Statehouse Insider: Extra. Extra. Illinois roads not good

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Brace yourselves before you read this: Illinois’ roads and bridges are in bad shape.

There was another report out last week to underscore that these crappy roads and bridges have an actual financial impact on motorists. The report estimated the extra costs to drivers when they have to use roads filled with potholes or so congested that traffic can’t move. Add it all up and Illinois motorists are collectively paying a penalty of more than $16 billion a year for bad roads, the study said.

The study broke the costs down by individual driver and area of the state. It determined that a driver in Springfield is paying $1,439 a year because of bad roads. That’s the lowest of the areas measured. The highest was Chicago at $2,485, most of that because of traffic congestion.

So what to do? Well, spend more to make roads and bridges better. See, problem solved.

Except the state doesn’t have enough money now to keep up with all of the repairs it should make. There seems to be some agreement from lawmakers of both parties that there needs to be a new capital program to jump-start road and other projects. How to pay for it is another matter. Gov. Bruce Rauner said he won’t support any tax hikes to finance a capital plan. That puts a crimp on your payment options.

Beyond having no way to pay for a capital plan, Democrats have no desire to hand Rauner a pile of money for pork projects that he can use during campaign season. Democrats also don’t trust Rauner to administer a capital program fairly, so they may not be willing to cooperate on one even if Rauner is re-elected.

Bottom line: If you live in Springfield, plan to work that $1,439 a year into your budgets for the foreseeable future.

Talking taxes

The General Assembly is still on its spring break and will be for another week, so enjoy it while you can.

Some state legislatures are still working, though, like our friends in Missouri. We know they’re our friends because Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (and others) did an ad for Rauner thanking House Speaker Michael Madigan for creating jobs in their states.

Last week, the Missouri Senate took initial action to cut the state income tax. They must have heard that Rauner’s going to be cutting Illinois income taxes.

Anyway, the Missouri Senate’s vote would cut the individual income tax rate from 5.9 percent to 5.25 percent, still leaving it higher than Illinois’ 4.95 percent. (Yes, Missouri has a graduated income tax. To avoid the top rate of nearly 6 percent, you have to earn less than $9,000 a year. Good luck with that).

There was a sweetener for motorists, too. The tax bill would spread a proposed 10-cent increase in the state’s gasoline tax over eight years. The rate in Missouri is currently 17 cents, two cents lower than us.

Fact is, even some Republicans were skittish about the effects of the bill and it was in trouble by the end of the week.

Day of the Horse

When lawmakers return the week of April 9, they’ll have a chance to take up House Bill 4507. It designates March 5 of each year as the Day of the Horse in Illinois.

According to the short summary of the bill, this commemorative holiday is to be “observed throughout the state as a day to encourage citizens to honor and celebrate the role of equines in the history and character of Illinois, and to recognize the benefits of the equine industry to the economy, agriculture, tourism and quality of life in Illinois.”

If this works out, further holidays can focus on individual horse parts and how they relate to various politicians and political activities in the state.

Contact Doug Finke at doug.finke@sj-r.com.

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Statehouse Insider: Extra. Extra. Illinois roads not good

Democrats see path to House majority that cuts through the suburbs

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Democrats see path to House majority that cuts through the suburbs

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — Democrats see a path to winning control the House of Representatives cutting through suburban districts, from the outskirts of Las Vegas — to the periphery of Chicago — to the land outside of Philadelphia.

Voters in suburbs are usually wealthier and better educated than in other districts. And among them are many married, college-educated female voters who are emerging as an influential voting bloc since the 2016 presidential election.

Democrats need 23 seats to take control of the House. And of the 23 Republican-held congressional districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, most are in the suburbs.

Some Democrats are staking out the center

Donald Trump struggled to win the suburbs during his presidential campaign. It was also the suburban areas of Virginia that helped put Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam over the top in that state’s race last year.

As a measure of how important some races in GOP-held districts are to the opposition party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee criticized one of the party’s own candidates in suburban Houston in an attempt to influence the race toward the committee’s favorite to take on Republican Rep. John Culberson.

