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Friday, Mar 27, 2009

* Too many things going on this past week. Barely had time to breathe. Glad it’s over. Nap time.

* I love this tune, which comes to us from a fine Chicago band…


Siobhan is on the whiskey, Siobhan is on the gin,
Siobhan is drinking Red Bull and Vodka and won’t be home again.
I stay up late here every night, although it is no sin,
Siobhan is on the whiskey and she won’t be home again

- Posted by Rich Miller   Comments Off      


We’re not as hostile as you might think

Friday, Mar 27, 2009

* It turns out, we’re not so bad. At least according to a new report from Ball State University’s Miller College of Business…

The report lists Illinois’ overall attractiveness to manufacturers as 9th of the 50 states. The list is headed by Utah, followed by Indiana, Missouri, Kansas and Alabama.

One problem, of course, is that the much higher ranked Indiana and Missouri are right next door.

Michael Hicks, who headed the research team at Ball State, said that while surveys of overall business climate generally favor Southern and Western states, Illinois and the Midwest contain geographic and infrastructure advantages that are valuable to factory owners.

Thus, while Illinois got a “D” for tax climate, its lowest grade, it received an “A” for global position and a “B” for human capital, with an overall grade of “B-.”

In comparison, Texas, often considered a great state for business, received a grade of “F” on the quality of its work force.

Take that, you illiterate cowboys.

Illinois received a “C” rating in “logistics.” The grade for that category is partially based on “infrastructure spending as the per capita expenditure on highway construction.”

A capital bill would improve our ranking, not to mention create jobs and do a lot of good in the process.

* But how much good will the guv’s capital bill really do?

Greg Hinz shows how the guv’s infrastructure plan is not all it’s cracked up to be, and that mass transit is getting the short end of the stick

Mr. Quinn says his plan overall would spend $26 billion on roads, transit, schools, broadband and other infrastructure. But only $8.7 billion of that money is new — specifically bonds that would be financed in part by an income tax hike and by increases in vehicle-license fees. And only a fraction of that, $1.5 billion, would be available for transit, state officials confirm.

More…

“The capital plan proposed in Springfield isn’t enough to even keep the current [mass transit] infrastructure in its current condition, much less make the investment needed to meet growing demand,” said Brian Imus, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group.

* Because holding down utility costs also helps manufacturing, let’s take a look at yet another Crain’s story. The governor appears set to appoint his policy director, Michelle Saddler, as ICC chair…

Sources caution that there’s a small chance someone else might emerge as Gov. Quinn’s choice. While Ms. Saddler is described as a “quick study,” she has no experience in the arcane, legalistic field of utility regulation. An announcement is expected within the next few weeks.

Considering that the current ICC Chairman is the former mayor of Rockford, that lack of experience shouldn’t be a huge problem. Still, what is it with the governor’s inexperienced appointments?

This is a very important appointment because of the current ICC makeup…

If she’s appointed, Ms. Saddler is expected to take the commission, which has been accused of being too cozy with utilities, in a new direction. Four of the five commissioners frequently split between consumer- and utility-friendly positions, leaving the chairman, Charles Box, to cast the deciding vote on requests to raise rates. Mr. Box, an appointee of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, often sided with the utilities

Blagojevich always talked a good game about utilities, but he packed the ICC with pro-utility hacks.

Let’s take a short trip down memory lane…

Officials at the state’s largest electric utility have been interviewed as part of a federal corruption investigation with ties to Gov. Rod Blagojevich. A spokeswoman for Commonwealth Edison, which serves 3.8 million customers in Northern Illinois, acknowledged the company’s involvement in the probe Thursday, which has targeted Christopher Kelly, a friend and former adviser to the governor. […]

Kelly’s company, BCI Roofing, began doing roofing work for ComEd in 2003, the same year Blagojevich took office as the first Democrat governor in 25 years.

Blagojevich made a ton of pro-utility moves in 2003, and it may not be hard to figure out why.

