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May 2010 Archives

State Senate balks on pension borrowing

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It looks as if the state Legislature can't even embrace the best of the worst ideas out there for handling a $13 billion deficit.

A plan to borrow $3.7 billion to make a required payment to the state pension systems stalled in the Senate Thursday after it became clear there weren't enough votes for passage. The measure passed the House, on a second try, on Tuesday.

Senate President John Cullerton told us he plans to reconvene the Senate in about two weeks. He hopes at least two yes Republican votes will materialize by then.

As of today, no Senate Republican has come out in support of borrowing in a show of solidarity with their caucus. Last year, 11 Republicans voted in favor of pension borrowing.

We appreciate the sentiment. Borrowing is a miserable idea.

But at this late date, Republican intransigence only hurts the state they purport to be trying to save. The ship has sailed on a more responsible budget this spring. By pretending otherwise, Republicans are exposing a more calculated, political agenda to help them in the fall elections.

As we said in today's paper, it's hard to rally behind borrowing. But Illinois now has no other choice.

Skipping a pension payment costs much more than borrowing. If the state skips, it could lose at least $20 billion in investment income over 20 years. Borrowing $3.7 billion now would cost about $1 billion.

We urge the Republicans and the two wayward Democrats who don't support pension borrowing to mull over this simple math for the next two weeks.

Read Thursday's editorial on pension borrowing here

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As the Legislature tries to finish up its business for this session, we were talking to a former longtime legislator who bemoaned how things have changed in Springfield.

Truth be told, he said, he didn't think things worked that well in the decade and a half he spent in the Statehouse back in the 1970s and '80s. But those days look inspiring compared with the way things operate now.

"The power has really consolidated into the leadership of both parties," he said. "It's almost like you don't need anybody else there but the four leaders. Money has become the big item in campaigns, and I think the leadership controls the money.

"It's just that simple, and it's very sad."

Aaron Jaffe, chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board, is not happy with the Legislature right now.

It's Jaffe's job to monitor those who will operate the newly legalized video poker in bars and other small establishments.

Now, though, the Illinois Senate has passed a bill that also passed out of a House committee on Monday. The bill would take away the board's discretion, allowing it to bar only those who are convicted of a gambling-related charge.

Those who stand up for wrongfully convicted people are getting some recognition these days from the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project.

On Monday evening, the organization gave its "profiles in courage" awards to Ed Cisowski and Mary Hayes, honoring them for their roles in the Rolando Cruz case.

What the octopus can teach Chicago about security

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If Chicago's proliferating police surveillance cameras are so great, the question goes, why don't they seem to be stopping crime?

Chicago's network of 10,000 public and private cameras is the most extensive in the nation. But all those cameras aren't necessarily making people feel safer.

Maybe it's time to consider the lowly octopus.

It's official: It really was "presidential error."

Last month, University of Illinois Interim President Stanley Ikenberry admitted he'd misspoken when he seemed to imply that tuition at the state's flagship university could go up by nearly 20 percent. Ikenberry later admitted it was "presidential error" to make it sound like tuition could go that high. He'd intended to say that the best case scenario was an increase of 9.5 percent and and there was a possibility it could be double that.

On Thursday, university trustees approved an increase of 9.5 percent.

The debate in Wrigleyville over a $100 million mixed-used development that would replace eight neighborhood businesses, sweeping away what some call "a cool, hip neighborhood," is another chapter in a battle between preservation and change that has been waged from Chicago's earliest days.

Chicago author Richard Lindberg, in his new award-winning book The Gambler King of Clark Street, writes that even in the 1800s there were Chicagoans amid the building frenzy that followed the Chicago Fire who were nostalgic for an earlier, more pastoral time.

One of the perplexing things about struggling social services in Illinois is that their plight hasn't really sunk in for the general public.

"I don't understand how the public is not getting the message," says Denver Bitner, president and chief executive officer of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. "I keep hearing from politicians: We are going to cut the fat out of the programs."

The cutting has gone on for years "and we have cut all that we can cut safely," Bitner says. And even recent discussions of pursuing new revenue tend to leave out social services or even target them for more cuts.

"These are the folks who are most vulnerable, the ones who have the least power," he says.

Possibly the low point of his career, novelist Kent Meyers said in Chicago Tuesday evening, was when he opened a manila envelope from his agent that contained 23 rejection letters.