Many of the Democratic candidates in these suburban contests have similar threads running through their platforms and résumés. A lot of them are first-time contenders, several have said Trump’s election inspired them to run. There are many veterans and small business owners. Additionally, a significant number are women.

And the messaging of at least some of the candidates has a relatively centrist tone.

They are running on platforms that include strong support for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. But, several of them also emphasize their support for the Second Amendment while they call for “commonsense” gun laws, such as universal background checks, a ban of bump stocks and keeping guns out of the hand of domestic abusers.

Many of the candidates want to protect the border and amend Obamacare. Another common theme is that the Republican tax cut will help the wealthy while hurting states with significant state or local taxes.

The model of going progressive on some issues and more centrist on others worked successfully for Democrat Conor Lamb, who won Pennsylvania’s special election in March in a suburban Pittsburgh district that Trump had carried by 20 points.

In some suburbs, ‘purple people’

Chrissy Houlahan, a veteran who’s worked in the business community, is the Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District, which sits outside of Philadelphia.

She describes the voters in her area as a “sort of purple people.”

“I believe there is a false choice that has been given to people — particularly in communities like mine — where you kind of vote for the red guy or the Republican because you’re looking for protection of business and the markets, or you’re voting for the blue person because you care about social issues,” she told ABC News.

“You don’t have to choose. You can be a person who believes in both business and social justice,” Houlahan said.

Sean Casten, who won the Democratic primary in November to take on longtime GOP Rep. Peter Roskam in Illinois’ 6th Congressional District in suburban Chicago, acknowledged he is liberal on some issues and centrist on others.

“There are issues like choice issues that I’m as far left as they come. There are issues like markets and national security where I’m pretty centrist. Whatever the letter is after my name is what it is,” Casten, a clean-energy executive, told ABC News.

Like Houlahan in Pennsylvania and Casten in Illinois, other Democrats like Susie Lee running in suburban Las Vegas, Elissa Slotkin vying for a congressional seat outside Lansing, Michigan, and Dean Phillips in the Minneapolis suburbs are expected to need Republican voters to cross over and vote for them if they want victory in November.

As Casten said of his primary campaign, “We were running a campaign to expand and reach out to the whole electorate.” He beat two Democratic women who were favored by party members. Illinois has an open primary system.

“If there is ever a time to steal players and put them on your team, this is the time. This is the same strategy we’ll use in the general,” he said.

And neither Casten nor Houlahan would commit to voting for Nancy Pelosi for speaker, but they also didn’t rule it out. Both said they would need to think about who got their vote and consider all the candidates for the position.

Republicans think their tax cut will play well

Meanwhile, Republicans believe their recent tax cut will play well in these suburban races, noting that many of their incumbents — such as Roskam in Illinois, Barbara Comstock in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington D.C., and Jason Lewis in the Minneapolis suburbs — have strong ties to their districts.

GOP strategists also argue the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party won’t tolerate the more centrist candidates in their party.

“There’s only been a few Democratic primaries thus far, and the progressive wing has dominated the internal battle. The activist wing is hell-bent on supporting candidates who back single-payer health care, sanctuary cities and repealing the GOP tax cuts. There’s no room for any moderation in today’s Democratic Party,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt in a statement to ABC News.

But Democrats downplay those concerns.

“Not every candidate will get the same enthusiasm from the base, or necessarily even want it. But there is a broad consensus that core progressive and American values are under attack, and that a new majority in Congress is the only hope to check an out-of-control president,” said Jesse Lee, the vice president of communications for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a group that advocates for progressive causes.

Democrats’ first-time candidates both face risks and carry advantages

Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said Democrats are “smartly casting a wide net” in their quest to take back the lower chamber of Congress.

And he noted there are advantages and disadvantages for these first-time candidates and their more moderate stances.

“If you’re a candidate like this you can essentially say anything because there’s not necessarily a paper trail backing up what your previous stances have been,” Kondik said.

