Illinois taxpayers expected to snap up credits for scholarships

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PEORIA — Jan. 1 may be the start of the new year, but Jan. 2 marks the start of a controversial new program that adds up to millions in tax breaks for Illinois residents and millions more in scholarships for private-school students.

If Illinois follows the history of other states, taxpayers will be up and online early Tuesday, snapping up a maximum of $75 million in tax credits available for making donations to the Invest in Kids Scholarship Tax Credit Program.

The tax credits, administered by the Illinois Department of Revenue, translate to as much as $100 million in scholarship donations to parochial and private schools throughout the state.

Funding will be distributed based on geographic regions that line up with the state’s appellate court districts.

While private schools in Chicago and surrounding counties stand to get slightly more than half of the tax credits, taxpayers in the 21 counties that make up region 3, including Peoria and Tazewell, could reap about $7.5 million in tax credits, which means about $10 million in scholarships.

That could be as many as 15,000 scholarships statewide, including 3,000 to 4,000 in the Peoria area, estimated Myles Mendoza, executive director of Empower Illinois, one of five state-approved scholarship granting organizations, or SGOs, that will collection donations and distribute scholarships.

The next big day for the program is Jan. 24, when families can start applying for the scholarships. But how much scholarship money will be available is only a guess until the tax-credit program goes live at 8 a.m. Tuesday. Even after that, potential donors have 60 days to make the donation to an SGO.

“A scholarship program does no one any good if donations aren’t made,” said Susan Knapp, development director at Peoria Notre Dame High School, who has been gearing up the school’s donor base to start trying to reserve tax credits as soon as possible Tuesday morning.

“The big thing we’re trying to convey is tax credits are given on a first-come, first-serve basis,” Knapp said.

Taxpayers can get a credit of 75 cents for every $1 donated, up to a $1 million in tax credits. For example, a $10,000 donation entitles a taxpayer to claim a $7,500 credit on 2018 state income taxes. To apply for the tax credits on opening day, donors had to have already set up an account through the department of revenue’s website.

Notre Dame, like other schools, is targeting individual donors and alumni because they can choose which school or schools receive their donations. Corporate donors don’t have the same option.

Though Knapp said she’s heard “a lot of excitement” from potential donors, she’s also heard a lot of confusion and questions about how the program works.

“It’s been a huge challenge to educate everyone on the law itself,” she said. “It’s complicated and we’re still learning.”

Of the five scholarship granting organizations approved by the state so far, only Empower Illinois and the Association of Christian School’s International will operate statewide.

Empower Illinois’ network of private schools statewide include the 42 schools in the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, which make up the majority of private schools in the area. Thirteen of the 42 schools are in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford Counties.

Mendoza of Empower Illinois expects tax credits to go “very fast” in the Chicago area, slower in central Illinois and slowest in the southern part of the state.

Mendoza has had to scramble  to get Empower Illinois up and running. The organization partnered with Step Up For Students, which operates Florida’s 15-year-old tax-credit scholarship program, to provide logistical help such as a call center, tech support and fraud prevention.

Empower Illinois evolved out of One Chance Illinois, where Mendoza was also executive director. One Chance, an educational choice advocacy group, the Catholic Conference of Illinois and other groups had lobbied two years for a tax-credit scholarship program in Illinois. In a last-minute compromise in August, lawmakers attached the scholarship program for private schools to a major school funding reform package aimed at increasing state funding for the state’s neediest public school districts.

Some longtime supporters of school-funding reform, ranging from the Illinois Federation of Teachers to State Sen. Dave Koehler and State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, both Peoria Democrats, dropped their support after lawmakers added the tax-credit scholarship program. Critics call the program a back-door voucher that will drain funding and students from public schools.

Mendoza and supporters of tax-credit scholarships maintain the program opens new educational options to families, particularly families who can’t afford private school tuitions.

Family income of eligible students cannot exceed 300 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or $73,800 for a family of four.

“That’s huge,” Knapp said. “Families with that kind of income typically aren’t even considered.”