"I sat at the kitchen table, and I was leafing through them, and I thought to myself, this is as good as I can write," Meyers said at the annual book awards banquet of the Society of Midland Authors at the InterContinental hotel. "If I can't get this book published, I can't get published. So I may as well quit."

Although it took him 18 years to get into print, Meyers didn't quit. And the reason he was in town, after traveling from his home in Spearfish, S.D., was to accept the society's adult fiction award for books published in 2009 for his novel Twisted Tree.

Keir Graff, one of the judges in the book competition, called the novel "a stunning achievement" and "one of the most haunting things I have ever read."

"It's a book about the sometimes frayed connection between the people in the wide open spaces of the Plains states, about how little we really know one another, about the bones that lie beneath the land," said Graff, who also is an author and senior editor of Booklist Online. "Meyers has written other fine books and will write more, but if this were his only book it would still make a lasting contribution to Midwestern and American letters."

Chicago's pretend inspector general

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Chicago aldermen on Wednesday voted 27-18 to create a pretend inspector general.

Instead of empowering the city's existing inspector general to investigate aldermen and their staffs -- as a slew of good government types and the Sun-Times editorial page has urged -- the City Council voted to create a separate IG who will be so hamstrung by cumbersome rules that the office is destined to do nothing.

If you're curious how your alderman voted on the pretend IG ordinance, we're happy to supply the list:

Yes -- Aldermen Hairston, Lyle, Harris, Beale, Pope, Balcer, Olivo, Burke, Foulkes, Thompson, Thomas, Lane, Rugai, Cochran, Brookins, Zalewski, Dixon, Graham, Reboyras, Suarez, Mell, Rice, Mitts, Allen, Laurino, O'Connor, Doherty, Shiller -- 28.

No -- Aldermen Moreno, Fioretti, Dowell, Cardenas, Munoz, Solis, Maldonado, Waguespack, Colon, Reilly, Daley, Tunney, Levar, Schulter, M. Smith, Moore, Stone -- 17.

Gun proponents say that if we all carried guns on our hip, like in the old Hollywood version of the Wild West, we'd be safer. No punk kid would dare hassle us on the L knowing we could pull out a gun and blow him away.

The problem, say the rest of us, is that all those guns on the hip inevitably would lead to more violence as petty disputes, once resolved with words or fists, were now settled with guns.

Exactly that happened Sunday night when, police say, a former Marine in south suburban University Park shot and killed a neighbor for that most dastardly of offenses -- letting his dog urinate on a perfect lawn. The argument started with words and ended in gunfire when the homeowner with the perfect lawn, Charles J. Clements Jr., pulled his gun.

Why was he even carrying a gun?

I suppose the response of the gun lobby will be that the other guy, Joshua Funches, might still be alive if he'd been packing, too.

That's the solution, folks -- crank up a personal arms race across America.

In his book "Roughing It," Mark Twain only half-jokingly wrote about a culture of violence so severe in the Old West that a man wasn't anybody -- didn't have an iota of status or respect -- until he had "shot his man." Why, a man who had not gunned down at least one other man could hardly get the bartender's attention in a saloon.

Apparently, the deterrent effect of a gun on every hip didn't much work.

Keeping classes going vs. borrowing trouble

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This isn't a point of discussion that comes up in a humanities class, but it's still a philosophical question: Should public universities get the authority to borrow money for bills they can't pay because the state owes them millions of dollars?

Late last week, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 642, which if signed by the governor could temporarily solve cash flow woes at Illinois' universities, who are owed more than $700 million by the state.

The effort was spearheaded by Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard, who had to use every trick in the book just to make payroll and pay his vendors this year. And there's no guarantee that next year won't be worse.

Do assessor candidates have each other's numbers?

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Sometimes, public debate does focus on issues that can be reduced to a number.

All these years later, for example, people still remember: "54.40 or fight."

But "10/25 or fight"? So far, it hasn't caught the public's attention.

"10/25" refers to a revised way of calculating the relationship between home market values in Cook County and the assessed values that are used for tax purposes.

Does higher education need a new lesson plan?

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The debate among college administrators and officials gathered this week at the National Press Club was in part over whether the United States needs a new model for higher education.

Stanley Ikenberry, interim president of the University of Illinois, is one of those who thinks a new model may be needed.

"I think what isn't clear is how to make public higher education in this country sustainable over the long term," Ikenberry said earlier this month in a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. "The answers of the last 50 years I don't think are going to work for the next 50 years. The question is: What are the answers for the next 50 years?"

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