But he also pointed out with these candidates that “they either may make mistakes because they’re not used to the pressure of a campaign or they have things in their background that may not have come out because they may not have been vetted yet.”

The party is also spending in these areas.

In early March, the House Majority PAC, a Democratic outside spending group, announced it had reserved ad buys worth $43 million in 33 markets. A lot of those buys are in ad markets where suburban seats are in play — such as Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston.

“You’ve got a lot of Republicans who haven’t faced tough challenges in a long time, in some cases in over a decade. And the ground has shifted beneath their feet,” said Jeb Fain, the communications director for House Majority PAC.

Houlahan argues that voters are looking for civility.

“We’re looking desperately for sanity,” Houlahan said. “And we’re looking desperately for people who are not screaming at each other from the left and the right, at least in my community, and I’m really hopeful we’ll have that opportunity in 2018.”

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Democrats see path to House majority that cuts through the suburbs

We’re fans of the Fair Map Amendment

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The proposed Fair Maps Amendment is aptly named.

The proposal calls for an Illinois constitutional amendment to change how legislative districts are created in the state, and it would replace the current unfair system.

Advocates have asked lawmakers to consider a plan that would form a 16-member independent commission to draw new districts. The commission would consist of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents chosen by the state Supreme Court.

If ultimately successful, the change would signal a stark departure from the current system. The process now used in Illinois is dictated by the party in power, which critics say allows parties to manipulate boundaries to remain in control.

There is evidence to support this contention. The U.S. Constitution requires legislative and congressional boundaries to be redrawn every decade. In 2011, the U.S. congressional district which represents Kankakee County was combined with the northern regions of Will and Cook counties, and the alteration basically ensured that a Democrat will represent Kankakee County in Congress until another change is made.

Supporters are working to get the issue on the November ballot, knowing full well that other redistricting petitions failed to make the ballot in 2014 and 2016.

But supporters are optimistic because the new bill is modeled after a 2016 bill that was approved by the state House.

We share in that optimism because the proposed change would create a more fair system. Hopefully when new legislative maps are drawn in 2021 following the 2020 U.S. Census, impartiality will be in place.

We’re fans of the Fair Map Amendment

Questions dog Illinois Medicaid managed-care switch

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Illinois residents covered by Medicaid will see their health coverage change Sunday when they’re transferred into managed care.

HealthChoice Illinois , a plan ordered by the Legislature in 2014 to reduce costs, enlists Managed Care Organizations to handle health care. MCOs purportedly focus on prevention and health maintenance with an eye toward lowering costs.

Critics have had plenty to say about the rollout of the four-year, $60 billion Illinois plan, from the way Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration contracted with the MCOs chosen, to concerns about the MCOs’ reimbursement rates and the state’s track record of monitoring them.

“HealthChoice Illinois provides the same services as traditional Medicaid, with enhanced features such as care coordination, which offers individuals direct help to find the right care at the right time and place for them,” said John Hoffman, spokesman for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

He said the department is “measuring how successfully plans are treating member conditions and will work with them to improve outcomes.”

Managed care had already been the norm in Cook County and the new MCOs started work there Jan. 1. The expansion adds 550,000 clients in 72 counties . Those affected were notified earlier this year and had 30 days to choose a plan. Hoffman said they have 90 days after April 1 to switch if they change their minds.

The state maintains it will save as much as $300 million over the four-year deal because of the competitive rates, less overhead and more efficient administration.

But Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat who tried unsuccessfully to require a traditional, wide-open bidding process, also has been concerned since an MCO under a similar plan in Iowa pulled out because it lost too much money.

“Are the networks set up and are providers ready to start accepting patients, or are we going to see major problems?” Harris asked. “I hope providers — the doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, durable goods providers — are in place.”

One MCO, Molina Healthcare, issued a statement saying that for more than three decades the company “has been able to achieve cost savings while improving health outcomes through care coordination, commitment to quality and a focus on preventive care, which is at the core of the HealthChoice Illinois program.”

But when another MCO, IlliniCare Health, announced last fall it would cut vendor payments for medical equipment by as much as 50 percent, more concern arose.

