Who Ruined Illinois?

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Everyone knows the state is a mess. It wasn’t always that way.

However bad you think government might be,” Bruce Rauner tells an audience, “it’s worse.” Rauner, a Republican governor seeking reelection, has plenty of reasons to portray his state as fundamentally broken. It’s a way to explain why he hasn’t been able to make the big changes in Illinois he promised when he ran four years ago. But it’s also a great line for a knowing audience, and the crowd of call center workers in Moline, on the Mississippi River, laughs appreciatively. 

Illinois voters have endured a lot from their state government. It hasn’t been just one recession or one administration that’s done the damage, either. It’s been nearly a generation of political upheaval and dysfunction at the state Capitol. “Springfield has not been working for them, and I think voters, residents of Illinois are frustrated and angry. They should be,” Rauner tells me after his Moline event. “Always unbalanced budgets. Not paying pensions. Not growing the economy and creating good-paying jobs. Massive corruption, cronyism and patronage. And four of my nine predecessors have gone to prison. It’s a broken system.”

Nearly everyone agrees with Rauner that the system is broken, but there’s no consensus about why the system is failing. Pick your favorite culprit — legislators, unions, pensions — and you may have a case. But the one thing that current and former elected officials, academics and Springfield insiders cite most is perhaps the most painfully obvious: “Illinois government did work,” says former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican who presided over what now looks to be the state’s heyday in the 1990s. “But then we had bad luck with a couple of governors.” 

Illinois governors are powerful. They have many executive tools at their disposal that their counterparts in other states don’t possess. As chief executives, they have the biggest say on the state’s financial situation and the biggest platform to tend to the state’s economy. But over the last two decades, public confidence, financial stability and economic growth in Illinois have all suffered.

During that time, Illinois has had four governors: two Republicans and two Democrats. George Ryan came first, starting in 1999, and despite substantial achievements in Springfield, erased the public’s trust in state government with a corruption scandal that landed him in prison. Rod Blagojevich swept into power in the wake of Ryan’s scandal, promising reform and renewal, but exited in disgrace after an FBI arrest and subsequent impeachment trial, leaving a state woefully unprepared for the Great Recession. Illinoisans breathed a sigh of relief when Pat Quinn stepped in, but the relief died quickly, as a major tax increase failed to steady Illinois’ finances, and low-level patronage scandals undercut his reputation as a reformer. Rauner capitalized on Quinn’s unpopularity and defeated him in 2014. But Rauner saw his own standing collapse last year when rank-and-file GOP lawmakers abandoned his cause after a two-year budget standoff.

 


George Ryan might have gone down in history as one of Illinois’ greatest governors, if he hadn’t landed in prison instead. (AP)

 

The cumulative effect is that the state’s credit rating teeters on the edge of junk bond status. Officials have only recently started dealing with a $16.7 billion backlog of unpaid day-to-day bills. Longer term, Illinois is $129 billion short of what it needs to pay its pension obligations. Only a tiny fraction of residents believes the state is heading in the right direction.

Getting Illinois back on track will require years of calm attention to rebuilding public trust, balancing budgets and practicing the neglected art of governing. “The governor has to be the fiscal leader. He has to be the one who worries about not going too far into debt,” Edgar says. “The legislature likes to spend money and it doesn’t want to raise taxes. They’ll blame you. That’s OK, though. That’s why you get the house, the car and the plane.” The fact is, he says, “good government is boring.”

But politics in Illinois has been anything but boring.

Twenty years ago, Illinois was humming along. Its median household income stood at nearly $64,000 in today’s dollars — more than $6,300 above the national average and higher than it’s been at any time since 2000. Edgar handed his successor a surplus of more than $1 billion in state revenue. Bond ratings had been upgraded a handful of times during his tenure, a first in Illinois history. Lots of people grumbled at Edgar’s fiscal austerity, but he left office at the end of his eight-year tenure more popular than ever, with a 60 percent approval rating. 

It was hard to see at the time, but the start of Illinois’ downward slide came with the election of George Ryan as governor in 1998. A Republican pharmacist from Kankakee, Ryan was an imposing figure with deep-set eyes, a gravelly voice and large hands that barely budged when you shook them. He rose through the ranks in Springfield as a legislator, House speaker, lieutenant governor and secretary of state. When Edgar decided to retire, Ryan was the logical choice for Republicans. His term as governor extended the GOP’s winning streak for that office to 26 years.

“Illinois government did work. But then we had bad luck with a couple of governors.” – former Gov. Jim Edgar

Ryan might have gone down in history as one of Illinois’ greatest governors, if he hadn’t landed in prison instead. He pushed through a much-needed but pork-heavy $12 billion public works program, expanded Chicago’s convention center and its O’Hare Airport, orchestrated a deal to expand riverboat casino gambling, called for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba and visited Fidel Castro, opened a new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, and won international accolades for emptying death row by commuting more than 160 death sentences in his final days of office.

