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March 2013 Archives

One lawmaker's take on where things stand in Legislature

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Wondering where things stand in the Legislature right now? Here is state Sen. Heather Steans' take, in an e-mail she sent Friday to her 7th District constituents:

We are at the half-way point in this Legislative Session, with most of our work left to do. This is a crucial time for the State with urgent needs to create fiscal stability. This email provides an update on issues critical to fiscal stability and maintaining core services for our residents.


Illinois has the worst funded pension system in the nation and due to this lack of funding the lowest credit ratings of any state. Without meaningful reforms, our pension crisis will deny state workers retirement security, crowd out spending on vital education and human services, and lead to wasteful expenditures on unnecessary interest payments from poor bond ratings.

10-yr. tab for mandatory minimum gun law? $965 mil.

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ILLINOIS_PRISON_INMATE_DEATH_36031037.JPGThe Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Ill. (AP Photo/The Southern, Paul Newton)

Earlier this month, the Sun-Times editorialized that longer mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes would not be a good idea, partly because Illinois' prison system is already overcrowded and more prisoners would mean more costs.

In an op-ed that appeared in the Sun-Times, John Maki, president of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, wrote that the law (House Bill 2265) would cost taxpayers "hundreds of millions of dollars."

It turns out the Illinois Department of Corrections agrees.

"The total impact of HB 2265 would result in an increase of 3,860 inmates, with additional operating costs of $701,712,300 and construction costs of $263,130,300 over ten years," says a note the DOC attached to the legislation.

Read the March 9 Sun-Times editorial here.

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Chicagoans urged to sign up for concealed carry classes

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ILLINOIS_CONCEALED_CARRY_34886943.JPGIn Springfield, legislators are debating proposals to permit and regulate the concealed carrying of guns.

But in Chicago, residents already are being urged to start the process of getting a concealed carry permit.

"You may also be one of the first to obtain a Conceal Carry Permit for the whole State of Illinois by pre-registering for classes available in June," reads a mailing sent to some Chicago homes.

Meanwhile, every month since December has seen a record number of citizens applying for llinois Firearm Owner's Identification cards, the Associated Press reports.

A federal appeals court tossed out Illinois' ban concealed weapons and set a June 8 deadline for enacting a law allowing concealed carry.

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Chicago is a 'beach town'

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Having spent way too many of my formative days sitting on the breakwater -- "the rocks" -- at Rainbow beach, an illegal Schlitz in hand, I was happy to read that Jimmy Buffett says he's always thought of Chicago as a "beach town."

Of course it is! Though I've never thought to put it that way. How nice of Buffett to say so.

Maybe that's why Meigs Field, the old airport, never made sense to me. It did not belong on the lake in our "beach town" any more than an airport would belong next to Coney Island.

(I don't know New York very well. There is no airport next to Coney Island, right?)

Northerly Island as a concert spot, though, with the summer sun setting behind the skyscrapers and the Lake Michigan waters fading to black as Jimmy Buffett or Tom Petty or Mavis Staples performs -- that's pretty much my idea of big-city perfect.

Mayor Daley shut down Meigs for good, as everybody knows, in 2003 when he ordered demolition crews in the dead of night to gouge big X's into the runway. It was an urgent matter, he claimed, of "homeland security." But Richie was really just tired of waiting out the lawsuits that kept him from shutting the airport down.

At the time, of course, our editorial page was officially indignant. Editorial pages always side with democracy and doing things the right way. Mayors are not supposed to be autocrats. But I can't honestly say it offended me one bit. The airport was the reserve of a favored few on a lakefront that belongs to all of us. Ask Montgomery Ward (the man, not the store).

I can think of one other time in Chicago history when civic leaders got tired of lawsuits blocking their idea of progress and just wrecked something. It was Jan. 2, 1900, and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal -- that thing that diverts our city's sewage downstate and on to the Mississippi -- was completed and ready to open. But the state of Missouri had sued, saying St. Louis wanted no part of what went down Chicago's toilets. So trustees of the canal, at the break of dawn, dynamited and then set on fire a wooden dam that prevented the Chicago River from spilling into the newly completed canal.

Once our sewage flowed southwest, it never stopped. Thankfully.

AARP, CUB oppose '$3 billion natural gas tax'

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Are home gas prices the next thing to go up?

AARP Illinois and the Citizens Utility Board Tuesday morning launched a statewide campaign to raise awareness of pending legislation the organizations say would hike natural gas prices. They called the legislative initiative by Peoples Gas, North Shore Gas and Ameren "the equivalent of a 10-year 'natural gas tax' of up to $3 billion."

