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Major Road Repair Funding Coming to North Shore April 15, 2009

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Initial phase of statewide capital plan aids local “shovel-ready” projects 

Evanston, IL – Assistant Senate Majority Leader Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston) today announced that an infusion of more than $20 million in new state and federal funding will be used to repair crumbling North Shore roads as part of a jobs and revitalization package approved by Illinois lawmakers and Governor Quinn late last week.

The Senate unanimously passed the multi-billion-dollar capital infrastructure initiative, which is the first installment of an anticipated $26 billion package for roads, bridges, mass transit and passenger and freight rail. The package will send thousands of residents back to work while capturing billions of dollars in federal assistance.

“This revitalization package will give our communities and our state a necessary investment of new state and federal stimulus funding and create more jobs to improve our crumbling infrastructure,” Schoenberg said. “Since our state also has a very high unemployment rate right now and we need to get our residents sustainable jobs as soon as possible.”

Schoenberg said all of the projects in his North Shore involve resurfacing roads, but there will be patch work done at various locations in north suburban Cook County as well.

The projects in Senator Schoenberg’s North Shore district include:

• Central Street (Evanston) – McDaniel Ave to Ashland Ave & Ashbury Ave to Sherman Ave – resurfacing, $860,000
• Forest Way Drive (Winnetka) – Dundee Road to Willow Road– resurfacing, $1,200,000
• Golf Road/Simpson Street/Emerson Street (Skokie) – Gross Point Road to McCormick Blvd – resurfacing, $1,320,000
• Gross Point Road (Skokie/Evanston) – Central St to Golf Road – resurfacing, $530,000
• Ridge Road (Wilmette/Winnetka) – Winnetka Road to Forest Ave & south of Schiller Ave to Wilmette Ave – resurfacing, $670,000
• Sheridan Road/South Boulevard (Evanston) – South Blvd to Juneway Terrace & Chicago Ave to Sheridan Road – resurfacing, $900,000
• Sheridan Road (East Rogers Park) – North of Juneway Terrace to Arthur Ave – resurfacing, $3,300,000
• Willow Road (Glenview) – Landwehr Road to C&NW Rail Road – resurfacing, $1,325,000
• Willow Road (Glenview) – SOO Rail Road to east of IL 43 – resurfacing, $925,000
• US-41/Skokie Road (Wilmette) – Central Ave to Old Orchard Road – resurfacing, $745,000
• US-41/IL 50/Skokie Road/Cicero Ave (Skokie) – Foster Street to Tuohy Ave – resurfacing, $3,010,000
• Dempster Street (Skokie/Evanston) – US-41 to McCormick Blvd & Chicago Ave to Judson Ave – resurfacing, $1,666,000

These “shovel-ready” projects will be part of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s (IDOT) bid-letting scheduled for May 23, 2009. For desperately-needed pothole repairs in area communities, construction crews in some instances will begin work on the projects as early as the end of the month.

Schoenberg cautioned that the long-overdue roadwork may cause some inconvenience for area motorists, it also means that repairs to these major thoroughfares is finally being addressed. He added that sound infrastructure and the accompanying job creation will greatly benefit the area’s economy.

The legislative package was passed by the House and signed into law by Governor Quinn late last week.


Tobacco tax boost keeps health care accessible April 13, 2009

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Not surprisingly, there’s been some pushback against my legislation to increase Illinois’ cigarette tax an additional $ .50 per pack the first year and another $.50  per pack the next year . The underlying rationale behind the plan is two-fold: First, the proceeds of the increase will go exclusively into a fund that will leverage additional matching federal funds to pay outstanding Medicaid-based healthcare expenses. Assuming that Illinois meets the criteria of the federal stimulus initiative of reducing its payment cycle to 30 days for providers of Medicaid-reimbursable healthcare services, e.g., hospitals, nursing homes, community-based agencies serving the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, every $1.00 earmarked to meeting our state’s Medicaid obligations has an actual value of $2.50 over the next couple of budget years.

Consequently, over the next two fiscal years the proposed cigarette tax increase will generate over $1 billion towards paying our outstanding healthcare bills. That calculation inherently acknowledges a drop in tax revenues the second year of the tobacco tax increase as the result of reduced usage, which is a behavior that is the second objective of the cigarette tax increase. Supporters of this proposal like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago effectively argue that each 10 percent price increase reduces youth smoking rates by 6.5 percent, adult smoking rates by 2 percent and total consumption of tobacco by 4 percent. According to recent estimates by the advocates, an estimated 16,600 Illinois residents die from smoking-related diseases each year, and smoking is linked to $4 billion in annual health-care costs and $1.5 billion in Medicaid costs in Illinois.

Those are numbers that simply can’t be shuffled off the state’s healthcare ledger without acknowledgement. There is indeed a tangible financial cost to tobacco-related illness, one which we all end up paying.

