- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 24, 2018

April 23, 2018

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

One step at a time

When it comes to problems - as anyone who’s paying the slightest bit of attention knows - Illinois is a target-rich environment.

The state is deeply in debt. It has too many units of government, some so small that their existence makes no sense in economic terms. The legislative election process is essentially rigged years in advance through the careful manipulation of House and Senate boundaries that predetermine election results and, well, one could go on and on.



Some thoughtful people are trying, largely without success, to change the status quo.

Here’s just one example involving Illinois school districts, a subject of previous commentaries in this space.

Illinois has far more than it needs. Some are elementary school districts, others are high school districts and many are both but still small.

There are more than 850 of them.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, one-third of those districts have fewer than 600 students. Less than half of them are either one or two schools.

Is there money to be saved not only in folding elementary districts into high school districts or one district into another without closing the school community’s prize. Are there opportunities to consolidate back-office operations in a way that saves money that can be reinvested in education rather than bureaucracies.

Of course, there are. Think tanks have written about the problem and made sensible recommendations that are mostly ignored because change - even change that saves public dollars and serves the public interest - is hard, especially so when the forces of the status quo have a financial stake in the outcome.

Here’s another idea for saving scarce tax dollars, courtesy of state Sen. Sue Rezin, a Republican legislator from Morris.

Rezin is sponsoring legislation, which is pending before the Illinois Senate, that would allow small school districts to share a superintendent.

It’s hardly unusual for superintendents in Illinois to oversee both high school and elementary schools. So why couldn’t an elementary school district and a high school district share a superintendent? There’s no credible reason, and the savings could be substantial.

Many superintendents in Illinois make salaries way into six figures.

“As we are trying to find extra, additional dollars to get into the classroom, this could be one way to free up dollars. … And allow those dollars to get to the classroom,” Rezin said.

One thing that ought to be clear by now is that far too many tax dollars are eaten up by administrative costs that come at the expense of education costs. Given the dramatic difference in the importance of those two line items, legislators, school board members, taxpayers and teachers ought to be scrambling for ways to redirect tax dollars toward fulfilling the goal of educating kids.

It is true, of course, that this state’s huge number of school districts, while a problem, isn’t nearly as big a problem as the state’s largest-in-the-nation number of taxing districts. As has been stated ad nauseum, Champaign County, just one of the state’s 102 counties, has 30 townships.

In that broader context, it’s hard to generate much public outrage about the lesser outrages of school districts running amok.

But Illinois is running out of time and resources. It’s way past time for our elected and appointed officials to get serious about fixing what ails us. Sen. Rezin has made a reasonable suggestion, and it’s our hope the House and Senate will favorably respond.

___

April 20, 2018

Chicago Tribune

Intrigue on the Illinois Supreme Court

While the buzz hovers around the Illinois governor and Chicago mayoral races, jockeying for a third high-ranking position could begin soon. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman, who in 1990 became the first African-American elected to the state’s highest court, has been telling friends and associates he plans to retire before his term is up in 2020.

The timetable isn’t clear. “There is nothing to report on a possible retirement by Justice Freeman,” a court spokesperson said. But we’re told conversations about the vacancy and recommendations for his replacement are underway.

Per constitutional guidelines, Freeman and his colleagues on the Supreme Court would choose a justice to fill the remainder of his term. It’s traditional for the outgoing justice to nominate an interim successor - and for the other justices to go along with it.

Court observers - count us among them - will be watching closely.

There are two reasons: The appointee would presumably have a leg up on other candidates who might seek election when the term expires. And Freeman has an iffy track record for making recommendations to fill court vacancies.

At least two of his nominees for circuit court vacancies were his former law clerks who had no experience as courtroom attorneys. A couple of politically connected picks proved to be incompetent. One went to prison.

In 2011, Freeman recommended and his colleagues approved one of his former law clerks for a Cook County judgeship even though she lived in Will County. In doing so, he passed over many Cook County judges with more experience. Changing her residence to Cook County didn’t improve her qualifications.