Notre Dame, like parochial schools throughout the area, has already made plans to help families fill out scholarship applications.

Beginning Jan. 24, a bank of computers and other assistance, including bilingual translators, will be available at the high school to help families apply.

Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or padams@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.

 

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Illinois taxpayers expected to snap up credits for scholarships

Word on the Street: State Rep. Mike Unes bucks governor and wins, for now

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In these frigid winter days, we might want to think back to July.

But the warm temperatures that month didn’t produce the only heat one member of the local legislative delegation drew in what has to be one of the most remarkable political stories of the year.

State Rep. Mike Unes was one of a handful of House Republicans to buck the governor after a two-year stalemate and support a spending plan that included increased taxes.

As noxious as the tax increase was and is, the East Peoria lawmaker noted at the time that the runaway spending that continued under court order during those two senseless years all but necessitated it.

So did responsible governance, moving forward with some kind of plan to keep the lights on for programs serving the state’s most needy — as well as for programs to develop business here, educate college kids here and much more.

(Not to mention the budget ultimately passed spent less money than the one good ol’ anti-tax, anti-spending Gov. Bruce Rauner had proposed.)

Unes was excoriated for his vote, though. He was among those attacked by the fringe group Taxpayers United of America, which labeled him a “taxpayer traitor” for his vote. And others with better ties to the Illinois political structure began saber rattling as well.

Political operative, radio host and onetime gubernatorial candidate Dan Proft went searching for candidates to take on any lawmaker who had voted to override Rauner’s veto.

Many, seeing that threat, decided to retire — even some only in their first term.

Rumors abounded in central Illinois about potential candidates pondering a challenge to Unes, and a visit by Proft to town helped fan those flames. But ultimately nobody stepped up, making Unes the only GOP lawmaker that overrode Rauner who didn’t draw a primary challenger or edge into retirement.

Some of that, perhaps, is because of Unes’ healthy campaign war chest. It could also be a realization on the part of people screaming mad with him that he still represents a district that had been in Democratic hands for decades and that a challenge from the far right might only lose the seat for Republicans.

Interestingly, Unes is being challenged from the left and faces a Fulton County Democrat in the fall election. Still, he was fortunate to avoid an intra-party rival when everyone else did not. (C.K.)

A voice of political reason?

Before the No. 2 person in the U.S. House Democratic hierarchy began a meeting with local business leaders in late November in Peoria, he did something unusual.

He paid tribute to a couple of Republicans.

“I always love coming to Peoria,” Steny Hoyer said, “because … it had one of the best members of Congress representing this city — Bob Michel, one of the greatest people I served with, one of the most decent Americans I served with. Such a positive person. We need more positives.

“Ray LaHood was another positive, for growing America, making it better for working people.”

LaHood, who succeeded Michel as 18th District representative, also served in the Cabinet of a Democratic president, Barack Obama, as secretary of transportation.

None of this took place all that long ago. But in the polarized political era, it’s difficult to imagine it taking place today.

Then again, Hoyer is a bit of a throwback.

In Congress for almost 37 years, the House Minority Whip is from a time when congeniality was considered a good thing for a lawmaker to have. His political career stems from 1967, when at 28 the “Boy Wonder” was elected to the Maryland Senate.

Hoyer’s courtly manner and faint Southern accent reveal his rural-Maryland residency. Although Maryland is a Democratic state, the area where Hoyer lives — St. Mary’s County, located south of Washington, D.C. — has a heavy GOP lean.

Perhaps that’s why Hoyer doesn’t appear to see all Republicans as the enemy. And also perhaps why Hoyer sounded at least a little like a moderate GOP politician, at least in Peoria, and at least on some issues.

The focus of Hoyer’s appearance in town with 17th District Rep. Cheri Bustos was to gather information to help develop policies they say will lead to better jobs and wages. But Hoyer’s emphasis might have been approved by Bustos’ partner in covering Peoria, GOP Rep. Darin LaHood, son of Ray.