- Posted by Rich Miller   Comments Off      


Protected: SUBSCRIBERS ONLY - More on those speed cameras

Friday, Mar 27, 2009

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Protected: SUBSCRIBERS ONLY - Steans; Harris; Ryg; Lang; The Big Roundup (use all caps in password)

Friday, Mar 27, 2009

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Question of the day

Friday, Mar 27, 2009

* Is it too early to talk about baseball season? If not, then how well do you think the White Sox will do? Also, how badly do you think the Flubs will blow it… again?

- Posted by Rich Miller   43 Comments      


Please, slow down

Friday, Mar 27, 2009

* I’m not unalterably opposed to proposals like this

Proposals in both the House and Senate would allow governments in heavily populated counties to install camera-radar mechanisms on accident-prone thoroughfares.

“People are driving just too darned fast,” Rep. Joseph Lyons, a Chicago Democrat who’s sponsoring the proposal with Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, said Thursday.

The cameras would take photos of license plates on cars moving too fast. Violators would get a $100 ticket in the mail, but the infraction would not count against the number of moving violations necessary to suspend a driver’s license.

At a state Capitol news conference, Link and Lyons cited federal statistics showing 520 speed-related deaths in Illinois in 2007. They claimed cameras have reduced accidents in El Paso, Texas, by 80 percent; annual crashes in Dayton, Ohio, by 37 percent; and that cameras monitoring red-light runners in Chicago since 2003 have reduced that problem by 55 percent.

This looks like a good idea which will save lives.

My generic objection to all of these sorts of proposals - including the overuse of home confinement - is that we may be making it too cheap and easy for the government to penalize and incarcerate us.

Now, I don’t wear a tinfoil hat and I don’t believe we’re in immediate or even longterm danger of becoming one big prison, but the easier and cheaper it is to ding us or lock us up, then it is logical to assume that more of us will be dinged or involuntarily confined.

* The Tribune editorialized in favor of the bills today, but offered up a caveat

Municipalities should use these only in areas that are known to be hazardous, where speeding is a real problem. And they should rig them to catch only the worst scofflaws, not the driver who creeps up to 35 in a 30-m.p.h. zone. Just as the average cop allows drivers a margin over the posted speed limits depending on conditions, so too should these cameras. (In Arizona, cameras on highways are set to issue tickets at 11 m.p.h over the posted limit. Sounds fair.) The point here is to reduce recklessness, not dun every driver who happens to harmlessly drift a few miles over the posted limit.

Still, if not watched carefully, bureaucracies will always tend to take their mandates to a relative extreme.

Again, I’m in no way suggesting that we’re all gonna be imprisoned in a vast, statewide jail. I just wish that legislators would try to think about how they’re making punishment too cheap and easy when voting for bills like this.

I’m interested to hear what you think.

- Posted by Rich Miller   44 Comments      


J-Kid slammed, Quinn defiant

Friday, Mar 27, 2009

* ISPeeved, an anonymous blog for state police troopers, is a bit, um, peeved at the choice of Jonathon Monken as the new Illinois State Police Director. Monken has no police experience and is just 29 years old. He’s been nicknamed J-Kid by the blog administrator.

Dusty Rhodes has the inside scoop on how Monken was picked. Apparently, he’s buddies with the new (and also very young) director of the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs Dan Grant…

[Monken] was interested in something like deputy chief of staff for military relations, or a senior advisor post like the one his buddy Grant had just vacated.

She also has internal react, which mirrors many of the ISPeeved comments…

“We’re all mortified. This is a slap in the face,” one near-retirement-age officer told me. “Being a good soldier doesn’t mean that you’re a good cop. Knowledge would be nice too, especially when a cop-type thing comes up.”

“Who is this guy and where did he come from? No one knows. Everybody’s befuddled. I think everybody’s shocked,” another high-ranking officer told me.

* Monken faces stiff opposition in the Illinois Senate, which must confirm his nomination…

Monken is well-suited to many state government jobs, but his skills don’t match up to what is needed for a state police director, said state Sen. Willie Delgado, D-Chicago, a former parole agent.