We have long advocated for more vetting and transparency in the judicial appointment process. Why? Because judges often hold their jobs for life. Once elected, a Supreme Court justice must stand for retention only once a decade. Justices are well paid, with generous benefits and pensions subsidized by taxpayers. They make consequential judgment calls that can profoundly affect the lives of Illinoisans.

Some members of the Supreme Court have listened. When a judicial opening occurs in their districts, they seek applications, appoint a screening committee to recommend candidates and keep a safe distance to ensure against the perception of a conflict of interest. As recently as Thursday, Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman announced the formation of a judicial screening committee for an opening in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Central Illinois. She announced the committee members’ names and invited members of the public to submit comments.

Surely the process for replacing a justice on the state’s highest court should be at least as rigorous and transparent as for a circuit court judge. The Supreme Court should establish a single process for screening and filling judicial vacancies at all levels. Among other things, it should factor in the evaluations of judicial candidates published by bar associations as a public service to voters.

The bar associations look for at least a decade of experience practicing law inside courtrooms when evaluating candidates for the circuit court bench. Justice Freeman, for example, worked as an assistant attorney general, an assistant state’s attorney, in general practice, as a circuit court judge and an appellate judge before being elevated to the Supreme Court by voters. A fine resume indeed.

If he leaves before his term is up, his colleagues on the Supreme Court should make sure that his seat is filled by a judge whose resume is equally impressive. This is a coveted and prestigious job, too important to fill through deference and tradition. It should be based on merit - not clout.

___

April 21, 2018

Belleville News-Democrat

Want to kill gerrymandering in Illinois? Get on your state lawmakers now.

Politicians in Springfield should not get to decide how much weight your vote carries. But they do, so if you want a better version of democracy you need to tell Illinois state politicians to get behind the Fair Maps Amendment. And they need to do it by a May 4 deadline so you can vote on it in November.

The urgency is because the Nov. 6 election is the last chance we’ll have to end gerrymandering in Illinois before the 2020 U.S. Census. That population count will set the Illinois state legislative and congressional district map-making process in motion.

If lawmakers pass House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 43, or the companion bill in the Illinois Senate, SJRCA 26, then voters will decide whether to change the Illinois Constitution so that an independent commission draws congressional and state legislative districts. The commission will be charged with keeping districts compact and communities together as much as possible, while working to keep minority voting rights intact.

If lawmakers fail to pass either bill, then we lock in gerrymandering for another decade. Politicians will again draw maps that look like earmuffs, in the case of U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez’ Illinois Fourth Congressional District, or look like an amphibian doing yoga, as is the case for state Rep. LaToya Greenwood’s 114th Illinois House District.

As President Obama noted, politicians will continue picking voters, instead of the other way around.

The harm is that Greenwood’s district treats voters in conservative, rural communities with farming roots, such as Lebanon and Smithton, the same as minority Democratic voters in the decaying industrial corridor surrounding East St. Louis.

The harm is that U.S. Rep. John Shimkus wastes time trying to travel to constituents spread from Paxton to Paducah, and from Lawrenceville to Collinsville, rather than spending more time listening to his neighbors.

The harm is that Collinsville voters get split between three different congressmen. Voters along a mile stretch of Illinois 159 in Collinsville share a lot of interests, but must convince three different men to support one common cause.

The harm is that more than 60 percent of Illinois’ legislative races in 2016 were uncontested because challengers felt little reason to fight for a district politically weighted against them.

The issue was summed up last week by David Kohn, whose Union League Club of Chicago was instrumental in driving the current Illinois Constitution.

“At the root of our democratic system of governance is the principle that government derives its authority from and should be responsive to the will of the people,” Kohn said. “That principle is damaged when legislative districts are drawn to protect incumbents, diminishing the voices of voters and discouraging candidates.”

None of the local state representatives or state senators have signed on to the Fair Map Amendment. Tell them that before May 4, they should speak up for democracy and strengthen your voice in your government.

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