“One of the things I say to people is we’re the party of workers. That’s what we think the Democrats are,” Hoyer said. “But if the party of workers is not the party of employers, it doesn’t get it. Because employers are the ones who create the jobs, and we want them to make good profits so they can pay good pay, give people good benefits and energize the community.”

That’s not to say Hoyer is switching parties anytime soon.

He had plenty of bad things to say about the tax bill, now the tax law, that was winding its way through Congress. But Hoyer also said lowering the corporate tax rate, something Obama favored and is reflected in the new law, was a good idea.

“You have to make sure regulations don’t get in the way,” Hoyer said. “You need rules of the game. But you don’t want to have regulation get in the way of growth.”

Michel or either LaHood could have said the same thing.

Too often, politics is defined by its shrillest, most hyperbolic practitioners. That was evident when House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi referred to the new tax law as Armageddon.

If that’s true, how would Pelosi describe the actual end of the world, rather than a piece of legislation?

Given the unpopularity of President Donald Trump and the typical mid-term trends, the Republicans might be in electoral trouble later this year. But if the Democrats put people front and center like Hoyer — and Bustos, for that matter — they might win, or have won, a few more elections. (N.V.)

Courthouse plaza could use lights

If you’ve noticed that a bit of the Peoria County Courthouse plaza seems a little more dim lately, you aren’t alone.

The lights aren’t shining as brightly on the World Wars I and II Memorial in the plaza, and it’s been noticed.

County facilities director Dan O’Connell was asked about it at a committee meeting just before Christmas, and he assured committee chairman Phil Salzer that the matter is being looked into.

The problem is obsolete fixtures and lights in some of the ground-mounted positions that illuminated the columns, and the facilities team is working with suppliers to find something that will work in those particular locations.

At the same time, they’re also trying to ensure that they don’t end up with the same problem on the nearby memorial being constructed to honor those who served in the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan wars and other conflicts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. (C.K.)

Chris Kaergard (C.K.) covers politics and government. He can be reached at ckaergard@pjstar.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard. Nick Vlahos (N.V.) writes “Nick in the Morning.” He can be reached at nvlahos@pjstar.com or 686-3285. Follow him on Twitter @VlahosNick.

Word on the Street: State Rep. Mike Unes bucks governor and wins, for now

Chicago homicides down sharply in 2017, still over 650 slain

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Offering a hint of hope to a city notorious worldwide for its gun violence, Chicago saw a decline of more than 100 homicide victims in 2017 compared with the previous year — the steepest one-year reduction in nearly 15 years.

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, a beleaguered police department and residents of the blighted neighborhoods where the bloodshed is largely concentrated nevertheless are faced with a horrific toll: 664 people slain within city limits by New Year’s Eve, plus seven people shot dead by on-duty Chicago Police officers, according to data compiled by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Still, the 15 percent decline in killings compared with 2016 is stark, especially given a grisly first half of the year when the city was on pace to surpass the 781 homicides logged last year — Chicago’s deadliest in two decades.

Police and criminologists will be waiting to see if that improvement, bolstered by new crime-fighting technology and renewed outreach efforts by a police department laboring to restore community trust, can be sustained — or if it simply was a temporary lull during a terrifying spike of more than 1,400 people slain in two calendar years.

“When we look at month-by-month homicide counts in Chicago, we see that the numbers for 2017 really start to diverge from 2016 starting around August, and then there seems to be a persistent gap through most of the rest of the year,” said Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which has teamed with the CPD to evaluate crime-reduction strategies.

“What is unclear is whether that divergence is the start of a trend, or just a temporary blip in the data, so we’ll want to be watching these monthly year-over-year numbers very closely as we go into 2018,” Ludwig said.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said the 2017 dip gave the city “room for encouragement.”

“We should be encouraged by what we’re seeing, because we easily could have gone the other way,” Johnson told the Sun-Times in a year-end interview.

More than 3,500 people were shot in Chicago in 2017, Sun-Times data show, but the number of shooting incidents dipped by more than 21 percent, a decline of about 800 gunshot victims compared with 2016, according to police.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson | James Foster/Sun-Times file photo

“We all know 2016 was a horrible year. Now you’ve got more than 800 families who don’t have to suffer through the trauma of gun violence,” Johnson said.

