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Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in Illinois

July 9, 2019

July 5, 2019

Sauk Valley Media

Illinois’ roads need repair and improvement - and that requires investment.

The public’s investment began when the state tax on a gallon of gasoline doubled, from 19 to 38 cents a gallon. There are a host of fee increases on vehicle titles and registration, with registration fees for conventional vehicles increased from $101 to $151. The price of a gallon of regular unleaded around the state now is near or, in many places, well above $3 a gallon.

Those are steep hikes, percentage-wise, and they will affect everyone who drives a vehicle in Illinois, along with a range of businesses that need to increase prices for consumers.

We take issue with the size of the tax increases. They are steep, although in the case of the motor fuel tax, they had not been adjusted in almost 30 years. We also are disappointed that our legislators continue to go down the path of more spending on the backs of taxpayers without devoting any significant effort to reducing the cost of government.

However, the motor fuel and vehicle registration taxes are the best way in the current environment to fund the majority of what is projected to be an almost $45 billion, 6-year capital plan.

The motor fuel tax, collected by the state on each gallon of fuel sold, last increased in 1990. Since then, fuel efficiency among light-duty vehicles has increased about 25 percent, while inflation has whittled away the buying power of the tax dollars collected.

One reason the tax remained unchanged so long was that people worried - justifiably - that the money would be used by legislators for purposes other than transportation projects. That changed in 2016, when Illinois voters approved the “lockbox amendment” to the state constitution, which requires that money collected through taxes and fees on vehicles and fuel be spent on transportation-related projects.

The transportation piece of the capital plan calls for about $33 billion worth of road, bridge, rail and other transportation projects over 6 years. Some of these projects will be selected by the Illinois Department of Transportation, but money also will flow to counties, municipalities and townships, all of which will see their share of the fuel tax roughly double as well.

So no matter which roads you drive on, there should be improvement in years to come. The plans call for about $11 billion worth of projects funded by borrowing money (Illinois’ transportation bonds are better rated than its other bonds because they have a dedicated funding source) and another $9.5 billion in projects funded as the money is available.

The other part of the capital plan is for building projects, including at state facilities, education projects and environmental projects - and this one is less straightforward. The spending will be backed with revenue from opening new casinos in communities including Chicago and Rockford, legalized sports betting and a $1-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will be charged with awarding grants for worthy projects around the state - and the opportunity seems ripe for money to be squandered on pet projects in favored lawmakers’ districts.

We’re not happy about paying more each year. Whether the revenue projections from new casinos and gambling expansion will live up to expectations remains to be seen, but we can rest assured that the extra money paid at the pump will be spent improving our transportation network, which has not seen significant investment in 10 years.

That will benefit all of Illinois, by creating jobs, economic opportunity and safer roads.

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July 7, 2019

The (Moline) Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

Thomas’ rich deal will cost taxpayers big now, later

We knew the exit package Western Illinois University trustees gave to Jack Thomas when he stepped down as WIU president was a lavish one.

But we didn’t realize how unprecedented it was until we read the results of a Chicago Tribune study of what other university and community college administrators and professors recently received to part ways with their employers.

The Tribune outlined the most expensive severance packages, and awarded Thomas and WIU trustees this troubling distinction:

“Even in the context of recent big exit packages for Illinois college leaders, the terms of Jack Thomas’ departure from Western Illinois University are generous,” wrote reporter Dawn Rhodes in a report that appeared in the Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline.com on July 3.

How generous? She noted that Thomas, who stepped down as WIU president on June 30, will be “on leave for two years while continuing to receive his $270,528 salary, plus benefits. Then he’ll be allowed to return as a professor, teaching two classes per year, for a salary well above that of any other faculty member at the school -- though there appears to be some internal confusion about exactly what that salary will be.”

So not only is the final bill going to be costly; we don’t know how big it will be. Making matters worse is that terms of the agreement do not prevent Thomas from taking six-figure outside jobs to enrich the WIU compensation package he is guaranteed to receive.

Ultimately, the liability for the contract lies with taxpayers, who will pay now and later, thanks to the more generous retirement Thomas will “earn” going forward.

The deal also will have a snowball effect on other salaries for a university that still will have to struggle -- even with a recent modest infusion of state funds -- to overcome past state funding deficits and declining enrollment.

As William Thompson, head of the faculty union, told Rhodes, “The board allocating such a generous severance signals to us that the bad times are over and the good times are here. We expect to see similar generosity when we go and start salary negotiations for faculty.”