“I find it very concerning that Governor Quinn is so adamant about this,” Delgado said.

“I have reservations about having to cast a vote and sleep at night, knowing how it may impact the rest of the team, the state troopers, for morale, discipline and wondering what will it take to get promoted.”

More

“If he’s never been in any of those agencies, doesn’t know what those agencies do, hasn’t even been a police officer, hasn’t even been to the police academy, it would be very difficult to make those very tough decisions,” said Sen. John Millner, a Carol Stream Republican who was once police chief in Elmhurst.

More

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) cast further uncertainties about Monken’s chances of Senate confirmation and wants to meet with Quinn and Monken to “address concerns about his background,” Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said.

* But the governor is promising a fight

“I think Jon Monken is a very good person for this, and so we are not going to yield at all,” Quinn said. “We’re going to go eyeball to eyeball with some of these senators and ask them to take a second look and examine their conscience.” […]

“I just think that’s very wrong, and we’re not going to let them get away with it,” Quinn said.

He can’t win this one.

* Related…

* Illinois State Police lab, and new director’s inexperience, under fire

* State Police Have Backlog Problem

* Audit: Backlog at state police forensic labs hurts criminal cases

* Growing DNA backlog hampering authorities

* Audit: Forensic backlog hurts criminal cases

* Madigan warns state police to comply with orders to expunge records

- Posted by Rich Miller   42 Comments      


Budget shenanigans abound

Friday, Mar 27, 2009

* Keep in mind when reading this story about Blagojevich lies and incompetence that Gov. Quinn still has the same budget folks on board who touted this supposedly money-saving idea last year…

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich said closing Pontiac Correctional Center would save taxpayers about $4 million.

But a review of the costs associated with his failed plan to shutter the maximum-security lock-up shows that taxpayers have shelled out at least $4.1 million to pay for something that never happened. […]

The $4.1 million price-tag is based mainly on what the state paid or is under contract to pay in order to prepare Thomson Correctional Center to accept inmates from Pontiac.

The estimate does not account for some of the transportation costs related to the transfer of inmates throughout the state’s sprawling prison system that was under way before Gov. Pat Quinn scuttled Blagojevich’s plan.

According to state purchasing documents and interviews with state officials, it has cost an estimated $2.6 million to hire and house 208 additional correctional officers, all of whom now apparently will be farmed out to other prisons.

* Meanwhile, the CTA wants to pull a Filan and skip a big pension payment…

The Chicago Transit Authority is floating a plan to close a $155-million budget hole without raising fares, cutting service or boosting the size of its public subsidy.

But the proposal faces a very tough sales job in Springfield, where lawmakers would have to agree to allow the CTA to at least temporarily reduce contributions to its employee pension plan.

Details…

But the key to the plan is $40 million Ms. Brown would like to save by reducing mandatory CTA contributions to its pension fund.

Under a deal worked out last year in Springfield, the CTA restructured the plan, with workers agreeing to cut their benefits and the CTA agreeing to refinance it with a large bond issue.

The bonds were issued and proceeds turned over to the fund, which according to Ms. Brown now has a relatively healthy 84% ratio of assets to potential liabilities. But the agency still has to pay $132 million a year in debt service on the bonds and $58 million a year in annual pension contributions.

Ms. Brown says that’s not all needed, and wants to reduce the $58 million payment to about $18 million, at least for now.

Speaker Madigan apparently isn’t enthused, but this is exactly what Gov. Quinn wants to do with state pension plans, which have a far lower assets to liability ratio than the CTA’s pension fund does.

* The SJ-R thinks Quinn’s budget is too hard on state workers and says a Chicago casino is a better alternative…

Quinn told us Thursday that his budget’s critics must offer alternatives and not “chirp on the sidelines.” We continue to believe a downtown Chicago casino is a viable revenue-generating vehicle. While crafting a gambling bill is difficult because of the myriad interests that have to be satisfied, we’re not sure it’s any harder than coming to a deal on these changes with public employee unions.

The Springfield newspaper, which often bashes Chicago politics, is now willing to give the city a casino?