He pointed to significant gains made in his department’s Englewood and Harrison districts, spanning Chicago’s two most violent crime-ridden areas on the South and West sides. Shootings fell by 26 percent in Harrison compared with 2016, and 43 percent in Englewood, which had the city’s biggest drop.

“I never thought I’d see that as a Chicago Police officer,” Johnson said.

He credited much of the improvement to new technology-driven policing strategies that were rolled out in those districts. Analysts from the U. of C. Crime Lab work alongside police in Strategic Decision Support Centers, using gunfire detection data and predictive software to suggest where officers should be deployed.

The support centers were expanded to four additional districts, seeing an average combined shooting reduction of about 25 percent, according to police, who are set to introduce the centers to six more districts in 2018.

“Those technologies have helped us get more proactive,” Johnson said. “If we can duplicate those reductions in 2018, that means in a two-year time frame, we will have a 30 percent reduction in murders, and a 40 percent reductions in shootings.”

Ludwig said Crime Lab data show the data-driven strategies “had a particularly pronounced impact” in Englewood, and are “at least partially responsible” for the citywide decline.

But Ludwig tempered the credit given to the CPD’s new nerve centers, saying it “seems unlikely to be the whole story behind the drop.” He noted that Milwaukee suffered a similar surge in gun violence from 2015 to 2016 as Chicago did, and was expected to see a similar decline in 2017 homicides.

Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, speaks at Harper High School in 2012. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times file photo

“That suggests that the explanation for Chicago’s trend from 2016 to 2017 might come in part from some other things that are changing at least at a regional level, if not national level, rather than being due entirely to Chicago-specific factors,” Ludwig said.

The second part of the equation, Johnson said, was rebuilding trust with with city residents.

“We need to be more engaged with the communities we serve,” he said.

Chicago Police reported 650 murders through Dec. 30, a figure lower than the Sun-Times’ count because it does not include homicides on city expressways, which fall under the jurisdiction of Illinois State Police, or killings deemed justified by CPD investigators, as in cases of self defense. The Cook County medical examiner’s office reported 685 Chicago homicides through Dec. 30, which includes people killed by police, and those who died of wounds suffered in previous years.

Regardless of criteria, Chicago’s body count remains alarming, dwarfing those in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles, where 2017 homicide tallies stayed under 300 — a figure that Johnson said the city can reach.

“I think that’s a reasonable goal that we can get to. And at some point, I think that we will get there,” he said. “It’s going to take a joint effort between the police department, residents, clergy, business owners and elected officials.”

Most of the city’s slayings have gone unsolved, with detectives’ year-end clearance rate hovering at “roughly 40 percent,” CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. That’s still a marked uptick from four months ago, when analysts said the clearance rate fell below 20 percent.

Takiya Holmes, 11, Lavontay White, 2, and Kanari Gentry-Bowers, 12, were killed within a period of four days in Chicago. | Family photos

A review of the Sun-Times data show that the faces of homicide cases in 2017 resembled the bulk of those in years past: young men, typically people of color, gunned down in economically depressed areas on the South and West sides. Black or Hispanic men between 18 and 40 years old accounted for nearly two-thirds of the dead.

But the bloodshed spanned generations, touching all parts of the city.

Jenae Lemon was the youngest of the victims, just 4 days old, delivered prematurely in September after her mother, Charnella Lemon, was shot dead in a vacant lot on the Far South Side, along with 33-year-old Terrence Carter.

Cook County Associate Judge Raymond Myles | Cook County Circuit Court photo

A bullet pierced the little Jenae’s torso through her mother’s abdomen, authorities found. No arrests have been made.

The newborn was among 27 of Chicago’s homicide victims who were 15 or younger — including six infants.

During one horrifying spell in February, three young children were slain by gunfire within three days of each other. A toddler, 2-year-old Lavontay White, was shot dead in North Lawndale in an attack streamed on Facebook Live; an alleged drug dealer’s stray bullet struck 11-year-old Takiya Holmes in the temple as she sat in the back seat of her family’s minivan; and 12-year-old Kanari Gentry-Bowers was gunned down on the playground of her South Side elementary school.