We don’t know what trustees may have been thinking when they were negotiating this deal.

When contacted by the Tribune, WIU Board chair Polly Radosh and East Moline’s Greg Aguilar, who was chair when trustees approved the contract, deferred questions to WIU spokeswoman Darcie Schinberg. She said via email, “The board determined the final agreement to be acceptable. Deliberations regarding the agreement cannot be further discussed as this is considered a personnel matter.”

Schinberg also declined to comment further when we emailed her about the Tribune report.

Not everyone is as upset about the Thomas deal as we are. For example, Christopher Pynes, head of the faculty senate, told Rhodes, “That’s the cost of doing business sometimes.”

If so, we should redouble our efforts to change how business is done. To their credit, Illinois lawmakers tried to do so with this year’s Government Severance Pay Act that limits payouts to 20 weeks of an employee’s salary and requires schools to ink deals that deny severance if an employee is fired for misconduct. Because Thomas will remain as a tenured WIU faculty member and was not fired or accused of misconduct, the act doesn’t apply to him.

We urge lawmakers to use Thomas’ deal to address that and other loopholes in the new law.

Unfortunately, that won’t do a thing about the Thomas deal that WIU and Illinoisans appear to be saddled with for the long haul.

The best we can hope for is that trustees will learn from it as they work to accomplish the most important duty before them: finding a leader who will make Western Illinois University the first, best choice for Illinois’ brightest and best students.

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July 3, 2019

Chicago Sun-Times

Stack the deck against organized crime at planned Chicago casino

It’s going to be a busy summer for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the City Council if they hope to build a firewall against the influence of organized crime at the planned Chicago casino.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law last week that would give Chicago its first casino, and a massive one at that. It would feature up to 4,000 so-called gaming positions at poker and blackjack tables, slot machines and video gambling terminals. We might also see slot machines at O’Hare and Midway airports, as well as state-sanctioned sports betting.

But all of this, as also set out in the law, is to be done on an extremely tight timetable.

The Illinois Gaming Board has been given until Monday to hire a private consultant to conduct a casino feasibility study. The consultant then has just 45 days to come back with study results. Then the city has just 90 days to propose any necessary changes in the law through a “trailer” bill in Springfield.

That won’t leave much time for summertime fun, if the job is to be done right. And, most especially, both the gaming board and City Hall must make a priority of building protections to ward off the criminal element.

Historically, crime figures have sought to profit from casinos in such ways as hidden ownership, money laundering and running companies that do such things as supply tablecloths, manage restaurants or operate concessions for casinos. Just last year, Pennsylvania gaming regulators revoked permission for a pizzeria to do business with a casino after investigators found the pizzeria owner had alleged organized crime ties.

Former Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe says it can be difficult to determine if a company looking to do business with a casino has ties to organized crime — and so the process takes time. A company can be owned by several other companies, which in turn are owned by additional companies.

“You have got to check out all those people,” Jaffe told us. “It is very difficult.”

The gaming board has a good record of distancing Illinois casinos from criminal elements. But at a time when the board does not even have a chairman, the staff will have its hands full with the new law. It must work out regulatory and oversight issues for not only a Chicago casino, but for new casinos in Waukegan, Rockford, the south suburbs, Williamson County and Danville.

The gaming board has a good record of distancing Illinois casinos from criminal elements. But at a time when the board does not even have a chairman, the staff will have its hands full with the new law.

The gaming board staff will have to be expanded so it can do its job properly, and any new staff members must be knowledgeable, independent from the gambling industry and above reproach. We’re leery of an assurance by state Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, that a revamped “pro-gaming” gaming board will be friendlier to the industry. What’s so great about being “friendlier” when it comes to regulating an industry that’s had issues in the past?

Chicago authorities also will have to be vigilant.

Every decision at both the city and state levels should be fully transparent and publicly vetted.

Mayor Lightfoot and aldermen should accept no campaign cash from the casino industry, or from related businesses.

When we asked the governor’s office what measures are being taken to create that firewall for the new casinos, staffers offered this reply in an email: “The Illinois Gaming Board currently has a detailed and thorough process for vetting new applicants as well as stringent monitoring of existing licensees, their gaming premises, and financial activities.”

And in a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, Pritzker pointed out that the new law empowers the city to play a strong and forceful role in policing its casino.

A Chicago casino could go a long way toward helping the city get its finances in order. But a city with a long and ugly history of organized crime can’t let down its guard.

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