August 3, 2015
The (Champaign) News-Gazette
Stable funding from Springfield?
Counting on years' worth of state funding is like building a sand castle next to the surf.
Timothy Killeen, the new president of the University of Illinois, wants to make a deal with state lawmakers.
If the university can achieve certain objectives — for example, minimize tuition increases — then the state would commit to an agreed-upon level of funding for three years, perhaps even as long as five.
What Killeen calls a "compact" is not a new concept. He was involved in engineering the same arrangement in his last job at State University of New York, a statewide system of 64 institutions including community colleges. The 4-year-old plan is a component of the NYSUNY 2020 Challenge Grant Program, which is intended to spur economic growth and strengthen academic programs. The plan appears to be well-received in the Empire State.
Killeen has been talking up the same idea in Springfield, where it is attracting some attention. Many on campus are bound to find the idea appealing because it's built on something that has been missing in recent years: predictability.
Good luck, Dr. Killeen. You'll need it.
The idea itself has a lot of merit. Unfortunately, it's being pitched to the worst-run state government in the union. Crushing pension debt, antiquated tax policies, political gridlock and a line of special interests longer than an interstate highway. How do the UI's needs rise above these?
But let's suppose Killeen is able to lobby lawmakers into striking a deal that is a winner for taxpayers, politicians and academics.
Just as with pensions, today's promises can easily turn into tomorrow's unfunded commitments. We the people have filled the Statehouse with fair-weather friends — and we're in the middle of a long, nasty storm.
If the state's fiscal troubles weren't enough, many legislators will likely view the compact with skepticism. While tying future state funding to past performance is an interesting idea, it does suggest the university cannot achieve objectives unless it has sufficient incentives. More in-state students, economic growth, expanded research, community service. Why does the UI need more money to do what is already its job?
In voicing support for Killeen's concept, state Sen. Chapin Rose said last week that lawmakers start the budgeting process with how much higher education needs, not "What did you do with last year's money?"
Imagine what lawmakers would do with a university "report card" about what it did and did not achieve. Killeen should expect legislators to take his bullet points and shoot them back at him.
Killeen is just getting started by discussing his idea with a few lawmakers. At the earliest, he'd like to see a plan in place a year from now.
Realistically, the multiyear compact is far down the priority list. At some point this year, the governor and the legislative leaders must stop their standoff and begin to negotiate. If that happens and if a year from now the state begins to pay down its debts, then perhaps Killeen has a chance.
Even then, Doctor, you might want to wear a flak jacket.
August 1, 2015
The (Joliet) Herald-News
Summer reading no escape from Illinois' financial woes
Have you read any good books lately?
The Declaration of Independence
New publications for the summer of 2015 certainly have some interesting titles. One new book simply is called "Adrift." Another, "The Festival of Insignificance." Other titles: "Uprooted," ''Finders Keepers" and "Crooked."
While those books have little to do with Illinois, the words in the titles themselves are all too familiar.
Isn't our state government adrift? Aren't the weekly overtime legislative sessions their own festivals of insignificance? Do people who depend on government for vital services feel uprooted by the uncertainty of not having a state budget yet?
Don't politicians who run things treat power and tax dollars with a "finders keepers" attitude? And hasn't Illinois been plagued by politicians who've been thrown into jail for being crooked?
It isn't on any current best-seller list, but a 12-year-old book by John C. Maxwell might make for interesting summer reading for those suffering through Illinois' governmental gridlock.
In "Thinking for a Change," Maxwell outlines 11 key areas how people can change their lives by changing the way they think.
One concept applies neatly to the political struggle between first-year Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and his long-serving Democratic opponents, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.
On top of the political heap in a blue state, Madigan and Cullerton don't want to share power. They like things the way they are. In contrast, Rauner is a former venture capitalist serving in his first elective office. He won last year on the slogan, "Shake up Springfield, bring back Illinois."
Rauner wants change, specifically a property tax freeze and action on pro-business and political reforms such as restrictions on compensation for injured workers and officeholder term limits.
Madigan and Cullerton want more of the same, which includes a restoration of the temporary 2011 income tax increase (or some facsimile thereof) to fill a budgetary gap that could be as much as $3 billion or $4 billion.
Rauner vetoed the Democrats' budget and wants his reforms enacted in exchange for his support for new budget-balancing taxes. Madigan and Cullerton say the issues are unrelated, and they haven't budged. Without a state budget since July 1, many agencies and the public they serve have faced uncertainty. Some programs have been suspended or shut down.
So, where does John Maxwell's book fit into all this?
Maxwell wrote that when someone wants to present new ideas (i.e., change), people are most likely to be open to accepting it when they "hurt enough that they are willing to change, learn enough that they want to change, (or) receive enough that they are able to change."
We get the "hurt" part. Many Illinoisans could be hurting big time if the budget impasse continues. To get the "hurt" to stop, leaders might be more willing to accept a compromise. The "learn enough" part can be read about in newspapers and viewed on newscasts, online reports, and advocacy TV commercials paid for by Rauner and his public employee union opponents.
The "receive enough" part? It could apply to Rauner's proposed property tax freeze, or the full funding of state services that Madigan and Cullerton want, etc.
Whatever your summer reading preferences, the book on Illinois is not pleasant. Billions in debt, years of deficit budgets, and a staggering unfunded pension obligation mean Illinoisans will have to do more than think about change.
Adrift and feeling insignificant, they must stand up and demand it.
July 29, 2015
Sauk Valley Media
Illinois leaders have tinkered with several laws that could impact traffic safety, and not for the better.
Probably with good intentions, Illinois leaders have made several changes to state laws whose cumulative effects could harm traffic safety.
Vehicles are driving faster on rural and suburban interstate highways, and people will find it cheaper to drink at their local taverns during special happy hour promotions.
If that seems to you like a reversal in Illinois' tough stance on speeding and driving under the influence, you might be right.
Speed limits were raised to 70 mph on rural interstate highways in 2014, and to 70 mph on suburban tollways at the first of this year.
In practice, most motorists drive 5 to 10 mph faster than the limit, so vehicles are now barreling down the interstates at 75 to 80 mph.
Has the faster speed limit had any impact on the state's traffic death toll?
As of July 27, Illinois had 527 traffic fatalities so far this year, which marks an 8.2 percent increase from the 487 fatalities at the same time last year.
Whether that's a coincidence or not, those numbers are going in the wrong direction.
As far as happy hour is concerned, Illinois lifted a quarter-century ban on such drink specials earlier this month.
New regulations limit the number of drink specials per tavern to 15 hours a week, and they must end by 10 p.m. Other reasonable rules are designed to keep the practice in check, although two or more drinks can now be served to one customer at one time.
The end result could be more drinking at taverns, which may not be a good thing for Illinois' DUI rates.
Skip Lee, Sterling's mayor and head of the liquor commission, commented on the return of happy hour.
"I would hope that we don't see an increase in DUIs or other problems, but ultimately it's about personal responsibility," Lee said.
The state's record on reducing traffic fatalities is admirable. Since 2009, Illinois has experienced 6 straight years of annual traffic deaths below 1,000.
That's remarkable, considering that as late as 1979, Illinois recorded more than 2,000 fatalities a year.
Traffic safety depends on multiple factors that are interconnected. Do too much tinkering with them, and motorists could be in for trouble.