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Opinion | Dan McCaleb: Don't pay lawmakers for throwaway session

Would your employer pay you if you didn't do your job for weeks, or even months, at a time?

Let's be real. The vast majority wouldn't.

In fact, many of us would get shown the door before our lack of production reached into measurable weeks, let alone months.

So why should we pay those who work for us when they don't do their jobs?

Sadly, many of our own employees are telling us they don't plan to do much of anything this year. By "our own employees," I mean public employees, those paid with taxpayer dollars — more specifically, elected Illinois state lawmakers.

There's a growing sentiment under the dome in Springfield that, because of a number of factors, the 2018 legislative session scheduled to start later this month is going to be a throwaway one.

As in, why should they even bother showing up.

Majority legislators already received their $5 billion income tax increase. They approved a budget last summer for the first time in more than two years, even though it's unbalanced despite the $5 billion in new tax revenue annually.

And, most significantly, this is an election year, a big one at that.

Vulnerable Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner faces a primary challenge from Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, after a disastrous 2017 in which he signed separate pieces of Democrat-pushed legislation that make Illinois a sanctuary state for illegal immigrants and allow taxpayer funding of elective abortions. A handful of members of his own party joined majority Democrats to override his veto of the massive tax increase. And he infamously admitted publicly that he isn't "in charge."

Powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, the person who apparently is in charge, also will be trying to hold on to his Democrat majority so he can be rubber-stamped to an 18th term as his chamber's leader.

In recent days, many lawmakers told Illinois News Network that, given what is expected to be among the most contentious and certainly most expensive gubernatorial elections in Illinois history, they don't expect to accomplish much of anything this year. Some, particularly on the Republican side, even suggested that would be a good thing.

"Generally speaking, the less we meet the less damage can be caused," Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, told INN this week. "I think the less that the state legislature does, the better."

The General Assembly has, in fact, done more harm than good for, well, quite a while now.

Illinoisans paid the highest combined local and state taxes in the nation before last summer's income tax hike. As a result of that tax burden, more residents are fleeing Illinois than any other U.S. state.

Despite Rauner's and job creators' pleas, the General Assembly has done nothing to help reduce the state's highest-in-the-Midwest workers' compensation costs, which are driving well-paying manufacturing jobs elsewhere as well.

And then there's the pension crisis. State officials say Illinois' five public pension systems are underfunded by $130 billion. But actuaries maintain the pension debt probably is more than $200 billion when more realistic rates on investment returns are used to calculate it. Yet legislators sit on their hands and hope the insurmountable debt goes away on its own.

Given Illinois' mountain of fiscal problems, legislators doing nothing in 2018 would be a dereliction of duty.

"I think that’s the conventional wisdom now, that nothing will get done," state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said. "But that's not what the people of this state want."

McSweeney — an outspoken critic of the governor despite sharing party affiliation — says, bare minimum, a few things have to be accomplished in the upcoming session: Rauner and lawmakers have to determine a way to pay for $2.8 billion in unappropriated spending from last fiscal year. And they need to drastically reduce overall spending so a balanced budget can be passed for the next fiscal year. The spending cuts must come through meaningful pension reform, Medicaid reform and other reductions.

Doing nothing is not an option.

"We don’t deserve to get paid if we don’t pass a balanced budget and cut spending,” McSweeney said.

Lawmakers are paid a base salary of $67,800 annually plus benefits for what already is part-time work. The state's median household income was just under $60,000 in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

I agree with McSweeney.

Lawmakers need to do their jobs this year or not get paid. And then voters should fire them.

Another View
Opinion | News-Gazette: Scholarship plan off and running

This editorial ran in the Jan. 8, 2018, edition of The (Champaign) News-Gazette:

Illinois' new "Invest in Kids" scholarship program got off to a fast start last week, attracting more than $36 million of the $100 million limit on its first day.

The program, part of the massive school funding reform package passed last year by the General Assembly, is an effort to help school-age children from lower-income families escape failing public schools by underwriting tuition costs at private ones.

It does so by offering a generous tax credit incentive to those who donate to the scholarship fund.

The way the program works is that donors will make contributions to scholarship-granting organizations from which applicants will seek scholarship aid. The state has been divided into five districts to ensure that private schools throughout the state are eligible to participate.

The overwhelming first-day response indicates that potential donors find it very attractive, to the point that it should not be long until the maximum $100 million donation figure is reached.

Families of students interested in winning tuition aid can begin the application process on Jan. 24. Those with an annual income below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 for a family of four, are eligible for assistance.

