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Unsolicited advice

Thursday, Jul 26, 2012

* Dear Chicago Tribune editorial board,

I was looking up something else and came across this passage in a recent Trib editorial where y’all laid out your own pension reform plan

We can think of multiple reasons, Governor, for legislators to reject this template. But they were elected — all of you were elected — to deliver solutions. To be leaders. If the four caucus heads embraced the deal we’re proposing and told their members that it has to pass or they’ll face campaign funding and other harsh consequences, it would pass.

Threatening to withhold campaign contributions in explicit exchange for a vote in the General Assembly would be a hugely illegal quid pro quo that could land everybody involved in federal or state prison. Demanding such a course of action is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in any editorial page anywhere at any time.

Please, take a breath. You’re scaring me.

* Dear Southern Illinoisan editorial board,

You ended your editorial today about the possible closure of Tamms with this paragraph

There is no shame in embracing a compromise, Gov. Quinn. If that happens, some of the disappointed voters in Southern Illinois might be willing to forgive — if not forget — this damaging misstep before casting gubernatorial votes in 2014.

So, all of southern Illinois’ voters ought to base their votes on the closure of one state prison? This is the issue you want them to think about when they go to the polls? In another editorial, you write

It’s established: Tamms’ closure would be disastrous to Southern Illinois’ economy.

You mean to tell me that the loss of 250 jobs (that aren’t really being “lost” because pretty much everybody will be offered other jobs at other facilities) will be “devastating” to a region that’s thousands of square miles? How many people has your own newspaper laid off in the last decade? Have you ever editorialized about those job losses and the impact they’ve had on your community?

* Dear Champaign News Gazette editorial board,

Pretty much everybody has fallen for this line, so I probably shouldn’t be singling out your editorial today, but I’m going to do it anyway

Each side accuses the other of stalling, and now it looks like no action will be taken on pensions until after the election when it will be easier for lame-duck lawmakers who are not accountable to vote on a proposal. If so, it will be the second time in less than two years that a lame-duck Legislature acted on major legislation that legislators were afraid to tackle before an election — the massive state income tax increase passed early in 2011.

In the meantime, each day without pension reform costs the state about $12.5 million by Quinn’s calculation. If he’s right, the cost of a summer of inaction could reach close to $2 billion.

As I’ve pointed out before, that $12.6 million figure Quinn cites is a great little number guaranteed to be latched onto by the media.

Trouble is, even if all the pension bills passed today, the state would still be piling up that unfunded liability. The bill the Senate passed doesn’t start the reforms until January 1st, so if it becomes law the state would continue accruing that additional unfunded liability until then. The pension systems have asked that any new bills be written so that they don’t take effect until July 1st of next year, meaning that $12.6 million per day would continue accruing until that point.

* Your turn…

- Posted by Rich Miller   31 Comments      


Question of the day

Thursday, Jul 26, 2012

* A new lawsuit has been filed over Illinois’ campaign contribution caps

The legal arm of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute has filed a federal lawsuit asking that Rod Blagojevich-inspired campaign contribution limits be declared unconstitutional because donations from political leaders are not regulated in general elections.

The Liberty Justice Center suit alleges that limits of $5,000 on individuals, $10,000 on corporations and unions, and $50,000 on political action committees violate the equal protection and free speech rights of the Illinois Liberty PAC.

* More

In an action filed in U.S. District Court here this morning, Liberty Justice Center, a conservative/libertarian legal group that counts former gubernatorial hopeful Dan Proft as a director, asks the court to throw out limits on its ability to donate as much as it wants to whomever it wants.

Under the law, political party committees can spend without limit in general elections, but individuals, political action committees and companies are limited to $5,000, $50,000 and $10,000, respectively. […]

With political committees headed by state Democratic Party Chairman and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan alone spending $15 million in the last election cycle, the law is “a scheme to further consolidate power in the hands of party bosses,” said Mr. Proft, who is chairman of Illinois Liberty PAC, the plaintiff in the case. He’s also a talk-show host on WLS-AM/890.

He added, “Party bosses should have to live under the same laws they impose on the rest of us.” […]

The new law already has been watered down twice

The first came when Personal PAC, a pro-abortion-rights group, successfully challenged limits on independent political expenditures. Then the Legislature voted to allow unlimited donations in which an outside independent expenditure of at least $250,000 has been made.

The lawsuit is here.

* React via press release from the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform…

Plaintiffs in this lawsuit are correct that the campaign contributions of parties to candidates should be treated the same way as private interest contributions, but ICPR believes both should be regulated. Plaintiffs are sorely mistaken in suggesting that Illinois should return to the bad old days of Blagojevich-style shake downs and pay-offs, which were disguised as campaign contributions under Illinois’ earlier, unrestricted campaign finance system. […]

We urge the plaintiffs to consider the serious damage its suit may do to public trust in government if successful, and ICPR will continue to defend limits on private giving to candidates.

