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Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in Illinois

December 4, 2018

Dec. 4, 2018

Chicago Tribune

Humility and civility: More pols, please, like George H.W. Bush

There was once a private school that graded students on the usual academic subjects, plus a fuzzy category related to decorum: “Claims no more than his fair share of time and attention.” Modesty and deference are still enviable traits, but imagine enforcing such behaviors in the age of social media. Where would Twitter and Facebook be without boasts and rants? Our current president would be rendered mute.

The student who once excelled at “claims no more .” was President George H.W. Bush, whose lifetime of service to the country was characterized by his decency and good manners. These were virtues he learned at the Greenwich Country Day School in the 1930s, further instilled by his parents, who admonished him against being conceited. “I don’t want to hear any more about the Great I Am,” his mother told him.

And so Bush was polite. A biographer, Jon Meacham, called him “the last gentleman.” As president, Bush strove to work with political friends and foes alike. He aspired to make America “a kinder, gentler nation.” He was an inveterate letter-writer, Meacham said, but these were nice letters, handwritten thank-yous and supportive missives, not mean tweets.

The former president died Friday at age 94. Evidence to the contrary, civility did not go with him. It just feels like that era is gone in the public arena. Consider President Donald Trump’s penchant for attacks and insults. Check out Twitter, where Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week accused a Democratic lawmaker of being a drunk.

But it’s not just Trump and his allies who are responsible. Plenty of other politicians share blame for sullying public discourse. There was Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, who shouted “you lie!” at President Barack Obama during a joint session of Congress. A few days ago in Springfield, Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit said on the House floor that she wanted to pump a deadly “broth” of bacteria into the water system used by a Republican colleague’s family. She later apologized.

Bush was no saint; he was a politician who could brawl with the best of them during campaign season. Anyone elected president must have a large ego and a quick left jab. But obituaries and other reflections on his life remind us that Bush achieved success in life while most often acting with honor and humility. Turning 18 in 1942, he enlisted in the service, becoming the nation’s youngest naval aviator. He was shot down in the Pacific. He was captain of the Yale baseball team. He ran the CIA. He didn’t keep those accomplishments secret, but he also didn’t present himself as the meanest guy in the room.

Bush’s comportment worked against him as a presidential candidate, because his self-effacement was misconstrued as weakness. Newsweek magazine wrote an absurd 1987 cover story headlined “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor’.” CBS News, during the 1980 campaign, had asked Bush if he was “too nice” to be president.

Bush defended himself — politely: “I don’t equate toughness with just attacking some individual. I equate toughness with moral fiber, with character, with principle, with demonstrated leadership in tough jobs where you emerge not bullying somebody but with the respect of the people you led. . If I happen to be decent in the process, that should not be a liability.”

Those are words to live by.

If enough politicians and others in the public sphere would take a lesson from the former president’s honorable conduct, Americans would have more respect for their governments — and for each other.

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Dec. 2, 2018

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Illinois Supreme Court ruling outlines problem

Will this state ever get out of its pension hole? Not at the rate it’s going.

The Illinois Supreme Court last week issued a complicated, unanimous decision that didn’t make a ripple on the news.

Too bad — the ruling demonstrated once again why public pensions in Illinois are in such deep financial trouble and, for the most part, how futile the efforts to change that sad fact have been.

As is often the case in Illinois, the controversy is the result of pension skullduggery brought about by political insiders — in this case, powerful Chicago labor leaders — who relied on friendly public officials — Chicago legislators and municipal officials — to get lavish public pension benefits while working for a private sector employer.

Sometime in the early 1990s, a group of powerful labor leaders, who had once worked for public entities, persuaded legislators to change pension law in two ways — allow them to take leaves of absence from their public employer to work for a private employer and use the salary paid by the private employer to determine their public pensions.

