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[23 Jul 2018 | No Comment | ]

Anyone watching their TV recently may have been startled to see—months earlier than most political spots usually arrive—a TV ad promoting the accomplishments of U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Wheaton.

The ad now has disappeared from the airwaves. But consider it an omen of what’s to come.

As the battle for the U.S. House winds up, the fight over whether to keep or dump the embattled Roskam or replace him with Democratic nominee Sean Casten could make you yearn for a few more J.B. Pritzker and Bruce Rauner ads by the time it’s over.

Big money—some of it controlled by the candidates and fully reported, some of from identified outside groups, and some from heaven knows where—are going to hit. And even if Vladimir Putin stays far away, tracking it is going to be one heck of a task.

Officially, according to Federal Election Commission records, we know that Roskam had $2.3 million on hand as of the latest reporting date, June 30, and Casten’s $647,000. But those numbers are changing quickly, and that’s before outside spending from “independent” groups comes in.

Like the $209,000 the American Chemistry Council spent on the Roskam spot.

The ad hails Roskam’s work on behalf of the tax bill that Congress approved under strong pleadings by President Donald Trump. The congressman “fought to reform our nation’s tax code to lower taxes for middle class families so they can keep more of their hard earned money,” said ACC President and CEO Cal Dooley in a statement. “His leadership on tax reform has also benefited businesses by allowing them to reinvest in their employees in Illinois and across America.”

Casten’s campaign sees it a lot differently.

It emphasizes that the chemistry council’s members include units of major petroleum companies including BP, Chevron, Occidental and Total, all of which received big benefits from the tax bill. Roskam further voted to open oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and restrict federal limits on methane emissions in oil drilling on federal land, it says. More generally, says Casten, “As a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, Peter Roskam has done a lot of favors for big corporations—not the least of which was giving them billions of dollars in tax cuts in the tax bill he authored. Now these corporate PACs are repaying him for those favors—and hoping for more.”

But in an issue with clear differences, Team Roskam is not backing down. Says his spokeswoman, “It’s no surprise American small businesses are standing behind Peter Roskam, who has fought to create jobs, lower taxes on hard-working Illinoisans and reduce regulations.” Repealing the tax cuts will cost middle-class families “up to $4,000 a year,” she adds, and supporting Obamacare means higher health insurance premiums.

Casten’s campaign says it’s seen other outside spending, on mail pieces, from the American Life Sciences Innovation Council and Alliance for Patient Access.

FEC disclosures, which tend to run weeks behind, show $106,000 in outside spending on Casten’s behalf so far, and $57,000 to help Roskam.

Get ready for more.

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[23 Jul 2018 | No Comment | ]

The GOP candidates for state treasurer and comptroller are trying to revive an old idea that has been debated on and off for decades in Illinois: whether to merge the two offices in hopes of saving taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

The two Democrats who now hold those offices, Treasurer Mike Frerichs and Comptroller Susana Mendoza, are divided on the proposal. But aides to both suggest that politics more than government efficiency is at play.

The merger proposal comes from Jim Dodge, running for treasurer, and former state Rep. Darlene Senger, who in a joint statement urged the Legislature to merge the two into a new position of chief financial officer, like many other states have done.

“Illinois is facing a budget shortfall and a politician surplus. We urge the Legislature to save taxpayer dollars by consolidating the offices of treasurer and comptroller,” the two said, claiming the move “could save taxpayers between $12 million and $14 million” a year. “Mike Frerichs and Susana Mendoza should be a part of the Illinois budget solution, not part of the problem,” said Dodge.

The statement went on to note that a merger proposal cleared the Illinois Senate in 2012 but was blocked in the House by Speaker Mike Madigan. It failed to note that Frerichs, then a member of the Senate, voted for the proposal and says he still favors it.

“I voted to put (the merger) on the ballot,” Frerichs told me in a phone call. “Unlike Republicans, I’ve supported this idea whether Republicans or Democrats have held these jobs. When Leslie Munger was comptroller (she was unseated by Mendoza in the 2014 election), silence. . . .Why didn’t Republicans say something then?”

Frerichs also challenged whether the $12 million to $14 million in potential savings are real or “something in a press release.” In fact, his entire annual operating budget is only $7.6 million, Frerichs said.

Dodge challenged Frerichs to do more if he actually favors a merger, and not just watch Madigan kill the idea. “Where’s the advocacy?”

