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Big GOP tax bill would cut rates — but also popular breaks

WASHINGTON — With fanfare and a White House kickoff, House Republicans unfurled a broad tax-overhaul plan Thursday that would touch virtually all Americans and the economy's every corner, mingling sharply lower rates for corporations and reduced personal taxes for many with fewer deductions for home-buyers and families with steep medical bills.

The measure, which would be the most extensive rewrite of the nation's tax code in three decades, is the product of a party that faces increasing pressure to produce a marquee legislative victory of some sort before next year's elections. GOP leaders touted the plan as a sparkplug for the economy and a boon to the middle class and christened it the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

"We are working to give the American people a giant tax cut for Christmas," President Donald Trump said in the Oval Office. The measure, he said, "will also be tax reform, and it will create jobs."

It would also increase the national debt, a problem for some Republicans. And Democrats attacked the proposal as the GOP's latest bonanza for the rich, with a phase-out of the inheritance tax and repeal of the alternative minimum tax on the highest earners — certain to help Trump and members of his family and Cabinet, among others.

"If you're the wealthiest 1 percent, Republicans will give you the sun, the moon and the stars, all of that at the expense of the great middle class," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

And there was enough discontent among Republicans and business groups to leave the legislation's fate uncertain in a journey through Congress that leaders hope will deposit a landmark bill on Trump's desk by year's end.

Underscoring problems ahead, some Republicans from high-tax Northeastern states expressed opposition to the measure's elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah called the House measure "a great starting point" but said it would be "somewhat miraculous" if its corporate tax rate reduction to 20 percent — a major Trump goal — survived. His panel plans to produce its own tax package in the coming days.

GOP lawmakers concede that if the tax measure collapses, their congressional majorities are at risk in next November's elections.

The package's tax reductions would outweigh its loophole closers by a massive $1.5 trillion over the coming decade. Many Republicans were willing to add that to the nation's soaring debt as a price for claiming a resounding tax victory. But it was likely to pose a problem for others — one of several brushfires leaders will need to extinguish to get the measure through Congress.

Republicans must keep their plan's shortfall from spilling over that $1.5 trillion line or the measure will lose its protection against Democratic Senate filibusters, bill-killing delays that take 60 votes to overcome. There are just 52 GOP senators and unanimous Democratic opposition is likely.

The bill would telescope today's seven personal income tax brackets into just four: 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent and 39.6 percent.

• The 25 percent rate would start at $45,000 for individuals and $90,000 for married couples.

• The 35 percent rate would apply to family income exceeding $260,000 and individual income over $200,000, which means many upper-income families whose top rate is currently 33 percent would face higher taxes.

• The top rate threshold, now $418,400 for individuals and $470,700 for couples, would rise to $500,000 and $1 million.

The standard deduction — used by people who don't itemize, about two-thirds of taxpayers — would nearly double to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples. That's expected to encourage even more people to use the standard deduction with a simplified tax form Republicans say will be postcard-sized.

Many middle-income families would pay less, thanks to the bigger standard deduction and an increased child tax credit. Republicans said their plan would save $1,182 in taxes for a family of four earning $59,000, but features like phase-outs of some benefits suggest their taxes could grow in the future.

"The plan clearly chooses corporate CEOs and hedge fund managers over teachers and police officers," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.

One trade-off for the plan's reductions was its elimination of breaks that millions have long treasured. Gone would be deductions for people's medical expenses — especially important for families facing nursing home bills or lacking insurance — and their ability to write off state and local income taxes. The mortgage interest deduction would be limited to the first $500,000 of the loan, down from the current $1 million ceiling.

Led by Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the authors retained the deductibility of up to $10,000 in local property taxes in a bid to line up votes from Republicans from the Northeast. The panel planned to begin votes on the proposal next Monday.

"It's progress, but I want more," said Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who wants the entire property tax deduction restored.

Reduced to 25 percent would be the rate for many "pass-through" businesses, whose profits are taxed at the owners' individual rate. But some of those companies would face higher rates.

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Rural Homeless in Southern Illinois
Homelessness extends beyond what is most visible

CARBONDALE — Leonard Wilmore passes his days gathering firewood and trying to earn a dollar.