But that’s not what Illinoisans remember him for. Instead, they associate him with a sprawling bribes-for-licenses scandal that dogged Ryan from his days as secretary of state. It sprang from an investigation over a fiery traffic crash in 1994 that killed five children because an Illinois trucker failed to heed warnings that his taillight was loose. The truck driver, it turned out, had bribed someone who worked for Ryan to get his Illinois commercial driver’s license. (In Illinois, the secretary of state administers driver’s license facilities.)

To advance his career, Ryan not only developed political skills that helped him cut deals on big-ticket issues but also relied on cozy relations with contractors and a de facto patronage army of workers at the secretary of state’s office. Corruption allegations followed Ryan to the governor’s office and clouded most of his term. His approval ratings plummeted from 50 percent in 1999 to 27 percent a year later. Ryan defiantly denied any wrongdoing, but his standing would never recover.

From his weakened position, Ryan had to guide the state through an unprecedented fiscal crisis after the 2001 terrorist attacks. When the books closed on his final budget, Illinois had posted back-to-back deficits of more than $1 billion. An early retirement package that Ryan pushed to trim the state’s payrolls proved far more popular than he or lawmakers anticipated — 11,000 employees jumped at the chance, compared to the 7,400 that Ryan and lawmakers expected. That drove up fiscal pressure on the state’s already-stressed pension funds. 

 


SOURCE: Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability

 

Nobody was surprised when Ryan was indicted on a variety of federal corruption charges nearly a year after he left office. He served six and a half years in prison and was released in 2013. But the scandal that tainted his administration would open the door to a successor who would not only land in prison, but would also become a national pariah.

Rod Blagojevich became instantly infamous when the FBI arrested the sitting Illinois governor in his running clothes in the morning darkness of Dec. 9, 2008. The same feds who had patiently stalked Ryan for years said they had no choice but to arrest Blagojevich after listening to seven weeks of wiretaps of his phones and office. Blagojevich, they claimed, was about to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the newly elected president from Illinois, Barack Obama. 

Illinois lawmakers quickly impeached and removed Blagojevich. But the disgraced governor launched a media roadshow while he awaited trial. His cartoonish claims of innocence failed to keep him out of prison — there were, after all, lots and lots of wiretaps — but the spectacle undercut Illinois’ reputation just months after Obama won the White House.

Even before Blagojevich’s self-immolation, he had wreaked havoc and brought long-lasting damage to Illinois’ government. To make a clean break from the Ryan years, Blagojevich had brought in out-of-state advisers and political neophytes to run his administration. They quickly ran into a big problem: Illinois’ government still had not recovered from the 2001 recession, and there was precious little money to pay for ambitious programs. 

So Blagojevich’s team came up with a brazen idea: a $10 billion pension bond sale. While the state might have conceivably saved money in the deal, in reality it was an elaborate way to skip $2.7 billion in otherwise required pension payments. Lawmakers went along with the idea anyway. The gimmick not only deprived the pension systems of needed cash, it also skewed the state’s budgets for two years. When the third year came, there was no money “built in” to the budget for pension payments. So Blagojevich and the Democratic-controlled legislature opted to take a “pension holiday” for another two years. That meant they’d pay only half of their expected contribution, shorting the system another $6.8 billion.

 


Even before Rod Blagojevich’s self-immolation, he had wreaked havoc and brought long-lasting damage to Illinois’ government. (AP)

 

Meanwhile, Blagojevich quickly made enemies with the leader of his own party in Springfield, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. Shortly after Blagojevich’s reelection, the governor suggested switching from a sales tax to a gross receipts tax. Madigan, who opposed the idea, embarrassed the governor by quickly putting it up for consideration in the House, where it failed to get a single vote. 

On top of that, federal prosecutors and local reporters started to look into Blagojevich’s fundraising tactics, especially because so many of the people Blagojevich appointed to state boards and commissions had contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the governor’s campaign. 

Two months before his arrest, Blagojevich had few friends left, in Springfield or in the state as a whole. The Chicago Tribune reported in October 2008 that only 13 percent of Illinoisans viewed him favorably. FBI wiretaps showed that the feeling was mutual. “I [expletive] busted my ass and pissed people off and gave your grandmother a free [expletive] ride on a bus. OK? I gave your [expletive] baby a chance to have health care,” the governor vented, as he ticked off some of his legislative achievements. “And what do I get for that? Only 13 percent of you all out there think I’m doing a good job. So [expletive] all of you.”

