- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 1, 2016

October 31, 2016

Chicago Sun-Times

How gerrymandering has robbed you of a real vote

He was a Republican candidate for the Illinois House. We asked him what the state should do, if anything, to better fund the public schools.

“Advertising,” he said.

“Advertising?” we replied. “How so?”

The state, he said, could put ads along roads and the like.

And this, we asked, is the answer to the school funding crisis?

“Well,” he said, “I’m just talking off the top of my head here.”

You and dozens of other candidates, buddy.

Over a couple of months this fall, the Sun-Times Editorial Board met face-to-face with candidates running in about 50 local elections, from the U.S. Senate down to Cook County Board of Review. If we had charged a dollar every time a candidate talked off the top of his or her head, utterly uninformed, unprepared and clueless, we could have bought a couple of those really expensive tickets to see the Cubs in the World Series. Time and again, we were struck by the disappointing quality of candidates running for local public office.

Maybe it has always been so. These things are hard to measure. Certainly, nobody has ever claimed the Illinois Legislature is gathering of august statesmen and scholars. But we don’t think so.

We think the devastating impact of gerrymandering on legislative districts finally is revealing itself in full. There is no challenger to the incumbent at all in many races - including almost 60 percent of state legislative races - and the average caliber of challengers in contested races is, to be kind, not impressive. Better qualified people are not running because they know they can’t win. And even many incumbents, under no pressure to do a good job because they have no fear of being voted out of a “safe” seat, strike us as increasingly mediocre. Party sheep, really.

Gerrymandering is the art, honed to a science by Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, of drawing the borders of legislative districts to favor one political party or another. As the saying going, the politicians pick their voters instead of the other way around.

Good government groups have worked for decades to end the practice, but to no avail. In September, the Illinois Supreme Court knocked the most recent proposed anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment off the Nov. 8 ballot. But judging by what we saw during two months of endorsement interviews, it would be a tragedy if the reformers gave up the fight. Gerrymandering is proving the ruin of healthy competitive elections in Illinois.

Consider the 1st Congressional District, drawn in such a way that Democrat Bobby Rush never has to worry about a serious Republican threat. Instead, his Republican challenger - who enjoys no significant party financial support - is retired special education teacher August O’Neill Deuser, who proposes cutting income taxes to a flat 1 percent and chopping discretionary federal spending by half. These are not credible ideas.

Or consider the 5th Congressional District, also a lock by design for Democrats, where incumbent Mike Quigley faces only nominal opposition from Republican businessman Vince Kolber, who has never held public office. Kolber raved to us about Donald Trump, the man who refuses to disclose his income taxes. He said Trump is “more personally transparent” than any other politician or candidate.

Another candidate, a state House wannabe, offered replies of three or four words to every question on our questionnaire and was no more thoughtful when we talked. Do you agree that large cuts in higher education are necessary? Answer: “Yes.” How should the state’s school funding formula be changed? Answer: “Incorporate opportunity scholarships.”

Yet another state House candidate, when asked his thoughts on state school funding, railed again and again about Common Core education standards, which are voluntary and not a hot issue in Illinois. Common Core, he said, was “the greatest bureaucratic takeover of the hearts and minds of our children to become opinionated as far as good little progressives.” Even if that were true - and it is not - it has nothing to do with school funding, about which he knew nothing.

For all of this, we felt great respect for most of these candidates, including those we have mentioned by name here. They were honorable men and women who cared enough to run. At least they threw their hat in the ring.

But we also felt a growing pity for the voters, who so often are offered no real choices in this fall’s elections. Mike Madigan and his alchemists of gerrymandering have robbed them of that.


October 30, 2016

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Details vital in bond debate

If only issues related to the criminal-justice system were as simple as some people think they are.

In keeping with the theory that too many people are in prison for no good reason comes another theory - one posited as an undeniable fact - that too many people are in jail awaiting trial because bonds set for their release are excessive.

It’s probably true that there are some people locked up in prisons who might have been better served by a community-based sentence. It’s probably also true that bonds set in some cases are too high, just as bonds set in some cases probably are too low.

The problem is identifying which is which in a judicial system that affords the judges who resolve these questions considerable discretion.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details; the issue is further complicated because the details keep changing.

Obviously, it’s a subject worth studying, and in that context, the news that state judicial officials, including Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman, will examine it is welcome.

The committee’s goal is to establish new standards for pretrial release by 2020. Or maybe its goal is to re-emphasize existing standards that are not always followed.

It’s hard to say, given the vagaries of the issue. But if there’s a way to improve the process, one that simultaneously ensures equity for the individual and protection for the community, let’s do it.

