Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in Illinois
April 24, 2016
The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan
Higher education and its funding: Taking advantage of the desperate
The nearly unanimous passage of a $600 million higher education "stopgap" last Friday is being lauded as an example of bipartisanship and compromise. Yes, Democrats and Republicans compromised, but the future of higher education in Illinois was actually further compromised in the process. Friday's vote was a marriage of convenience between a governor whose commitment to higher education was in question and legislators who want to campaign for re-election this summer without this particular cloud hanging over their head.
The desperation of the state's university leaders is now so intense that they spent most of Friday afternoon lining up to say "thank you" for cutting their funding by 69 percent.
Gov. Rauner pushed for this bill's passage because he claims the $600 million comes from the "dedicated" education assistance fund, a dedicated portion of state income taxes. Interesting. Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno claimed that "every bit of spending in this bill is paid for." Really? Then why did Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger say there is only $354 million in that Education Assistance Fund?
Please note that Friday's appropriation bill did NOT increase revenues by a single dollar. State revenues are expected to be $31.2 billion for fiscal year 2016. Appropriations - before Friday's $600 million addition - were at $34 billion. Rauner and legislative Republicans were not wrong when they criticized every earlier higher education spending bill by saying "we don't have the money."
Although receiving 31 percent of prior year funding could certainly not be categorized as a "win," the real losers in Friday's vote may be those that administer social service programs. Throughout the budget impasse, Democrats have tried to tie social service funding to that of higher education. Last week's vote separated the two, temporarily leaving social services as the sole non-appropriated budget item. This should certainly not be a surprise, as these agencies service individuals with the lowest incomes who possess the voices least likely to be heard.
Perhaps lost in the hubbub surrounding last week's stopgap funding bill is a statement made by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Last Wednesday Lewis called Gov. Rauner "a new ISIS recruit." She continued, "Has Homeland Security checked this man out yet? Because the things he's doing look like acts of terror on poor and working class people." As a reminder, this well-spoken public servant is a graduate of Dartmouth College, a proud member of the Ivy League.
When the well-educated demonstrate incivility, the Chicago children taught by the 30,000 members of the CTU receive a poorer education.
When our well-educated governor (undergraduate degree in economics from Dartmouth and MBA from Harvard) employs fuzzy math, appearing heroic while slashing higher education funding by 69 percent, state students receive a poorer education.
And when our well-educated legislative leaders Michael Madigan (Notre Dame and Loyola Chicago Law School) and John Cullerton (Loyola University Chicago) play along with the governor in placing social services funding dead last, they insure that the poorest Illinois residents continue to receive the poorest access to education.
Last Friday's vote a win for the state of Illinois? We don't think so.
April 23, 2016
Lawmakers love to let schools add bond debt
The Chicago Tribune recently analyzed the debt load of Illinois' schools and found they collectively have $20 billion in bonds, or $10,000 in debt for every student in grades kindergarten through 12. The point of the story was that state lawmakers for decades passed special laws allowing school to borrow beyond statutory limits that were deemed fiscally prudent.
The Illinois State Board of Education monitors school district debt as part of its financial watch over districts, but there are no real penalties for borrowing more than the state guideline. At least there are no penalties for school leaders: For taxpayers the penalty is coughing up more for school facilities than you should and for students it's having dollars tied up in the brick walls instead of in instruction.
Belleville School District 118 just announced it needs $26 million in improvements to secure school entrances, make repairs and add 21 classrooms. They have $7.2 million in existing debt and decided to limit the new borrowing to $20 million to stay within their $30 million limit.
Emergencies happen, growth happens, but it would be good to consider how many districts seek exceptions to the debt rule as St. Clair County taxpayers head to the polls in November. They are being asked to impose a 1 percent sales tax to pay school debt from construction and safety, with every district receiving a proportional share regardless of their fiscal realities.
Does your school district have the ability or discipline to use the sales tax revenue to reduce property taxes? Is it fiscally casual or will it find itself forced to use the sales tax as an add-on tax?
History does not inspire optimism that property owners will feel any less pinched. History shows the tax burden is the only guaranteed growth.
April 23, 2016
(Peoria) Journal Star
After guv lite, who's up next?
A proposal to give Illinois voters a chance to eliminate the lieutenant governor's office by constitutional amendment failed in the state Senate last week.
