January 5, 2018

Chicago Tribune

Congress, let the states set marijuana policy

The momentum behind America's marijuana movement has been unstoppable. Illinois and 28 other states have legalized medical marijuana. Eight states now allow the sale of recreational pot; the latest is California, where proponents expect the recreational use market will become the world's largest.

On Thursday, however, the movement ran into a big buzzkill, courtesy of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Sessions rescinded an Obama-era policy that discouraged federal prosecutors from pursuing marijuana-related charges in states where pot had been legalized. Sessions' move effectively gives those prosecutors free rein to aggressively enforce the federal government's prohibition of the use and sale of pot.

How the move plays out is anybody's guess. Federal prosecutors could begin raiding marijuana dispensaries, and even go after users. Or they could follow Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer's lead: He said Thursday he would make no changes to the way he handles marijuana cases in his state.

As a U.S. senator from Alabama, Sessions strongly opposed marijuana legalization. He equates the drug with heroin, has blamed pot for a rising tide of violence, and has said that medical use of marijuana has been "hyped, maybe too much." It's not even clear whether his views hew to those of his boss, President Donald Trump, who in a July 2016 interview said that, if elected, he would not advocate a federal crackdown on states that had legalized recreational marijuana sales. "I think it's up to the states," Trump said at the time.

What Sessions hopes to accomplish remains unclear. So far, the only effect he's had is to sow a good deal of confusion. In states where recreational pot sales are legal, do sellers, buyers and users face arrest? Is the medical marijuana industry vulnerable? Would someone smoking pot as treatment face jail time?

There is indeed a disconnect between the federal ban on marijuana and the laws in states that allow its sale and use — whether for recreational or medical purposes. But there's a way to bridge that gap. Congress should enact legislation that gives states the right to move ahead with recreational and/or medical marijuana laws if they choose. That would leave it up to each state and its voters to decide whether legalization works for them.

We mention voters specifically because they're playing a role in liberalizing policy. Every state that allows recreational use got approval from voters first. And in many states that enacted medical marijuana laws, voters backed the measures through referendums.

In Illinois, a bill pending in the General Assembly would make it legal to smoke pot, as long as a user is 21 or over and possesses no more than an ounce.

Attorneys general may have strong pro or con personal views about pot, but their job isn't to tailor enforcement priorities in ways that approach law-making. Members of Congress have put law enforcement in an awkward spot by looking away as states diverge from federal statute. Facts on the ground suggest that many Americans want to legalize medical and recreational use of marijuana. They should have the right to do so without wondering what the next U.S. attorney general will want.

January 8, 2018

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Scholarship plan off and running

Illinois' new "Invest in Kids" scholarship program got off to a fast start last week, attracting more than $36 million of the $100 million limit on its first day.

The program, part of the massive school funding reform package passed last year by the General Assembly, is an effort to help school-age children from lower-income families escape failing public schools by underwriting tuition costs at private ones.

It does so by offering a generous tax credit incentive to those who donate to the scholarship fund.

The way the program works is that donors will make contributions to scholarship-granting organizations from which applicants will seek scholarship aid. The state has been divided into five districts to ensure that private schools throughout the state are eligible to participate.

The overwhelming first-day response indicates that potential donors find it very attractive, to the point that it should not be long until the maximum $100 million donation figure is reached.

Families of students interested in winning tuition aid can begin the application process on Jan. 24. Those with an annual income below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 for a family of four, are eligible for assistance.

Acceptance of the tax credit program put the finishing touches on last year's acrimonious debate over a rewriting of the state's school funding finance law. Indeed, it was the agreement between legislative Democrats and Republicans on including the measure that persuaded Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign the legislation.

The measure drew vehement opposition from teachers' unions, which vigorously oppose any measure that encourages children to leave public schools, even failing ones, for private schools.

The proposal did raise serious concerns. With Illinois a financial basket case, opponents questioned the wisdom of a tax credit proposal costing the state up to $75 million in revenue it cannot afford to lose.

It also has drawn the usual criticism as a sop to the rich, a charge not borne out by the facts.