“We get into a situation where the rates are so low, with cuts of 10 to 50 percent, (medical equipment) companies can’t even stay afloat,” said Susan Agrawal of Chicago, who represents a group of parents of children known as “medically fragile, technologically dependent.” Those children are set to join the program July 1, although legislation sponsored by Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, would exempt them.

An association of equipment providers wants further legislative intervention. Kevin Stewart, president of the Great Lakes Home Medical Services Association, calls the Rauner transition “rushed” and wants legislative strictures on the MCOs.

“Unless the General Assembly steps in to set parameters for managed care organizations, we fear this is nothing more than MCOs enriching themselves at the expense of the state’s most vulnerable,” Stewart said.

A message seeking comment from IlliniCare Health was not returned.

Sen. Dave Koehler, a Peoria Democrat, has legislation regulating the fees for durable medical equipment along the lines of current, fee-for-service rates.

Others have questioned the administration’s ability to monitor the landscape.

Crespo released a letter last week, co-signed by Barrington Hills Republican Rep. David McSweeney and Democratic Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, to Attorney General Lisa Madigan, asking her to investigate the failure of HFS to monitor $7.1 billion in payments to MCOs during 2016.

The findings were published in January in a state audit that lawmakers had ordered to compare the state’s costs for the existing MCO program with costs of traditional, fee-for-service plans. HFS spokesman Hoffman said at the time the “rebooted managed care program” underway this year would “ensure program integrity and accountability, protecting taxpayer dollars while providing quality care.”

Eileen Boyce, spokeswoman for Democrat Madigan, said of Crespo’s letter, “We are aware of the issue and have been closely monitoring it.”

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Questions dog Illinois Medicaid managed-care switch

Most Illinois metros gain jobs, see unemployment decline

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Most Illinois’ cities are seeing to lower unemployment levels.

The Illinois Department of Employment announced Thursday that 13 of the state’s metro areas not only saw their unemployment percentages drop last month compared to a year ago, but they also gained jobs. Rockford added 7,500 jobs, the biggest jump in the state from last year. The likely reason for the pronounced jump is the retooling of Fiat-Chrysler’s Belvidere automotive plant, IDES spokesman Bob Gough  said.

“Rockford, during this time last year, had a pretty significant auto-industry shutdown,” he said.

Unemployment there in February 2017 was 9.2 percent.

Unemployment is a measure of residents actively looking for work. Gough says 11 cities gained jobs as well.

“When we had 11 of the 14 metros actually gain jobs along with having those lower rates, that’s a pretty good one-two punch,” he said.

Springfield (-2,000), Carbondale (-900), and Danville (-300) lost jobs over the last year.

At 4.2 percent unemployment, Illinois still has one of the highest rates in the nation. It’s neighbors, Indiana (3.2), Missouri (3.7), Wisconsin (2.9), and Iowa (2.9) all have fewer people looking for work.

Employers in Illinois are struggling to fill many skilled labor positions, according to a report from Manpower. Skilled-trade jobs were the most difficult positions to fill.









Most Illinois metros gain jobs, see unemployment decline

Janus v. AFSCME could cost me my job, but here’s why it’s worth it

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This summer, an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision could radically undermine the power of public sector unions. Janus v. AFSCME, if decided in favor of the plaintiff, Mark Janus, an employee with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, would finally establish that employees cannot be compelled by local and state governments to pay monthly dues to unions if they don’t want to.

The current legal precedent, established in 1977, offers the concession that workers who object to the union may have their dues restricted, allocated only to those areas essential to the “collective bargaining” effort, rather than dispersed throughout the various openly political and ideological causes supported by the vast majority of unions. But some argue that collective bargaining by public employees is by its nature political, as its aims have significant effects on the taxpayer.

I do not work in a unionized industry, nor am I one of the 14.8 million Americans who is currently a member of a labor union. But this court decision poses a dire threat to my employment. I work for a nonprofit organization in California that provides pro bono legal assistance to unionized industry employees throughout the U.S. Every day, I receive movingly sincere requests for help from our nation’s hardworking teachers, steelworkers, and transit service workers and other predominantly public sector employees from the 22 states who are currently being compelled by law to contribute a portion of their monthly paychecks to their unions, regardless of their membership status.

