Editorial Roundup: Illinois

Chicago Tribune. October 8, 2021.

Editorial: Preckwinkle’s Cook County budget is balanced and smart. Other Illinois politicians should take notes.

Illinois has a long history of leaders guilty of fiscal irresponsibility. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle isn’t one of them. Now wrapping up her 10th year as the county’s chief executive, she has built a reputation for balanced budgets that avoid hitting residents with tax hikes or new fees.

She keeps the impressive streak alive with her proposed 2022 budget.

Though the $8 billion spending plan is $1 billion higher than last year’s budget, it’s a spreadsheet balanced without the need for new taxes, fines, fees or tax increases.

So is she resorting to layoffs to keep the books balanced?

“No, we’re actually staffing up,” Preckwinkle told us during an editorial board meeting Thursday. Cook County’s roster of workers would grow 7% in her new budget, which still must be approved by the Cook County Board of Commissioners in November.

Sound money management is hard to come by these days in Illinois government.

Last December, Gov. J.B. Pritzker struggled to find ways to close a $3.9 billion budget hole, a gaping maw created in part by pandemic-diminished tax revenue but also by years of state politicians borrowing and spending far too much. Making matters worse for Illinois is Springfield’s refusal to tackle what Moody’s Investors Service says is a whopping $317 billion state pension system shortfall.

Over at City Hall, Mayor Lori Lightfoot deserves credit for prudently setting aside tranches of federal American Rescue Plan funding to plug revenue gaps now and in 2022 and 2023, and holding the line against aldermen who want to spend it all at once on their progressive agenda. But under her 2022 proposed budget, the property tax levy will still go up by $76.5 million. It calculates to roughly $38 more yearly for a home valued at $250,000 — a modest hike but a hike nonetheless, at a time when Chicagoans feel pushed to the brink by ever-rising property taxes.

One reason why Cook County’s budget outlook looks rosy is the county’s ability to now collect sales tax on online purchases. Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki told us online sales tax revenue represents a “big driver for our positive outlook. In the past decade there’s been a double-digit transition from brick-and-mortar retail to online sales. The pandemic accelerated that transition.”

Preckwinkle’s also getting a massive boost from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, slated to amount to roughly $1 billion for Cook County. Like any other one-time infusion of cash — the people holding the purse strings can spend it wisely, or fritter it away.

We like Preckwinkle’s plan for the $1 billion federal windfall. She’ll spread it out over three years. In the 2022 budget, $100 million out of $333 million in ARP money will help cover revenue losses and capital projects that otherwise would have been paid for through loans. The rest will get invested into communities: $80 million for cash assistance, a guaranteed income pilot effort, housing assistance and aid for small businesses; and another $60 million for mental health services and violence prevention programs such as street outreach. Budgeting that looks for ways to spend on alternatives to simply putting more cops on the streets is smart governance.

Also welcome news to Cook County taxpayers: At a time when politicians in Springfield have blatantly refused to tackle the state’s pension crisis head-on, Cook County continues to make progress toward getting its pension fund on track for 100% funding by 2046. The pension fund is now 64% fully funded, and Preckwinkle’s proposed budget calls for an extra $325 million pension payment. Rizki told us that, compared to national averages, a 64% funded ratio is “not great. But when you look across Illinois, we look like rock stars.”

The lesson for other Illinois governments? Start playing Cook County’s tune.

The ramp-up in hiring Preckwinkle proposes — 1,600 additional positions — largely centers on the county’s health care system. That’s to be expected, given the impact of the pandemic. As of last week, 54.5% Cook County residents were fully vaccinated, a tad under the national average. Vaccination rates are markedly lower, however, in the county’s south and southwest suburbs. Preckwinkle told us the county has stepped up outreach efforts in those communities, through pop-up vaccination sites, cold-calling and knocking on doors. “We’re treating it the way you’d treat a political campaign,” she said. Instead of votes, vaccines in arms — we like that.

This is not an easy time for politicians in the Chicago area and the rest of Illinois to craft budgets. On top of pension woes and the continued exodus of Illinoisans to warmer, tax-friendlier states, the pandemic has imposed immense challenges on spending decisions. This isn’t the first time Preckwinkle has impressed us with her budget-making prowess. We’ve said before that other leaders can and should glean lessons from the county board president’s money management.

That message remains valid today.

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Chicago Sun-Times. October 10, 2021.

Editorial: The clock is winding down, but Chicago still could make a play to keep the Bears

Chicago does not have the money or financial credit to publicly fund a sports stadium. But the city could offer what it has in abundance — vacant land.

Ever since the Chicago Bears unveiled their likely intent to decamp to Arlington Heights, this editorial board’s view has been: “Hate to see you go, but don’t expect Chicago’s taxpayers to spend more money to keep you here.”

But there may be another way to keep the Bears in town, and Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) raised it at a City Council budget hearing last week. The city’s Department of Planning and Development, Osterman said, should offer the Bears land to build a new stadium.

But not just any land, the alderman stressed. It should be vacant land in a part of the city where a new stadium could be a real “economic driver.”

Chicago doesn’t have the money — and shouldn’t even think of running up its credit through a bond issue — to fund a sports stadium. Besides, that’s so 1990. But Chicago could offers the Bears, as part of a carefully negotiated scheme, something the city has in abundance: vacant land.

There are no guarantees the Bears would bite (or would have bitten, had the offer been made before the Bears’ Arlington Heights bid) but it’s the right response — and the kind of move a big city planning department must and should make.