* The Question: Should political action committees operate under the same contribution limits (both giving and receiving) as party and legislative caucus committees? Take the poll and then explain your answer in comments, please.


- Posted by Rich Miller   19 Comments      


AG Madigan lauds new law as union threatens strike

Thursday, Jul 26, 2012

* Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill to protect debtors yesterday

The governor, who signed the legislation at an event in Chicago, said debt collectors have become so aggressive in some parts of Illinois that they commonly use taxpayer-financed courts, sheriff’s deputies and county jails to squeeze poor people who fall behind on small payments.

The law will make it harder to jail people who miss court dates or are found in contempt of court as they struggle with unpaid debts – a practice that got worse, some say, during the recession.

* Attorney General Lisa Madigan pushed for the bill and issued a press release applauding the signature

The attorney general sought the measure after learning that residents in roughly a third of Illinois’ counties commonly face incarceration when they fail to appear in court over a previously entered judgment to pay a debt. In many of these cases, notices of court hearings were mailed to addresses that were no longer valid, leaving many debtors unaware of the hearings. In spite of the failure to notify the debtors, courts have frequently issued warrants for their arrests.

Compounding the problem, according to the attorney general’s office, is that many victims of these practices are living solely on income that is legally protected from being used to pay outstanding judgment debts, including Social Security, unemployment insurance or veterans’ benefits.

“It is outrageous to think in this day and age that creditors are manipulating the courts, even threatening jail time, to extract whatever they could from people who could least afford to pay — veterans, the unemployed, seniors who rely solely on their benefits to get by each month,” Madigan said. “This law corrects that gross oversight and puts a stop to throwing people in jail for being poor while still allowing fair debt collection when people have the means to pay their debts.”

The new law becomes effective immediately and was sponsored by State Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, and State Sen. William Haine, R-Alton. It also bans abusive and burdensome “pay or appear” orders that are routinely entered against debtors in some Illinois counties. These orders — which usually remain in effect for three years — require debtors to make a monthly payment or appear in court each month to explain why they are unable to pay, even if their financial circumstances have not improved. That means, if a debtor misses just one payment and court hearing, they can end up in jail. Debtors who have been victims of this practice typically owe outstanding medical bills, credit card debts or payday loans.

According to court documents obtained by Madigan’s office, one Illinois court entered a “pay or appear” order against a mentally disabled man living on legally protected disability benefits that provided him with $690 a month. Even though the man informed the court of his circumstances, he was still ordered to either pay $100 a month or appear in court once a month for a three-year period.

By amending the Code of Civil Procedure, the new law codifies and clarifies practices followed by attorneys, creditors and courts across Illinois to ensure courts make a finding of a consumer’s ability to pay before entering a payment order, and it prohibits payment orders that rely on legally protected income and prevents arrest warrants from being issued unless the debtor was personally served with a hearing notice.

* Meanwhile, the Illinois Federation of Public Employees represents 250 paralegal and clerical employees at the Illinois Attorney General’s Office voted overwhelmingly (88 percent) to authorize a strike if negotiations that have last a year aren’t wrapped up soon

Union officials declined to disclose specifics but said they are asking for a “modest” one-time stipend in lieu of a percentage salary increase. The group says it understands the state’s financial squeeze but contends that Madigan’s office received a budget increase this year that could “easily” cover the cost of the stipend.

Madigan spokeswoman Natalie Bauer argues that the budget bump was minuscule — an additional $1.15 million for a total of $32.6 million in general funds — and is required to be spent on worker retirement costs and health insurance. Union members counter that Madigan’s office has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the state this year through settlements with mortgage and pharmaceutical companies that could be used to cover an increase in employee pay.

Since Madigan has been in negotiations, she could’ve tried to muscle through an appropriation for a “modest stipend” for these low-level workers. They have a point.

However, unlike New York, the Illinois AG doesn’t get to keep any of the money she makes via lawsuits for her own budget. That criticism leveled by the union might look good on paper, but it doesn’t represent reality.

- Posted by Rich Miller   21 Comments      


Madigan may call pension bill for vote next month

Thursday, Jul 26, 2012

* Subscribers learned of this development yesterday afternoon

A coalition of labor leaders said Wednesday that House Speaker Michael Madigan is considering asking for a vote on pension cuts for lawmakers and state workers — but not teachers — when lawmakers return to Springfield for one day next month.