Keep an eye on Senate Bill 44.  It took two tries to pass the Senate with nary a vote to spare; the battle now moves to the House.

Feedback: Take One April 13, 2009

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On my Facebook page yesterday, I jokingly wondered aloud where my career might have gone had I played pickup hoops in the mornings in Springfield  with a famous former Senate colleague instead of panting up and down the court at the Department of Corrections gym during the night shift.

While I’m sure at some point the future POTUS and I did share the court once or twice during our tenure together at the State Capitol, I can’t say it was a memorable experience — unlike some other encounters that I’ll always remember during our time together in the Illinois General Assembly. 

Nonetheless, Barack Obama had made some indelible impressions on folks. In a recent email to my listserv, I asked people to share their favorite personal experiences about President Barack Obama.

Here are some excerpts from the many replies:

I first heard Barack Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention and it was a stirring speech.  I was enamored but, I thought that this country was ready for an African America as president.

A Couple of years ago, he was the keynote speaker at the northwestern graduation. In person he was even more impressive and he gave me/us the message of hope and change we were looking for. He was truly an inspiring speaker and portrayed an humble family man who has come up working hard and has hopes to change the way the nation was going.

The republicans went from having a budget surplus and the world’s sympathy for us after 9-11 to a wrecked economy and a sheer arrogance to world opinion. They went to war on faulty or non-existant intelligence and conducted it with amazing ineptitude.

Thanks,for doing a wonderful job and I hope with your help Barack Obama can make a difference and restore Americans role as a Democratic Leader and restart diplomacy and end these costly wars.

– Kailas


A personal story about Barack Obama;  Sometime during the Obama run for the Illinois Senate, I was invited to attend a small coffee in Winnetka for him.  My only memory of Barack was seeing him give a wonderfully moving speech at the Democratic National Convention.  He was running late, came in the room, mentioned in passing that Chicago traffic was terrible and began his talk to us.
From the first, I thought he was very articulate and clear in his ideas and purpose.  He spoke movingly on the war in Iraq and discussed the President Bush’s poor record on the needs of the American people.  At the end of the talk he asked for questions from the group.
The room was filled with mostly elderly people and, not surprisingly, the first question was what Obama thought about the inheritance tax.  He looked around the room, smiled, and said, “I know what you want me to say, but I believe in the inheritance tax”…..and spoke at great length about why.  It was a defining moment for me.  I knew then, and told my husband later, that here is a man who could have told the audience what they wanted to hear….spin the talk….and flip around to the point of view of the questioner.  But he didn’t. 
I began to follow and support Barack Obama after that day and have not been disappointed for one minute.  He believes what he says and acts on what he believes.
I only wish him the best of luck in his new position.  He is going to make a wonderful President of our country.
– Pam
With the exception of phone banking from home, my volunteer work for Obama consisted of getting in my car and driving to places on my own to “make friends” for Barack.  I did this in NM in September and in PA in October.    

My favorite – On October 25 I was in Dushore, PA – heart of the red part of the state – McCain signs everywhere, as well as some anti-Obama signs.  I went to the Dushore diner.  Everyone eyed me up and down, taking in the  big Obama button on my jacket.  When I left the diner to join my cousin who was driving, two BIG burly men in hunters’ garb followed me outside.  One said, that’s the first and only Obama button I’ve seen in this town.”  I replied something like, “Well, I have an extra one if you’d like to make it two for the town”.  The man said, “Step over here” and walked towards his truck. I blanched abit but both my cousin and I went over.  He opened his coat and surreptitiously showed me a small Obama button on his inside shirt.  He said, “There are more of us for him here than anyone whould think but we don’t dare put up signs”!

I had several other encounters like this one that day – union members (machinist union) who followed me to tell me they were for Obama but didn’t want their neighbors to know.  One man told me that he guessed people might call him a racist but that was because he had never met any “black people” but since he had been reading all about Obama he had decided that he liked him and would vote for him.

When I left PA after my private week there in October I just “knew” that PA would go for Obama (just as I did when I left NM).  People are good and they just need the personal attention that the Obama campaign gave them.  People respond to decency and integrity – and Obama epitomized that and the other campaign did not.

– Nancy

Do you have a story that you wish to share?  Even if you don’t, why don’t you friend me on FB? I’ll look forward to hearing from you either way.

















Here come the Hawks April 13, 2009

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It’s been far too long since we’ve been playing hockey games in Chicago well after both baseball teams have stumbled through their respective Opening Days. But thanks to some inspired play from veterans like Nikolai Khabibulin (a.k.a. “The Bulin Wall”), Martin Havlat and Patrick Sharp, along with phenoms Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Kris Versteeg — the Blackhawks finished the regular season strongly and will kickstart their run for the 2009 Stanley Cup Thursday night against the Calgary Flames.