Mendoza, in a statement, said there’s good reason for the state to have two financial watchdogs, one (the comptroller) that pays bills and the other (the treasurer) in charge of investments.

“The framers of the state constitution were familiar with the potential for corruption in having one officer in charge of receiving money, investing it and paying it out. That’s because Orville Hodge embezzled $6 million in state funds in the ’50s. That’s $57 million in today’s money—far more than the phony projected savings number,” said a spokesman, referring to the infamous former auditor of public accounts, which later became the comptroller’s office. “Not only could this still happen—it did happen as recently as 2012. Rita Crundwell was the combined comptroller and treasurer of Dixon, Ill. She was convicted of embezzling $53.7 million from the town’s taxpayers.”

The spokesman also pointed to Mendoza’s fight with Gov. Bruce Rauner over refinancing state debts, exchanging bonds that cost interest of 3.5 percent compared to IOUs that carried a 12 percent rate.

Mendoza’s office has an overall budget of $23.2 million a year.

Despite the statements from Frerichs and Mendoza ridiculing the $12 million to $14 million in projected savings, Frerichs used the $12 million figure himself in a 2015 interview with WTTW. Frerichs concedes he said it then, but says he since has come to dout its accuracy.

Traditionally—especially when the late Judy Baar Topinka, a former treasurer and comptroller, wasn’t running—Democrats have held the jobs more often than Republicans. The slots often have served as a launching pad for higher office for people like former Treasurer and later U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, ex-Comptroller and former gubernatorial hopeful Dan Hynes, and Topinka, who ran for governor against Rod Blagojevich.

Merging the offices would require an amendment to the Illinois Constitution.

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[17 Jul 2018 | No Comment | ]

​ They don’t like how President Donald Trump conducted himself at the Helsinki summit meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. But will they take the next step and back legislation that Trump and some Republicans don’t like to protect the inte…

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[5 Jun 2018 | No Comment | ]

Apparently, the third time is the charm for a key Chicago infrastructure project.

Shrugging off two previous turn-downs, the 75th Street Corridor improvement project has been awarded a $132 million federal grant, clearing the way for the first, $474 million phase of what eventually will be a $1 billion project. It’s intended to unsnarl a notorious bottleneck that affects not only Chicago streets and trains, but freight rail traffic nationally.

The money will come from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Fast Lane” discretionary fund. While the biggest impact will be in the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and West Chatham neighborhoods on the South Side, the project is considered a linchpin of the wider Create freight-rail decongestion program.

The federal money—a bit short of the $160 million local officials wanted—will be matched by $111 million from IDOT, $116 million from railroads, $78 million from Cook County, $23 million from Metra and $5 million from Amtrak, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office said in a statement.

Rauner called the award “a tremendous achievement by all of the partners involved,” and no one was disputing that.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both Democrats, hailed the approval as good for the local and national economies. U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., in a phone interview said that despite fears by some officials here, “I’m glad to see the Trump administration based this decision on what was deserved.”

The money will pay to build a large CSX flyover bridge to eliminate intersections with other tracks; a 71st Street underpass just east of Western Avenue that officials say will erase 10,000 hours of motorist delay annually; and new tracks and crossovers on the Belt Railway where trains now travel as slow as 10 mph.

Preliminary construction work is scheduled to begin this fall.

The slightly reduced federal contribution will be made up by increased spending by IDOT, the railroads and other partners, according to IDOT.

An earlier funding request had been rejected by the Obama administration, according to Lipinski, because local contributors had not been secured. The state then tried again, but the Trump administration decided not to make such grants last year, rolling everything into one, much larger pot this year.

Funding for phase two work still is being sought, but the new grant will pay for some preliminary engineering and design, according to IDOT.





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[30 May 2018 | No Comment | ]

They won’t start voting until later today, and because it’s Springfield, some last-minute excitement is possible. But barring the unexpected, Illinois will finally get a full on-time budget for the next fiscal year by tomorrow evening’s deadline, one that Gov. Bruce Rauner will sign into law after winning some last-minute prizes and one that GOP lawmakers are imploring him to approve.

“I’m told it’s a done deal,” said state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, the point person for House Speaker Mike Madigan on budget issues. “But of course things can change at the last minute.”

“Everything’s on track,” said a top Senate Republican source after the four top legislative leaders held one final meeting to review negotiations. “I don’t think anybody’s worried about this blowing up.”