The legislation backed by the utilities would reduce the Illinois Commerce Commission's oversight over rates. Peoples Gas says it needs the legislation to upgrade hazardous cast-iron pipes that are more than a century old. It also cites these benefits to the plan:

Reactions to Chicago school closures

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Raise Your Hand Coalition:
Press Statement in Response to CPS Announcement on School Closures

March 21, 2013

Raise Your Hand is deeply disappointed in CPS's current plan to close 52 additional schools after over a decade of other closings. RYH believes that the decision to close 11% of its elementary schools was done without specific knowledge of each school, without thorough consideration to the economic impact that the closings will have on our communities and more importantly, on students, their families and the receiving schools. The decision to close schools under the auspices of underutilization and budget savings lies in sharp contrast to the simultaneous plans to spend millions of dollars opening new schools in the same neighborhoods. We believe that this decision is short-sighted and will neither help improve CPS's fiscal crisis nor the education of Chicago's children.

Statement from Chicago Progressive Reform Coalition on CPS School Closings

CHICAGO (March 21, 2013)--Chicago City Council Progressive Reform Coalition members Aldermen John Arena (45); Bob Fioretti (2); Toni Foukes (15); Leslie Hairston (5); Ricardo Munoz (22); Roderick Sawyer (6); Nick Sposato (36); and Scott Waguespack (32), issued the following statement Thursday in response to the news that Chicago Public Schools will close more than 50 schools.

We are deeply disappointed at the report that the Chicago Public Schools administration has decided to proceed with its school closing plan.

This plan, if implemented, will be the largest mass closing of public schools by any school district in the country, according to the Sun-Times. It has been opposed by tens of thousands of vocal involved parents, teachers and students, who have made the case for the vital roles their local schools play in maintaining education, stability, safety and resources in their communities.

In going ahead with this plan, the Chicago Public Schools administration and the Board of Education are violating the Illinois General Assembly's requirement that it disclose its ten-year master facilities plan first.

Moreover, we are concerned that the plan disproportionately targets schools serving African-American and Latino children. As a result, this massive closure would leave entire neighborhoods as virtual "school deserts," disrupting the lives of children and families and depressing property values.

The impact of these closings is overwhelmingly negative and socially costly: It will have a negative impact on children who are forced to travel long distances to the receiving school, or to be bussed out of their communities. Children will have to travel through unfamiliar and possibly dangerous neighborhoods beset with gang activity. Schools which receive children will be at risk of overcrowding, thus negatively affecting both the new arrivals and the children already in the receiving schools.

The CEO has assured that all children from closed schools will be assigned to a school which are performing better academically than the closed school. The Police Superintendent has assured that each child from closed schools will be afforded safe passage to and from school. The people of Chicago should hear how these assurances will come to bear before any changes are made. Such assurances have been hollow in the past, and there is no evidence they will be truer today.

The public deserves answers to these important questions: How much will it cost to move all these students and to ensure their safety and security? How will the new expenses be paid for? Until this and many other questions are explored, examined and presented for public review, we stand with our teachers, parents and other community stakeholders in calling call for an immediate moratorium on school closings.

Concealed carry protesters ask Madigan to appeal ruling

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StopConcealedCarry.JPGProtesters at the James R. Thompson Center on Thursday urge Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to appeal a court ruling on concealed carry. (Stop Concealed Carry Coalition photo)

Lisa Madigan.jpg

About a dozen protesters in an event sponsored by the Stop Concealed Carry Coalition demonstrated Thursday morning on the first floor of the James R. Thompson Center, asking Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to appeal a court ruling that invalidated Illinois' ban on the concealed carrying of weapons.

Gov. Pat Quinn has urged Madigan to appeal the ruling. But Madigan has not yet said whether she will appeal. She has 90 days from the most recent court decision to do so.

Lee Goodman, who organized the coalition, said it's Madigan's job to appeal because as attorney general she is sworn to uphold the state's laws.

"We cannot think of any good reason why she sit by and not do that," Goodman said Thursday. "We think she needs to be answer to the public."

Pro-concealed carry groups want the Legislature to pass a law allowing concealed carry, because then any legal appeal would become moot, Goodman said.

The parent group Raise Your Hand on Tuesday asked several parents of special education students, mostly autistic students, to speak publicly about their grave concerns about potential school closings. All their schools are on the preliminary closure list.