Donald McNamara was the oldest victim at 86, shot dead by a family member in his Canaryville home in August, authorities said.

Cynthia Trevillion | Chicago Waldorf School Community photo

Also among the slain were Cook County Judge Raymond Myles, the victim of a botched robbery attempt outside his West Chesterfield home; and beloved teacher Cynthia Trevillion, caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting while walking to a Rogers Park restaurant, authorities said.

Blood spilled down the road from O’Hare Airport, with few details of Jermin Beganovic’s slaying released beyond the fatal head wound he suffered on a Sunday afternoon.

And on an East Ukrainian Village sidewalk, where 67-year-old Benjamin Soto Ramirez was beaten to death in an attack described as torture.

Blood poured in South Shore on March 30, when seven people — including a pregnant woman — were shot to death within 12 hours and eight city blocks of each other.

In Brighton Park, assault rifles were used in a mass shooting that left eight people wounded, two people dead, and some residents feeling like a city alderman slapped their family members in the face by saying he was thankful “that no innocent lives were lost.”

As many of the same communities continue to be racked by killings, the underlying issues driving gun violence persist, officials said. Johnson and Ludwig each pointed to a dearth of jobs, affordable housing, mental health treatment and education — issues that have sent large swathes of the African-American population fleeing Chicago.

The superintendent also pointed to the backlash against his police department in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting video release, a scandal that triggered the mayor’s axing of Johnson’s predecessor, a scathing Justice Department report and an ongoing image overhaul at police headquarters.

“You couple that with the national anti-police narrative, that set us up for a disastrous 2016, and we saw it,” Johnson said. “Don’t get me wrong, you have to look at those things to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. But I think a lot of criminals felt emboldened because of the national narrative. They didn’t feel like we were holding them accountable.”

Ludwig noted that a unique aspect of Chicago’s gun violence is its tendency to sweep in young people compared to other large cities. A quarter of homicide suspects in 2016 were between the ages of 10 and 19, Crime Lab researchers found, compared with 15 percent in other metro areas.

“It’s not just that there are social conditions in our most distressed neighborhoods that increase people’s risk of gun-violence involvement,” Ludwig said. “It’s that teenagers in particular seem to be particularly vulnerable to these factors.”

Chicago homicides down sharply in 2017, still over 650 slain

Massive, maligned Medicaid managed care expansion to start

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A vast remaking of subsidized Medicaid health care in Illinois, nearly a year in the making and criticized all the way, is set to debut Monday.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration will add 800,000 low-income and disabled residents to a managed care program aimed at improving efficiency, keeping people healthier and saving money.

Four in five of the nation’s 70 million Medicaid clients are on managed care . The idea is that by assigning patients to doctors and resources that help them focus on illness prevention, they’ll stay healthier and more readily avoid costly emergency treatment when they do get it.

Monday’s expansion, called HealthChoice Illinois , will ultimately bring to 2.7 million the number of Illinois Medicaid recipients in managed care, or about 80 percent. Those in counties that already have managed care will join the new program Monday. The rest will follow on April 1.

The four-year deal, with an option to continue for four more, will cost $60 billion for seven insurers to participate. That’s an increase of 50 percent over the current program. But Healthcare and Family Services says overall, taxpayers will save $250 million a year because the insurers under contract accepted reduced reimbursement rates in order to get a piece of the project.

Those rates are the latest worry for legislative Democrats who have been closely scrutinizing the HFS plan since it was announced late last winter.

Rep. Greg Harris of Chicago, the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee chairman, who has conducted hearings on the way the contract was awarded and the necessity of smaller, tangential contracts, has turned his attention to the program’s viability.

Harris points a warning finger to Iowa, where he contends the Medicaid managed care program is collapsing because one of three insurers pulled out Dec. 1, leaving more than 200,000 clients without an insurer and forcing a limitation on patient choice. AmeriHealth Caritas was in a prickly position because its clientele ended up being the state’s most seriously disabled. They tend to have more costly care.