Before Blagojevich’s removal, few people would have envisioned Pat Quinn as governor. For decades, the Democrat had been in and around state government, but mostly as a rabble rouser. In the early 1980s, he led a successful effort to reduce the size of the Illinois House by a third, but then he bounced from office to office. He won election for a single term as state treasurer, lost a bid to oust Ryan as secretary of state and then ran successfully for lieutenant governor on the same ticket as Blagojevich. (At the time, Illinois gubernatorial candidates did not pick their running mates.)  

Once Quinn became governor, he did a lot of heavy lifting, especially on budget-related matters, that Blagojevich refused to do. But he had to do it in the throes of the Great Recession.

Months after assuming office, Quinn reported that the state would face an $11.6 billion shortfall over the next year and a half if lawmakers didn’t take drastic action. That came at a moment when the backlog of unpaid bills had risen to $8 billion. The legislature cut spending by $2 billion, gave Quinn the power to cut $1 billion more, relied on $1.8 billion in federal stimulus money and authorized $3.7 billion in short-term borrowing to make that year’s pension payment. It wasn’t enough, and the situation kept getting worse.

 


SOURCE: Illinois Office of the Comptroller

 

When Quinn ran for a full term in 2010, he campaigned on raising the state’s income tax by a percentage point to address persistent deficits. But within two months of his victory, rating agency threats of a downgrade to junk bond status and a projected deficit of $15 billion convinced Quinn that more was needed. So he persuaded outgoing lawmakers in a lame-duck session to raise the income tax by double the original proposed amount. Lawmakers hiked personal income tax rates from 3 percent to 5 percent, and raised corporate rates as well. The catch was that the new rates would last only four years before going back down. 

But the new money did help the state catch up with some of its unpaid bills. By the end of Quinn’s term, the backlog was down to $6.6 billion.

Quinn also tried to take on the pension problem by reducing retirement benefits. In 2010, he signed a law that reduced pensions for most new state employees and teachers. But Quinn pressed for more, and in 2013, lawmakers agreed to a package that would have curbed benefits even for workers and retirees covered under the original pension scheme. Those changes, though, never took effect. In 2015, the state Supreme Court struck down the law for violating the Illinois Constitution, which has strong protections against diminishing retirement benefits for state employees. 

“Pat Quinn is not the folksy, bumbling fool he’d like us to think he is.” – Bruce Rauner, campaigning in 2014

Eventually, the public soured on Quinn. The governor faced accusations that his administration misspent $55 million on a Chicago anti-violence program months before his 2010 election, in order to boost his political standing rather than lower the city’s murder rate. His reputation took another hit when an investigator found widespread patronage hiring at the state Department of Transportation, both under Blagojevich and under Quinn.

When Quinn came up for reelection in 2014, his loudest critic was a wealthy businessman who won the Republican nomination to oppose him. “Pat Quinn is not the folksy, bumbling fool he’d like us to think he is,” Bruce Rauner said at the time. “He knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s done.”

 


Once Pat Quinn became governor, he did a lot of heavy lifting, especially on budget-related matters. But he had to do it in the throes of the Great Recession. (AP)

 

Although Rauner had long mingled in political circles and once counted Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a friend, he was virtually unknown to most Illinoisans before his bid for governor. But the private equity investor soon became a household name, thanks to the $65.3 million he spent of his own money to boost his candidacy and a general election message that centered on his frugality and the need to “shake up Springfield.”

Once in office, though, Rauner set his sights on limiting the power of public employee unions and career politicians in the General Assembly. He called for far-reaching concessions that would have limited the power of both and demanded that they be met before he signed a full year’s budget. Illinois desperately needed a budget, because the temporary income tax hike that Quinn pushed through expired just before Rauner came into office, and there were no spending cuts to offset the lost revenue. 

But rather than being cowed by the governor’s tactics, labor leaders and Democrats in the General Assembly dug in their heels. The standoff lasted nearly two years, during which time Illinois limped along without any clear spending plan. It was the longest span any state had ever gone without a budget. 

Strangely, much of the government continued to function. Long-standing laws required Illinois to make pension contributions and bond payments even without a budget. Rauner cut a deal with lawmakers to keep money flowing to schools during the hiatus. And courts insisted that state employees be paid, and ordered the state to abide by consent decrees that mandated spending on certain social services. 

But the impasse created all sorts of havoc in other places. It devastated nonprofit social service agencies that worked with the state but weren’t covered by court orders. Many of them had already reduced services and laid off staff during the recession. State-run universities also got no funding from Springfield during the budget crisis. All sorts of contractors, from the utility that provided power to the Capitol to dentists who treated state employees, were frozen out as well.