The roughly $38.5 billion spending plan, set for a Senate vote later today, includes no new tax hikes or major fee increases—but of course will utilize revenues from the 33 percent increase in the individual income tax that lawmakers enacted last year over Rauner’s veto. The budget also will benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues that are rising faster than expected with the national economic recovery, an increase in federal aid and at least $66 million in investments of state cash that are rising faster than expected. It also questionably includes $300 million from the projected sale of the Thompson Center downtown even though Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel still disagree over zoning and how to divide the proceeds.

There are some spending cuts, according to insiders, but not as much as some conservatives want.

For example, trims in the Department of Corrections were part of last-minute negotiations, as were some cuts in Human Services spending. The state will keep 5 percent of revenue-sharing that normally would be passed on to local municipalities and will also keep half of last year’s 10 percent haircut, and the budget will assume a $383 million reduction in pension spending by offering some workers an early and partial buyout option.

There also are some spending increases, chief among them $350 million in extra spending on public grade and high schools under terms of the new formula adopted last year. Also included are $50 million more for early childhood education, a 2 percent across-the-board increase for state universities and community colleges and $63 million in back pay for state workers represented by AFSCME.

In one item of particular interest to Chicago and the tech community, it looks like Rauner will get the $500 million in authority for the University of Illinois’ proposed new satellite campus in the South Loop, known as the Discovery Institute. But when and how that money might be released—and whether Rauner had lined up private investment partners—isn’t clear.

I hear different things as to whether the spending plan includes money needed to pay for roadwork in Jackson Park related to the proposed Barack Obama Presidential Center.

Anyhow, assuming the budget clears the Senate later today, it will go to the House for action likely tomorrow, and then to Rauner. With more than $135 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, it won’t be heralded as a fiscal breakthrough. But it will keep the government open and leave the real decisions until after the November gubernatorial election.

Quick action also will get everyone out of town before a news conference scheduled for tomorrow at which a top lawmaker reportedly will be accused of sexual harassment.


Who wins, who loses with graduated Illinois tax? Study spells it out.

‘Road warrior tax’ shows signs of life in Springfield

In Amazon race, Illinois’ trump card is its university system

Update, 4:45 p.m.—The pending budget deal has been posted on the General Assembly’s website. Click on the link and you can read it—all lovely 1,245-pages worth.

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[10 May 2018 | No Comment | ]

O’Hare International Airport is continuing on a roll when it comes to living up to its middle name.Officials from the city and Avianca said today that the airline will begin nonstop service to Guatemala City, Guatemala, and Bogota, Colombia. The latter…

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[7 May 2018 | No Comment | ]

It’s been a while since the last round of scary headlines about voracious Asian carp potentially making their way to Lake Michigan and gobbling up everything but your wading toddler. But environmentalists, fishermen and those who use the Great Lakes for commerce sure haven’t forgotten.

Now there’s a development that ought to help keep both the fish and headlines at bay.

Gov. Bruce Rauner this weekend announced that the state is willing to take the lead as the non-federal sponsor on a program with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to install new locks at Brandon Road, on the Illinois River near Joliet.

Specifically, Rauner released a copy of a letter he has sent to other Great Lakes governors, which says Illinois will serve as sponsor and which expresses Rauner’s “hope that we can come together as a regional coalition of Great Lakes states to protect our lakes, our economy, and our ecosystems.”

The letter and an accompanying statement did not explain if earlier Illinois concerns have been resolved, including who would pay $100 million in capital and $10 million in annual operating costs. But according to Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, chairman of the Illinois River Coordinating Council, “If the corps can address our economic, transportation, environmental, and cost concerns in partnership with Illinois—we have no problem working with other states to enhance our efforts at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam.”

The action is being hailed as good news by Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“Gov. Rauner is recognizing the reality that Illinois voters care deeply about protecting the Great Lakes, and that it’s time to step up with serious actions to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan where they would create economic and ecological havoc,” Learner said in an email. “Investing in protections at Brandon Road to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes is more sensible and cost-effective than trying later to treat the disease.”

Apparently at least one area of disagreement remains: whether to widen the locks to roughly 150 feet, twice their current width. Barge industry officials favor that, but Learner’s group opposes it on the grounds that wider locks give carp more room to maneuver up stream.


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[7 May 2018 | No Comment | ]

Setting up a sharp ideological clash, the Democratic nominee for the 6th Congressional District is taking dead aim at what may be GOP incumbent Peter Roskam’s proudest accomplishment in office: last year’s passage of an overhaul of the federal tax code that slashed rates on corporations and many individuals, especially those in higher income brackets.