Legislation that has already been approved by the Illinois Senate would cut back annual pension benefit increases if workers wanted to keep state-subsidized health care.

Teachers weren’t included in the package because a deal couldn’t be reached over shifting future pension costs of teachers from the state to local schools — an idea Madigan has backed.

Lawmakers are planning to head to Springfield Aug. 17 to debate the possible expulsion of state Rep. Derrick Smith, a Chicago Democrat indicted on bribery charges. But they could do pension work, too, if they wanted to.

Subscribers also found out a lot more this morning about what’s going on.

* React

A coalition of unions representing state employees issued a statement Wednesday slamming the proposal as “unfair” and “unconstitutional.”

“This bill would gut the provision allowing retirees on fixed incomes to keep up with rising costs. It would burden retirees with the overwhelming share of the state’s pension debt, punishing middle-class public servants for the sins of politicians,” according to the statement from the We Are One coalition.

Gov. Pat Quinn has been urging action on pension reform since lawmakers left town in May, but he wants lawmakers to act on a plan that includes pension changes for schoolteachers and university employees.

“I’d like to get to the finish line completely. I think everyone understands the importance in Illinois of comprehensive pension reform,” Quinn told reporters Tuesday. “It’s our moment, and I would really like to see the legislature roll up their sleeves and get the job done sooner rather than later.”

On Wednesday, Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson added, “The governor would like to see all the necessary steps taken to eliminate the unfunded pension liability and restore fiscal stability to Illinois.”

The bill will require a three-fifths vote to pass, so its future is, as they say, “in doubt.”

Thanks to Erickson for the hat tip, by the way.

Discuss.

- Posted by Rich Miller   57 Comments      


Convicted felon to speak at NCSL event, as ALEC mole returns to hype his campaign

Thursday, Jul 26, 2012

* The National Conference of State Legislatures is holding its big annual meeting in Chicago next month. One of the featured speakers on the group’s home page is none other than convicted felon and former bigtime DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff. From the NCSL website

Thursday, 2:15 to 3:30 p.m. at MPW W183b, Level 1

Term limits, no revolving door, no gifts. These reforms are touted by America’s best-known lobbyist/felon, Jack Abramoff. He will defend his ideas in front of a panel of experienced legislators who will talk about ethics reforms in their states and challenge Abramoff on what makes sense.

Apparently Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan weren’t available to speak to the NCSL gathering because they’re still in prison.

* Abramoff spent over three years in federal prison after being convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. He’s been promoting his new book “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.” He was on “60 Minutes” not long ago and said that one reform he’d like to see is a complete prohibition on congressional staff and congresscritters from ever becoming lobbyists.

* Abramoff addressed the Kentucky legislature earlier this year and outlined some reforms he’d like to see

* There is a connection between money and politics. Any gift, no matter how small, is a form of bribery.

* Public officials should not be allowed to accept any gifts, including campaign contributions, from lobbyists or their clients or anyone seeking government awards.

* Politicians are human and humans are grateful to people who do nice things for them. This is how lobbyists gain access.

* Terms limits are necessary for lawmakers and their aides to curb a culture of arrogance.

* There should be a lifetime ban on public officials becoming lobbyists–no revolving door.

* Everything about gambling and gaming is political. Stay away from it, he warns. “Beware of the power of money in that industry.”
And remember that a public servant works for the public, not for lobbyists.

* But as former Washington Post reporter R. Jeffrey Smith wrote, Abramoff remains defiant about his own actions in his new book

When it comes to his own role, Abramoff leaves out some embarrassing details, making a reader suspect that there is still more to tell. And his sensible yet improbable prescriptions — which Abramoff says occurred to him while he was doing time at a minimum-security federal prison in Cumberland — are undercut by the pride with which he recounts his lobbying victories. We are left with an odd mixture of candid revelation, defiant celebration and score-settling, all stuck to a postscript of avowed remorse. […]

He dismisses his numerous critics by claiming that they were engaged in “a bloodbath of slander” or bent on the destruction of his clients. He slams The Washington Post in particular for its “vitriolic attacks.” He said the paper was “thrilled to have another angle of attack” when it published a 2004 article by me about Abramoff’s diversion of funds from an avowed sports charity to pet political causes, a short-lived religious school for his kids and an overseas golf trip. […]

For all of its interesting play-by-play — marred in part by numbing accounts of his golf games with clients — the book skims the surface of Abramoff’s psyche. One explanation for his devotion to such hard-edged lobbying is that a habitual rule-breaker will always gravitate toward a profession where ethical norms are few and enforcement is largely missing. But there are hints of other compulsions, including a desire to outperform lobbyists with more cultivated lifestyles. (He writes with relish that his clients and tactics left the partners at Preston Gates squirming “at their wine and brie parties.”)