But the other companies have complained about costs, too. By late December, a second insurer was refuting the rumor, mentioned by a Democratic lawmaker, that it, too, would exit the program.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in October that Medicaid spending grew by 4 percent in the year that ended June 30 and that state administrators project it to grow by another 5 percent this year. Kaiser says growth is fueled largely by rising costs of prescription drugs — something Harris and other Illinois Democrats have noted — and long-term care services.

Another, ironically, are increases in payment rates for provider groups.

HFS officials say everyone eligible is receiving “clear and detailed information to help them understand their options and make their choices.”

AP researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.

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Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



Massive, maligned Medicaid managed care expansion to start

Massive, maligned Medicaid managed care expansion to start

http://ift.tt/2q87Pd8



SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A vast remaking of subsidized Medicaid health care in Illinois, nearly a year in the making and criticized all the way, is set to debut Monday.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration will add 800,000 low-income and disabled residents to a managed care program aimed at improving efficiency, keeping people healthier and saving money.

Four in five of the nation’s 70 million Medicaid clients are on managed care . The idea is that by assigning patients to doctors and resources that help them focus on illness prevention, they’ll stay healthier and more readily avoid costly emergency treatment when they do get it.

Monday’s expansion, called HealthChoice Illinois , will ultimately bring to 2.7 million the number of Illinois Medicaid recipients in managed care, or about 80 percent. Those in counties that already have managed care will join the new program Monday. The rest will follow on April 1.

The four-year deal, with an option to continue for four more, will cost $60 billion for seven insurers to participate. That’s an increase of 50 percent over the current program. But Healthcare and Family Services says overall, taxpayers will save $250 million a year because the insurers under contract accepted reduced reimbursement rates in order to get a piece of the project.

Those rates are the latest worry for legislative Democrats who have been closely scrutinizing the HFS plan since it was announced late last winter.

Rep. Greg Harris of Chicago, the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee chairman, who has conducted hearings on the way the contract was awarded and the necessity of smaller, tangential contracts, has turned his attention to the program’s viability.

Harris points a warning finger to Iowa, where he contends the Medicaid managed care program is collapsing because one of three insurers pulled out Dec. 1, leaving more than 200,000 clients without an insurer and forcing a limitation on patient choice. AmeriHealth Caritas was in a prickly position because its clientele ended up being the state’s most seriously disabled. They tend to have more costly care.

But the other companies have complained about costs, too. By late December, a second insurer was refuting the rumor, mentioned by a Democratic lawmaker, that it, too, would exit the program.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in October that Medicaid spending grew by 4 percent in the year that ended June 30 and that state administrators project it to grow by another 5 percent this year. Kaiser says growth is fueled largely by rising costs of prescription drugs — something Harris and other Illinois Democrats have noted — and long-term care services.

Another, ironically, are increases in payment rates for provider groups.

HFS officials say everyone eligible is receiving “clear and detailed information to help them understand their options and make their choices.”

AP researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.

Sign up for the AP’s weekly newsletter showcasing our best reporting from the Midwest and Texas: http://apne.ws/2u1RMfv






Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



Massive, maligned Medicaid managed care expansion to start

Tom Kacich: Officials at all levels of government look ahead to 2018

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Remember how Congress and the Trump administration couldn’t get anything done all year until the GOP tax plan was passed in December, how the Illinois Legislature and Gov. Bruce Rauner couldn’t get a budget passed for more than two years and how the Champaign County Board couldn’t get anything done about the financially plagued county nursing home?

Next year should be better, your elected officials say.

The nursing home “will have to be dealt with,” said county board Chairman C. Pius Weibel.

Rank-and-file state legislators may “provide the pressure necessary to get a budget done” again in 2018, said state Rep. Chad Hays.

And Congress may do some of the things it couldn’t get done in 2017 next year, said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville.

