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Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in Illinois

July 30, 2019

July 29, 2019

Chicago Sun-Times

Understaffed Gaming Board needs a fast bulking up

A historic increase in legal gambling in Illinois, signed into law on June 28, means the understaffed Illinois Gaming Board has an enormous and difficult job ahead.

It’s way past time to fill the board’s vacant positions, boost the staff and pay the chairperson, if not other members, more than the standard $300 per diem for attending meetings.

The board has an excellent track record of keeping unsavory types from getting their hands on Illinois casinos and video gambling machines. But organized crime and other unwanted sorts are always looking to sneak in the back door, and the stakes are expanding fast.

A fully staffed Gaming Board, which Illinois does not have right now, is a necessity.

In the wake of a historically productive spring legislative session, we’re told, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration is focused on filling vacancies on the Gaming Board and other agency boards. And, we’re told, he’s looking for the best people to carry out the state’s big expansion in gambling — including the creation of a Vegas-sized casino in Chicago.

Fine. But let’s be sure that shaping up the Gaming Board is at the top of governor’s to-do list.

If the wrong people get their hands on the new casinos and sports betting in Illinois, the cost to the state could be great. As was the case in Nevada for decades — and, many would say, to this day — sinister forces in the gambling world are adept at using their riches to influence local elections and buy legislators to gain and maintain control of the market.

Right now, the Gaming Board is woefully unprepared.

As Mitchell Armentrout reported in Thursday’s Chicago Sun-Times, two of the five seats on the board remain unfilled, including that of chairperson. Moreover, it’s hard to find good people to appoint because the job is time-consuming and challenging and pays just that $300-per-meeting per diem. By contrast, at the Illinois Pollution Control Board, which also deals in complicated and consequential issues, the chairman is paid $121,040 a year and the members are paid $117,043 a year.

Of the three members on the Gaming Board, two are new to the job. So is the administrator, Marcus Fruchter, who came over in May from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division.

The last time the board approved a casino license, it took years to investigate the matter. Now the board will have to deal with six casinos, more video gambling, slot machines and table games at the state’s three race tracks, a new south suburban “racino” and newly authorized sports gambling.

Statewide, the number of gambling positions will soar from under 44,000 to almost 80,000.

That means a lot of work.

In the past, crime figures have used hidden ownership, money laundering and the running of companies that supply casinos to profit under the table. Former Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe said it can be difficult to detect crime influence on companies tied to casinos because a company can be owned by several other companies, which in turn can be owned by other companies.

The 800-plus-page gambling bill approved by the Legislature last spring was pushed through in the session’s closing days. It went to the floor of the Senate with no committee hearings and some legislators — undoubtedly most — never read it.

The Gaming Board will have to be far more deliberative and thorough. That will require more top-quality people — paid, if that’s what it takes — with every hand on deck as soon as possible.

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July 29, 2019

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

New penalties for cellphone misuse

People have to wise up to the dangers of using their phones while they drive.

Cartoonist Walt Kelly coined the phrase “we have met the enemy, and he is us” in the 1960s as a reflection of the turmoil surrounding the war in Vietnam.

The phrase — a reprise of the famous statement by Commander Oliver Perry that “we have met the enemy, and he is ours” — is a colorful way to capture the destruction wrought by people’s ill-advised behavior, sometimes to themselves and sometimes to others.

It’s certainly not a new concept. But the means of destruction keep developing new forms and, sometimes, grow out of great technical advances, like cellular phones.

Here are a couple of astounding statistics that reveal how the misuse of incredibly useful technology can lay society low.

A study by Volvo revealed that 71 percent of Americans admit they use their cellphones while driving, even though they know it is illegal, both to talk and, even more incredibly, text. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that — at any one time — more than 600,000 drivers across the country are using their cellphones.

The numbers may seem stunning, but they confirm what the average motorist sees every day. People routinely drive and talk and, as a consequence, get into accidents.

This is a real problem, the biggest portion of which is this: Most people appear to acknowledge the danger of the practice, while finding reasons to exclude themselves as contributors. At least they do until it’s too late. Then the ugly reality hits home with a fury.

This sort of indifference to public safety requires a strong reaction from government, a la the public health campaigns years ago that warned in stark terms about the medical threats posed by smoking cigarettes. Those advertisements, over time, had a dramatic impact on peoples’ behavior.