Obviously, it is a generous tax credit, and only upper-income individuals and families can afford to make charitable donations of any substantial size and type.

But donors still will have to give more money away than they will get back. So if the avaricious rich are looking to make a profit, they'll have to look elsewhere to satisfy their desire.

Revenue Department spokesman Terry Horstman said the program "is being done electronically" through its website. So donors must apply online through MyTaxIllinois, the department's online account management program.

It's a potentially cumbersome process that requires participants to "request approval to make a contribution and receive the income tax credit prior" to making their contributions. That means donors "must have a registered MyTax Illinois" account to receive approval for making a contribution.

Operated on a first-come, first-served basis, approval will be granted "as long as the regional and statewide credit thresholds have not been met," according to the Revenue Department.

This program is a step in a new direction for Illinois, one aimed primarily at helping young people get a better education and, as a consequence, win a brighter future. It's hard to argue with the goal of helping those most in need do better in life, and that's what this public/private partnership should help accomplish.


January 7, 2027

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

Democracy isn't always pretty

Immigration remains a hot-button topic in the United States, and in Southern Illinois.

That's not an opinion . as this page is labeled. It is a fact borne out by the heated online discussion generated by The Southern Illinoisan's selection of West Frankfort's Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco as our "Person of the Year."

That selection has been roundly criticized, sometimes rationally, sometimes emotionally. By the same token, others have seen the selection for what it is — an opportunity to discuss one of the vexing, complicated real-life issues of our time.

People who view the selection as an homage to lawbreakers are missing the point. Hernandez puts a face, a local face, on a national issue. Too often, illegal immigration is discussed in terms of numbers: How many immigrants are here illegally, how many immigrants are illegally obtaining government benefits, and how many immigrants are committing crimes.

Hernandez's story gets past the numbers. It puts a human face on what is clearly an emotional issue.

For those unfamiliar with Hernandez's story, a brief synopsis: He came to this country illegally 20 years ago to find a job so he could send money back home to a sister who was ill. Hernandez eventually found his way to Marion where he found work at La Fiesta. Eventually, he worked his way up to manager of the West Frankfort location. In the meantime, he got married and started a family. He has been seeking legal status, but a pair of DUI convictions from 2007 and a stop at the U.S.-Mexican border have complicated that process. Hernandez quit drinking seven years ago, but was arrested by ICE authorities in 2017 and imprisoned briefly.

Which brings us to today. Hernandez is back in West Frankfort operating his restaurant. He and his family have assimilated into the community, providing employment opportunities for the restaurant staff, sponsoring sports teams and holding benefits for a youth dance team, the local fire department and other causes.

Yet, Hernandez remains a lightning rod in the eyes of some people because he retains illegal status while navigating the twisting path that is the U.S. immigration system.

Two of the major complaints heard about illegal immigrants are they don't learn English, and, they take, rather than contribute to society.

Hernandez has checked those items off his list. His struggles to learn English were well documented in a series of stories last week. And, he has worked his way up from bus boy to manager of a restaurant. If he had a different background, Hernandez's story might be seen as the embodiment of the American dream.

The other common thread is the criticism of Hernandez is his illegal status.

There are a couple things to consider.

First, he has been working diligently to achieve legal status. He is living in the open, not hiding from authorities.

Second, illegal isn't synonymous with evil or dangerous.

Throughout American history, laws and policies have been changed because of grassroots actions that, at times, involved activities deemed "illegal." Remember, what Rosa Parks did on that Montgomery, Alabama, bus was illegal.

Some of the great advocates for social justice were arrested during their lives — Martin Luther King and Gandhi come to mind. And, let's not forget, if a few skirmishes involving the Continental Army had gone the other way, many of our founding fathers would have found their way into English jails.

Is that meant to compare Hernandez directly to Parks, King or Gandhi? Absolutely not. But, the movements championed by these leaders were populated by thousands who demonstrated in the streets, or had the audacity to eat at lunch counters reserved for Caucasians.

Democracy isn't always a pretty process. Hernandez's situation is a prime example.