many, many millions of people enjoy soft drinks, and they’re not likely to take this tax grab lying down.

The soft drink industry is challenging the Philadelphia decision in court. Meanwhile, a broad coalition, including both business and labor, is fighting a similar battle in the court of public opinion. These battles are harbingers of more to come, including here in Illinois.


June 17, 2016

The (Sterling) Daily Gazette and The (Dixon) Telegraph

More reasons to reform how districts are drawn

If you need any more reasons in favor of reforming Illinois’ highly partisan redistricting process, The Associated Press came up with several this week.

The AP reported that minorities are greatly underrepresented in the 177-seat Illinois Legislature.

For example, Latinos make up nearly 17 percent of the state’s population, but have just over 7 percent representation in the Legislature.

Asians make up 5 percent of Illinois’ population, but have no representation in the Legislature.

Overall, whites make up 62 percent of Illinois population, but hold nearly 75 percent of the seats in the House and Senate combined.

The AP analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data to determine how closely representation in the Legislature matched the demographics of Illinois residents.

Clearly, the current redistricting process, whereby majority politicians draw the maps every 10 years, doesn’t serve the people well.

Democrats controlled the process the last time in 2011. They drew maps that increased their 64-54 House seat advantage in 2010 to 71-47 after the 2012 election.

Likewise, Democratic-drawn maps boosted Democrats’ Senate seat advantage from 35-24 after the 2010 election to 40-19 after 2012.

When politicians manipulate district maps, they skew results in their favor, no matter the consequences to fair representation.

Map manipulation also suppresses competition. That suppression continues in 2016.

A check of Illinois State Board of Elections candidate lists details the shocking lack of competition for legislative seats in November.

More than 59 percent of House seats are uncontested — 70 out of 118.

Worse, fully 70 percent (28 out of 40) of races for Senate seats are uncontested.

We can think of one regional lawmaker, state Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Freeport, who since his 2013 appointment has never faced any competition on the ballot. Given Illinois’ many financial and budgetary problems, the lack of contested legislative races is unbelievable.

Fortunately, the State Board of Elections this week approved the Independent Map Amendment for the November ballot — pending a lawsuit by allies of powerful Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan to suppress this common-sense reform effort to depoliticize the process.

Madigan is the same guy who for decades has heavily influenced the inequitable, partisan redistricting system that is unfair to minorities, skews election results, stifles competition, and thwarts the will of the people.

It’s long past time to cast this unfair, broken system aside.


June 17, 2016

Belleville News-Democrat

Hiding illness within Obamacare

Illinois seems to be working its way from the Affordable Care Act to the Unaffordable Care Act, and state regulators are not helping.

UnitedHealthcare already announced that it would no longer participate in Illinois’ Affordable Care Act health insurance exchange, called Get Covered Illinois. Costs were higher and participants were sicker than anticipated, so the health insurer that in 2016 offered Obamacare plans in 34 states was cutting back for 2017 to three states and Illinois will not be one of them.

In April the insurers who will be participating in the Illinois health insurance exchange had to tell the Illinois Department of Insurance what their rates would be in 2017. So what’s the bad news?

They won’t say. If other states’ announced hikes are a good predictor of ours, Illinois residents could see rates increase by roughly 50 percent.

The department’s acting director, Anne Melissa Dowling, will not release the 2017 rate information until its mandatory publication date of Aug. 1. She considers the rates to be exempt from the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

So why should you care?

The Aug. 1 release is about a month before the state regulators issue their report on the rates. If the public or the public watchdog groups want to react to the rates, there is little time to do so.

Thirty-one of the nation’s states have already released the information, including our neighbors to the east and west. When consumer groups get access to the rate info, they usually are able to push back and get rate hikes reduced.

Illinois should be transparent about the coming health insurance rates. Now that Obamacare forces people into the insurance pool or taxes them because they are not, the state is obligated to help control consumer costs.

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