With his golden dog, Lucky, in tow, Wilmore scours the woods in search of dry, dead limbs to drag back to his camp. Without an ax, Wilmore is reduced to carrying the large pieces through the narrow gaps of saplings. He will have to break them down by hand later into manageable sizes for his fire.

Tucked under a bridge in rural Franklin County, Wilmore’s tent stands amidst his modest collection of personal effects — his food, an assortment of canned goods, kept safe by storing it on the struts supporting the bridge.

Wilmore has lived outside for several weeks, after became homeless in the summer. He had taken several days off work to deal with a heart condition. He said he has worked for years doing professional cleaning and said he knew there was a cleaning company hiring around Benton, but couldn’t remember the name. Though not having a job made his situation worse, Wilmore said he had actually been out of a place to live a few weeks before losing his job.

At least two miles from the nearest town, Wilmore said he has to walk to try and scrounge up work or get any supplies. He said without a car, his brother helps him move place-to-place. He has family, but none that he said he wanted to stay with while he looked for a place of his own.

“I just prefer not to stay with anybody. I like to be by myself, me and my dog,” he said.

He said his current spot isn’t ideal, but he’s stayed in worse — this is not his first time being homeless, the last time being a few years ago. On another occasion, he said he lived in a campsite nearly 10 miles from the nearest town — he said access to food, ice and other people made this a hard place to call home, even for a short time. He said his current location wasn’t too bad, but he was hoping to get out before the cold of late autumn arrived.

“When it gets cold, it’s time to go,” he said.

Isaac Smith / Isaac Smith THE SOUTHERN 

Leonard Wilmore remarks about all the dead wood in the thicket next to his campsite. He said being homeless, he spends a lot of time gathering woods and “trying to make a dollar.”

Wilmore’s situation is both typical and atypical of the common idea of homelessness, said Marleen Shepherd, founder of Carbondale’s Sparrow Coalition, a group working to address poverty and homelessness in Southern Illinois. She said everyone is familiar with the man living under a bridge going through hard time, but Wilmore’s visibility and rural location are what sets him apart. In fact, Shepherd said there are more people experiencing homelessness — or as she clarifies, housing insecurity — than the most visible populations in the shelters or out on the streets.

“They are the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Most of our homeless and housing insecure aren’t living that way."

Unique challenges

Shepherd said the popular definition of homelessness is too narrow. Speaking during the a public forum titled "State Budget: The Challenges Ahead" on Oct. 26, Shepherd provided a broader view.

“These are not the people you see on the street. They are your servers at restaurants, your grocery baggers, your nursing home aides, your child’s aide at school. Many of them will never earn an income large enough to afford housing that is adequate for their family size,” she said.

The problem is also not relegated to Carbondale or Marion, but extends into the small burgs and incorporations that dot the rural expanse of Illinois' southern 16 counties. She said the paramount struggle the housing insecure face is transportation, followed closely by healthcare.

“The transportation that we’ve had over the last 10 years has actually gotten better,” Shepherd admits, but said even still the options are not enough. Some public transit does not extend beyond the borders of a particular county — Shepherd said transportation from Carbondale to Marion can be a challenge, which means for Jackson County residents, the job opportunities in Williamson County could be just out of reach.

Shepherd said for this part of the state, Carbondale and Marion are considered the urban hubs, despite being small in comparison with places like Springfield or St. Louis. She said so few population centers in such a large part of the state creates problems going both ways.

“There’s more challenges certainly outside of these two towns. However part of that means there’s more challenges for those two towns,” she said, explaining that because they are the hubs for resources the cities deal not just with their own disenfranchised populations but those of the surrounding 10 to 15 counties as well.

Diana Brawley Sussman, chief librarian at the Carbondale Public Library and co-chair of Sparrow Coalition, said not only is it difficult for the housing insecure to reach services on their own, particularly when they can be so isolated in an area as big as Southern Illinois, but it is also difficult for service providers to reach them.