Because the hockey renaissance here has me tingling with nostalgia, what better way to celebrate the end of a great season than with a tribute to the glory days of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito:

A day of infamy in Illinois: impeachment debate remarks January 30, 2009

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The following is the text of my remarks during the Senate deliberations immediately preceding the 59-0 vote to convict former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of the single article of impeachment, and the subsequent vote to permanently bar him from holding public office ever again in Illinois:

Thank you, Mr. President. Like those who have preceded me, I wish to extend my deep gratitude to Chief Justice Fitzgerald, to you and Minority Leader Radogno for insuring an impeccable sense of fairness in the rules governing these proceedings…to the House prosecutor and his team and to our respective staffs who have done a tireless job under extraordinary circumstances.  

Today, the State of Illinois, the soul of the nations heartland, the home of our country’s 44th President, is bruised today and it hurts as it has never ached before.  There is no disputing, as the evidence and testimony overwhelmingly prove., that there is a consistent thread tying all of the behavior together which clearly demonstrates a pattern of abuse of power.  If , as the Governor indicated in his remarks to the Chamber this morning, (F.B.I) Special Agent Cain was constrained in his testimony…the transcripts of Ali Ata and Joseph Cari’s plea agreements, the federal government’s criminal complain, the sworn testimony in the Rezko trial and the Auditor General’s damning findings elevated the whisper to a shout from the rooftops.  Without question,  there was a systematic effort to extort money from hospital executives, racetrack owners, investment banking firms, state lease holders and the list goes on and on. 

And I have to say, ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, that this is not a template that was created just six years ago.  There is no set of circumstances… there is simply no set of circumstances that any of us know of, where someone in any public office can commit to spending public taxpayer dollars without a signed contract, without legal authorization, without a fair, competitive bidding process that does not have a thumb on the scale.   People who work hard and live in our communities expect nothing less. 

In his remarks, which frankly I thought were insulting to law-abiding citizens of our communities, the Governor was clearly trying to disprove that there was a consistent pattern of behavior — one in which private individuals serving in public capacities accountable to no one  directed the spending of millions and millions of public dollars. That’s inexcusable.  It’s not a philosophical difference.  It’s against the law.  The Governor also cited the Executive Inspector General in his remarks earlier today and how it was a matter of pride that there was even an Executive Inspector General in place. But what the Governor omitted in his remarks was that at the end of her submission she pointed out, as the chief prosecutor from the House ably pointed out as well, that there was “utter contempt and disregard for the law.” 

As I indicated earlier, much of what we’ve heard and I anticipate much of what we will hear in the future in a different context, does not represent a template of abuse that developed overnight.  Nor are the participants solely affiliated with one political party.  It may have grown exponentially in these past six years, but those seeds my friends were sown long ago.

Let me reiterate as others have before me… that this is not a criminal trial.  It is a constitutional proceeding to determine the Governor’s fitness to serve all of the taxpayers of Illinois.  Governor Blagojevich as our State’s chief executive oversaw a public enterprise where legal mechanisms to assert oversight, accountability and transparency over public dollars were repeatedly dismissed or ignored.  They were characterized as cumbersome, outdated business models, inconvenient, so that real estate leases, consulting contracts, investment decisions and a host of other public assets were used to extract money and to deny taxpayers honest services. 

In one instance — the so-called “efficiency initiative” — a private entity was created out of whole cloth and payments of public dollars were made.  Payments of dollars that were stripped from state agencies that the legislative branch mandated constitutionally to ensure that they could fulfill their respective missions and those dollars were used in a very elaborate shell game. 

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, our neighbors and our nation are today confronted with great economic uncertainty that requires true ethical and undistracted attention from our State’s chief executive. Their livelihoods, their homes and their very existence during this economic crisis depend on focused and principled leadership to provide for a better future.  Governor Blagojevich, and through the actions and those of his and those his associates, have demonstrated unfortunately, tragically , that he is no longer fit to hold the office of the State’s chief executive. 

“Hey, man — Mazel Tov!” January 6, 2009

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Out in Washington, D.C., for a very quick business trip and had the pleasure of capping off my day with Sen. Dick Durbin’s soiree honoring the incoming class of Democratic U.S. Senators at Bobby Van’s Grill, just around the corner from the Grand Hyatt. Saturday Night Live’s Minnesota’s Al Franken was of course nowhere to be found, and though it was rumored that Roland Burris was going to make an appearance, I took off before subjecting myself to witnessing that uncomfortable possibility.

