“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

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Who Fills the Vacuum in the Illinois GOP “Civil War”, and Why?

Pig WrestlingJonah Goldberg has written an article in National Review talking about the recent primary election for Senator in Alabama. I was struck by how much the points he made apply to the current situation within the Republican Party in Illinois.

From the article:

“The conservative movement is caught in a Catch-22 of its own making. In the war against “the establishment,” we have made being an outsider the most important qualification for a politician. The problem? Once elected, outsiders by definition become insiders. This isn’t just a semantic point. The Constitution requires politicians to work through the system if they’re going to get anything done.

Look at all the senators who rode the tea-party wave into power…To one extent or another, they are now seen as swamp things, not swamp drainers, by the pitchfork populists…

But there’s a larger dynamic at work. It’s like taking the job seriously is an automatic disqualification for the perpetually furious. Merely talking like a halfway responsible politician — “we don’t have the votes,” “we have to pay for it” — is proof of selling out… What’s both funny and sad is that there is remarkably little intellectual or ideological substance to the current populist fever…

A lot of people are simply mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore. Republican politicians can’t ignore the anger. Ideally they’d channel it toward productive ends, as they did in the past. But further stoking the anger for political gain is not just ill-advised, it’s pointless, because eventually politicians have to govern.”

We’re seeing the same thing playing out here in Illinois. In July, 15 of my Republican colleagues voted to override the Governor’s veto of a budget bill. Since then, the long knives have been out, with a well-funded effort to primary those members which has resulted in the decision of 11 of them (as of this writing) to not run in 2018. Calling them “tax traitors” and worse, they’ve created an environment which makes it impossible to have a serious conversation about the most pressing problems facing this state. The primary challengers are running as “outsiders”, with promises of the kind of financial support that would drain resources and make it virtually impossible to withstand a well-funded Democrat challenge in the general election.

But here’s the funny thing: the Governor who was betrayed by those 15 members is now Continue reading

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He Looked Us In The Eye, Then Spat In It

I want to talk today about the glue that binds us together as honorable men and women, in business, in marriage and in life. I want to talk today about trust.

As I went through law school and entered the practice of law, it was constantly hammered into me that a lawyer’s word is his bond. Say what you will about the profession, but in my 35 years of practice, I’ve never had a reason to doubt another lawyer’s word.

As I entered the General Assembly, I was told that if I ever broke my word to a fellow member, regardless of party, I would never get a second chance to redeem myself.

To change one’s mind on an issue is not a sin, so long as the reason for change is honestly held and is clearly communicated to those to whom you’ve given your word. There are a million clichés about change; there are many reasons why changing one’s mind about this position or that is valid. Political expediency is not one of them.

Bruce Rauner looked us in the eye in April and said that he would veto H.B. 40, the bill which grants public funding for abortion in Illinois. Today, he spat in our eye. His decision to sign that bill is a betrayal fueled by political expediency and nothing more. Any trust which he may have earned on this issue or any other is gone.

I guess this day has been a long time coming. We saw it with the staff purge in July. Since he’s been Governor, he’s treated the General Assembly like employees of a company he just bought whom he wouldn’t have hired in the first place if he’d had the chance. The only difference is that he can’t fire us.

With all the issues facing Illinois, we need strong leadership now more than ever. Sticking a finger in the air to see which way the political wind is blowing is not leadership.

If the Governor wants to defend his decision to sign H.B 40 in this District, or anything else for that matter, he can come up here and do it himself.

Posted in Abortion, Life | Tagged | 1 Comment

Sometimes You Have To Hold Your Nose And Vote “Yes”

On Monday, the House finally passed an education funding bill. The last time the legislature passed a funding bill was in 1997, and in those 20 years, the formula has been changed to the point where the original was barely recognizable. I’ve written extensively (here, here, here, here and here) about how and why the formula became so unworkable.

My feeling was that if we had gone back to what the formula was before it was changed in 2004, we’d have a funding mechanism that would be reasonably progressive and would meet the needs of most school districts. However, the changes that were made to the formula took money from the General State Aid formula and moved it into the Poverty Grant and the PTELL Grant, which had the effect of concentrating funding into districts which had higher concentrations of poverty, primarily the Chicago Public Schools. That left the rest of us to rely to a greater and greater extent upon property taxes to pay for education.