“I happen to believe that the Congress ought to be able to address multiple issues at once, and I don’t subscribe to the theory that everything stops and shuts down in the legislative process because we have an election coming up,” Davis said last week.

For good measure, Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin said her city will sponsor “a communitywide visioning effort” in 2018 that will look at transforming the 16-acre Lincoln Square site, including the indoor mall, the old Landmark Hotel and the city-owned parking lots around Lincoln Square.

And in Champaign, city officials will be assessing the city’s involvement in a $150 million downtown development that could include an expansion of the Illinois Terminal, more parking, an office building, hotel, convention center and possibly an athletics center that could include a hockey arena.

Perhaps this will be a year of action.

At the county level, a decision on putting the nursing home up for sale “is a possibility,” Weibel said coyly.

“Obviously, the nursing home issue is one that will have to be dealt with” in 2018, he said.

“We also need to find direction on the downtown jail. We’ve talked about it, but we’ve never really said this is what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it,” said the county board chairman who is not running for re-election.

There’s plenty of county board support for closing the jail, he said, but there’s no consensus on whether to add onto the satellite jail in east Urbana.

“I would like to close it, but you have to have a plan to do that,” he said. “It’s an old building that is taking a lot of money. It has ADA problems. Plus, it’s inefficient both from an operations viewpoint and a financial viewpoint.”

In Springfield, Hays said he’d be surprised if any major legislation gets passed in an election year like this one.

“The Democrats had supermajorities and still didn’t pass a minimum wage increase before, which really is indicative that the Speaker (Chicago Democrat Michael Madigan) isn’t interested in passing those things. He’s really more interested in keeping them alive as political issues,” said Hays, who will retire from the Legislature after this year.

He said he’s working mostly on constituent-driven legislation, such as a bill to get about $35,000 in funding to the Rantoul Historical Society and Museum, which took over the displays from the old Chanute Aerospace museum.

The more interesting question, though, is whether legislators will rebel against Rauner and Madigan again this year and push for a budget resolution, rather than letting a stalemate persist.

“That’ll be a very interesting dynamic,” said Hays. “All of the ingredients for a budget impasse will be there, but I am one who suspects that the budget situation, if all else fails, will be not dissimilar to last spring where the rank and file provided the pressure necessary to get a budget done. That may be the pathway. We’ll have to see.”

In Congress, said Davis, he’s hoping for action on infrastructure, health care, a new farm bill, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“It’s a certainty that we will be debating an infrastructure package, I believe. What is not certain is that the Democrats will want to give the Trump administration a bipartisan win on this in an election year,” he said.

As for health care, “Yes, we need to address it, and yes we ought to be able to put together a bipartisan bill to make that happen. I hope a lot of lessons were learned by the leadership in both parties. If we don’t do something, it’s only hurting millions of Americans who deserve access to coverage.”

Whether Congress is willing to take on funding for big “entitlement” programs like Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid is a different story, Davis said. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he wants to, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opined, “I would not expect to see that on the agenda” in 2018.

“I’ll let those guys fight that fight at their level,” said Davis, adding that he does want to see reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that is part of the farm bill.

In Urbana, said Mayor Marlin, she and the city’s finance director, Elizabeth Hannan, will set the stage for a number of issues on Jan. 8 when they present a financial forecast.

She said Congress needs to address the impact of online sales on local sales tax revenue.

“Cities everywhere have been hit hard by the shift to online sales. The Marketplace Fairness Act is stalled in committee, and it needs to be moved, she said.

Marlin also wants Congress to reinstate the full state and local tax deductions in the federal tax code and hopes for an infrastructure program because “local government cannot do it alone.”

Finally, she said the city will continue to work on economic development.