Meanwhile, the backlog of unpaid bills shot up again. Illinois was spending about the same amount it had spent when the income tax had been higher, but the state was no longer collecting enough money to sustain that spending. By last November, Illinois was $16.7 billion behind in its payments. Comptroller Susana Mendoza warned that Illinois was dangerously close to not having enough cash to meet court orders to pay for essential services, which meant Illinois could be held in contempt of court in several cases.

On Wall Street, bond rating agencies grew increasingly alarmed by the impasse. Two of the three downgraded Illinois to a step above junk bond status. If they had moved it any lower, institutional investors would no longer have been able to buy the state’s debt, because it would be considered too risky. No state had ever been in this situation.

 


SOURCE: Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability

 

As the collateral damage grew, so did pressure on lawmakers to end the crisis. In the Senate, President John Cullerton started negotiating with the Republican leader, Christine Radogno, to come up with a “grand bargain” that would combine some of Rauner’s business-minded proposals with a restoration of the income tax increase. The talks were so promising that the governor even counted on the revenue they would produce in his annual budget proposal. But as the deal moved closer to a vote, Rauner attached ever more demands and ultimately warned Republican senators not to support it. 

So Democrats, who have a supermajority in the Senate, passed the budget they negotiated with Republicans, which included both the tax hike and $3.8 billion in spending cuts. But they did not pass changes to the worker’s compensation system or a local property tax freeze that Rauner wanted. “The governor got none of his so-called reforms,” Cullerton says. “He doesn’t know how to work or compromise.” 

The Senate’s action shifted focus to the House, where Blagojevich’s old nemesis, Speaker Madigan, had emerged as Rauner’s whipping boy and most stubborn obstacle. Unlike in the Senate, though, Democrats on their own didn’t have enough votes to pass a budget and override Rauner’s expected veto. They needed a handful of Republicans to go along, too.

The impetus came from rank-and-file Republicans. Rep. David Harris was one of them. “What we did with the two-year budget stalemate was the most disgraceful thing the Illinois General Assembly has ever done,” he says. He met with a group of about 10 fellow Republicans — many of them from downstate, which was “on fire” because of the impasse, he says — to figure out what they wanted in the budget if they negotiated with Democrats. They wanted to know whether Democrats were serious about ending the standoff, or just wanted to use it to discredit the governor.

The House Democrats took them up on their offer to work together. Fifteen Republicans were among the 72 House members who supported the spending plan. When Rauner vetoed the measure, 10 of the GOP members joined in a successful move to override him. On July 6, 2017, after two years of costly stalemate and embarrassment, Illinois finally had a budget again.

The budget package allowed the state to borrow money to pay off its oldest bills, which due to penalties were accruing interest at a rate of 12 percent annually. Those bonds were also used to pay off Medicaid bills, because the state receives matching federal funds for those expenses. The governor describes the budget as a “massive loss for taxpayers in the state.” Was it worth fighting about? He thinks so. “It’s never in the best interest of the people of Illinois to compromise on raising taxes with no reforms,” he says. “That’s a disaster.”

For several years, Moody’s Analytics, which examines the state’s economy for the legislature, has warned that the uncertainty over Illinois’ financial situation “threatens to discourage firms from locating or remaining in the state.” It’s not that Illinois’ costs of doing business are particularly high, the economists note. Its taxes, labor and energy costs are in the middle of the pack for industrial Midwest states. What sets Illinois apart, they say, is the recent political tumult in Springfield. The state went more than two decades with stable income tax rates, but since 2011, it’s changed those rates three times, making long-term planning for businesses difficult. “The good news,” Moody’s added this year, “is that the state’s two-year budget logjam finally broke with the passage of a $36 billion spending package, easing some of the long-standing uncertainty in the outlook.”

 


On the budget standoff, Bruce Rauner says, “it’s never in the best interest of the people of Illinois to compromise on raising taxes with no reforms.” (AP)

 

There is another widely held theory to explain Illinois’ decades of mismanagement, and one that Rauner has had a lead role in promoting. That is the idea that Madigan, the powerful House speaker who has held the title for all but two years since 1983, is the real center of power in Springfield. Rauner and many of his fellow Republicans point their fingers at Madigan as the true source of trouble in state government.

There’s no question Madigan is a powerful figure. The speaker controls the legislative agenda in the House, and makes most of the important decisions behind closed doors, leaving lobbyists, members, the media and even governors to guess why certain bills die or suddenly come back to life. His pronouncements to the press are practically Delphic, and his public remarks rarely deviate from a very short script.

