Editorial Roundup: Illinois

Chicago Tribune. June 14, 2021.

Editorial: Congrats, parents, on saving ‘Invest in Kids’ — for now

Some poor and working-class parents buttonholed legislators at the Capitol in Springfield. Others pursued lawmakers by phone, frantic to protect their children’s chance at a rigorous education. And General Assembly members evidently got the message — even Democratic legislators whose constituents rely on the scholarship program called “Invest in Kids.”

We write often about these scholarships and the robust futures they offer to children whose families can’t afford homes in neighborhoods with reliably strong public schools. Usually we’re urging lawmakers to expand Invest in Kids, one of about 20 state programs like it nationwide.

So when lawmakers do the right thing, as they did in the closing days of their spring session, we want to mass-circulate this thank-you note. We also want to congratulate all the parents who persuaded legislators not to abandon the bipartisan 2017 agreement that created this program and, in the process, benefited some 2 million children in Illinois public and private schools.

The quick backgrounder for readers new to this important topic: Four years ago, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a smart plan that reliably would increase future state aid to public schools. The agreement included creation of Invest in Kids to help parochial and other private schools educate thousands of students whose families can’t afford to pay tuition in addition to their tax dollars for public education.

Many of those children, and their parents, were desperate to escape this state’s least effective public schools. Even now, the waiting list for Invest in Kids is impossibly long.

As a candidate in 2018, J.B. Pritzker had catered to teachers unions that vehemently oppose anything that smacks of school choice: He called for killing Invest in Kids.

So we were not surprised early this year when Pritzker called Invest in Kids a “corporate loophole” and proposed slashing the program’s state tax credit from 75 cents on the donated dollar to 40 cents. Nearly halving the tax credit would violate the language and the spirit of the bipartisan 2017 agreement. We retorted in mid-May with an editorial headlined, “Strengthen, rather than gut, a compromise that benefits all schoolchildren.”

Insert here your own opinion of a governor calling scholarships for low-income children a corporate loophole. In the school year now ending, Invest in Kids awarded scholarships — typically about $6,300 — to some 7,600 students statewide.

The Illinois General Assembly not only left the tax credit intact but extended and expanded Invest in Kids. Legislators delayed the scheduled sunset of the tax credit by one year, through December 2023. And they permitted the awarding of scholarships not only in traditional schools, but in a new class of career and technical academies. Trade union leaders have shown an interest in the creation of these schools, which would prepare students for careers that demand specialized learning, certification or other credentials. This would be an ideal way to bring young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into trades they might not otherwise encounter.

Why did lawmakers reject Pritzker’s intent to slash Invest in Kids and instead give it stronger footing? The lobbying by parents and community leaders — especially from parts of Illinois with lousy public schools — was key. The relentless message to Springfield: We only want our children to have the same choices your children have. And this tax credit costs state government and school districts less than the cost of absorbing all of these students back into public schools.

By all accounts House Republicans Jim Durkin of Western Springs and Tom Demmer of Dixon worked hard for Invest in Kids; in April, the Tribune published Demmer’s op-ed explaining how, after his father’s death, the financial generosity of a business owner allowed Demmer and his sister to remain in their Catholic school. And we also offer a hat tip to state Rep. Lisa Hernandez of Cicero, a member of the House Democrats’ leadership team, who bucked a Democratic governor to support the program.

Also among the program’s defenders: Rep. Curtis Tarver, D-Chicago, who grew up on the South Side and attended Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, a strong, diverse college prep school — until his parents couldn’t afford it. He has said he is passionate about the program and allowing low-income kids to graduate from their school of choice due to that experience.

We’d like to close with an assurance that these scholarships will live happily ever after. But Invest in Kids still faces that sunset. Which is regrettable. Invest in Kids now can serve only a small fraction of the families who apply and meet the income requirements. Each year many thousands of students who want scholarships to better schools are denied.

Every Illinois child who yearns for a more effective, more challenging school should be able to afford and achieve that dream.

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Chicago Sun-Times. June 8, 2021.