Though the party was Durbin’s personal welcome to the Senate’s non-Prairie State newbies, thanks to fundraiser extraordinaire Nancy Kohn and her team the restaurant and bar were teeming with Illinoisans from across the state who came to honor the nation’s second-ranking U.S. Senator. Dick’s wife, Loretta, was there for the celebration as well, along with my colleague, Sen. John Sullivan of Rushville, and scads of other Downstaters like Mike Daly, Barb Brown, Linda Hawker, Billy Halstead, Bridget and Tom Lamont, Ron and Bonnie Ettinger and Steve and Suzanna Preckwinkle, and Doug and Ann Dougherty, just to name a few. From up north, my pals Michael Bauer and Roger Simon, Susan Manilow, Todd Smith, Gila Bronner, Steve Powell, Jan Starr, Dean Maragos, Linda Sher, Marcia Balonick, Sandy Stein and Howard Swibel also helped pack the place.

Shortly before 7p, while I was chatting up Loretta Durbin on one side of the atrium I received an email on my Blackberry from the Trib‘s Christi Parsons, formerly of the Springfield bureau but now in line to become White House correspondent later this month. She asked if I was at Durbin-fest and let me know that the “pool reporters” were on their way over.

Immediately, my suspicions were aroused. Shortly thereafter, Loretta was urgently summoned to join Dick at the top of the atrium stairs. I took her by the hand and escorted her across Bobby Van’s over to her husband, who then said to me, “There’s going to be a former Illinois state senator here in a few minutes.”

Hmmm. Huff Post has more of the run-up here.

Sure enough, moments later a familiar face walks through the front door unannounced, greets the Durbins, and comes walking right down the stairs toward me with a big grin on his face. “Hey, Jeff, great to see you,” he says, as we shake hands and do the guy pound hug.

To which I reply — to the guy who officed down the hall from me at the State Capitol when I first moved over from the House to the Senate and who fought a million legislative battles along side me, who I first met when he was living on the South Side running a highly successful voter registration drive,  who is now one of the most recognized figures on the planet and who I hadn’t seen since well before he was elected our country’s 44th president:

“Hey, man — Mazel Tov!”

There was a bit more to the exchange between us before he descended into the stunned crowd to shake hands but I’ll skip it for now.

“Hey, man — Mazel Tov?”  I think I need to polish up on that etiquette a bit before I come back out here for January 20th.

Combatting sexual slavery and the use of rape as genocide January 6, 2009

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As maddening as the Illinois political situation has become, it’s sobering to remember that there are even greater injustices in the world and courageous people who fight seemingly insurmountable odds to protect the rights of others.

Describing the horrific situation in Southeast Asia, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof tells such a story from Cambodia of two women who are valiantly combatting the sexual exploitation of young girls.

Kristof paints a chilling picture of the widespread kidnapping and torture of young girls in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, highlighting the base, immoral treatment of young girls that often includes locking these young women in underground tombs and physical disfigurement for greater profit. A particularly poignant video essay accompanies his last two NYT columns. It will stay etched in your memory for years to come.

Systematic sexual violence against women in another continent has one prominent diplomat and legal scholar claiming that rape represents a deliberate tactic of genoicide in Darfur and should be prosecuted as such. My friend, David Scheffer, former U.S. Ambassador for International War Crimes now heading the Center for International Human Rights at the Northwestern University Law School, argues forcefully in this recent LA Times op-ed piece that widespread rape of women and girls in the Sudan was a systematic tactic by the savage janjaweed, military troops and security personnel in the Sudan viciously seeking to destroy women and their communities.

International prosecutors at The Hague could soon be setting a groundbreaking precedent in the case against Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir:

Hanging in the balance is whether the heinous modern warfare strategy of mass rape will be condemned and prosecuted for what it truly is: genocide. 

Scheffer explains the  legal reasoning behind the potential genocide charge:

The court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has filed other charges as well, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and “mass murder as genocide.” But the groundbreaking charge is rape as genocide, which relies on two lesser-known ways of destroying a people: “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” or “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” 

Prosecuting the crime of rape under these particular formulations is unprecedented for the International Criminal Court. There were mass rapes in Rwanda in 1994, for instance, but many of the victims were quickly killed as part of the overall genocide. In Darfur, many rape victims survive, but they suffer grievous harm to their bodies, minds and ethnic identities that can lead to a genocidal result. 

Despite rulings from earlier Rwanda and Bosnia war crimes tribunals that offer guidance, the relative novelty and complexity of rape-as-genocide cases may impel the judges to stick to more familiar war crimes terrain. But the judges only have to find reasonable grounds to include the rape-as-genocide charges on the Bashir warrant. They need not establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard applied at trial. 

The incoming Obama administration is on record as pledging through its foreign policies to prioritize cracking down on the sexual exploitation of children and the use of rape as a deliberate strategy to destroy and devastate women, their families and their communities. Greater awareness and the resulting pressure exerted through media exposure, heightened diplomatic action and the international legal system can not only seek to shame the offending parties but also hold them accountable for their widespread atrocities.



Tribe is spot on January 2, 2009

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Because we are a nation of laws, the sequel-to-the-O.J.-car-chase scene that passes for Gov. Blagojevich’s appointment of former state attorney general Roland Burris to the vacant U.S. Senate seat has triggered considerable postulating on the constitutionality of withholding admission to The World’s Most Exclusive Club. 