In addition to being speaker, Madigan is the chair of the state Democratic Party and a much-feared ward boss on the southwest side of Chicago. He has allies throughout government: former staffers who now have lucrative lobbying practices; neighborhood residents who got government jobs thanks to his clout; and judges and legislators he supported in tough election fights. On top of that, he is the partial owner of Chicago’s top law firm for property tax appeals, meaning that huge corporations come to him to try to knock off some of their tax bills for downtown skyscrapers. 

Madigan has been entrenched in Illinois politics for so long that he’s had a hand in basically every major decision the state has made for decades. He went along with budgets that ran deficits, shorted the pension systems, underfunded schools, empowered unions and imposed regulations. “Madigan’s got an empire in the state of Illinois. He’s led the corruption. And he’s very powerful,” says Rauner, who, along with Republican groups that he largely funds, has hammered Madigan with similar messages on TV commercials for nearly three years now. There is no sign that they will let off anytime soon. Rauner says his Democratic opponent this coming November, J.B. Pritzker, is Madigan’s “hand-picked candidate.”

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, Madigan’s top lieutenant in the House, says Rauner’s constant talk of corruption has poisoned the atmosphere in Springfield, especially because business groups and the Chicago Tribune editorial board have also pounded away at the message. “You can disagree with someone’s policies without calling them corrupt,” she says. “The people who should be cheerleading for the state are spewing doom and gloom.”

There are a few big holes in the theory of Madigan as the root of all evil. The first is that the timing doesn’t work. Illinois’ troubles have come and gone and come again all while Madigan held the speaker’s gavel. They don’t seem to be tied to the presiding officer of the lower chamber, so much as the occupant of the executive suite on the second floor of the Capitol. The second problem is that it doesn’t explain why Republicans cheered Madigan as he led the opposition to Blagojevich but denounced him when he used similar tactics against Rauner. 

 


Rauner and many of his fellow Republicans point their fingers at House speaker Michael Madigan as the true source of trouble in state government. (AP)

 

But maybe the biggest shortcoming of anti-Madiganism is that it imbues the speaker with more clout than he actually wields. Madigan has stayed in power all these years because he can read the changing political dynamics. He has crossed traditional allies such as teachers unions, trial lawyers and Chicago mayors when the politics demanded it. But even he has misjudged the climate from time to time. He recently faced threats to his position, at least as head of the Democratic Party, because of harassment allegations in his political operation. He himself was not implicated.

Both Democrats and Republicans have benefited from inflating Madigan’s stature. His Democratic allies gain the advantage of a friend whom no one wants to cross. Republicans get an enemy who is easy to vilify, encouraging them to rally voters to support GOP candidates.

As governor in the 1990s, Edgar, a Republican, often ran afoul of Madigan. He jokes that, when he had to undergo quadruple bypass surgery in office, he blamed one of the bypasses on stress caused by Madigan. But it’s easy to go too far, he says. “The media give too much credit to Madigan. He’s very smart. He was the smartest guy in Springfield when I was there. You have to treat him with respect. But still, the governor is the important thing. Even a weak governor like Blagojevich is stronger than the speaker.”

Does Rauner agree? “No,” he says, emphatically. “The governor is strong, and I’ve done major things. And I’ve beat him.” But, Rauner adds, “those victories are difficult and not often enough. He’s got too much concentrated power.” 

“[House Speaker Michael] Madigan’s got an empire in the state of Illinois. He’s led the corruption. And he’s very powerful.” – Gov. Bruce Rauner

Recently, Rauner survived a scare in the Republican primary. Rep. Jeanne Ives, one of the most conservative elected officials in the state, ran to the right of Rauner and came within 3 percentage points of beating him. She attacked him for going back on his promise to veto a law that provides public funding for abortions. In a sign of how focused the governor is on his House nemesis, Rauner ran TV ads accusing Ives of being in league with Madigan.

But as Rauner addresses the workers in Moline, he is trying to reassure them. He talks up the state’s educated workforce, its vital infrastructure, its manufacturing prowess. “We have every advantage in Illinois,” he says. 

One can see signs of economic vitality while driving through the hills of northern Illinois. Huge new wind turbines and mirror-sided grain elevators rise in the distance. Farther east, construction crews erect towering corporate headquarters and condo towers that will join Chicago’s iconic skyline. 

David Harris, one of the GOP lawmakers who opposed Rauner on the budget vote, makes a point to stand up every day in the Illinois House to say something good about the state. In these strange times, it’s something of an act of political defiance. “There is a commitment on the part of public officials to address our problems,” he tells me. “Don’t write us off simply because of some of the bad things you hear. There’s an awful lot that Illinois has to offer.”

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Who Ruined Illinois?