Editorial: Former legislator with no class files class action suit that could cost taxpayers millions

Any Illinois legislator who voted against pay hikes, just to score political points, remains ethically obligated to take a pass on those lost wages now and forever.

If there’s a dollar on the floor, some people will snatch it up whether they’ve got it coming or not.

In this category of bald opportunists we would put a former Republican state representative, Mike Fortner of West Chicago, and two former Democratic state senators, Michael Noland of Elgin and James Clayborne of Belleville.

All three are ethical hypocrites. All three voted against accepting cost-of-living pay raises when they were in the state Legislature, posing like selfless good guys during hard times for Illinois, but have since gone to court to claw back every dime of those lost wages now that they’re out of politics and don’t give a hoot what people think.

The Illinois Constitution may be on their side. We don’t know. The Illinois Supreme Court eventually will have to rule. But that’s not what should matter here. Fortner, Noland and Clayborne, as well as any other legislator between 2010 and 2018 who voted against those pay hikes — as well as for unpaid furlough days — remain ethically obligated to take a pass on those lost wages now. And forever.

Or they can give it to charity. State Comptroller Susana Mendoza says she’ll send them the proper forms to fill out.

“As a former legislator who voted against these pay raises, I will lead by example,” Mendoza said. “I will donate any back pay I get to charity and will encourage others to do the same.”

A Cook County judge, deciding in a suit brought by Noland and Clayborne, ruled in April that the two former lawmakers were entitled to back pay because it was unconstitutional for lawmakers to have rejected the regular cost-of-living adjustments. The state’s constitution, the judge ruled, prohibited any mid-term change in a legislator’s salary — up or down — for “personal or political gain.”

And now Fortner, in just the last week, has filed a class action suit arguing that all lawmakers who have served a decade should get the back pay. The cost to taxpayers could run about $14.4 million.

Talk about no class.

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Champaign News-Gazette. June 9, 2021.

Editorial: Beware another big ‘energy bill’ in Springfield

It was almost five years ago that a ‘comprehensive’ energy bill came out of Springfield that was supposed to build Illinois’ green energy industry

and protect jobs at two nuclear plants. Guess what didn’t happen.

Illinois lawmakers could return to Springfield as soon as next week to work on a big energy bill designed to help direct the state’s energy future, reduce pollution and boost underdeveloped green energy industries.

No, this is not an editorial from five years ago. It’s just a rerun of what happened in the Legislature in 2016 when the first “comprehensive” Illinois energy bill was debated (clearly not enough) and passed. That legislation didn’t meet its ambitious goals, except to deliver about a billion dollars more to Exelon Corp. and its shareholders. That money came from customers of Commonwealth Edison, an Exelon subsidiary, who are paying higher rates to keep the Clinton and Cordova nuclear plants operating.

A lot of people in central Illinois were glad to see the 34-year-old Clinton nuclear plant remain open after Exelon had threatened to close it in 2017, citing millions of dollars in losses. The energy bill was supposed to “protect” jobs at the Clinton plant, and, semantically speaking, it did. But there are 65 fewer of them today than in 2016.

Meanwhile, Clinton could be roiled all over again in five years when Exelon’s pledge to keep the two nuclear plants open for 10 years expires.

In this latest big energy bill, Exelon is looking at about $600 million in subsidies from ratepayers — less than in the earlier deal — to keep three other nuclear plants, at Dresden, Braidwood and Byron, operating.

Other parts of the energy bill, which is still being negotiated, supposedly include subsidies for solar and wind energy projects to help create thousands of jobs, a phase-out of all coal-fired power plants in the state by 2035 and a state free of all carbon-based energy production by 2050.

Those are, for the most part, laudable goals. But those were some of the same goals as the 2016 bill, which won strong support in the Legislature and from then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, but went unmet.

There’s no need to rush this legislation. This time, let all the interested parties get a chance to review and comment on the bill, ensure that it will do what its advocates intend and that the agencies involved have the staff and resources to carry out its goals. Do it right this time.

END