Acceptance of the tax credit program put the finishing touches on last year's acrimonious debate over a rewriting of the state's school funding finance law. Indeed, it was the agreement between legislative Democrats and Republicans on including the measure that persuaded Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign the legislation.

The measure drew vehement opposition from teachers' unions, which vigorously oppose any measure that encourages children to leave public schools, even failing ones, for private schools.

The proposal did raise serious concerns. With Illinois a financial basket case, opponents questioned the wisdom of a tax credit proposal costing the state up to $75 million in revenue it cannot afford to lose.

It also has drawn the usual criticism as a sop to the rich, a charge not borne out by the facts.

Obviously, it is a generous tax credit, and only upper-income individuals and families can afford to make charitable donations of any substantial size and type.

But donors still will have to give more money away than they will get back. So if the avaricious rich are looking to make a profit, they'll have to look elsewhere to satisfy their desire.

Revenue Department spokesman Terry Horstman said the program "is being done electronically" through its website. So donors must apply online through MyTaxIllinois, the department's online account management program.

It's a potentially cumbersome process that requires participants to "request approval to make a contribution and receive the income tax credit prior" to making their contributions. That means donors "must have a registered MyTax Illinois" account to receive approval for making a contribution.

Operated on a first-come, first-served basis, approval will be granted "as long as the regional and statewide credit thresholds have not been met," according to the Revenue Department.

This program is a step in a new direction for Illinois, one aimed primarily at helping young people get a better education and, as a consequence, win a brighter future. It's hard to argue with the goal of helping those most in need do better in life, and that's what this public/private partnership should help accomplish.

Voice of The Southern
Opinion | Voice of The Southern: Thumbs up to Harrisburg theater volunteers, thumbs down to gas prices

Thumbs up to volunteers for helping Harrisburg High School students be able to perform at the Illinois High School Theatre Festival. Over Christmas break, the high school's band trailer was stolen. Inside the trailer were set pieces for their performance at Theatre Fest, and when the trailer was found, nothing was found inside. Theatre Fest, which runs now through the weekend at Illinois State University, is a gathering of Illinois high school students, teachers and sponsors, who get together to experience different types of theater. Harrisburg was chosen to perform this year’s musical, “Seussical the Musical,” during the festival. So volunteers gathered resources and funding, and helped the students get what they needed to perform the musical. “It’s just another example of what is great about Southern Illinois. While we have our differences from time to time, we all come together in times like these. Nobody in this community was going to let our kids not participate in this event,” said Harrisburg Superintendent Michael Gauch.

Thumbs down to the fact that gas prices in the United States are projected to be the higher in 2018. According to the petroleum experts at Gas Buddy, the yearly average gas price in 2018 will be $2.57 per gallon. Experts also said January will see the lowest prices at an average $2.41 per gallon, while May will average $2.73 per gallon, making it the priciest month of the year. But, experts say, it won’t be as bad as it’s been in the past. “Motorists probably won’t be getting pumped up to pay more at the pump this year, but should find some solace in knowing we won’t come anywhere near record prices this year while most of the country will continue to see plenty of prices in the $2 per gallon range,” said Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis with Gas Buddy.

Thumbs up to Wednesday’s Alexander County Career and Resource Fair that was held in Cairo. Warren Riley, manager for mobility services for Quadel Consulting and Training, said more than 100 people showed up for the event. Jill VanZandt, southern regional manager for the Illinois Department of Employment Security, said the people who stopped by to chat and set up an appointment for IDES’ career services all were positive and enthusiastic. For most people in Cairo, finding steady work in Cairo has been tough, so this could be good for the community.

Thumbs up to U.S Rep. Mike Bost nominating 21 students from his district for the United States service academies. A congressional nomination is the first step in a process toward the students’ acceptance into a military academy. “Southern Illinoisans should be proud of each one of these students who represent the best our state has to offer,” Bost said in a news release announcing the nominations. A bonus thumbs up goes to those who were nominated, which, from our coverage area, include Joshua Loyd of Carbondale, Connor Rogers of Carbondale, Malachi Williams of Marion, Victoria Mueller of Johnston City, and Sean Spoerre of Carterville. Editor's note: Connor Rogers is the son of The Southern Illinoisan publisher Craig Rogers.

Thumbs up to Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, who was in our region this week as part of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s Opioid Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force. On Wednesday, Sanguinetti toured the Gateway Foundation in Carbondale, where teenagers and adults live in dorm-style quarters similar to those at Southern Illinois University. Since 2013, the number of heroin overdose deaths in Illinois has doubled, and the number of opioid overdose deaths has quadrupled. It’s good that the Rauner and the rest of the state is taking time spread the word, using the task force to fight the epidemic.