I could spend hours discussing what went on to get us where we ended up, but I think it’s more important to tell you why I ended up voting for a bill that contains many of the things I originally voted against.

As I mentioned above, I thought we could make funding more equitable by rolling back the changes that were made to the 1997 funding bill rather than impose a 27-step model that even Rube Goldberg would have envied. That’s why I voted “no” in committee on H.B. 2808 (the original “evidence-based model” bill). When the bill came back to the House as S.B. 1, which included a laundry list of sweeteners for the Chicago Public Schools, I was a “hell no”.

The Governor’s amendatory veto of the bill took out many of the Chicago sweeteners, and I came out in support of the veto, but hoped that further negotiations on the bill would progress to give us something better. However, the Democrats in the House did what Democrats often do, which was to engage in political theater by taking the language of the amendatory veto, plug it into a shell bill (S.B. 1947) and rush it onto the floor for a vote.

So on August 16th, the Speaker called us all to Springfield to vote on this sham of a bill. They had no intention of voting for it, and fully expected us to vote to uphold the veto. However, our caucus stood firm and to the surprise of everyone, we all voted “Present”. This had the effect of forcing the Speaker to back down and agree to further negotiations which led to the bill which the Governor is signing today.

While the bill still contains many of the things which I found objectionable in S.B. 1, it provides for things which would never have been enacted if we hadn’t forced the Democrats to the table. Among them:

  • The normal pension costs for the Chicago Public Schools was taken out of the education bill and put into the Pension Code, where it belongs;
  • The bill takes $50 million of newly appropriated money and provides property tax relief to districts in low-EAV/high levy districts. It’s the first step to what I hope will be a movement to cap property taxes statewide;
  • It provides mandate relief for school districts for P.E., driver’s education and gives a streamlined process by which school districts can seek relief from other unfunded mandates;
  • It authorizes the City of Chicago to raise its property tax levy to pay for teacher pensions. Given that the city is responsible for that train wreck, it’s only fair that they be made to fix it;
  • It creates a commission to examine our system of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) which will hopefully lead to a way for schools to share in the increased property wealth that comes from economic development;
  • The bill provides for a tax credit program whereby up to $100 million can be donated to provide scholarships to low-income children to go to private and parochial schools. People who donate can receive a credit equal to 75% of their donation off their state income taxes. I’m not crazy about this. Though I fully favor school choice, it should come from money appropriated by the General Assembly. There are better ways to provide parents with the means to send their kids to the schools of their choice, not by blowing a $75 million hole in the budget.

I spoke about my concerns for the bill on the House floor. You can see my comments here:

Rep. Reick: A Reluctant Yes on a Less Than Perfect Bill

Watch this video on YouTube.
Posted in Education, Illinois Budget, Property Taxes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Cook County “Pop Tax” Creates Entrepreneurial Opportunity

The latest story to hit the airwaves is the threat by the Federal government to cut off food stamp (SNAP) benefits to Cook County as a result of its 1 cent per ounce “pop tax”, which could result in an estimated cut of $87 million to the county. I find this to be hilarious on several fronts.

This all stems from the fact that items purchased using a SNAP card are exempt from sales tax. The Feds are saying that unless Cook County finds an acceptable workaround to allow for the purchase of SNAP-eligible items exempt from the new sales tax, Federal funds are at risk.

First, the County was apparently informed of this back in June, but it went ahead and imposed it anyway. It would appear that gluttony isn’t a vice reserved to individuals.

Next, when the Illinois Retail Merchants’ Association’s (IRMA) suit to have the tax repealed on Constitutional grounds was dismissed by a Federal judge, the County sued IRMA for $17 million, simply for asserting a right in court. The suit has been withdrawn, but not before an ordinance was proposed by a member of the Cook County Board to require board approval prior to filing any similar suit, and legislation has been filed in the House seeking a similar result. Once again, here’s an instance of government’s habit of “ready, fire, aim”.

Finally, and most hilarious of all, one of the stated goals of the SNAP program, straight from the IDHS website is to: “help low-income people and families buy the food they need for good health.” Nothing screams “good health” like a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. (Parenthetically: The tax is calculated on a “per ounce” basis, who’s doing the math on the metric conversions?)