Katharine Juul, rural health project manager for the Center for Rural Health at SIU’s School of Medicine, has worked with homeless populations around the country for a lot of her career. She said in places like eastern Tennessee or in the frontier lands of New Mexico, reaching the far-flung homeless populations took time and dedication.

“Identifying them you mostly went by word of mouth,” she said.

Brawley Sussman said the groups she works with do not seek out people living in the woods necessarily — in part she said because some live that far out because they wish to be left alone — but after locating someone in need, the challenge was convincing them to seek help, be that medical help or help with housing.

“First you have to attract them to come into the process, and they’ve probably already been through the process a few times,” she said.

A matter of money

Shepherd and Brawley Sussman both said the services that are available once they convince people to come in have been reduced to a shell by years of budget cuts, most recently during Illinois' budget impasse.

“It’s been death by a thousand cuts for a decade,” Shepherd said. In her speech Oct. 26, she said it could take a decade to rebuild the network that was deeply impacted by the budget stalemate.

Brawley Sussman said the recently passed state budget does “a little in a literal way.” While it does bring funding back to social services, it only keeps them alive in a slightly better state than they were in prior to the more than two-year-long budget impasse, during which Illinois was not making payments to many social service agencies. She said the current state budget does not bring them back to their full strength.

“That’s keeping their doors open after they have already been brought to their knees,” she said. To her, the fix to the problem cannot come until the problem of housing insecurity is acknowledged by state and federal lawmakers.

“Those in power who are making the budgetary decisions don’t seem to have a priority of human life whatsoever,” Brawley Sussman said.

For this reason, Shepherd said churches and not-for-profits are on the front lines of helping those in need. She said creating partnerships among private, public and not-for-profit sectors seems to be the way forward, though she does wish there was greater support from government agencies.

“It would be nice if we had a partner in the government rather than an enemy,” she said.

A look with open eyes

One big step forward, Shepherd said, would be to take away the stereotypes and understand the reality of the problem. Shepherd provided an example, remembering one woman she helped who was on the verge of being out on the street.

“She had an eviction notice in hand — $268 short — and a doctor’s slip in the other,” she said. “What had happened is, she contracted pink eye at her fast food job, (and) had to take essentially a week off work that she couldn’t afford.”

Shepherd said this story isn’t uncommon. She said many who live on the streets or are on the verge are not lazy. She said some cobble together a string of part-time jobs just to make ends meet, but in the end, none offer paid time off and none offer health insurance. She said this means when an illness happens, it can be difficult to make it to the doctor or even to take time off to get healthy.

Brawley Sussman said optics are a big problem in generating the kind of groundswell of support needed to help the homelessness issue. She said as human beings, there is an innate sense of empathy programmed into the brain, but it can be easily ignored if someone has other traits that allow someone to write off that person living on the street.

“It also makes it difficult that the visible homeless are the shelter population and they are the chronically homeless. That becomes the face of homelessness and that becomes a problem that causes people to not put a high priority on homeless services because they don’t see themselves in the situation,” she said.

This is why she, like Shepherd, said it is imperative for people to realize there are far more people living without reliable housing than those on the street corner asking for a meal.

Even still, she and Shepherd said it is on everyone to reach these people and to help provide assistance.

“We need to understand that it’s not somebody else's responsibility,” Shepherd said.

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Winston's Bagels to reopen; new owner hopes to continue 'Bagel Man's' legacy

CARBONDALE — An iconic bagel joint is set to reopen next week under new ownership.

Winston “the Bagel Man” Mezo, who peddled hot bagels to Carbondale’s late-night bar crowd for 34 years, retired last spring. He recently posted all the equipment associated with the business — including his bagel cart, grill and 1998 Econoline Ford van — on Craigslist for $3,500.

Brad Preiss has purchased the cart and plans to reopen it under the name “Winston’s Bagels by B-Rad.”

Preiss has lived in Southern Illinois for two years and is originally from Virginia and New York state. His wife, Alexandria "Alix" Myers, a Carbondale Community High School graduate, was a longtime fan of Winston’s Bagels and encouraged him to buy the business.

“I couldn’t believe it when it became available. We really jumped on it,” Preiss said.

Mezo has been teaching Preiss about the best ways to operate the equipment.

