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Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in Illinois

December 19, 2017

Dec. 17, 2017

Pros should keep public informed on veterans home

The Quincy Herald-Whig

Beyond the extensive safety measures that already have been put in place, what can be done to prevent further cases of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy?

That is one of the critical questions being asked after it was reported last week that families of 10 Veterans Home residents who died from the disease in 2015 have sued the state of Illinois for negligence, and an 11th lawsuit is expected to be filed.

Chicago’s WBEZ Radio first reported the lawsuits Tuesday in a story that detailed multiple outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease at the Quincy facility in each of the last three years, resulting in 13 deaths and more than 60 cases of residents becoming ill from exposure to Legionella bacteria.

The families contend that those deaths and continued problems with eradicating the disease at the home were preventable. Among other things, they claim the state knew about the Legionella infections for more than a month in 2015 before making the information public.

The story has since reverberated around the state, and the finger-pointing has been predictably swift. There have been numerous calls from state and federal elected officials for further investigations and independent audits into how Illinois has managed this lingering crisis.

This is clearly a heartbreaking story that should not become a political one.

Unquestionably, the accounts of the sacrifices made by those veterans during times of war are compelling and their deaths tragic. That’s why it’s incumbent on health professionals to remain vigilant and intensify efforts to address ongoing issues that still confound experts.

Extraordinary steps have been taken since 2015 to address the spread of Legionella bacteria.

The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs began an extensive rehabilitation of the Veterans Home that summer after Legionnaires’ disease sickened 53 people there and led to 12 deaths. IDVA spokesman Dave MacDonna said last week the state to date has invested $6.39 million on the water system upgrades and other action to eliminate Legionella bacteria at the home.

Specifically, a chemical mixing system was installed at the Veterans Home to treat the water beyond what occurs at the city’s water treatment plant, and a second level of purification occurs when the treated water is heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill bacteria.

Along with other safeguards, water is tested daily across the 210-acre campus, with those results sent to a private lab for additional analysis.

Marty Detmer of Phigenics LLC, the Warrenville company hired to help develop a water treatment program, said the treatment protocol in place in Quincy outpaces industry standards and even that of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

In fact, testing data obtained by The Herald-Whig from the IDVA through a Freedom of Information Act request show the number of positive Legionella tests have declined substantially since the new plant went online in June 2016.

Results showed no tests after September in 2016, and only four of the 853 tests conducted in 2017 through Oct. 24 indicated Legionella levels above the mark considered acceptable for high-risk populations by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

By contrast, Phigenics tested 385 samples starting Sept. 11, 2015, through the end of that year. Eighteen of those tests had Legionella levels exceeding OSHA standards.

Moreover, protocols to treat residents who display symptoms of the disease were established with the help of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when none existed before the initial outbreak.

Despite those efforts, however, five other residents were sickened during another outbreak last year after the new water treatment plant and delivery system was unveiled, and three more cases have been confirmed this fall, including Roy Dehn, an 88-year-old resident who died Oct. 12 at Blessing Hospital.

With each new case, frustration understandably mounts and demands for “doing something” intensify. It should be left to health and medical professionals to determine what future actions should be taken.

Clearly, state and veterans’ officials would be wise to keep the public informed on efforts being made to ensure the future care and well-being of the nearly 400 men and women who served their country now living at the Veterans Home.

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Dec. 18, 2017

The (Alton) Telegraph

Find money under the state of Illinois’ tree this season

Santa Claus isn’t the only one with a list worth checking this time of year.

Like Kris Kringle, the state has a list that is full of unexpected gifts for thousands of Illinois residents.

The state’s list is filled with unclaimed property — about $2.9 billion worth.

Some of the amounts are small, under $100, but others are larger. Each is just waiting for its rightful owner to make a claim.

The money can be anything from checking and savings accounts that still had a balance when the owner moved away to long-forgotten utility deposits and stock dividends.

When the owner cannot be located, the money is sent to the state treasurer’s office, where it is held until someone comes forward.

During the past two years, Illinois has reunited residents with more than $300 million in assets, according to Treasurer Michael W. Frerichs.

In most cases, it started with a simple search at icash.illinoistreasurer.gov.

Think it’s not worth the effort? Think again.

A one-minute search identified thousands of dollars waiting for Alton people and businesses alone.

For example, Alton Banking and Trust Co. is owed money from group policy benefits or claims payments. Alton Auto Body is owed at least $200 and Alton Medical Imaging has a few hundred dollars lying in wait. Alton High School, Alton Memorial Hospital and more than two dozen businesses also are on the list.

Getting the money takes a little time, but the process is easy. Those who have a rightful claim to assets can fill out a form online to get things rolling.

Each state maintains its own database, so be sure to do a quick check of states in which you might have lived before.

One word of caution: There are companies that offer similar searches but charge a finder’s fee for the same service available free through state-operated sites.

This is not illegal, but it is not necessary to pay.

After all, this is your money.

For those who have identified a few bucks — or a few hundred or more — because of us, enjoy.

Think of it as our Christmas gift to you.

We won’t even check the “naughty or nice” list.

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Dec. 18, 2017

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Eat, drink and be merry?

The state’s elected leaders are running as fast as they can away from their public-pension fiasco.

Happy is the holiday season at the end of each year — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day. Merry, merry and all that.

But there’s always someone who wants to spoil the fun, and this year, it’s Republican state Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods.