For the many who may not know, as I certainly didn’t, only 28 states have passed right-to-work laws, which effectively release these employees from the legal obligation to pay their union dues. As for the those I assist, who reside in the other 22 states, including my home state of California, they’re out of luck unless they can provide a legally tenable reason for their objection. This is almost exclusively limited to religious objectors. To put it bluntly, if you work for a public sector industry, your only means of getting out of supporting a special-interest group you don’t want to belong to, whose positions, endorsements, and lobbying you may even find reprehensible, is if you can provide a religious “sincerely-held belief” that you are obligated to do so.

This is where I come in. With the help of a overworked volunteer civil litigation attorney, I help clients through the often drawn-out process of formulating religious objection statements to their unions, per Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law requires employers to provide “accommodation” for religious objectors up until the point of incurring “undue hardship” upon themselves. In other words, unions are obligated, provided proof that an employee’s objection is based upon the aforementioned “sincerely held” religious belief, to allow such employees to divert their union dues to a charity instead — often limited to a list of three approved organizations preferred by the union. This may sound relatively reasonable at first, as it did to me when I first started the job, but allow me to explain why it’s absurd.

The Wall Street Journal reported back in 2016 that organized labor spent historically unprecedented amounts on the 2016 election: an estimated $35 million on federal campaigns, and a whopping estimated more than $132 million to super PACs. In other words, unionized labor is the source of a bafflingly enormous portion of Democratic campaign and special-interest finance.

A simple look at CTA.org, the website for the California Teachers Association (the union), shows on its front page an endorsement for the nationwide “school walkout” and a subsequent call to “join the CTA in wearing orange for gun violence prevention and in solidarity with students.” Rather apolitical sounding in tone, a simple click on the link beneath the endorsement transfers you to womensmarch.com. The page is inscribed in bold letters: “#ENOUGH: National School Walkout,” complete with the characteristic raised-fist symbol of leftist fame.

It isn’t a stretch to connect this recently organized “School Walkout” to the Women’s March’s openly left-wing partner organizations, or their broader political and policy aims (these are available on the “About” section of their website) which include, but are not limited to, female “reproductive rights” and “abortion,” “LGBTQIA rights,” a call to end “gender norms,” and the assertion on immigration policy that “no human being is illegal.” And with respect to the #ENOUGH campaign itself, the very first demand listed right there on the website is “Banning Assault Weapons & High Capacity Magazines.”

This is just one example of the many Democratic and left-wing platforms that public sector unions are at liberty to endorse and advertise with resources provided from members’ paychecks. In 2015, like many labor organizations, the American Federation of Teachers, the national union, announced its public endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president.

The philosophical root of the issue goes back to a somewhat removed debate concerning free speech. Particularly relevant is the case Citizens United v. FEC. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that government cannot restrict the individual campaign expenditures of corporations, unions, nonprofits, and other associations. Much to the dismay of corporate campaign-finance reform activists, the ruling essentially affirmed the notion that money is a form of expression, and, like speech, protected by the First Amendment.

If this is the working precedent, it should be clear that the current law in California (and the other 21 non-right-to-work states) is the mirror inverse of the circumstances of Citizens United. The idea that government can compel employees to financially support an organization whose political views, endorsements, donations, and aims are in conflict with their own should be considered a violation of those employees’ right to free speech.

Moreover, even when an employee occasionally takes the necessary legal steps to see that their dues do not go directly into campaigns and super PACs, their money nevertheless otherwise sustains an organization that they believe acts against their interests. Not to mention, the current exception, which in allows opt-outs only for the religious, is arguably a form of unjust discrimination against the non-religious.

Consider this hypothetical: Imagine that public employee unions had actively endorsed Trump in 2016, and had expressed their support for the NRA during the latest controversy following the Parkland shooting. Do you think 14.8 million Americans would sit idly by while part of their paycheck was siphoned off each month to support and maintain such a union?