However, there’s a silver lining around this particular dark cloud. Since drinks purchased using SNAP benefits are tax-exempt, I will lay a dollar to a donut that some bright entrepreneurial SNAP recipient is already buying up every 12 pack of pop in sight with an eye to creating a business selling “loosies”.

Ah, capitalism, it works everywhere it’s tried.

Posted in Cost of Government, Taxes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Pension Shift Buried in the Illinois Budget

As Nancy Pelosi famously said during the Obamacare debate: “(W)e have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it…” That quote must also be applied to the Budget Implementation Bill (BIMP) passed by the Illinois General Assembly on July 3rd. This bill (SB 42) was the triggering mechanism needed to implement the provisions of SB 9 (revenue bill) and SB 6 (spending bill), which the Governor vetoed and which were overridden by the General Assembly.

It is no exaggeration to say that we had less than one hour to review this 742 page behemoth; even a graduate of the Evelyn Wood speed reading course would have been hard pressed to get through it with any sense of comprehension. What has resulted is things coming to our attention that we didn’t originally see, much like rocks rising to the surface of a farm field in the spring.

Lurking on page 348 of the BIMP was the following:

Beginning in fiscal year 2018, each employer under this Article shall pay to the System a required contribution determined as a percentage of projected payroll and sufficient to produce an annual amount equal to:

i. for each of fiscal years 2018, 2019, and 2020, the defined benefit normal cost of the defined benefit plan, less the employee contribution…

What this means is that when a school district hires a new teacher, that teacher’s normal pension contribution will be paid for by the school district instead of being the responsibility of the state as has traditionally been the case. This is known as the “pension shift”, something for which Speaker Madigan had been advocating for years.

The rationale for the shift is that by making districts responsible for their employees’ pension cost, school boards are forced to confront the true cost of employment. For instance, the practice of “spiking” salaries in the last 4 years of employment, which is common, increases the pension cost to the state with no repercussions to the district. Putting districts on the hook for pension payments puts them on notice as to the true cost of employing someone.

The problem with making a sudden shift in pension costs from state to school districts is that the impact on local property taxes would be catastrophic, especially to districts which are at the lower end of the pay scale and are constantly losing teachers for better paying jobs elsewhere. If a shift were to occur, some means would have to be provided for there to be a smooth transition of that cost over a period of years to allow for a less disruptive effect to the local taxpayers.

Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) does this through adjusting its “Adequacy Target” (the cost of providing essential educational elements) to provide for an additional amount to pay for benefits, including the employer cost of pensions. On Page 349 of SB 1 is the following:

Each Organizational Unit shall receive 30% of the total of all salary-calculated elements of the Adequacy Target, excluding substitute teachers and student activities investments, to cover benefit costs. For central office and maintenance and operations investments, the benefit calculation shall be based upon the salary proportion of each investment.

If at any time the responsibility for funding the employer normal cost of teacher pensions is assigned to school districts, then that amount certified by the Teachers’ Retirement System of the State of Illinois to be paid by the organizational Unit for the preceding school year shall be added to the benefit investment. For any fiscal year in which a school district organized under Article 34 of this Code is responsible for paying the employer normal cost of teacher pensions, then that amount of its employer normal cost plus the amount for retiree health insurance as certified by the Public School Teachers’ Pension and Retirement Fund of Chicago to be paid by the school district for the preceding school year that is statutorily required to cover employer normal costs and the amount for retiree health insurance shall be added to the 30% specified in this subparagraph (U).

Set aside for a moment the fact that even before the cost shift is included, the adequacy target is being increased by 30% to cover benefits (how many of you in the private sector have a benefit package amounting to 30% of your pay?). Suffice it to say that SB 1 provided for a smoother landing for the shift than would otherwise be the case. If you think that districts should be responsible for the entire cost of their employees, then this is an accommodation to that.

When the Governor amendatorially vetoed SB 1, he removed the highlighted language, thus removing the additional amount meant to ease the blow to local taxpayers.

This is a prime example of how bad legislation gets passed. We wait until the last moment to vote on something none of us has seen, and then we spend months figuring out what we did and how to fix it. There has to be a better way of doing this.

Posted in Education, Property Taxes, Public Pensions | Tagged , | 1 Comment