Illinois and other states need hard-hitting television and radio public service campaigns that drive home the threat created by mixing cellphones and driving. They need to show the social impact of engaging in this kind of unquestionably dangerous behavior.

Until that happens, the Legislature is taking a different course by passing tougher laws that increase penalties.

Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a measure that boosts penalties for drivers who talk and text.

Under the new law, Secretary of State Jesse White can suspend or revoke driving privileges of motorists who are responsible for accidents causing serious injuries.

The fine for violating the “aggravated use of an electronic communication device” is $1,000.

Another new law establishes a ladder of increasing fines for motorists convicted of texting-and-driving offenses, $75 for a first offense, $100 for a second, $125 for a third and $150 for successive offenses.

At the same time, these offenses are now classified as moving violations, meaning multiple violations can result in license suspensions.

All this, of course, would be largely unnecessary if people would stop for a moment and think about the advisability of talking or texting while driving.

Just what is so important that motorists can’t wait to talk or text?

If they can’t do that, there’s another option to reduce the damage — hands-free calling technology that avoids the physical gymnastics required to find and answer a ringing phone.

Motorists need to think harder about the risks they’re creating for themselves, their passengers and other drivers, just as state officials must press messaging campaigns that warn of the pitfalls of failing to exercise caution.

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July 28, 2019

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

Proposed SNAP rule will harm Southern Illinoisans, with little economic savings

The Trump administration’s proposal to cut about 3.1 million people from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, literally and figuratively is a punch in the gut to Southern Illinois.

The proposed rule change by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would increase restrictions on who could automatically qualify for the food benefits. Currently, states allow some people who get benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to automatically qualify. The USDA says the new rule would close “a loophole,” according to reporting by the Associated Press.

With the federal deficit expected to top $900 billion in 2019, the projected $2 billion in savings realized by paring down the SNAP program looks both callous and insignificant, particularly in light of the tax cuts pushed by the Trump administration in 2017.

The Committee For a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that $230 billion of the projected $900 billion 2019 deficit was the result of the tax cut. Think about that . $230 billion in tax cuts would cover the SNAP savings 115 times.

That calls to mind the words of former vice president Hubert H. Humphrey, who said, “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

And, Humphrey’s words cut to the heart of the matter. The people hurt by cutting back SNAP benefits are the elderly, the sick, the handicapped and the children. While President Trump has argued that SNAP is no longer necessary given the strong economy and low unemployment, we here in Southern Illinois know the reality.

The soaring stock market and tightening job market mean nothing if you are a single parent working a couple of part-time jobs trying to make ends meet. The improved economy is irrelevant to a person who is unable to work because of physical or mental impairment.

In a story published in this newspaper last Sunday, we learned that 12,000 people in Jackson County alone receive SNAP benefits. We know that 40 percent of Alexander County residents and 30 percent of Pulaski County residents are food stamp recipients. Between 20 to 25 percent of Jackson, Williamson, Union, Gallatin, Saline, Franklin and Hardin counties receive SNAP benefits.

Those are your friends and neighbors. Look around you in church next Sunday. You’ll see people who rely on this program to feed their children. Look at the kids your children play with at school. They are the ones who will suffer if this proposal is allowed to take effect.

Recently, the Wyoming Valley School District in Pennsylvania has been in the news after it sent letters to parents informing them that if their kids’ lunch debt was not settled, their child could be removed from their home and placed in foster care.

At least that’s not apt to happen in Southern Illinois. So many people here rely on SNAP benefits that many schools in the lower 17 counties provide free lunches to all students.

Churches in the region provide weekend food packages for students who rely on school lunches as their primary source of nutrition. In the long run, it will be the children that will feel the stinging effects of this proposal.

As Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member on the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Nutrition told the Reuters News Agency, “This rule would take food away from families, prevent children from getting school meals and make it harder for states to administer food assistance.”

And, as our story this past Sunday outlined, SNAP benefits are not solely for the unemployed. In addition, inner-city residents are not the primary beneficiaries of the program. Studies indicate that rural citizens rely more heavily on SNAP benefits than city-dwellers.

Curtailing SNAP benefits is a horrific idea for Southern Illinois, for children and the rural poor. The savings to taxpayers is minimal and the cost, in terms of human hardship and suffering, is high.

It is an idea that needs to go away — quickly.

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