In a white paper being released today, Sean Casten asserts the bill that Roskam helped write as chairman of the House tax policy subcommittee is not the job and growth stimulating measure that Roskam claims, but rather a budget-busting shift of resources to “big corporations and the very wealthy” that ultimately could endanger Social Security and Medicare benefits. (You can read the white paper at the end of this story.)

Among other specifics, Casten is calling for full restoration of the federal deduction for state and local taxes, commonly known as SALT, which the new tax law caps at a maximum of $10,000 per year. The Downers Grove businessman also wants to restore the previous top rate for millionaires, reverse the cut in rates on pass-through income and eliminate the cap on taxes for Social Security to better preserve that program.

But even before Casten released the plan, Roskam in a statement accused him of backing an increase in the gasoline tax, an indication Casten “will vote to increase taxes on small businesses and families every occasion he gets.” I’d look for more blowback from Roskam, who contends the federal tax law will give almost all taxpayers some kind of break, at least initially.

In the paper, Casten takes a bold position on a complex issue that may cut in different ways politically. He’s competing in a largely upper-middle-class west suburban district that’s been a GOP stronghold for decades but that some political insiders now think is vulnerable to a Democratic challenge.

Despite “all of the noise coming from Roskam,” the law at its core is “a massive tax cut for the 1 percent,” Casten told me in a phone interview. “I’d like to talk about the reality of what this bill is doing to the economy.”





The reality, Casten said, is that tens of thousands of families in the 6th District are being negatively impacted by the new SALT cap, which will force some to pay more taxes despite a higher standard deduction in the law. Casten pointed to research by the Tax Policy Center, a Washington-based research unit affiliated with the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute. It found the 6th District, which is in a state and region with relatively high property taxes, has the 12th-highest percentage of taxpayers claiming the SALT deduction—nearly half—of all 435 congressional districts nationwide.

Roskam may not appreciate that, but Illinois Republicans do, Casten continued, noting that a majority of Republicans in the Illinois House, including GOP Leader Jim Durkin and several reps whose districts cover part of the 6th, recently voted for a bill to provide Illinois residents a workaround that will allow full deductibility again, if the IRS allows it. The measure, which would set up a charitable contribution in lieu of paying state and local taxes, is pending in the Illinois Senate.

Casten also wants to return the top rate for taxable income over $1 million to 39.6 percent from the new law’s 37 percent, and repeal what he calls “horribly regressive” rates on pass-through entities, such as limited liability corporations. The energy efficiency firm that Casten ran until announcing his campaign for Congress was such an entity, Casten said, but it is not right to “shift the tax burden from owners to workers, who aren’t eligible for this break.”

Another item in Casten’s proposal would eliminate the cap on taxable income for Social Security and Medicare. His campaign cited research from one activist group, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, that lifting the cap without raising benefits would eliminate 90 percent of the system’s projected long-term shortfall.

However, in response to a question, Casten’s campaign conceded the cap, currently the first $128,400 in income, applies only to Social Security wages. There is no cap on wages for Medicare, but that program remains in jeopardy, a spokesman said.

Casten proposes a somewhat different approach on corporate taxes.

Current rates authorized by the tax overhaul are not sparking investment of pay hikes for businesses as much as rewards for shareholders in the form of stock buybacks, Casten said. “Rather than a general cut in corporate tax rates, we ought to target those cuts to across-the-board acceleration of depreciation, including investment tax credits, bonus depreciation and shortening of overall tax depreciation items. This will give corporations a tax cut when they actually make a capital investment, rather than Roskam’s approach of cutting overall rates and hoping for the best.”

Manufacturers that add jobs ought to get particular tax-credit help, Casten said. And Congress should consider an idea that Roskam and Republicans pondered but ultimately rejected: border adjustment taxes “negotiated with our trading partners.”

Casten’s bottom line: “Rather than cutting the retirement benefits that millions of Americans have worked for and deserve, we ought to revisit the tax bill that Roskam helped ram through Congress with not a single Democratic vote. . . .About 80 percent of its benefits are going to big corporations and the very wealthy, while it adds $2.3 trillion to the federal debt.”

Casten’s comment on gasoline taxes came in a radio interview in which he suggested such a move is needed pay for road and other infrastructure work, which have been sharply underfunded in recent years. Investing in infrastructure pays quick economic benefits and is different from normal government spending, Casten told me. “If a gas tax is the only way to pay the bill, then, yeah.”