Letter: Bill would streamline governance of higher education

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To the Editor:

State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, has introduced a legislative proposal for the creation of a single state board with responsibility for higher education (SB 2597). I believe it outlines a positive means toward the end of a stronger administrative structure for facilitating useful action steps to address priorities for Illinois’ higher education system. I urge members of the Illinois General Assembly to join with Rose in reviewing this proposal further.

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As a single board of higher education, leading a strategic process for development of statewide goals and recommendations for allocating state resources will be more effective.

Simply put, one board, one staff and one organizational structure streamlines the effort. Illinois higher education faces challenges concerning college costs; enrollment shifts resulting from increasing outmigration and changing needs of college students who are older, parenting and working; and establishing effective and forward-looking governance of the Illinois’ higher education system. A unified board and staff organization can better focus on these challenges by being inclusive in representing the needs of students, public community colleges and universities, private institutions of higher education and the faculty and staff serving the higher education system.

The legislation proposes a merger of boards and administrative operations of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the Illinois Community College Board and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. From my role as chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, I am convinced that collaboration of common activities is not only necessary, but also should prove more efficient.

I have requested the General Assembly Higher Education Working Group, a bipartisan group of legislators looking comprehensively at ways to improve higher education, to include the proposal on their agenda. I know this conversation will not be simple or without strong sentiments for the status quo, but I commit my attention and our agency to assist in any way we can.

Tom Cross

Oswego

Letter: Bill would streamline governance of higher education

Rep. Brady: McCann a ‘force to be reckoned with’ in governor’s race

https://ift.tt/2Jtt4esDan BradyState Rep. Dan Brady says Sen. Sam McCann can be a ‘force to be reckoned with’ in his bid to run for governor in November. (Photo courtesy Facebook/DanBrady)

By Eric Stock

BLOOMINGTON – At least one Republican is expressing concern that a third-party candidate could tip the scales in the governor’s race.

State Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington, told WJBC’s Scott Laughlin, if former Republican Sam McCann gets enough signatures to get on the ballot in November, he could take votes from Gov. Bruce Rauner in his reelection bid.

PODCAST: Listen to Scott’s interview with Brady on WJBC.

“Having a third-party candidate is something that I think people will take very much a serious look at,” Brady said.

Brady, the Illinois House Assistant Minority Leader who also said McCann can be a “force to be reckoned with” in his bid to run against Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker.

“If he makes his 25,000 signatures, I think it has the potential to do harm foremost to Governor Rauner’s efforts to be reelected.,” Brady said.

Despite getting some union support, Brady said McCann will soon feel on an island because Democrats will focus on helping Pritzker more than they will try to split the Republican vote by backing McCann.

McCann needs to collect 25,000 signatures to run on the conservative party ticket.

Eric Stock can be reached at eric.stock@cumulus.com.

Rep. Brady: McCann a ‘force to be reckoned with’ in governor’s race

Who should have access to sales tax records?

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A high-stakes political battle has broken out in Springfield over whether private agents should be given access for the first time ever to confidential sales tax data, and both sides in the fight are playing very hard ball.

Up for a vote on the House floor is a measure that would allow municipalities to hire private firms to review Illinois Department of Revenue sales tax collection data. Right now, that information is allowed to be shared only with the municipality itself. The bill is expected to be considered later this week, and sponsoring Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, says he is confident it will clear the House and be well-received later in the Senate.

Welch and a group of municipalities say the measure is needed to ensure they get what they’re owed at a time when many town budgets are under stress. “This is about giving communities additional tools to find money that’s owed them,” he told me.

A host of business groups—including the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce—say the bill would put trade secrets, such as town-by-town sales, at risk of being disclosed, and they fear passage would open the door to de facto privatization of tax collections.

They also charge the bill largely is the creation of Azavar Government Solutions, a Chicago-based auditing and consulting firm that has been politically active in recent years. The company has donated more than $200,000 since 2012, most of it to state lawmakers, including $11,000 to House Speaker Mike Madigan and $4,000 to House GOP Leader Jim Durkin.

One major watchdog is siding with the business groups in this fight.

Azavar is “a bounty hunter” that gets a contingency fee of as much of 50 percent of what it collects, says Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois President Carol Portman. The bill “would essentially outsource a government function to someone whose interests are not aligned (with the public interest),” she added.

Also opposed to the bill as it’s now written is the Revenue Department. “Third-party entities would be able to determine how the department uses its audit resources,” with the agency potentially swamped with private requests for probes, said spokesman Terry Horstman.

But Paul Rosenfeld, a lobbyist who represents the Illinois Coalition of Local Governments and lobbies for Azavar in Cook County, said the Revenue Department “has made mistakes. They don’t like it when someone looks over their shoulder.” Rosenfeld, who’s also the 47th Ward Democratic committeeman, said it’s not true, as Portman suggested, that the bill is the first step toward privatizing Revenue Department collections.