RYH says the 129 school list includes 6,000 special education students and 39 schools that house special education "cluster programs," meaning they serve profoundly disabled kids.

The parents called the potential closures "appalling" and "inhumane." One mom said her disabled daughter is on her fourth school in four years and doesn't want her school closed because her sixth grade daughter has finally found the right fit.

This is CPS' response:

"As a mother and life-long educator, CEO Byrd-Bennett believes that every child in every neighborhood of Chicago deserves access to a high quality education that prepares them to succeed. Right now that is not happening and we need to make some tough choices. By consolidating schools we can focus on getting every child into a better performing school close to their home. We understand there are concerns, but we want to assure parents and the community that we have developed a specialized plan for transitioning students with disabilities in the event that their school needs to be closed. CEO Byrd-Bennett is committed to ensuring that students with disabilities are supported through any transitions that arise as part of this work."

This may be attributed to Robyn Ziegler, CPS spokeswoman.

DIRECT_TV.JPGA new tax that would add an estimated $55 a year to annual satellite TV bills could be back on the Springfield agenda this year.

The bill is backed by the cable TV industry, which says satellite TV gets an unfair break because it avoids the fees and regulations that cable gets. A similar bill passed the state Senate last year with a bare minimum of votes, but never made it out of the House.

"We are selling this as business parity," says Joe Handley, president of the Cable Television & Communications Association of Illinois.

The cable industry argues it has to provide public access channels (which means giving up channel space), pay pole attachment fees, pay entertainment taxes in Chicago and pay franchise fees to local municipalities. Meanwhile, the industry argues, it's competitor - satellite TV - gets a pass.

GREGORY_BAISE.JPGSome Illinois business leaders sent a letter this morning to members of the General Assembly. They don't like SB1, the pension bill in the Senate, because it won't yield great enough savings. The letter follows an earlier one by Illinois Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Douglas Whitley posted Feb. 28 here on the blog.

Gov. Pat Quinn has asked the Legislature to send him a pension reform bill, which he will sign if it provides needed savings.

Here's what the business leaders wrote:

Dear Legislator,

We are writing you today as a coalition of Illinois' leading business groups to ask you to oppose Senate Bill 1 (SB1). While we appreciate Senate President John Cullerton's efforts to reform the state's pension systems and restore some stability to Illinois' finances, we believe that SB1 will not achieve those goals, but rather worsen the state's fiscal condition.

As you know, the current aggregate funding level of the five state plans is only 39% - worst in the nation - with an unfunded liability of $97 billion. Required state pension contributions consume an ever-increasing part of the state's operating budget, leading to cuts in funding for essential state services and an estimated $9 billion in unpaid bills at the end of FY2012. Because of concerns about the funding of the pension plans and the increasing pressure on the state's budget, the state's credit rating has dropped to unprecedented levels, which has increased the cost of borrowing. Illinois now has the lowest rating in the nation according to Moody's and Standard & Poor's, and all three rating agencies have the state on Negative Watch for possible future downgrades.

Liberal in the NRA says there is a middle ground

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Gerry Souter.jpgFear is a selling point that has turned out profits for gunmakers, author Gerry Souter said Tuesday at a Society of Midland Authors program at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago.

"What's the tool that we have that can make all this work? Fear," said Souter, a lifelong gun enthusiast.

Souter, who with his wife, Janet, has written or co-authored more than nonfiction 50 books, is author of a new book titled American Shooter: A Personal History of Gun Culture in the United States.

"They [guns] are not just for sport. They are not just for fighting a war. They [have] become a fabric of everyday life. And that's where there is a problem," Souter said.

"We've taken a sport that has tradition that goes back to the earliest settlers that taught a lot of kids respect for rules," Souter said. "... [Now] there are sport shooters in the United States who are embarrassed by the NRA."

Souter, who calls himself a liberal in the NRA, says he represents the typical experience of American shooters who have grown up with firearms and appreciate how marksmanship skills help build character, respect and eye-hand coordination.

Read more about American Shooter here.

Read a March 1 Sun-Times editorial on gun laws here.

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Somebody got the snow shovel out

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Canal Street.jpg

Early last month, we pointed out that if you walked along the east side of Canal Street just west of Wolf Point after a snowfall, you might be buttonholed by a constituent of Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) who wanted the alderman to make sure the sidewalk was cleared of snow.

Up until that time, the sidewalk, which ran alongside a parking lot, was never shoveled. You can see its usual appearance in the photo at upper left.

Since then, there have been three major snowfalls. And each time, the walk has been cleared (on Feb. 27, it kept snowing after it was plowed).