* And the Ag Director wants fee hikes

llinois’ budget mess has reached the point that the director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture said Thursday it can no longer rely on the state’s general-revenue checkbook to pay for farm programs.

Tom Jennings wants to eventually make the agency self-supporting, and he has proposed starting with fee increases expected to bring in $2.9 million annually. The proposal includes raising more than two dozen fees ranging from fuel-pump inspections to costlier state fair admissions and charges for previously free services.

OK, but what happens when the governor (whomever it might be) inevitably raids the department’s special funds?

- Posted by Rich Miller   20 Comments      


Morning Shorts

Friday, Mar 27, 2009

* Recession hits kids sports: Out-of-work parents pressed for big fees

* IIT kills basketball: Men’s and women’s programs are shut down

* All aboard: high speed rail coming to Chicago?

* Union, Boeing avoid strike

* Navistar cuts jobs at bus plant

* Buyers Market

* Fed grant to help with renovation of Cultural District

* Passenger Travel Down at Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria Int’l Airport

New numbers released on Peoria’s airport show passenger travel dropped more than 20–percent compared to last February.

* Grant to restore Ill. Confederate cemetery

A Confederate graveyard and memorial in the Mississippi River city of Alton will be getting a $250,000 upgrade, paid for by the federal economic stimulus measure Congress passed.

* Peotone airport: Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget offers hope for backers of proposed Will County facility

* Quinn announces $30 million available for counties affected by storms and flooding last year

* Burst Of Energy Money

The Obama administration is giving more than 112 million dollars to the state of Illinois to improve energy efficiency.

* Chicago schools report: Group wants officials to improve communication with parents

* Aide to former Chicago alderman gets 3 years

A former aide to convicted Chicago Alderman Arenda Troutman has been sentenced to three years in prison for mail fraud.

* Daley kin lawyer up

Mayor Daley’s son and nephew have hired a criminal defense attorney to represent them in the ongoing investigation of their investment in a sewer-cleaning company that won millions of dollars in no-bid contract extensions from City Hall.

Charles Sklarsky, a former federal prosecutor now with the law firm of Jenner & Block, confirmed Thursday he is representing Patrick Daley and his cousin Robert Vanecko.

Hoffman recently issued subpoenas to three city pension funds for records involving DV Urban Realty. One of those funds, the Chicago police pension fund, is refusing to comply with Hoffman’s subpoena. Hoffman doesn’t have the authority to subpoena records from the pension fund, its attorney David Kugler said Thursday.

Vanecko and Davis are guaranteed $3 million in fees for managing the pension fund investments under a deal that runs through Dec. 31, 2014. Among the real estate deals in which they have invested so far, they have bought an apartment building at 1212 S. Michigan and loaned $1 million to help restaurateur Matthew O’Malley redevelop the former Chicago Defender building.

* Police Union to Protest When Olympic Committee Visits Chicago?

* Calls to 911 ’simply vanish’

Burned before by a faulty computer-aided dispatch system, the Chicago Fire Department waited a year to move into the 911 center and continued to dispatch emergency vehicles manually for months after they got there because of computer software problems.

“Any time you do any computer upgrades, you experience some issues,” Martinez said Thursday. “Considering this is the first major upgrade they’ve done in 10 years, they’ve been extremely pleased with the technology.”

* Weis picks Latino for Internal Affairs

Juan Rivera was promoted to chief of Internal Affairs after most recently serving as deputy chief of the Grand Central Area.

The announcement comes about a month after Hispanic clergy met with Weis about the lack of Latinos in high-ranking positions — noting that three of 25 districts were headed by Hispanics and that there were no Hispanics among the four deputy superintendents and seven chiefs.

Also promoted Thursday were Roberto Zavala, from commander of the Ogden District to deputy chief of the Grand Central Area, and Berscott Ruiz, a lieutenant in the Ogden District, to commander of the district.

* Pedestrian danger zones: Kankakee County town posts highest per-capita traffic accident rate in greater suburban Chicago area

Hopkins Park, a small town in Kankakee County, had more traffic accidents involving pedestrians per capita during a recent three-year period than any other town in the greater suburban Chicago area, according to a study released Thursday.