No one noticed the impact of those legislative changes until years later, when the Chicago Tribune published a lengthy 2011 article outlining the extent of the damage that, in part, read:

“Twenty years later, 23 retired union officials from Chicago stand to collect about $56 million from two ailing city pension funds thanks to the changes, a Tribune/WGN-TV investigation found.

“Because the law bases the city pensions on the labor leaders’ union salaries, they are reaping retirement benefits that far outstrip the modest salaries they made as city employees. On average, their pensions are nearly three times higher than what the typical retired city worker receives.”

Having discovered the horse had been long stolen, legislators immediately rushed to lock the barn door.

They passed legislation that barred providing pension credits to those who, like in this case, were working for private sector employers, like a union. They also required pensions be determined based on what the pensioner earned as a public employee rather than as a private sector employee.

It makes perfect sense. After all, how much do taxpayers have to take before they’re protected by the law? And what of legitimate public employees who see their pension funds on the verge of failure while non-public employees collect public pensions well into six figures?

Well, what of them?

That’s not exactly what the state’s highest court said, but that’s the effect. Reaffirming their position that benefits once granted can never be “impaired or diminished,” the Supreme Court struck down the Legislature’s modifications as unconstitutional.

It’s an ill wind that does not blow some good.

So these changes were good for the recipients.

Here’s one example the Tribune cited.

Labor leader Dennis Gannon, who worked for the city for 13 years at a salary that peaked out at $56,000 a year, started collecting a $150,000-a-year pension in 2004 while he continued to work for the union at a salary of $200,000 a year.

Another took a 25-year leave of absence from his $15,000-a-year city job. When he finally retired, he was collecting a $13,000-a-month pension while continuing his $300,000-a-year private union job.

“If our pension system is not reformed, Chicago has two roads to take. We can watch each of our funds go bankrupt ... or we will be forced to raise property taxes by $1.4 billion per year, triple what we pay now toward pensions costs,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel has written.

When the new Legislature and governor take office in January, their highest priorities must include state and municipal pension woes. The court’s legal analysis may be sound in this latest case, but maintaining the status quo on pensions can end only in disaster.

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Dec. 3, 2018

Chicago Sun-Times

If price-gouging for life-saving EpiPens goes on, feds should step in

If competitive forces cannot drive down the price of an essential drug that costs just $75 across the border in Canada, Congress and federal regulators have the authority, as well as an ethical obligation, to step in.

The indefensibly high price of EpiPens has been a problem since 2007, when the drug company Mylan acquired the product and jacked up the price from a little more than $100 for a two-pack to more than $600. The industry expectation was that the price would fall as generics hit the market, but the price remains out of whack.

The high price victimizes families with children who have severe allergies. To ensure epinephrine is immediately at hand in an emergency, families typically keep several injectors in their homes, another in the child’s backpack, perhaps another in the car, as well as in other places. Schools stock them, and Gov. Bruce Rauner in July signed a bill to encourage police officers to use the injectors in emergencies by protecting the officers from liability.

The injectors expire after 12 to 18 months, which adds to the cost, and health insurance plans often cover only a fraction of the cost.

EpiPen technology was developed 50 years ago for use in the U.S. military. The pens contain only about $1 worth of epinephrine. Much of the balance of the price amounts to pure price-gouging.

President Donald Trump has talked about the problem of high drug prices, but his administration has not made a consistent effort to lower prices. Even as the Department of Health and Human Services seeks to peg drug costs to much lower prices in other countries, the Trump administration’s chief trade representative is pushing a plan to significantly boost the cost of foreign drugs.

That certainly would make American drugs more competitive, but in the wrong direction.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who has pushed various measures to reduce drug prices, told us Monday that Democrats plan to make “outrageous” drug prices a top priority in the next Congress. The pharmaceutical companies charge the high prices only “because they can,” she said.

The best solution is a more robust free market, with more EpiPen generics coming on line quickly.

Short of that, it’s up to the Trump administration and Congress to end the price-gouging.

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