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Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in Illinois

December 25, 2018

Dec. 17, 2018

Chicago Sun-Times

Russian election meddling worse than we knew — and begs for a solution

The presidential election of 2016 will always include an asterisk.

We will never know with certainty who would have won the election had it not been for Russian interference. All we can do is take measures to thwart such meddling in the future, in part by raising a new generation of wised-up Americans who know how to think critically about what they read and hear, especially on social media.

The fact that Russia ran a covert social media campaign to sway the election has not been in doubt for a long time. But two new reports, prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee, describe a broader and more sophisticated campaign than previously understood.

The conclusions of the two reports beg the question of whether key swing states, such as Wisconsin and Florida, still would have gone for Donald Trump had it not been for Russia’s relentless effort to tilt the playing field. It is entirely reasonable to doubt they would have, and that doubt is corrosive to our democracy. If you’re Russian President Vladimir Putin, you’re thrilled.

The two new reports reveal that Russia’s effort to influence the election went well beyond postings — all designed to boost Trump — under fake names on Twitter and Facebook. Russia’s effort also swept forward on Instagram, YouTube, Reddit Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Google+. The postings aimed to sow dissent and divide the American people against each other, pitting blacks against whites, Bernie Sanders voters against Hillary Clinton voters, and religious people against the non-religious.

In all, the Russian assault included more than 10 million tweets, more than 1,000 YouTube videos, about 116,000 Instagram posts and more than 60,000 Facebook posts.

A common strategy of the Russian trolls was to build up an audience by creating a benign social media account that grew sinister over time. For example, as the New York Times reported Monday, the Russians created an account called @army_of_jesus that at first showed images from The Muppet Show. Then it shifted to The Simpsons. Then, after a full year of developing a following, it began posting content that associated Jesus with Trump and Satan with Hillary Clinton.

The two reports to the Senate also make clear that Russia’s trolling campaign continues even now, in support of Trump and against any talk of impeachment.

To counter such attacks on the American political process, Congress first must hold social media companies accountable for failing to guard against foreign influences. One of the two reports, produced by the cybersecurity company New Knowledge, indicates that tech companies may not have been fully cooperative with congressional committees investigating Russian interference.

Secondly, the Dark Money Age must end. Congress should pass laws requiring full transparency in who’s financing political ads and political groups. The American people have a right to know who’s trying to spin them.

Thirdly, media literacy education should be made standard in schools. Americans must do a better job of sizing up the deluge of information that gushes out of their computers and smart phones each day, sorting what is true and proportionate from what is biased, overhyped and false. It begins with a rule of thumb: Consider the source.

Toward that end, Illinois and other states should follow the lead of Massachusetts, which last month passed a law bolstering civic education. Among the changes, schools in Massachusetts now must teach their students “skills to access, analyze and evaluate written and digital media as it relates to history and civics.”

Nothing in the two reports to the Senate addresses the possibility that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, but that wasn’t the job assigned to the authors. That would be the job of special counsel Robert Mueller, who has gathered a wealth of evidence of high-level communications between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.

More than ever, Mueller must be allowed to see that job through, with no time constraints.

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Dec. 19, 2018

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Baby, it’s stupid outside

This wouldn’t be the 2018 Christmas — er, holiday — season without a politically correct complaint to upend the festivities.

So it is this year that the super-woke are wagging their tongues about a long-popular song that gets heavy play around Christmas.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written more than 70 years ago by the husband/wife (or wife/husband) team of Frank and Lynn Loesser. It’s a romantic, comic tale of late-night male pleading and female faux-reluctance.

I really can’t stay (but baby, it’s cold outside)

I’ve got to go away (but baby, it’s cold outside)

This evening has been (been hoping that you’d drop in)

So very nice (I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice)

The duet has been sung by a variety of male/female duos, with the male traditionally in the role of supplicant. But that approach has been reversed. One version features comedian Red Skelton as a shy male while the more aggressive Betty Garrett ardently woos him.

A good time was had by all who heard it until some who are humor-challenged decided that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is really a song extolling date rape. As a consequence, the song — and everything else of which these scolds do not approve — must be banned.