However, it’s important to keep in mind the issue writ large. Based on the recent comments of state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, on a subject in which she is deeply emotionally invested, it’s not clear that is happening.

Her reflections require further discussion and clarification.

She said that during her service on the county board, “we always saw we have a high number of people who were being held in the county jail because they can’t make the bail assigned to them.”

What is “high”? The local state’s attorney’s office works with the sheriff’s office and defense lawyers on a daily basis to keep the jail population down. Police routinely issue notices to appear in court rather than make arrests that require a trip to the county jail. Recognizance bonds are routine.

One reason jails exist is to hold people awaiting trial. That some people can’t make bail is hardly conclusive evidence that it is unreasonably high. If that is the factual basis on which Ammons is stating her case, a fuller explanation is necessary.

Bond set by a judge in a criminal case is intended to assure that a defendant will return to court when required to do so.

The more serious the case, the more likely the bond is to be high - $100,000, $250,000 or even $1 million. Some defendants, depending on the charges against them, can be held without bond.

The commission will be studying bond issues as they relate to nonviolent crimes.

Individuals charged with a nonviolent crimes, just like those facing more serious charges, are entitled to have a reasonable bond based on statutory factors set for their release. That does not mean that they are legally entitled to have a bond set so low that they can make it.

Judges don’t just pull bond figures out of the air. The law requires that they consider certain factors, like community residence, employment, prior criminal history and family ties.

Plans call for establishing a “scientifically based risk assessment” process to determine whether an individual who is charged presents a high or low risk if released.

That sounds reasonable. But everyone needs to bear in mind that these risk assessments are social science, not hard science. There are no iron laws of bond when it comes to predicting the future behavior of a criminal defendant. To suggest otherwise is the height of arrogance and foolishness.

Further, what are nonviolent crimes? A defendant charged with committing a string of burglaries is a nonviolent offender. But that defendant, if proven guilty, is certainly a serious, serial offender. How about someone charged with selling a kilo of cocaine? That’s pretty heavy stuff, even if categorized as nonviolent.

What about the supposedly nonviolent offender who has a string of convictions for a variety of offenses? What should the bond be for a nonviolent offender arrested on a warrant for failing to appear in court?

These are not merely hypothetical. Cases like these occur regularly.

Those who view the judicial system with suspicion and perceive the courts as an instrument of state oppression are entitled to their views. But the facts are so much more complicated than they are willing to concede.

That’s not to say that some good - maybe much good - can come from a thorough examination of bond-released issues in each of the state’s 102 counties. But nothing good will come of it unless participants in the study go into the matter with their eyes wide open and no illusions that they’re not willing to have shattered.


October 28, 2016

The (Sterling) Daily Gazette

Budget crisis shadow darkens more doors

Illinois’ budget crisis has been going on for years.

A 4-year temporary income tax increase (2011-14), approved by then-Gov. Pat Quinn and fellow Democrats in the Legislature, did surprisingly little to alleviate it.

The 2014 election of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, followed by his tussle with the Democratic-controlled Legislature, dominated by House Speaker Michael Madigan, sparked a yearlong budget impasse followed by the half-year stopgap budget agreed to in late June.

And yet, living in a state hit hard by billions of dollars in deficits, debt, and unfunded pension obligations, most Illinoisans say the state’s budget stalemate hasn’t affected them.

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, based at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, recently conducted a poll of 1,000 registered Illinois voters.

It found that 62 percent said the budget mess hadn’t affected them one bit, while 34 percent said they had been personally affected.

Of those feeling budgetary pain, 18 percent said it had cost them their jobs (or they feared it soon would); 15 percent said the loss of general social services had impacted them; and 14 percent said the loss of K-12 education funding had affected them.

Based on recent developments in the Sauk Valley, more residents here could soon be affected by the budget crisis.

Sauk Valley Community College faces a $1.9 million budget deficit for the 2017 fiscal year, and the state has paid only about one-third ($525,000 in stopgap budget funds) of what the college hopes to receive. Trustees who met Oct. 24 talked about taking actions that would impact students and taxpayers.

Scholarship athletes, dual-credit students, and Sauk Scholars could find themselves receiving thousands of dollars less in financial support from the college.

In addition, the board plans to ask local property taxpayers for more money. Its levy adjustments would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about 40 cents more a year.

Meanwhile, the Lee-Ogle Transportation System, which provides more than 75,000 rides a year to area residents for medical, employment and educational purposes, will shorten its hours of operation because the state hasn’t paid the agency what it owes.

A community college and a transit agency are just two examples of how the state’s worsening financial situation, made worse by elected leaders’ intransigence, is being felt by people here at home.

Sadly, poll numbers gauging those who are personally affected by the budget crisis seem destined to rise.

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