* Failure to rein in drunks killed more than parade

* Drunken parade reveler: Don’t blame me for parade cancellation

* City worker happy St. Pat’s parade ended

* Illinois State Toll Highway Authority: Board offers temporary clemency to toll scofflaws

Facing public outrage and a legislative effort by lawmakers, the tollway board voted unanimously to immediately implement a “toll violation spring cleaning program,” effectively eliminating a $50 surcharge on each fine through June 30.

* Tollway proposes scofflaw system reforms

- Posted by Mike Murray   4 Comments      


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Friday, Mar 27, 2009

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- Posted by Rich Miller   Comments Off      


Time for a rethink?

Friday, Mar 27, 2009

* My Sun-Times column looks at the governor’s tax increase from a somewhat different angle

Gov. Pat Quinn’s income tax increase plan may be good public policy, but it’s probably very bad politics.

The governor wants to shield low- and moderate-income working families by tripling the state income tax’s personal exemptions, from $2,000 to $6,000, while increasing the income tax rate by a point and a half.

Too many numbers can make the eyes glaze over, but try to stay with me a few more seconds.

Under Quinn’s plan, a family of four with an adjusted gross income of $30,000 would receive a $390 tax cut. A single person making $30,000 would be hit with a $240 tax increase. A family of four with a $56,000 annual income would pay no extra taxes. A single mother with one child who makes $56K would pay $420 more. Etc.

Clear?

No?

I can relate.

It’s complicated. And complicated tax proposals can scare the daylights out of your average, everyday state legislator.

Heck, even when things aren’t complicated, the voters can often draw the wrong conclusion.

For instance, Ohio has cut its income tax rates by 21 percent since 2005. Yet, a new statewide poll taken by Hart Research Associates discovered that a mere 8 percent of Ohioans knew their income taxes had been reduced. A third of Ohioans actually thought their taxes had increased. The rest either didn’t know or figured their tax rates were about the same.

Ohioans aren’t especially stupid or ignorant, and that poll result isn’t really all that surprising.

Lots of people believed their income taxes were raised by former President Bill Clinton, even though his first-term tax increases focused on the wealthy. People are (rightfully) cynical and just don’t pay very close attention to the news, or, apparently, their pay stubs. They see the words “tax increase,” and figure they’ve been dinged.

Meanwhile, much of the “person on the street” reporting since Quinn unveiled his tax idea has focused on angry, worried folks who were certain that their taxes would increase so high that they’d have to get another job or cut way back on essentials in order to stay even. Many probably have little or nothing to worry about. But you’d never know it by their reactions or the reporting.

And because our current income tax rate is just 3 percent, Quinn’s 1.5 percentage point increase turns out to be a whopping 50 percent increase. “Quinn proposes 50 percent tax increase” is an incredibly scary headline, regardless of the real-life impact on taxpayer pocketbooks.

So, if people will cynically believe that their tax burden will increase regardless of the facts, and the media misreports the tax proposal in the first place, and potential political opponents will undoubtedly take full advantage of all that cynicism, ignorance, anger and confusion, what incentive does the average state legislator have to vote for Quinn’s plan?

Quinn says he’s willing to lose the election in order to do what’s right. But how many legislators will follow him off that cliff?

Because Quinn’s tax increase includes the exemption “reform,” it doesn’t raise much money to patch the state’s gaping budget deficit. So, there’s a lot of talk in Springfield of cutting Quinn’s tax increase way back, forgetting about the exemption reform and raising about the same amount of cash.

Some are willing to phase in the exemption reform over a few years. Others have suggested borrowing money to close the deficit and paying it back with a possible tax increase down the road.

There are sound policy reasons to do what Quinn wants to do. But political reality in Chicago and Cook County — where voters are already super-hostile to any talk of tax increases — means the governor’s idea could use a major rethink.

Thoughts?

- Posted by Rich Miller   65 Comments      


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