‘We have a lot of land’

Osterman, a North Side Bears fan, told his fellow aldermen last Thursday that he doesn’t want to have to drive to Arlington Heights to watch the team play — which proves, once again, that all politics are local. He urged Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox and his team to at least sit down with the Bears and attempt to come up with a stadium plan and location that might make the team reconsider its $197.2 million bid to buy the shuttered 326-acre Arlington International Racecourse.

“We have a lot of land,” Osterman told Cox at the budget hearing. “Before that door closes, I would ask you to do everything in your power to look at what options there are to keep them here that could be an economic driver for parts of our city — that could use it and it could work.”

This might be just the time. State lawmakers and Gov. J.B. Pritzker seem cold to the idea of Springfield kicking in to pay for a Bears stadium. And Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes says his town is willing to offer perks to lure the team, but taxpayer-funded incentives would be considered only “as a last resort.”

If the notoriously, well, let’s just say thrifty Halas family has to dig into their own pockets — or the NFL’s — to fund a stadium because all sources of public revenue are being denied them, then the playing field between Chicago and Arlington Heights might be as level as it will ever get. Cox would be wise to open discussions with the Bears.

Could Chicago go for an interception?

During the budget hearing, Osterman did not suggest a specific site for a new stadium or say what type — domed, open air or retractable roof — might be best. But using the criteria he suggested, there are several possible sites on the West and South sides.

We could imagine, for instance, a Bears stadium on land owned by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority at 35th Street and Shields Avenue, just north of the White Sox’s ballpark. Part of that deal could include the proper redevelopment of the 70 acres of surface parking — also owned by the ISFA — that surround the ballpark.

Or, if the Bears would prefer another lakefront stadium, the city could offer a piece of the 500-acre former U.S. Steel South Works site. To do that, City Hall would have to bring the land’s owner, U.S. Steel, to the table. But the steelmaker might be wise to listen, given that two decades of redevelopment plans for the land have fluttered and died like Jack Concannon’s forward passes.

At the U.S. Steel site, the Bears would enjoy a nearly blank slate to build on and the result, if done right, could greatly benefit the working-class South Chicago neighborhood.

“So I just ask you, with all the priorities you have of lifting up communities, which is where the priority has to be, let’s not give up on trying to find a place to keep these guys in Chicago,” Osterman said to Cox.

The planning department did not respond to Osterman’s suggestions, other than reissuing a statement from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office. “The mayor,” the statement said, “has said numerous times, our door in City Hall remains open to engage the Bears.”

Still, Osterman’s request is a fair one, even as we feel the need to emphasize that the city can’t give away the store to the Bears.

If the Bears wind up in Arlington Heights, Chicago will be no worse for the wear. But the city can’t just forfeit the game.

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Champaign News-Gazette. October 10, 2021.

Editorial: How far can governor go to enforce school mask mandate?

The state has backed off slightly as an executive order gets challenged in court.

When it comes to his sometimes-controversial policy proposals to fight the coronavirus, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s bold decisions have made it clear that it’s his way or the highway.

Some see his action as evidence of strong executive leadership necessary to address a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 700,000 Americans. Given continuing outbreaks, including the Delta variant, it’s not clear his actions have had the desired effect. But that’s not for want of Pritzker executive orders.

But there’s another school of thought, probably a minority view. From that perspective, Pritzker is perceived as throwing his weight around in an unlawful way. Some local court opinions aside, state courts have pretty much granted Pritzker carte blanche to do what he thinks best under his emergency statutory authority.

But it appears Pritzker recently stubbed his toe, claiming power he does not have. That’s not official because the Illinois State Board of Education quietly modified a gubernatorial edict — to what effect remains unclear — and then minimized its import.

Although expressing support for local control of the issue, Pritzker issued mask mandates for students returning to K-12 schools, both public and private. Private schools that crossed him would immediately lose “recognition status” while public schools would be placed on probation first.

In directing that his orders be followed or else, the governor embraced a nuclear option. He took schoolchildren as hostages and vowed they would pay if members of their local school boards did not do it his way. His threatened withdrawal of recognition would deny financial support to districts, suspend their sports programs and, most outrageously, deny students academic credit for courses they completed that are necessary for graduation.

That last threat, if fully implemented for a full school year, is so punitive that it’s hard to accept at face value. It could require students to repeat a whole school year because of actions beyond their control.

Pritzker’s approach did not sit well with his critics. Parkview Christian Academy in Yorkville went to court to challenge the governor’s authority to withdraw “recognition” in this fashion.

After a Kendall County judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking Pritzker’s punitive approach, the state board of education quietly modified Pritzker’s plan. Henceforth, it said, private school districts, like public school districts, will first be put on probation. Then, if they do not submit a “corrective plan” that bows to Pritzker’s rules, they will lose state recognition.

Rather than address the question of the governor’s legal authority to withdraw recognition as he originally said he would, the agency characterized the move as an effort of accommodation.

“Moving nonpublic schools to probation instead of nonrecognition gives schools more time to work with ISBE on coming into compliance,” a spokeswoman said.

The modification doesn’t change the circumstances of the Parkview Christian lawsuit because Pritzker ultimately is seeking to withdraw its recognition. So, one way or another, sooner or later, a definitive answer about the extent of Pritzker’s vast emergency powers should be forthcoming.

The manner in which the state school board acted suggests it’s not absolutely confident of Pritzker’s legal standing.

He may claim to be on the side of the angels, taking action to protect public health. But his actions raise two questions — one medical and one legal.

Do masks have the multiple benefits that Pritzker claims? After all, some national experts consider the mandate for K-12 students to be “child abuse.”

And even if it is good public policy, does he have the legal authority to protect the young people whose best interests he claims to champion with heavy-handed methods that could cause serious harm?

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