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What's wrong with CPS' school utilization formula?

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A Sun-Times editorial on Friday called on CPS to close schools over two years rather than one.

Among the arguments was this: "Given problems with the formula CPS uses to label a school as underused, it makes sense to target for closure the most acutely underused schools, those that are below 60 percent capacity. In many poor communities, those small, tight-knit schools can be a real gift."

We didn't elaborate because of space restraints. We've covered the problems with the school building formula before, as have many others.

But more details sure would be helpful. Below are some resources to help understand the problems with formula:

1. Sun-Times editorial, Jan. 13, 2013, "Close many schools, but not in a panic"

Here's the relevant paragraphs:

In the coming days, Byrd-Bennett will name the schools still eligible for closure and, starting Jan. 28, CPS will host neighborhood meetings to get feedback on individual schools. She's also getting detailed feedback from principals on space usage and looking closely at individual schools.

That's a start for picking which schools to close, but not enough given problems with the formula used to determine building utilization rates. CPS claims about half its 681 schools are under-used, with nearly 140 more than half empty. But many legitimate criticisms of CPS' one-size-fits-all formula have been raised, including a failure to account for schools with large special-education populations, different room sizes needed for different ages and the relatively small number of rooms allowed for classes like art and music. It also only counts a school as overcrowded once average class size reaches 36, not the system maximum class size of 31.

These issues have been raised most effectively by Apples to Apples, an independent research effort connected to the advocacy group Raise Your Hand. Given the blunt instrument being used, CPS must focus only on the most under-used schools and then gather more detailed on-the-ground information to verify the severity of the under-enrollment. An outside evaluation of CPS' formula also would help rebuild trust between the school system and parents.

2. Apples to Apples research

Click here for the website

3. A recent Chicago Tribune story, "School closing critics question CPS' 'ideal' class size of 30 students."

Click here for the story

The privacy threat of non-government drones

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Legislation now working its way through Springfield would require police to get a warrant, with some exceptions, before using drones to spy on citizens. The bill passed the Senate Committee on Criminal Law Wednesday by a 7-2 vote.

Advancing technology is making it much easier to track people with drones. In the past, police could use airplanes or helicopters, but that was very expensive - and not very stealthy. Relatively cheap drones will make it much easier.

But the legislation won't deal with private abuse of drones. What if, for example, some foreign government decides to fly drones to spy on the Caterpillar manufacturing facilities in Peoria and pick up some trade secrets?

To address that, a different piece of legislation is in the bin to create a study group to examine the issue of privacy and private drones. The group would report back by the end of the year, and legislation would be introduced next January.

Read a Sun-Times editorial on drones here.

Read a Feb. 13 Sun-Times news story on drones here.

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Food & Water Watch and more than a dozen allies, including several national environmental groups, today delivered a letter urging Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois General Assembly to vote down the fracking regulatory bill.

Read the Fracking Press Release 3-4-13.pdf here.

See the letter here.

Read the Sun-Times editorial here.

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Plan to remake RTA looking for some traction

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Frank Beal.JPG
Frank Beal, executive director of Metropolis Strategies. | Brian Jackson~ Sun-Times

UPDATE: The Senate Executive Committee Wednesday night (March 20) voted 8-5 to approve SB 1594, the legislation to merge the RTA and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Is it time to restructure the Regional Transportation Authority again?

Some advocates of public transit say no, and that even bringing the idea up now distracts from the need to get behind more funding for public transit. RTA Chairman John Gates calls the idea a "sideshow."

transita.chartb.1.jpgBut George Ranney, the president and CEO of Metropolis Strategies, and Frank H. Beal, the executive director, are pushing for combining the RTA and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning into a new entity with an 18-member board. They say their chart shown here says it all: Transit ridership in Chicago lags badly behind the other major legacy systems in the country.

RTA-CST-03XX13_001_32601715.JPGRTA Board Chairman John Gates | Ting Shen~Sun-Times Media

Has the RTA got it backward? It would like to think so. The new emphasis in Chicago transit circles these days is "reverse commute."

Transit officials know they have lots of empty seats, particularly on Metra, on transit that's going opposite the flow of commuters. Metra, for example, runs full trains into the city in the morning, then nearly-empty ones back out to start another inbound run. It repeats that pattern several times in a rush hour.

But what if more people would "reverse commute," and take those trains that are going against the flow? Costs would hardly go up, but revenues would jump.

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This page is an archive of entries from March 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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