Roskam’s office responds, via a spokeswoman:

“Sean Casten’s entire tax policy can be summed up in two words: raise taxes. Casten not only promises to raise taxes on hard-working Illinois families by repealing the recent tax cuts that are already creating jobs and improving the economy, but he also supports Mike Madigan’s plan to raise property taxes and just last week called for an increase in the gasoline tax for everyone who drives an automobile.”

The spokeswoman notably did not answer any of Casten’s specific critiques of the tax overhaul, suggesting only that it is working.

Casten white paper on taxes by AnnRWeiler on Scribd

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[12 Apr 2018 | No Comment | ]

Another day, another bad poll for Gov. Bruce Rauner—and this one is really bad.

According to the survey out today from Morning Consult, Rauner’s popularity with Illinois voters continues to drop, with just 26 percent of those questioned saying they approve of his job performance. With 60 percent disapproving, that gives him a net approval rating of -34 percent, the lowest by far for any governor seeking re-election this year. By comparison, Wisconsin’s 43 percent/50 percent rating for Gov. Scott Walker shows him a bit shopworn, but still within range of clawing out a third term.

Summarizes Morning Consult, “Rauner dropped 10 percentage points in the first three months of the year. He emerged victorious in a March 20 primary contest against state Rep. Jeanne Ives, winning by almost 3 points. Three in 5 Illinois voters disapprove of Rauner’s job performance as he looks to hold off Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker.”

Now, like all surveys, this one isn’t perfect, even if Team Pritzker did quickly seize on the new results, with spokeswoman Galia Slayen saying the incumbent is “stumbling through the general election and losing support by the day.”

But if the firm’s work is bad, it’s bad in favor of Republicans. Its latest ranking, conducted online with 275,000 voters in all 50 states, found that the top 10 governors in terms of popularity are Republicans.

Rauner and Ives certainly have not patched up things since the bitter GOP primary, and may not have even met. By comparison, all of Pritzker’s major Democratic rivals immediately lined up behind his campaign.


Rauner trash-talks his own state—as Amazon looks on

The Rauner economy? Impasse surely took toll on Illinois jobs.

Rauner 2.0: Does he still have time to turn things around?

Update, 4 p.m.— Rauner, in an interview I had with him today on another subject, confirmed that he and Ives did indeed have a brief meeting yesterday.

“We spoke last night. I saw her at (Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery),” Rauner told me. “I went over to shake hands, and we promised to get together soon.”

Translation: The great post-primary thaw that Rauner badly needs to unite his base before November and reverse terrible polls like the one above may be under way. I have a call in to Ives to get her side of things.

Update, 5 p.m.— Call off the armistice.

I finally got Ives on the phone and she flatly denies any deal or understanding with Rauner to talk peace.

Both happened to be at the same restaurant for separate events, and when Rauner came in, he started working the tables, including hers. “He said hello, and moved on….We agreed on nothing,” with no discussion of a meeting.

So, was the governor lying? “If he said there was an agreement to meet, yes.”

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[5 Apr 2018 | No Comment | ]

The folks who’ve been trying to take electoral reapportionment out of the hands of pols who are interested only in electing themselves and their buddies are trying a new approach. Though the odds against it are long, it may be worth a try in these unsettled times.

The new tack: put the decision in the hands of voters, by making sure they know exactly where the mapmakers—otherwise known as state senators and representatives—stand on the question of gerrymandering.

The new plan comes from a coalition including Change Illinois, a business-backed advocacy group that’s been around a few years, plus the Better Government Association, Common Cause Illinois, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Union League Club of Chicago and others.

The group has devised and will distribute to every legislative candidate this fall a questionnaire asking them to specifically say whether they back creation of an independent commission that would draft legislative and congressional maps. Candidates also would be asked if they would co-sponsor such a reform, require more time before decisions and more.

“Our goal is to get all of the candidates on the record,” says spokesman Jeff Raines. “That way, any voter who cares about this issue, as 72 percent in polls say they do, know” who’s with them and not.

Of course, that still leaves the Illinois courts, which twice in recent years have tossed out on technical reasons remap reform plans that had the backing of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.

In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court has been hinting lately that it would do something about an electoral process that, in much of the country, has become so rigged we might as well cancel the election and save the money. As with this new questionnaire campaign, one can hope.