Many pundits and talking heads have pointed to the case involving the late U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell as proof that the U.S. Senate has little choice but to seat Burris.

Better to ask a real constitutional authority like noted Harvard con law Prof. Laurence Tribe, who is spot on with his analysis as to why the U.S. Senate is within its rights not go through with it.

Step away from the car, Roland January 2, 2009

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The twisted Machiavellian machinations that define disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich have now spawned a new offspring in the appointment of former state comptroller and attorney general Roland Burris to the vacant U.S. Senate seat held by president-elect Barack Obama.

As the days count down to the January 7 swearing-in of the U.S. Senate, CNN’s Political Ticker reports that a plan has been devised by Senate aides to politely yet firmly decline Burris entry to the Senate chambers if he persists in trying to show up for work that day. While Burris has previously said that he will not stage a confrontational scene at the U.S. Capitol, unfortunately that assertion provides little comfort  at the moment. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that he condemned the Governor’s unethical behavior as “appalling”  and “reprehensible”  before becoming mesmerized by the allure of becoming the junior U.S. Senator of Illinois.

The indefatigable Lynn Sweet of the Sun Times provides additional perspective here on how Roland Burris is underestimating the blowback coming his way.

Please, step away from the car, Roland — you won’t be able to sandblast the indelible stain of the Governor’s actions off your good name if you follow through on this ill-conceived adventure. There is no shame in saying that you have taken the public interest into account and have reconsidered your earlier decision to accept this profoundly flawed offer. And as E.J. Dionne points out in his syndicated column, the Obama-led national Democrats in D.C.  are most likely to decide that they’re ultimately better off waiting out this whole sordid mess by slowly studying it to death rather than trying to strike an accommodation that seats Senator Burris on an interim or caretaker basis, as “treating this appointment as a circus act makes more sense than taking it seriously.” 

One thing that we absolutely must  take seriously is to promptly pass a special election bill, not just for filling this vacancy but for any future U.S. Senate opening.

Wait ’til next year… January 2, 2009

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Red Wings 6 Blackhawks 4 in the 2009 Winter Classic.

Fortunately, with Kaner, Tazer and the Bulin Wall we might be deep in the Stanley Cub playoffs well after Opening Day at The Friendly Confines.

Back from the holiday blitz January 2, 2009

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Tried to take some down time at the back end of December with limited success. Usually try to use December to chill after the campaign and veto session, put my brains back in my head and regroup at my own meandering pace for the professional challenges of the coming year, though suffice it to say that the Governor’s self-immolation scotched those plans in a hurry.

So in the spirit of the New Year and all of those well-intended resolutions to either modify or eliminate my personal deficiencies, I’m back at the blog — all fired up and ready to go, as the Obamaniks used to say during the campaign.

Hope your holidays were joyous and that the New Year is a happy and fulfilling one for you and your loved ones.

It Hurts Too Much To Laugh… December 16, 2008

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Now that impeachment proceedings are formally underway in the Illinois House and the Senate has initiated a process of formulating rules in anticipation of a possible impeachment trial, I’ve seen my disposition sour markedly during these past couple of days at the State Capitol.

Which also brings to mind one of most decent and distinguished Illinois politicians in history, the late Senator Adlai Stevenson, who infamously cited Lincoln when he conceded defeat to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, saying “It hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too old to cry.”

Testing that principle today on the Chicago Sun-Times’ front page is the legendary political cartoonist Jack Higgins. Higgins and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Mike Luckovitch are the best, and the SJ-R‘s Chris Britt is no slouch either, as evidenced by today’s offering.

Click ’em and weep.

Governor Quinn’s Job One: Ethics Summit December 15, 2008

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Off in a bit to begin traveling from Evanston to the State Capitol as we try and sort through the wreckage caused the state’s narcissistic chief executive.

In the meantime, while a combination of varied efforts to remove Rod Blagojevich from the Governor’s office intensifies by the hour, it’s not too early to begin laying out the immediate challenges that will be before Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn once he eventually assumes office as the state’s chief executive.

Setting aside resolution of the now infamous vacant U.S. Senate seat formerly held by President-elect Barack Obama, the first thing the new Governor should do is immediately  invite Cindy Canary’s Crew, a.k.a. the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, the Better Government Association, the Civic Federation, the League of Women Voters of Illinois and every other good government group to join with lawmakers from both parties at a “Governor’s Summit on Ethics Reform” to lay out a punch list of reform measures that ought to be part of a larger strategy of reclaiming Illinois government. Convene the “Governor’s Summit on Ethics Reform” at the Governor’s Mansion, too, so that taxpayers will see further symbolism in restoring government back to the people.