Even after a few years in prison, Abramoff appears unconvinced that he should be subject to the same rules as others. At one point behind bars, he writes, he violated a rule against circumventing the prison mail system by passing a note to visitors, in hopes of getting a Torah scroll from a local rabbi that he could use to organize a communal reading in prison. Abramoff writes in frustration that the “rabbi ratted me out” and says it was “a badge of honor” to endure another month in prison for having tried to obtain the scroll. He decries the prison’s punishment as “harassment.”

One of the book’s unintended themes is thus that redemption is particularly elusive for those who think they can lobby to get everything they want.

Maybe this wasn’t the best panel choice. We’ll see. Are you going to the conference? What are you planning to do?

* Meanwhile, the ALEC “mole” is back

[Wednesday] is the first day of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) annual meeting. State legislators from around the country will be attending, as will representatives from corporations looking to pitch model legislation.

There will also be spies.

Activists from several progressive groups will sneak into the Salt Lake City conference, (at least, they’ll try), in hopes of capturing some of ALEC’s model legislation. They will be especially motivated now that mass outrage over Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, an ALEC-modeled statute which many presumed would form the basis of George Zimmerman’s legal defense for shooting Trayvon Martin, has lofted ALEC’s profile.

But long before ALEC watching became its own cottage industry, there was Mark Pocan—a Wisconsin state assemblyman who spied on ALEC for more than a decade and frustrated its attempts to advance policy in the Badger State. […]

But the conferences are of dwindling use to a known quantity like Pocan. While his fellow ALEC-affiliated never tried to obstruct him, ALEC’s staff and its sponsors are a different matter. Corporate representatives ensure that he is never invited to the private dinners and sessions where they do some of their choicest lobbying. “That’s where they really wine and dine you,” he said. At last summer’s summit, “I was probably the loneliest guy in New Orleans.”

The only private event Pocan ever made it to was a cigar party. Sponsored by several corporations, it literally consisted of prim servers proffering cigars to legislators on silver platters. Within five minutes of Pocan’s getting there, an ALEC staffer hurried up to him, asked for his invitation, and, after he produced it, brusquely asked him to leave.

* Background

More than a decade ago, Wisconsin state Rep. Mark Pocan began agitating to expose the American Legislative Exchange Council’s behind-the-scenes manipulation of the legislative process in Wisconsin and other states on behalf of multinational corporations. It was a lonely fight at first. Republicans were enthusiastic about ALEC and most Democrats did not have the courage to take on powerful corporations and the lobbying and campaign contribution networks they had developed.

But Pocan, a Madison Democrat who has represented the 78th Assembly District since 1998, persisted, attending ALEC meetings and writing groundbreaking exposes for The Progressive on how the right-wing group crafts “model legislation” that benefits the most powerful corporations in the world — while undermining protections for workers, consumers and the environment. When the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine developed the “ALEC Exposed” project to reveal the full extent of the secretive group’s manipulation of the legislative process, Pocan lent his experience and insight to the work of naming and shaming corporations that fund ALEC.

As a result, responsible corporations are fleeing ALEC’s membership rolls. Some 25 companies have announced they are no longer associated with ALEC — including, most recently, MillerCoors, Best Buy, CVS, Hewlett-Packard and John Deere & Co. They join Johnson & Johnson, Dell, Kraft, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Walmart and Mars. Four nonprofits, including the Gates Foundation, have also ended their involvement in ALEC activities or initiatives.

But Pocan is not satisfied just with the reduction in ALEC’s ranks. The legislator, who is one of several contenders for the open 2nd District congressional seat, is promoting an “ALEC Accountability Act,” which would require the shadowy group to register as a lobbyist in Wisconsin and report the funding sources for the “scholarships” it provides conservative legislators.

* Pocan is running for Congress, and he’s hyping his visit to the media. From a press release…

**Press Advisory**
Pocan At 2nd Day of ALEC Conference
National Coalition Shedding Light on Illegal, Non-Registered Lobby Group

SALT LAKE CITY – State Representative Mark Pocan will attend his second day at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 26th. ALEC wines and dines state legislators nationwide in an attempt to lobby for model corporate-sponsored, special interest-inspired legislation. Over the past few years, public awareness of troubling legislation promoted by ALEC has caused 28 corporations and over 50 legislators to leave the organization. In 2012, Pocan introduced the ALEC Accountability Act, which would require ALEC to register as a lobbying organization and own up to its illegal practices.

Is anybody out there at the ALEC conference this week?

- Posted by Rich Miller   16 Comments      


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