Never mind that Gov. Bruce Rauner campaigned on consolidating government and finding spending efficiencies. Never mind that this would save taxpayers some $1.6 million a year. Never mind that this is pretty much a do-nothing office. Never mind that the person who holds the job now, Evelyn Sanguinetti, has said it ought to go. Never mind that 14 Senate Republicans who cast a "nay" last week reportedly sponsored an identical measure three years ago. Never mind that other states have done it.
Indeed, there were so many flip-flops on this issue, up to the governor himself, that the Capitol would be one dizzy place if its denizens had ever experienced equilibrium and knew the difference. Why the change of heart?
Because it would change the line of succession should the governor be somehow incapacitated, with an independently elected attorney general taking over instead of a lieutenant governor. And gasp, those two officeholders could be of different parties! (As is the case now, with the Republican Rauner and the Democrat Lisa Madigan.)
So again, it's all about politics in Springfield, rarely about good government, mostly about them, not about us. It's like the endless lip service given to merging the state treasurer and comptroller offices. The merits have nothing to do with it.
Our legislators will forgive constituents who say they shouldn't stop at the lieutenant governor's office, who ask: Since only four of them seem to matter much in the General Assembly, why do taxpayers need 173 others taking up space and payroll? We'd like to think that's starting to change. We'll see.
April 22, 2016
Bet on steep regulations for daily fantasy sports
The days of friends getting together to draft players for low-stakes fantasy football leagues gave way about a decade ago to the digital age. Daily fantasy sports companies launched sophisticated web sites and gave people new ways to win money and - more often - more ways to lose.
These companies took advantage of a loophole in a 2006 federal law intended to curb Internet gambling and built lucrative businesses. Last year they were expected to rake in $1.5 billion in revenue, before lawmakers across the county began scrutinizing them.
Regulation of this industry is needed big time. We support, with just a few reservations, a bill proposed by Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, that is designed, above all, to protect fantasy players in Illinois from being exploited.
Under current law, these businesses constitute illegal gambling, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan declared in an advisory opinion in December.
But in a strange twist, one that seems to acknowledge that daily fantasy sports betting has become woven into our popular culture, Madigan didn't try to shut them down while a lawsuit is pending.
Daily fantasy sports companies prefer to face regulation than risk being banned by a judge. To that end, they're on board with new rules, which frankly is neither here nor there for us. Our concern is the consumer. Zalewski's bill looks strong, but only if the Illinois Gaming Board is empowered and staffed to chase down every last violation. In its current form, the bill calls for penalties as high as a fantasy sports contest's revenues. So if a particular contest with violations brought in millions, the penalty also would be in the millions.
The key element to the bill is oversight. It calls for the Gaming Board to vet, license and monitor daily fantasy companies. Fees for licenses would range from $500 for low-budget companies to $50,000 for companies with revenue greater than $10 million. Companies also would have to pay taxes.
Under this bill, fantasy players must be at least 21. This is tougher than the minimum age of 18 required by a law passed recently in Indiana.
Some lawmakers have expressed concerns that it would be difficult to prevent children from playing. All you need, after all, is access to a computer or mobile device and a credit card.
But that's where parental involvement comes into play. If you wouldn't let your 11-year-old shop on Amazon.com, you shouldn't let your child bet on a fantasy sports site. And just as you might lock a liquor cabinet to keep your teens from boozing, you would want to keep your fantasy sports passwords - as well as your credit cards - out of your kids' hands.
We're taking a realistic view of this industry. It has grown too big to be shut down for good. There are an estimated 56.8 million fantasy players in the U.S. and Canada. Better to strongly regulate the business than to drive it underground into the hands of bookies and the mob.
Under the bill, protections would be put in place for inexperienced players who could fall victim to more aggressive, savvy bettors.
To curb losses, a player could operate just one account with a company and deposit a maximum of $3,000 on a quarterly basis. Exceptions would need vetting.
One lawmaker, Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, has said the bill is being rushed, that companies such as FanDuel and DraftKings should not be allowed to operate while the Gaming Board vets them. On that we defer to the judgment of the attorney general, who could have fought to immediately close the online sites after her December ruling.
Regulation and strict oversight are the answers here. We'll bet on them.