He wants everyone to know that the “day of reckoning is fast approaching us.”

Is the sky falling? Are dogs marrying cats? Has President Trump resolved to stop tweeting in 2018?

No, it’s the same old refrain about Illinois’ suffocating public-pension woes, the ones eating up the state budget while the underfunding numbers continue to increase. It wasn’t long ago that the state’s public-pension funds were underfunded by a mere $130 billion. But, unfortunately, problems that are ignored do not magically disappear. The underunding number is now $151 billion.

That’s the worst underfunding in the nation by a long shot. Illinois’ underfunding is $60 billion more than second-place New Jersey.

The Fitch Ratings agency recently put out a report on the 50 states and how they’re managing — or not managing — their public-pension obligations.

Doug Offerman, the rating agency’s senior director, noted that the $151 billion in pension underfunding represents 28 percent of all personal income in Illinois, which he said is “essentially a proxy for the wealth level, the resource base of a given government.”

Here’s more bad news. Legislators recently raised, over the governor’s veto, the state income tax from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent, a hike that is expected to generate $5 billion in new revenue.

But the new revenue isn’t helping much in reducing the state’s financial liabilities. Although legislators bragged last summer that they had passed a $36 billion balanced budget, one that will consume all the new revenue, the state’s spending plan is out of balance by $1.7 billion.

Further, the state’s financial status will get worse before it gets better, and it’s a big assumption it ever will get better.

It won’t be long before the state’s pension obligations consume 25 cents of every dollar paid in state taxes. Plus, there’s the exploding Medicaid costs that, like pension, are taking ever larger percentages of the state budget.

That phenomenon is described as “crowding out,” because as those two spending programs take more of the state budget, they crowd out spending for basic functions like education, transportation, law enforcement and a variety of social welfare programs.

Since Illinois is on the verge of an election year — March primary, November general election — it’s a good time to have a thoughtful discussion about how the state can ever get out of this mess.

So far, it’s not happening. Democrats are blaming Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner for bad financial decisions going back 30 years while Rauner responds with attacks on them that lack the kind of thoughtful discussions of tough issue that voters need to hear.

But, then, would anybody listen? Illinoisans have been hearing for years that the state has to get serious about putting its financial house in order. So far, all anyone has done about it is rearrange the deck chairs on our sinking ship of state.

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Dec. 15, 2017

Chicago Tribune

Congestion pricing? Sure. But steer clear of those $40 Lexus lanes

To call what happened to suburban D.C. motorists earlier this month “sticker shock” would be a hefty understatement. On the opening day of new express toll lanes on Interstate 66, motorists drove a downtown-bound, 10-mile stretch during their morning rush hour commute and learned it would cost them $34.50. The next morning, the same toll lane stretch cost them $40.

“This is like a bad telethon,” tweeted commuter Cameron Gray, according to the Washington Post, “watching the numbers go higher and higher all morning.”

This sounds a cautionary note about the Illinois Department of Transportation’s proposal to create express toll lanes on the Stevenson Expressway. Last year, IDOT proposed adding one express toll lane in each direction on I-55 between I-355 and I-90/94. Now it proposes two express toll lanes in each direction between I-294 and I-90/94, and one express toll lane in each direction from I-294 and I-355.

Car poolers and Pace buses would have free access to the lanes. Developers would pay for all or part of the construction through a public-private partnership, the Tribune’s Mary Wisniewski reports.

A lot has to happen before the plan becomes reality. The Illinois General Assembly still has to sign off on the idea. If and when that happens, IDOT could start looking for contractors by 2019. That means there’s ample time to scrutinize. That’s good.

IDOT says it hasn’t made up its mind whether to charge a flat toll rate for cars using the I-55 express lanes, or go the Virginia way, known as “dynamic pricing.” Dynamic pricing is a variation on congestion pricing, under which drivers pay a premium to travel in lanes that move faster. Those tolls can be higher during rush hour or other heavy traffic periods.

Under Virginia’s dynamic model, the tolls fluctuate with demand, changing every six minutes. As traffic in the express toll lanes increases, tolls go up. The goal is to maintain an average speed of 45 mph in those lanes. Higher tolls manage congestion by dissuading some drivers from heading into the express lanes. With the drop in traffic, 45 mph or more is reached.

Proponents of the Virginia system say it encourages motorists to carpool, use mass transit or pick alternate routes. And if a commuter is willing to pay a premium to get to work faster, that’s their choice.

But that system prices out people who can’t afford $40 to drive a 10-mile stretch of pavement. It creates what detractors call “Lexus lanes.”

We support the concept of congestion pricing, but not without limits. Charging a premium gives solo drivers the option of moving faster in the express lanes or staying in the free lanes. A fluctuating premium rate has some appeal — it assures that the express lanes don’t become so crowded as to defeat their purpose. But transportation officials should think long and hard before implementing a pricing system that allows the price of a commute to spike to $40 or higher.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is collaborating with the Illinois Tollway and IDOT to solve congestion on more than a dozen stretches of expressway suffering from gridlock — including segments of the Kennedy, Eisenhower and Dan Ryan, along with Interstate 80 in the south suburbs. One solution the agencies are considering is congestion pricing.

We hope the Virginia experience informs their planning. Congestion pricing has the potential to ease gridlock dramatically. But a $40 commute? Let’s not go down that road.

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