"He’s been extremely helpful,” Preiss said.

Preiss said the menu will be virtually identical, although he may consider adding a New York bagel down the line.

Preiss said there’s no replacing Mezo’s expert touch — or his sense of humor. His slogan for the business is “almost as good as they used to be.” But he hopes his bagel cart will honor Mezo’s legendary career.

“I want to make sure that his name will still be around, and I’ll continue his legacy as best as I can,” Preiss said.

Winston’s Bagels by B-Rad will be open from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Wednesday through Saturday at 606 S. Illinois Ave.

Preiss hopes to begin operating Friday, Nov. 10. For updates, visit

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Silverstein's accuser wants answers on complaint

SPRINGFIELD — The political activist who has accused an Illinois Senate Democratic leader of sexually harassing her said Thursday that she wants to know why Sen. Ira Silverstein faced no repercussions until after she went public this week.

Denise Rotheimer said Silverstein, who relinquished his leadership post and its $21,000 stipend Wednesday night, should resign the Senate seat representing Chicago that he's held since 1999.

Rotheimer, a victims-rights advocate from Ingleside, testified on Tuesday before a House Committee considering sexual-harassment training for lawmakers, staff, and lobbyists . She described how the 57-year-old Silverstein sent her inappropriate social-media messages, paid her unwanted compliments and called her late at night last year while they were working on legislation.

But she told The Associated Press Thursday that the issue has gone "beyond Silverstein." She wants to know why her charge sat idle for nearly a year with no action, no communication, and Silverstein resigned only after she pointed a spotlight on him.

"What was so different in my complaint than in my testimony (on Tuesday) that it led to the demotion?" Rotheimer asked. "Was it because I had to go public? I made the complaint. Is it that the complaint doesn't mean anything as long as it doesn't go public? That's wrong. They only take action when light is shone on the issue?"

Silverstein, who on Tuesday denied harassing Rotheimer, saying he was "working the bill" when he communicated with her, didn't return a phone message Thursday.

John Patterson, a spokesman for John Cullerton, dismissed any notion that the Senate President was reacting to negative publicity, implying Cullerton did not suggest the resignation and saying repeatedly, "We accepted Sen. Silverstein's resignation from leadership."

Rotheimer became a reluctant public figure when she stepped up to testify before the House Personnel and Pensions Committee on legislation authored by House Speaker Michael Madigan. It requires annual sexual harassment training for all members of the General Assembly, their staff members and lobbyists. It would be monitored by the Legislative Inspector General.

Rotheimer said Silverstein took interest in a measure she was pushing to require free legal representation to crime victims moving through a complex criminal-court system. Rotheimer has made available more than 400 pages of printed Facebook conversation in which she points to inappropriate comments. She said Silverstein made late-night phone calls to her, called her "intoxicating" and said, "I like having meetings with you, because you're pretty to look at."

She complained to Cullerton's ethics office on Nov. 30, 2016, Patterson confirmed. He said senior Cullerton aides informed Silverstein of the severity of the issue and that it would be referred.

Patterson pointed out that Cullerton has not stopped working to hire an inspector general, a post filled by consensus of the four legislative leaders. Patterson said several have been interviewed, some declined the job.

"It's our duty to fill that post. I take responsibility for my role in that lapse, and I apologize for it," Cullerton said in Wednesday night's statement.

He said an interim inspector general would be named as early as next week, when a sexual harassment training seminar for senators will be conducted in Springfield.

"These corrective actions are a first step in changing an unacceptable culture that has existed for too long," he said.

The position of the Legislative Inspector General answers to a commission staffed by lawmakers. One member, Sen. Karen McConnaughay, said Thursday that 27 ethics complaints have been filed with the office since 2015. She said she asked last week if any were pending and was told "no," and after hearing Rotheimer, asked again and was told the 27 submissions are not considered complaints unless an inspector has opened cases to investigate.

"A serious game of semantics is being played," said McConnaughay, who said she will sponsor legislation to reconstitute the inspector general's office outside of the purview of the General Assembly.

"Clearly, we've demonstrated that we're not very good at policing ourselves," McConnaughay said.