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Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in Illinois

November 6, 2018

Nov. 4, 2018

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Can it get worse? Oh, yeah!

The light at the end of the budget tunnel is a train that’s picking up speed.

An editorial published Oct. 28 and headlined “Public Enemy No. 1” made the argument that Tuesday’s election would mark an end of the political happy talk that characterizes campaign seasons and put the state’s serious financial problems back on the radar screen.

It was a pessimistic discussion of the financial challenges that lie directly ahead — $130 billion in underfunded pensions, a string of deficit state budgets going back to the early 2000s, unpaid bills that total $6.9 billion, as of Friday, and politicians who have made a long-standing habit of doing their best to avoid those issues.

This being Illinois, it turns out that the pessimistic prognosis was too optimistic.

It suggested reality would intrude after the Tuesday election. Instead, it didn’t wait that long to bang down the door.

Last week, the executive director of the Teachers Retirement System announced the General Assembly will have to make $4.8 billion in contributions to the TRS for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2019.

That’s a roughly $400 million increase over what the legislature appropriated last year to TRS.

If that sum isn’t enough to curl a reader’s hair, get a load of what else Richard Ingram had to say. He noted that the $4.8 billion is the statutorily required contribution and the actuarial contribution level should be nearly $7.8 billion.

So that’s one step forward and two steps back?

“TRS investments had a good year, but we cannot invest our way out of this problem. The unfunded liability is too large and grows every year,” he said.

Let’s put that proposed spending in context.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a $38.5 billion budget that was described as balanced. In fact, it was not balanced, for a variety of reasons actually running an estimated $1.2 billion deficit.

The $4.4 billion TRS contribution in that budget represented about 11 percent of the total.

The TRS is just one of five underfunded pension systems. Public pensions represent just a small piece of the state’s overall obligations that include education, roads, social services, law enforcement, prisons and on and on. Every budget constituency will want more in the upcoming budget year.

Meanwhile, if Democrat J.B. Pritzker is elected governor, as the polls suggest, he has promised to bring to the budget table a variety of new social-spending programs that include, among other costly things, state-provided health insurance.

Given the state’s low unemployment rate and the strong national economy that is benefiting Illinois, the state should enjoy a strong increase in revenue, particularly considering last year’s increase in the state income tax to 4.95 percent.

But the question is whether those new revenues will be consumed by the growing demands for existing programs at the same time the state already is awash in debt.

That, in fact, is putting it too kindly. Illinois is effectively bankrupt, although it can’t file for legal bankruptcy.

The new budget year is eight months away. But state officials will start laying the groundwork far ahead of the start date — July 1.

That’s why Ingram put down his marker last week. Others will follow. Bit by bit, they’ll generate a flood that crushes everything in its path.

Doesn’t sound too appetizing, does it? People can only hope this new round of pessimism, like the last one, isn’t too optimistic.

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Nov. 3, 2018

(Decatur) Herald & Review

Read the new labels for health

Most of us reach adulthood with an educated idea about what kinds of food are “good” for you.

But as a species, we’re still primitive in the manner of understanding how the things we put in our bodies affect and impact our physiology. Ongoing analysis brings different concerns to bear, and how we group specific foods changes, sometimes often. Ask a dozen different people the last thing they’ve heard about how we should consume such dietary staples as eggs, coffee and wine and you may get a dozen different answers. Unless we’re dieticians, we all struggle with keeping up with changes.

So the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is revamping its definition of “healthy.” The new definition, the FDA says, will reflect changes in what experts think about our diet. But it’s a tricky path to maneuver.

The guidelines haven’t changed since 1994, an eternity when it comes to food science. As the link between dietary cholesterol and heart disease became unclear and the dangers of some fats came to the fore, warnings began to change, and again, we as a general public became confused about what was “best” for us to eat.

The focus of the most recent FDA changes are sugars, total calorie count and vitamin reporting.

Sugars are a huge concern. Additional sugar generally affects the way the body processes and stores nutrients and calories. An excess can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes. The calorie counts will now clearly reflect the total calories in the packaging, eliminating the nebulous use of “per serving.” Vitamins A and C will no longer be listed on the labels, because research shows Americans rarely are deficient in those vitamins anymore. Tracking Vitamin D and potassium levels is presently more important, so those will be tracked on food labels.

Amid these changes, companies are trying to get their products labeled as “healthy.” Water is not officially healthy, according to the FDA, because the current definition of “healthy” requires a product have at least some sort of presence of nutrients. On the flip side, sugar-free gum makers are arguing since their product has no fat and no sugar, they are “healthy.”

The limits of our present understanding still prompt uncertainty. Saturated fat is the current miscreant on our menu. But according to Harvard Health, replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats or high-fiber carbohydrates is the “best bet for reducing the risk of heart disease” but that also “could do the opposite.”

The key is we have to make the commitment ourselves. We know what foods are “good” for us. The revised labels can help us refine our diets to get closer to our ideal intake. But all the nutrition information in the world can’t help us if we’re not willing to look at what is literally in front of us.

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Nov. 1, 2018

Chicago Tribune

Three months after Chicago’s most violent weekend, the trail grows colder

In just 18 hours last Sunday, gunfire struck 26 people in South and West Side neighborhoods. Over the entire weekend, 42 were shot and five died, including a 16-year-old boy.

Appalling? Yes. But if you’ve been reading the Tribune’s continuing examination of another weekend’s carnage, you know this wasn’t even the most violent outburst of the year.

That grim distinction belongs to the first weekend in August, when at least 41 people were shot over seven hours. In all, 75 people fell to gun violence that weekend, and 13 died.

Many of these shootings likely were gang-related attacks that miss the intended target and hit innocent bystanders.

This slaughter on the streets is Chicago’s tragedy. Just as tragic: Most of the people who pull the triggers get away with it. They’ll never be caught. They’ll be free to menace neighborhoods again and again.

Why? Because the Chicago Police Department has a dismal clearance rate. That’s the measure of how often police solve homicides. For 2018 killings so far, the rate is about 17 percent, the department says. That’s about the same as the 2017 rate, which was the lowest recorded in years.

For nonfatal shootings, the rate dips to 6.5 percent in 2018, compared to 7.2 percent for all of 2017. The odds of getting caught overwhelmingly favor criminals.

To better understand why police fail to arrest killers so often, the Tribune is tracking CPD’s investigations of those 75 cases in August. The police arrest tally from that weekend is paltry so far: Chicago authorities filed the first murder charge in late September. Two other suspects have been charged in separate cases in which the gunshot victims didn’t die. That’s it. Three people charged in 75 cases.

The longer the remaining cases go unresolved, the colder the trail grows. Many will never be solved. That will leave a lot of violent criminals on the loose, reloaded and ready to splash more blood on the streets.

We know police have a hard job to do. By keeping tabs on arrests in these 75 shootings, Tribune reporters hope to learn more about the challenge of solving these crimes and how unsolved shootings affect violence-racked neighborhoods.

Among the Tribune’s most troubling findings so far: The CPD clearance rate for homicide has been declining in recent years. There are many contributing factors. Chicago detectives often juggle large caseloads and gang-inspired shootings can be the most difficult to solve. Victims may fear retaliation and won’t cooperate. Witnesses may not trust the police.

Reversing that trend — building trust in those communities — is vital to stopping the slaughter. Arresting, charging and jailing shooters at a greater rate would be a deterrent.

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