“Over the past seven months, my staff and I have met with many community leaders, builders, Realtors and investors in an effort to re-establish productive working relationships. The message is simple: ‘We want to work with you,'” she said. “We will continue to promote the opportunities available in our TIF districts and enterprise zone, including 50 percent property tax rebates on new home construction in the first five years,” she said.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 217-351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

Tom Kacich: Officials at all levels of government look ahead to 2018

EDITORIAL: 8 New Year’s wishes for Chicago and Illinois

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The number of homicides in Chicago remains shockingly high. Illinois still must do more to make sure kids who live in poorer areas get the education they deserve. Some of our universities are struggling to get by, still reeling from the two-year budget standoff that ended in July. Outside Chicago, wages are too low. Statewide, there are plenty of roads and bridges to fix. There is a lot do in 2018 in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois. Here’s our list of things to get done:

1. Keep driving down homicides

There were fewer murders in 2017 compared with 2016, yet the number was still staggering. Going into New Year’s weekend, 662 people had been murdered in our city. In 2016, there were 781 homicides, a number not seen for two decades. There is good news in that two of the city’s most violent police districts — Englewood and Harrison — saw reduced crime as more newly hired police officers hit the streets. But too many communities still have struggling schools, too few jobs and too many guns.

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2. More money for schools

For decades Illinois used a lousy formula to fund public schools, leaving districts with a lot of poor and special-needs kids with a lot less money to educate students than districts in wealthier areas. Finally, in 2017, the Legislature adopted a formula that one day could bridge the gap. But until Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Legislature come up with billions of more dollars for schools — at least $3.5 billion — the poorest children in our state will continue to be held back. Stop letting down kids, lawmakers.

3. Invest in Illinois universities

Illinois is no longer the fifth most populous state. It fell to sixth, and Pennsylvania moved up to fifth, after our state lost 33,703 more people in 2017. To stop some of the bleeding, Illinois should recommit to building up its universities, which fell into rapid decline during the budget crisis for which Gov. Rauner was largely responsible. Making our universities more economically stable will help to stem the exodus of young people leaving Illinois for schools in other states.

4. Raise the minimum wage

Chicago and some suburbs in Cook County are on their way to raising the hourly minimum wage to $13. The rest of the state lags far behind at $8.25, though that’s higher than the national hourly minimum wage of $7.25 that was set in 2009. The costs of health care, groceries and transportation keep going up, but most people in Illinois aren’t seeing their wages rise. An election year, when politicians really want to score points with working people, is the right time for Democrats and Rauner to compromise on a minimum-wage increase.

5. Fix broken property tax system

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios must fix the secretive, complicated property tax assessment system that benefits the politically connected at the expense of other property owners. Wealthy commercial property owners and lawyers who specialize in appealing property taxes, including some who donate campaign money to Berrios and his allies, want the status quo. This system is downright awful for regular folks who own homes.

6. Repair roads and bridges

Across Illinois, bridges are decaying. Roads need work. A capital bill to improve infrastructure would put people to work and make the state more appealing to businesses. We heard rumblings about a capital bill in the fall. We’re all for it, but hold the pork please. No one needs fancy chandeliers, like the four purchased for nearly $81,000 each in an improvement project at the Capitol in 2013.

7. Bring Amazon HQ2 to Chicago

Chicago joined 237 other North American cities in bidding for Amazon’s second headquarters, HQ2, a campus expected to be about the same size as the company’s home in Seattle. The payoff for the winning city will be huge — tens of thousands of new jobs. Chicago should be highly attractive. Our city offers the tech behemoth a big, diverse and highly educated workforce, including 35,000 software developers and 67,000 engineers. Chicago can meet all its transportation needs. We emphasized this in a September editorial: “Amazon, a company taking on the world, would find an ideal home in Chicago, a commercial hub for the world.” And, sure, there are a few weeks of Arctic cold here, but our city never stops working.

8. End historic predatory behavior in the workplace

It started with news stories about sexual harassment and assault allegedly committed for years by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Since then, more than 40 entertainers, politicians and high-profile members of the news media have faced allegations of harassment as women have grown empowered to speak up about mistreatment in a #MeToo movement. Corporate America also is taking notice. Ford Motor Co. recently apologized to female employees who endured decades of harassment at its plants in Chicago and Chicago Heights, just months after settling a lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Is workplace culture changing? We sure hope so.

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EDITORIAL: 8 New Year’s wishes for Chicago and Illinois