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Mark Janus and puts an end to compelled union fee payments by non-union members, it’s possible my job will become obsolete. But it would be worth it to see such a landmark decision for justice and freedom of speech in our country.

Madison Breshears works for Choose Charity in California.

Janus v. AFSCME could cost me my job, but here’s why it’s worth it

EDITORIAL: Women in politics in Illinois? Let’s get to 50 percent fast

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Until women hold 50 percent of elective offices in Illinois — and Congress, for that matter — the energy and effort to get more women voted in cannot let up.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a notable increase in the number of women in Illinois seeking office, but they are still a long way from catching up to men.

Between the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives, 35.6 percent of legislators currently in office are women. That’s one of the higher percentages among the 50 states and much higher than the 19.6 percent that serve in Congress, but far from good enough.

The increase in female candidates in Illinois is most evident in the state House, which has 118 elected members.

EDITORIAL

Eight years ago, a Sun-Times analysis found, 64 women ran for seats in the House in the Illinois primary. In 2014, the number crept up by one. This year, it was 100. Seventy-four women won their primary races on March 20, many of which were uncontested.

That means that at least that many female House candidates will appear on ballots in the November general election, and probably more if women are slated to run in additional races by their respective parties.

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We’re not suggesting we’re going to see women win more than half of the Illinois House seats this year. In some races, women will be pitted against each other. In others, women will be going up against long-standing male incumbents, who have the benefit of name recognition and an advantage in fundraising.

Democratic State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie tells us that women are being particularly strategic in seeking office, more often than men choosing to run only when there are open seats or weak incumbents of the opposite political party.

Currie knows a thing or two about being a woman in politics. She will leave office in January after a 40-year career, including 22 as the first female majority leader in Illinois. When she started out in 1979, she said, women held fewer than 15 percent of the seats in the House.

Currie began her conversation with us by saying, “50 percent.” She wants 50 percent of elected offices in Illinois to be held by women.

Asked how long it will take to get there, she quipped, “It took 40 years to go from 15 percent to 35.”

On a more serious note, she added: “I think things are moving more quickly. So many more women are jumping in. There will be more women who jump in and win.”

Four women and three men were on the ballot last month to replace Currie in her South Side district. A man, Curtis Tarver, is all but guaranteed to replace her after winning the primary in this community that leans heavily Democratic. Currie had good things to say about Tarver and expressed satisfaction in the number of women who sought to replace her.

Another encouraging sign to Currie is the number of female Democrats who ran in the 6th Congressional District to unseat Republican Peter Roskam. He is considered vulnerable because of momentum nationally for Democrats and because Hillary Clinton beat President Donald Trump in this suburban district in 2016 by seven percentage points.

Five women and two men ran in that Democratic primary. The strong showing by women was touted as part of a broader trend of women becoming more engaged politically after the election of Trump. The president is not exactly viewed as a champion of women’s issues. The #MeToo movement to combat sexual harassment, which stems in part from allegations of sexual abuse by Trump, bolstered momentum for women.

But in that primary, businessman Sean Casten of Downers Grove beat the top woman, Kelly Mazeski of Barrington Hills, by 3.4 percentage points.

Progressive candidate Marie Newman came close to taking down conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski in the 3rd Congressional District that covers part of the South Side and southern and western suburbs.

In noting these losses by women, Politico opened a recent Illinois Playbook article by asking, “Did the year of the woman miss Illinois?”

We’ll know better in November, but there is good reason for concern. Several respected female legislators decided to leave Springfield after the budget standoff between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Michael Madigan was settled last year. That was a step back for women in Illinois, as men are likely to fill some of those seats.

This isn’t just a numbers game. More women must be at the table when our state debates essential public policy, including health care and education.

Our state legislature should be as diverse as our state. Let’s get to 50 percent a whole lot faster.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com

EDITORIAL: Women in politics in Illinois? Let’s get to 50 percent fast