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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.

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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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greg-maddux

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.