Action items ought to include:

  • Campaign finance reform;
  • Greater  accountability and transparency for public pension and investment transactions;
  • Further strengthening of the state’s procurement code governing the purchase of goods and services;
  • Specific procedures for removal of a corrupt constitutional officeholders; and 
  • How to use the Web and technology as a tool for enabling more sunshine in state government.

What else should be added to this menu for reform?

Pension reform redux December 10, 2008

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Among the many other more visceral reactions I had to yesterday’s punch-in-the-gut disclosures that were contained in the complaint filed by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald about further “pay-to-play” schemes was an immediate sense that we need to crisply refocus attention on implementing additional reforms which provide greater accountability and transparency in state government.

In an earlier post, “Building Better Mousetraps”, I laid out much of the case as to why major transactions such as pension and investment decisions are ripe for reform. So despite my public differences with Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias about his announced pension reform proposal, I met at the tail end of last week with the treasurer to air out our respective points of view. The meeting was very cordial, as it should be between two people who agree on roughly 90 percent of a far-reaching initiative. After all, the overwhelming majority of this sweeping reform package has won approval either in the House or the Senate over the passed couple of years, thanks to the deft touch of  my trusted BFF, Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook).

The most recent version of the sweeping accountability reforms was contained in Senate Bill 1305, which underwent numerous changes in both chambers before the strategic decision was made by the reformniks to let it simmer on the back burner a bit while devoting our primary attention to passing the “pay-to-play” ban into law. 

While I’m still not entirely sold on the upsides of consolidating all of the state’s retirement systems into a single “uberfund”, after meeting with him last week I’m now willing to give the treasurer the chance to make the case both publicly and through negotiations with the myriad of interested parties already revving up to engage in some serious political smackdown on this proposal. In my role as the Senate co-chair of the bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability  (“F & A” for the more risque types, “COGFA” for those more into beige), I’ve consulted with my solid House counterpart, Rep. Rich Myers (R-Macomb) and we’ve agreed to schedule hearings early in 2009 to delve into the accuracy of the purported cost-savings that would result from the proposed fund consolidation.

ssi0015245_p1Moreover, I’ve tentatively signed on to be the chief Senate sponsor of the reform plan, which makes sense since I’ve been feverishly pushing this reform boulder up the hill for the past few years. 

The ethics side of the line of scrimmage will also need some changes that place a greater premium on professionalism and a lesser degree on political clout. Some essentials here include writing into law the requirement that third parties pitching investment business be licensed     securities professionals, adding harsher penalties for willful violations of the securities industry’s existing prohibition against investment         banking firms using “independent contractors”, and requiring a broader universe of public pension fund trustees to disclose their economic       interests.

I can’t fault Treasurer Giannoulias for wanting to take on a monster issue either, as I’ve always felt that we can’t be content to nibble away at   the edges while failing to seize opportunities for meaningful change by the throat. 

More to come. Stay tuned.

The Governor Must Resign Immediately December 9, 2008

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The charges outlined today by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald are numbing and disheartening for all Illinois taxpayers.
I wholeheartedly agree with Attorney General Lisa Madigan that the Governor should step down immediately.
Given the severe nature of the government’s charges, Senate President Jones and Speaker Madigan should reconvene the General Assembly as soon as possible to change Illinois law so that there will be a special election to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat formerly held by President-elect Obama.
In addition, I will be closely monitoring the actions in the coming days of the Illinois House regarding possible impeachment proceedings against the Governor, as under the Illinois Constitution I would be a potential sworn juror in an impeachment trial along with my other colleagues in the Illinois Senate. This is a responsibility that I take most seriously, and would not wish to possibly impair with any public comments about impeachment.

Goodbye, Mad Dog December 8, 2008

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The Great Decider has checked out, concentrating instead on building his new post presidential digs in Dallas. The economy is plummeting down a mine shaft, with lost jobs, declining housing values,  and shriveling credit jacking up everyone’s anxiety levels.  Today’s Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Chicago Tribune is lurching toward bankruptcy proceedings, and the President-Elect is conceding on this weekend’s “Meet The Press” that it’s gonna get even worse.

Well it has. One of the greatest pitchers in modern baseball history, Greg Maddux, will formally end his major league baseball career later today. My favorite player’s body of work was indeed prodigious: 355 career wins, eighteen Gold Glove awards, four successive Cy Youngs and only 999 walks in over 5,000 career innings pitched. 

Mad Dog was a virtuoso with a baseball and went about his work on the mound with a quiet, unassuming manner. But throughout his long major league career — featuring two tours of duty at Clark and Addison — he was like an assassin, pitching with lethal precision punctuated with a penchant for first-pitch strikes.

Goodbye, Mad Dog.

