February 9, 2018

Chicago Tribune

Yes, you: Lawmakers, put the remap amendment on the ballot

In each of the last three statewide elections, we've enthusiastically supported citizen-driven campaigns to amend the Illinois Constitution to facilitate fair, nonpartisan legislative maps.

We still do.

But it's time voters demanded an answer to an important question: Why does it fall to them to get an amendment on the ballot?

Why must the citizens of Illinois raise millions of dollars, spend months collecting signatures and hire lawyers to defend their amendment against legal challenges bankrolled by the politicians who currently control the maps?

Why don't state lawmakers just do their jobs and put an amendment on the ballot?

It's beyond clear that their constituents want it.

Nearly 600,000 people signed petitions in the most recent campaign. Poll after poll after poll shows overwhelming voter support for an amendment that would take mapmaking out of the hands of politicians.

Every election cycle, including this one, we ask candidates if they support such an amendment. Who would say no? Virtually all of them earnestly profess to believe that voters should pick their representatives, not the other way around. They say they support independent, transparent, fair redistricting.

Yet once they're elected, they don't lift a finger to make it happen. They sit back and let the grass-roots organizations do some very heavy lifting to prepare an amendment for the ballot. Then they look the other way while House Speaker Michael Madigan's attorney gets a judge to kill it.

Gerrymandering is bad for democracy, but it's good for Madigan. By controlling the mapmaking process, he can make sure his friends get re-elected and his enemies don't. The state's legislative districts are so lopsided that most races field only one candidate. Voters have no choices. Their representatives don't answer to them — they answer to Madigan. He draws their districts. He finances their campaigns.

And no, we're not suggesting Republicans wouldn't also rig the maps, given the chance. Partisan mapmaking is a nationwide scandal. Voters across America are trying to wrestle the process away from their elected representatives. And mostly losing.

Article XIV of Illinois' 1970 constitution specifically allows citizens to put amendments on the ballot. They've succeeded just once in eight tries. The fabulist legal arguments employed to knock those measures off the ballot have resulted in a mountain of horse-patootie case law, an ever-growing barrier to the very notion of direct democracy as spelled out in Article XIV, Section 3.

Well here's the thing: Article XIV, Section 2 offers a much more straightforward way to put an amendment on the ballot. The General Assembly can do it with a three-fifths vote of both houses. No petition drive. No silly arguments about the imaginary limitations on voter-drafted amendments. If it's really true that the framers of the constitution meant to preclude voters from assigning the auditor general a role in redistricting — that's the argument that carried the day in 2016, folks — then it's curious that they saw no reason to similarly tie the hands of legislators.

Lawmakers could save us all the work and put that amendment, as written, on the November ballot. They haven't done it. Keep that in mind, in the March 20 primary and beyond. Ask all the candidates if they'll commit to putting redistricting reform to a vote. Ask every incumbent why they haven't. Vote accordingly.

You'd think that hundreds of thousands of signatures, and poll after poll after poll, would be enough to get lawmakers to act. Especially since it's obvious that the deck is stacked against voters. Despite overwhelming, longstanding support, the remap effort is 0 for 3. It can't pass because it can't get on the ballot.

Round 4 is coming up. Pay attention, voters: The stakes are higher this time. The new maps will be based on population counts measured in the 2020 U.S. Census.

Do you want Mike Madigan to draw those maps?

___

February 12, 2018

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

High interest in scholarships

When Illinois' new Invest in Kids scholarship program started accepting donations in early January, the state's Revenue Department collected $36 million of the $100 million limit on the first day.

Donations have slowed down considerably since then, but now it's applications for private-school tuition grants that are overwhelming scholarship-granting organizations.

"We knew the demand for quality educational options was strong, but no one estimated the overwhelming statewide demand we saw," said Empower Illinois, one of the nine scholarship-granting organizations.

Empower Illinois said, "More than 24,000 families visited the application site within the first few minutes of its availability," a deluge that overwhelmed its computer system.

Here's the situation.

The state, so far, has received more than $45 million in contributions of the $100 million allotted by the Legislature.

Most of that — $36 million — comes from Cook County, one of five regions statewide that are authorized to collect percentage shares of the $100 million total.

Champaign and Vermilion are among the roughly 20 East Central Illinois counties that make up Region 4, an area that has allocated $7.5 million of the $100 million. So far, donors have pledged a little over $1 million, leaving another $6 million-plus on the table.

Here's how the program works.

A donor who contributes $10,000 in the 2018 tax year will receive a $7,500 tuition credit. Working through the Illinois Department of Revenue's online "Invest in Kids" program, the donor writes a check to the tuition-granting organization and can designate the private school the donor wishes to support.

From there, the tuition-granting organization accepts and reviews scholarship applications and makes the awards it believes are most appropriate.

Operated on a first-come, first-served program, the scholarship-granting organization gives preference to applicants with the greatest need.

Families can earn up to three times the poverty level and still qualify, meaning a family of four earning up to $73,300 can qualify.

The Invest in Kids program is a five-year experiment the Legislature included in its school financial reform bill passed last year. It's aimed at assisting needy students who wish to attend private schools — religious or otherwise.

The experiment will cost $75 million if donors contribute the maximum $100 million.

While cumbersome, the Illinois Revenue Department's online program is manageable. Donors are required to establish a "My Tax Illinois" account to receive approval to make a donation.

There is no question that some taxpayers resent the state underwriting the cost of private-school tuition. But at the same time, there's no question that there are public schools in this state, particularly in the Chicago area, that are failing to meet the needs of those families who want their children to get the best possible education, no matter whether it's in a private or public school.

This program is an effort to meet that demand by assisting private schools — and their students — whose existence helps reduce the costs of K-12 public schools in Illinois.

___

February 11, 2018

Belleville News-Democrat

Tax for you. No tax and a warm puppy for you, because you're special.

Want to rile folks? Give some people a tax break or government benefit that the rest of us don't get.

Everybody in Springfield felt good doing something nice for disabled veterans. Then the reality sets in.

A 90-percent disabled Marine Corps vet is getting an $8,000-a-year break on his $395,000 house in Troy. Add that Donald Moore is a conservative Republican running against incumbent state Rep. Charlie Meier because Meier isn't Republican enough, and a little hypocrisy sets in.

But Meier, too, is getting a little something-something from the government. He's a farmer who since 1995 received more than $700,000 in subsidies for his farm near Okawville. Subsidies lower consumer prices by making an essential service profitable, and at $20 billion a year they represent the largest form of corporate welfare.

We appreciate our retirees in Illinois. No state income tax for them, 5 percent for you. That's a $2 billion perk. Illinois and two other states do not tax retirement income out of 41 states with income taxes.

If Granny Smith is on the brink of subsisting on cat food after her service to our nation, that's one thing.

But if Granny Smith is living in a house worth $400K, she can afford property and income taxes.

Means testing would be one fix. Ending special benefits for special groups would be another. Making a decision not to take a benefit that you really don't need would fix things, too.