April 21, 2014
Casino bill must include Chicago — and safeguards
Haggling over legislation to bring a casino to Chicago has become a springtime ritual. This time around, state Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, has dealt out two new amendments that just might get the job done.
To our way of thinking, that's welcome news, but only if the talks in Springfield have no influence on City Hall's continued efforts to sharply reduce costs, especially the costs of pensions. Chicago's finances are in dire straits, and a casino — years down the road, if ever — promises at best a relatively shallow pot of gold.
The Legislature has twice passed gambling bills, but both were vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn. Last year's version never made it as far as Quinn's desk. But Rita has been holding meetings since summer and full-fledged hearings since January to try to shape a bill that can actually pass. His latest two amendments, floated at a hearing on Wednesday, both would give Chicago a casino.
The narrower version would provide for a single Chicago casino that could be the largest in the world, with revenues divided between the city and state. The broader plan would add four other casinos in southern Cook County, Lake County, Vermilion County and Winnebago County, as well as slot machines at most horse-racing tracks. Chicago's casino under that scenario would be smaller, with a maximum of 4,000 positions instead of 10,000.
We'd be fine with a Chicago-only plan, because the city, which already draws many visitors, is the best place in the state to plunk down a new casino — or any casino. A city casino would not only encourage current visitors to spend more money while they are here, but also draw additional travelers and conventioneers, people who would spend money in restaurants, hotels and stores.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made it clear he wants to reform the city's finances before pursuing casino revenues. He really has no choice. Revenues from a casino wouldn't begin to flow, city officials say, and even after seven years of operation likely wouldn't produce more than $120 million annually.
If that seems like a lot of money, consider this: Chicago's pension liability alone comes to $18.8 billion.
At its very best, that is to say, a Chicago casino would never be more than a somewhat modest part of the solution to the city's problems.
The question now is where Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan stand. Members of the Emanuel administration did not testify on Wednesday, but if the mayor wants this to be the spring that casino legislation becomes law, he needs to go to Springfield and make his case.
There is a real chance for a serious bill to emerge this legislative session.
April 20, 2014
(Arlington Heights) Daily Herald
It's politics before prestige in Obama library bid
In yet another of the bizarre and almost never-ending assaults on integrity by our state government, a spokesman for the House Executive Committee announced Thursday that the panel had recommended 9-0 to kick in $100 million in tax money toward the proposed Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago.
Problem is, only a handful of the nine committee members were present for the vote.
There's much to be said about the proposal to sweeten the bid to build the library in Chicago rather than Hawaii or New York.
First, the reflexive response: At a time when the state has trouble paying its bills, when politicians are likely to go back on their words to roll back the "temporary" income tax increase, should it be spending money it doesn't have on nonessential capital projects?
Second, the more reflective response: There's likely an economic return-on-investment in tourism dollars this library would produce. Beyond that, the Obama library belongs in Illinois, and unfortunately, communities apparently have to bid for presidential libraries like they do for the Olympics these days.
We've visited several presidential libraries and museums over the years. They've always provided a fascinating, albeit usually unbalanced, view of history.
In all, there are 13 presidential libraries run by the National Archives -- every president since Hoover -- as well as the Lincoln library and museum.
As Slate magazine aptly described them in a 2001 article, "Presidential libraries are hybrid creatures: part scholarly archive, part celebration, part privately funded, part run by the government. Presidential libraries are repositories for the papers and records generated by a president during his term in office. They are also museums that have permanent and temporary exhibits, lectures and seminars and gift shops."
The impact they have is substantial, inspiring an engagement with public service that is powerful and ought to be encouraged.
The legislative proposal to put money behind the effort to land the library deserves a thoughtful discussion. Let's hope we can have one sans the embarrassing shenanigans that marked its introduction.
April 18, 2014
Will Illinois school aid formula get a makeover?
People in Illinois hear a lot about schools not getting enough funding from the state, but not much about an effort afoot in Springfield to develop a fairer way to distribute the money.
Whether Senate Bill 16, the School Funding Reform Act, can achieve such fairness is still a big question mark. But certainly the goal of creating a simple, straightforward and equitable means of distributing state money to schools is a worthy goal. We know that the current state aid formula is none of those things.
Republicans worry that the changes are intended to benefit Chicago at the expense of downstate schools. We don't want to see that happen. However, remember that anytime a new way is devised to divvy up a pot of money, there will be winners and losers.
The state is running tests to compare funding under the proposed state aid formula with what districts receive now. Those numbers are expected to be released in mid May. Stay tuned.
April 17, 2014
The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle
Separation agreements should be public
When it comes to public money, nothing should be kept a secret.
That's not always the case, obviously, so we applaud state Rep. Renee Kosel and the Illinois House for passing legislation that promotes more transparency in government.
House Bill 3664 amends the Illinois Freedom of Information Act to forbid any public body from imposing confidentiality as a condition of receiving any severance agreement funded in part or in whole with public money. There is an exception to protect a trade secret, proprietary information or information that is otherwise exempt from disclosure under FOIA.
Kosel, R-New Lenox, filed the bill in response to Metra's refusal last year to reveal details about the generous severance package - projected to be up to $718,000 - it gave to former CEO Alex Clifford.
Lawmakers in the House last week passed the bill unanimously, 106-0.
This bill is the latest step in shining light for the public on severance agreements and employment contracts for public employees. For years, many public bodies would try to keep employment contracts or separation agreements private.
The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that public employee contracts are public record and cannot be withheld under FOIA's personal privacy exemption. Separation agreements should be included as well.
We're not sure why government continues to try and keep taxpayers in the dark regarding public money and public business. We are happy, however, that lawmakers have taken notice and are working toward better transparency in government.
House Bill 3664 has moved to the state Senate, where we hope lawmakers in the Senate follow the lead of their colleagues in the House and pass this bill.