Feds’ health care cash not a moment too soon December 8, 2008

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Late last week the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) gave final approval to my top legislative priority this past year, a five-year, $4 billion funding plan which provides Illinois hospitals and other health care and human service providers with a critical infusion of new Medicaid dollars. Beginning July 1, 2009, hospitals will see an extra $640 million plus each year and other health care and human service providers, such as long term care facilities and not-for-profits serving the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, will receive an additional $130 million annually over the course of the plan.

This good news from Washington came not a moment too soon. Without this desperately needed new health care cash, many hospitals in Illinois that serve patients in under-served areas — particularly those “safety net” institutions like Mt. Sinai on Chicago’s West Side and Mercy and Holy Cross Hospitals on the city’s South Side, high-volume Medicaid academic institutions like the University of Chicago Medical Center, Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Rush Medical Center, and countless Downstate hospitals — would have been forced to either close their doors or severely curtail services without this massive federal funding boost.

How does this work? In short, each of the state’s roughly 200 hospitals pays a voluntary assessment based on gross revenues minus public reimbursements like Medicare and Medicaid, which are then pooled and leveraged for new matching federal Medicaid funds that come back to the state. Those new dollars are then re-distributed based on where the needs are the greatest, both demographically and based on what areas of care lack funding. The streams of federal dollars ultimately go toward paying for trauma care, OB-GYN, in-patient psychiatric care and rural health grants, just to name a few.

This successful effort is the third one of its kind since 2003, and by far the most ambitious both in terms of the amount of new federal Medicaid dollars and the length of time under which the plan will operate. On June 30, 2008, Illinois concluded a similar three-year, $1.8 billion initiative, and in 2004 the state realized roughly $500 million from a plan passed into law and approved by federal regulators. Of the previous three hospital assessment plans that have become law since 2003, the current initiative was by far the most redistributive, which not only ensured swifter federal approval but also guaranteed that more of the money would go to the most economically distressed communities. Under the federal guidelines established for these plans, the more Robin Hood the better, a key principle of this program regardless of which party occupies the White House.

One final note: I was the chief sponsor of this legislative proposal in the Senate, and on more than one occasion I joked with the chief House sponsor, Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), that we were traveling down a very narrow, sniper-free corridor in our negotiations at the State Capitol. At a time when legislative breakthroughs have been few and far between due to the well-documented war zone atmosphere, it was quite an accomplishment. But it also showed that if we stay focused on our core objectives and deflect the political conflicts off to the side, we can indeed bring about meaningful policy change that impacts hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of lives. Given the current economic uncertainty, it comes not a moment too soon as hospitals and other health care and human service providers continue seeking oxygen as they struggle with providing access to affordable quality health care.

Saxby saves the day for the GOP? December 3, 2008

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Yesterday’s runoff whuppin of Democrat Jim Martin by incumbent U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss provided a brief respite for conservatives scouring about for any good news in the aftermath of the November 4th sea change for change. But when all the hyperventalating is over, the Republican Party will still need to rebuild ideologically and intellectually, according to this insightful point-counterpoint analysis by high-wattage Hyde Parkers Gary Becker and Richard Posner. 

I love this blog, and when I finally get around to working up my blogroll and links you’ll eventually see it there. Many of these points are spot on, which is why you won’t hear them on FoxNews.

But take your time, my Illinois GOP friends — there’s no rush, really.

Hat tip: No Burn Evanston December 3, 2008

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After a lengthy legal battle, the U.S. EPA has finally issued a new rule that more stringently regulates the toxic emissions from medical waste incinerators, according to environmental writer Mike Hawthorne in today’s Chicago Tribune. Prompted by the efforts of a local grass-roots campaign in Evanston led by Claire Kelly Delgado, Dr. Matt Wynia and their neighbors who formed No Burn Evanston, the Illinois EPA under then-director Renee Cipriano diligently worked to establish a phased-in state ban on such facilities.

The tenacity of this group of citizen activists prevailed not only here in Evanston, where they pressured our local hospital to shut down its on-site medical waste incinerator, but also contributed mightily to our successful fight to improve air quality in a number of other communities across Illinois.

Congratulations to my neighbors on a big win nationally.

Rahm and reinvesting in the states December 3, 2008

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Today’s Huff Post provides a transcript of the interview that future White House COS gave on the press plane following yesterday’s meeting in Philly between the nation’s governors and President-Elect Obama.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that in the run-up to January 20th, states will need to be preparing to prioritize their respective infrastructure needs so as to be ready to receive whatever additional federal funding will coming heading their way. It also means that on the transportation side, there is an opening to realign their thinking on investment in passenger and freight rail.

All too often, passenger and freight rail are crowded out by highways in allocating scarce public transportation dollars. What needs to happen now in Illinois is for us to establish a system of scoring and prioritizing transportation projects very much the same way that the state uses a set formula to evaluate school construction projects. The highly regarded School Construction Bond Program is jointly administered by the State Board of Education and the Capital Development Board and uses a rigorous evaluation process to vet and rank projects for school districts across the state.