Under current law, a municipality can request from the Revenue Department a full report on which retailers have paid how much. Some mistakes have been made, especially with stores that operate near municipal boundaries. In such cases, a municipality can report any apparent mistakes to Revenue and ask it to conduct a review.

Rosenfeld said his group examined 66 cases and found in nearly half of the instances, the Revenue Department made mistakes, some involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Revenue Department objections “are a scare tactic by the (Rauner) administration,” Welch said. And in fact, the bill will strengthen confidentiality by shifting data from CD roms to an encrypted website, he said.

Business groups counter that the penalty for disclosing confidential information is a misdemeanor under Welch’s bill, with violators subject to a fine of $7,500 maximum.

Beyond that, even before the proposed bill is considered, much less approved, Azavar has been illegally working with clients to get around existing law, said Illinois Retail Merchants Association CEO Rob Karr. “What’s next?”

An Azavar representative was not available to comment.

Karr based his charge on emails between communities and Azavar that he obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. In one, a company official writes, “Once you have the data (from the Revenue Department), which will be mailed as a CD, please forward it to us and we will conduct the audit. Please do not copy us on the email as we are still working with (the Revenue Department) to contact them directly on behalf of our clients.”

Rosenfeld denied any impropriety, and said his client is able to obtain some information through publicly available means and computer cross checks.

A similar bill failed last year in the Senate. Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker has supported such legislation in the past and likely still does.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office has not commented, but if the Revenue Department’s statement is an indication, a veto is likely if the bill makes it to him.

Earlier:

Illinois merchants, municipalities battle over sales tax data

Illinois’ sales tax structure is so backward

Supreme Court to review bid to collect internet sales tax

Who should have access to sales tax records?

Bill would allow third party to access the Illinois Department of Revenue data

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Bill would allow third party to access the Illinois Department of Revenue data

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WICS) — 

Business coalitions from across the state are urging lawmakers to oppose a bill that would allow a third party to easily access sales tax information from the Illinois Department of Revenue.

House Bill 2717 would give certain consulting companies direct access to the Illinois Department of Revenue’s data.

Those companies would then use their access to get a local business’s confidential information.

“Anyone could potentially reverse engineer that to find out what your total sales are,” said Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Merchant Association.

Municipalities want to use these consulting companies to find money that was missed by the Department of Revenue.

The consulting companies could also determine if a business is within the right city limits. This is helpful because if they are labeled under the wrong city limits the sales tax from the business could be going elsewhere.

“We have seen several instances where they have not done it correctly,” Rep. Chris Welch, D-Westchester, said. “The municipalities all over the state have suddenly found money that belongs to them; The City of Springfield being one of them.”

Business owners say that the Illinois Department of Revenue already has services like this available to the city free of charge, but the bill’s sponsor says the department has made mistakes before.

Rep. Welch also says this bill wouldn’t put anyone’s personal information at risk.

Consulting companies would earn a percentage of the money they found from errors.

The money used to pay those third-party companies could be given to the cities to provide services for the community.

This bill could be voted on sometime before Friday.

Bill would allow third party to access the Illinois Department of Revenue data

Statehouse bills would increase drivers’ awareness of bike safety

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Maximilian Kwiatkowski @MSFKWIAT

Two bills aimed at making the road safer for cyclists are moving forward in the Illinois General Assembly.

House Bill 5143, which passed the House last week, would add bike safety questions to the Illinois driver’s test and also require teaching the “Dutch reach,” a method to help drivers avoid accidentally hitting a cyclist with a car door. Another bill, HB 4799, would add safety education in public schools from kindergarten to eighth grade.

“With more people riding bikes in communities across Illinois, these updates to the state’s road manual and driver’s license exam are sorely needed,” said state Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, HB 5143’s sponsor. “The changes will help people driving become more aware of bicyclists and teach them how to travel and exit their cars safely.”

Mah’s bill has been supported by some of Springfield’s cycling enthusiasts, some of whom have been concerned with the lack of bike safety questions on the driver’s exam.

“The bicycle isn’t a toy — it’s a vehicle,” said Tom Clark, president of the Springfield Bicycle Club. “In Springfield and statewide, bicyclists and motorists often have a limited understanding of the rules of the road for cyclists as operators of vehicles, and how bikes and cars should interact to follow the law and ensure safety.”

While he feels generally safe cycling around Springfield, Paul McAdamis, who commutes daily from his home in Chatham to his job at Memorial Medical Center, said that any addition to education on how to safely interact with cyclists is a big help.