A number of radio stations have been cowed by this calumny. But a backlash to the backlash has generated heavy play for this traditional audience pleaser.

I wish I knew how (your eyes are like starlight now)

To break this spell (I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell)

I ought to say, no, no, no sir (mind if I move in closer?)

At least I’m gonna say that I tried (what’s the sense in hurtin’ my pride?)

To call this faux controversy a sign of the times is to state the obvious. But even though obvious, it’s no reason to concede to the oblivious.

That’s why those of more even temperament should continue to enjoy “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a musical ode to a more innocent time when romance was merely risque.

That doesn’t mean the zealots can’t appreciate it as well. Just think how many doctoral studies this song will generate from students pursuing advanced degrees in grievance studies.

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Dec. 15, 2018

Springfield State Journal-Register

Capital plan needed, but shouldn’t be rushed

Paying at the pump has been a little cheaper lately in Springfield. Gas was hovering around $2 a gallon in some parts of Springfield on Friday. That’s a huge improvement over last month, when AAA said the average price of a gallon of gas in Springfield was $2.502. It beats a year ago, when it was $2.351 a gallon.

That financial relief, though, comes as talk of increasing Illinois’ gas tax has begun to percolate more, as lawmakers prepare to return to Springfield next month.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has suggested raising the state’s gas tax by 20 to 30 cents a gallon as a way to start addressing the billions in deferred infrastructure maintenance — problems that only get worse the longer they are put off. The Lockbox Amendment passed in 2016 mandated that gas taxes and related fees collected by the state should only be spent on infrastructure needs, but it hasn’t addressed the issue of whether that funding is adequate. Most motorists would agree it isn’t.

Randy Blankenhorn, the secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, said the average person in Illinois spends about 50 cents a day on transportation, and notes that Illinois’ funding lags other states. He thinks an increase in the gas tax and vehicle registration fees is inevitable if the state wants to fix its chronic funding problem. And perhaps it is. But limiting the discussion to one source of possible funding for a much-needed capital plan would be a mistake.

The last time Illinois raised the gas tax — from 16 cents to its current 19 cents per gallon — was in 1990. It’s easy to say that inflation alone is a reason to increase it a few cents in order to fund much-needed road improvements. Proponents also point out that Illinois is on the low end of gasoline taxes. Only Missouri, with its 17 cents per gallon tax, is lower than Illinois. Kentucky charges 26 cents a gallon, Indiana 29 cents and Iowa and Wisconsin are both just under 31 cents per gallon.

But Illinois and Indiana charge sales tax on gas. There also is a federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, and other units of government can add their own taxes. So in Illinois, you wind up paying about 55.91 cents per gallon in taxes, according to the American Petroleum Institute. The API says the national average tax rate on a gallon of gas was 52.61 cents as of July.

Yes, Illinois needs a capital plan. Yes, the state hasn’t raised its share of the gas tax for almost three decades. Yes, those who use infrastructure should help pay to maintain it. But it would be a mistake to limit the discussion of how to fund the needed improvements to one source, especially as greater fuel efficiencies make reliance on gas taxes even more problematic.

Outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner has called for public-private partnerships. Incoming Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said a capital plan should leverage federal money, which would mean working with the Trump Administration, something some Illinois Democrats don’t always seem eager to do. Pritzker also hasn’t ruled out expanding gaming as another possible revenue source. Blankenhorn, who said he was speaking for himself, thinks vehicle registration fees should be part of the mix, too.

Some of those ideas don’t thrill us, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be on the table.

Lawmakers need to consider the big picture, including the impact of other potential taxes and fees on the table. Pritzker has called for changing the state’s income tax system to a graduated tax. Even if he manages to contain that to the wealthiest Illinoisans, as he has promised to do, it still means more taxes for at least some Illinois residents. If recreational marijuana and sports betting are legalized, count on there being taxes and fees on those too. Locally, the city of Springfield raised the sales tax rate earlier this year, and it will go up again in 2019 after a successful Nov. 6 referendum by area schools as a way to fund facilities improvements throughout Sangamon County.

A capital plan is needed, and soon. But it should be done right and as fairly as possible.

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