There’s no doubt that a similar template could be developed for evaluating transportation projects. Starting to do so now would position the state well for maximizing the value of every federal transportation dollar.

Building better mousetraps December 1, 2008

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Today’s Chicago Tribune has a story about a legislative proposal by Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias to consolidate all of the state’s pension boards into a single uber-investment board in the hope of realizing cost-efficiencies and greater transparency. While there are many laudable ethics reforms featured in his plan, most notably, the requirement of all individuals sitting on retirement system boards to file full economic interest statements and making the retirement systems subject to the state more stringent procurement code, I nonetheless have serious reservations about the consolidation issue that is the highlight of the Treasurer’s well-intended proposal.

In short, I’m skeptical that bigger always means better when it comes to governing public finance. 

“There’s an inherent danger whenever one tries to funnel so much activity into a single source because it weakens the checks and balances over these public funds,” said Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston), who has long worked on pension reform issues.

The downsides to consolidation include fewer opportunities for newer investment firms and those headed by women and minorities to break into public fund management in Illinois. That also means less likelihood that those firms which manage public funds in Illinois would be relinquishing their share of the pie any time soon.

Folding all the state retirement systems into one board doesn’t necessarily mean more accountability. These same reservations bubbled to the surface when early in the governor’s first term, the Blagojevich administration sought to wrap all of the state’s quasi-public bonding authorities into one massive debt-issuing agency. The legislature wisely rejected that move, and this consolidation effort is reminiscent of that earlier play.

What’s really needed here is greater focus on building better mousetraps given the billions of dollars of cheese involved in state pension and investment decisions. Requiring anyone who seeks to be involved in an investment decision with a public pension fund to be a licensed broker-dealer certified by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), is a far better path to take in promoting greater accountability and transparency in state public pensions. 

Here’s the skinny on the FIRNA from it’s own Web site:

Created in July 2007 through the consolidation of NASD and the member regulation, enforcement and arbitration functions of the New York Stock Exchange, FINRA is dedicated to investor protection and market integrity through effective and efficient regulation and complementary compliance and technology-based services. FINRA touches virtually every aspect of the securities business—from registering and educating industry participants to examining securities firms; writing rules; enforcing those rules and the federal securities laws; informing and educating the investing public; providing trade reporting and other industry utilities; and administering the largest dispute resolution forum for investors and registered firms. It also performs market regulation under contract for The NASDAQ Stock Market, the American Stock Exchange, the International Securities Exchange and the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Mandating that everyone associated with state public pension fund transactions is a licensed securities professional more effectively achieves the goal of taking political influence out of the equation. No longer would insiders be able to pass themselves off as marketing consultants for investment banking firms while pocketing huge fees for minimal work on large deals, and the protective umbrella  of securities industry’s higher standards would more likely prevent Illinois taxpayers from getting soaked. 

Most of the ethics provisions in the treasurer’s reform package have already passed the House or the Senate. Now that we’ve finally put the pay-to-play ban into effect, pension and investment reform should be the next big ethics issue that is tackled at the State Capitol. There will be plenty of challenges ahead on that front, but focusing primarily on fund consolidation shouldn’t be one of them.


Encore December 1, 2008

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One of my many favorite, once-in-a-lifetime experiences on behalf of the Obama campaign was the opportunity to take part in a viral video targeting undecided Jewish American voters. A handful of Chicago area community leaders — myself included — were featured in this eight-minute piece that was produced by the Obama campaign to counter the widespread misinformation being spread by the Republican Jewish Coalition.

It’s nowhere near as entertaining as Sarah Silverman’s hysterical piece for The Great Schlep, but still hit all the right points:

A long time coming November 30, 2008

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I’ve long intended to join the blogsphere but deferred my plans until after the election. Between my own re-elect to the Illinois State Senate (snagging a personal best of 71 percent of the vote in a contested race), campaign trips out-of-state for my former colleague, president-elect Barack Obama, and hustling to help out other State Senate candidates as part of my pursuit of the Illinois Senate presidency, it’s been way too difficult to get enough of a breather to do this any justice.

So the election’s over and while my bid for the top spot among Illinois Senate Democrats came up short, I am looking forward to being part of pointing our caucus in a new direction under Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), who will assume the reins of leadership when we’re sworn in for our new terms on January 14, 2009.

As far as the blog itself goes, Deep Blue Illinois is a stream of insights and observations on political personalities, public policy and progressive politics — all through the eyes of an elected Democratic officeholder with an insatiable appetite for innovation and intellectual curiosity.

Deep Blue Illinois is also the name of a state-based political committee that assists other Democratic candidates in Illinois who share my desire to advance a Democratic policy agenda and make Illinois an even deeper shade of blue. 

As the intrepid and courageous MSM telejournalist, Linda Ellerbee, would say, “And so it goes…”