“I think the No. 1 thing people don’t know that’s safest for a cyclist is (they should be) staying on the road and stopping at a red light with traffic,” he said.  “If there’s anything I’d change to the driver’s test, I’d want more of things like that, because you always hear people say ‘Hey, get out of the road! Why aren’t you on the sidewalk?’ Well, that’s actually the safest thing to do (bike in the streets); sidewalks are dangerous.”

Ed Barsotti with the cycling advocacy group Ride Illinois said the inclusion of the “Dutch reach” technique in the rules of the road would drastically help to keep people safe.

The technique, used in Holland and elsewhere, calls for drivers to open their door with their right hand after they parallel park on a street.

“It forces them to look back first, so they won’t open their door into the path of a bicycle rider or another car,” he said. “This reduces very dangerous ‘dooring’ crashes.”

McAdamis said he’s heard his share of horror stories from friends in Chicago and that it would be a bigger help in large cities like there.

“In Springfield, other than one block by the hospital and the Capitol, I really don’t ride anywhere that there are (parked) cars,” he said. “In a big city, you have miles and miles of cars parked on both sides. “

After some raised concerns of forcing an unfunded mandate, the K-8 education bill was amended to be more flexible, giving districts discretion on how and when they would put bike safety in their curriculum.

In 2015, the most recent data available, there were 48 crashes involving cyclists in Sangamon County, with 49 injuries and no fatalities, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Statewide that year, there were 3,286 crashes involving cyclists, with 26 fatalities.

Contact Maximilian Kwiatkowski: 788-1530, mkwiatkowski@sj-r.com, twitter.com/MSFKwiat.

Statehouse bills would increase drivers’ awareness of bike safety

Pritzker ‘glad’ to see McCann amplify Rauner’s negatives

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URBANA, Ill (WCIA) — Democratic nominee J.B. Pritzker praised the newest candidate to jump into the governor’s race during a campaign stop at the University of Illinois on Saturday, calling Republican party defector Sam McCann a “fine human being” and a “public servant.” 

“Anybody who raises their hand, and particularly those who recognize that Bruce Rauner has been an utter and complete failure, I of course am glad to see them in the race to amplify that message,” Pritzker said ahead of a meeting with the College Democrats of Illinois. 

“The truth is, I share really nothing much in common with Sam McCann on the issues,” Pritzker said. “But I think he is a fine human being and certainly a public servant. So I am glad he has decided to run.”

“Pritzker thinks a guy who lied about being in the Marines and scams his campaign donors is a fine person and public servant,” Rauner campaign spokesman Will Allison fired back. “That says a lot about Pritzker and the Chicago Machine’s attempt to use dirty tricks to sway this election.”

McCann’s presence in the race as a Conservative Party candidate threatens to narrow Governor Bruce Rauner’s slim pathway to re-election. In wooing conservative, downstate voters, McCann presents an obstacle preventing Rauner from mending fences with a conservative voter base that has grown frustrated with his willingness to sign bills into law protecting immigrants and expanding abortion access.

Moments after making his campaign announcement official on Thursday, McCann highlighted his downstate credentials before tying the governor to the same “Chicago machine” that Rauner so often reviles.

“What I have seen is that when Chicago Rauner is in the governor’s chair working in concert with that Chicago machine, what we get is worse,” McCann said. “The last three and a half years of Rauner have been worse than the first four years of [former governor Pat] Quinn.”

Casting himself as a reform-minded outsider, Rauner rode to an easy election victory against incumbent Pat Quinn in 2014. He campaigned on a promise to flush the political influence of organized labor out of Springfield, and he won every county in the state outside the Democratic stronghold of Cook County.

Three and a half years later, labor groups are sponsoring McCann’s effort to exact revenge against Rauner. The most recent union to donate to McCann endorsed Pritzker for governor and has been known to fund House Speaker Michael Madigan’s efforts to purge his political rivals from the statehouse. Rauner’s campaign pointed to the labor contribution as evidence McCann was “a pawn being used by Democrats.” The Illinois Republican Party slammed McCann as “the perfect crook to cut a deal with Pritzker and Madigan.”

“Well, Bruce Rauner is a liar,” Pritzker responded on Saturday. “He continues to be a failure as governor. So it is not surprising to me that on day one of Sam McCann’s campaign, he comes out swinging against him and goes negative because that is all he’s got. That is his only shot really at winning the election is to go negative. We have put forward a real program for progress in the state of Illinois, improving the lives of working families, and that is what I am going to focus on.

But was there a coordinated effort to recruit McCann as a conservative attack dog to hobble Rauner?

“Oh no, there was absolutely none,” he said. 

Pritzker ‘glad’ to see McCann amplify Rauner’s negatives