Editorial Roundup: Illinois

Arlington Heights Daily Herald, April 24, 2022.

Editorial: Improved credit ratings show state knows where path to prosperity is, but can we stay on it?

Whatever your political bent, the announcement of the second upgrade in Illinois’ credit rating in a year has to be a signal that the state is doing something right financially. The question is whether what it’s doing is right enough.

On Thursday, Moody’s Investment Service bumped the state’s rating up one level from Baa2 to Baa1.

In its rating announcement, Moody’s praised the state for shoring up its rainy-day fund and adding more than required to its pension debt. As a result, it said, “The state is on track to close the current fiscal 2022 with its strongest fund balance in over a decade.”

That is not faint praise by any means, but it also doesn’t necessarily imply a glowing picture. Illinois’ credit rating is still the lowest Moody’s rating among all the states, two grades below New Jersey’s second-lowest rating of A2.

And much of the source for Illinois’ brightening picture is a jolt of federal pandemic relief over the past two years. The real validity of the Moody’s increase -- as well as expected similar increases from other credit-rating agencies -- will be seen once the impact of the COVID-19 stimulus has waned.

That is by no means meant to throw cold water on what is clearly good news for the state and a tribute to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s acknowledgment of the need to build stronger (actually any) financial reserves and take an aggressive approach to the pension-debt crisis. It is an overstatement, at least, to claim that the Moody’s upgrade is meaningless or that the state hasn’t made some correct moves in its handling of the budget in general or the federal stimulus in particular.

But it is meant as a reminder to beware the impulse to see a couple of improving financial bench marks as proof that Illinois is on the path to unqualified prosperity. It is certainly no signal to take on new long-term spending goals or even, as some have suggested, permanent tax cuts.

As we noted in an editorial earlier this week, a slew of preelection Day goodies are on the way to Illinoisans -- including temporary freezes on grocery and gasoline taxes, a one-time property tax rebate and even some direct payments -- but the true measure of such actions will be taken not before Election Day but after.

In the same way, we’re not going to be able to truly evaluate the status of Illinois’ finances until we’ve returned to a more normal and more predictable routine of costs and revenues.

In the meantime, it’s prudent to acknowledge that the investment agencies’ growing approval of the state’s financial picture is not yet confirmation that we are on the right path, but it at least demonstrates that we know where the path is.

And, truth be told, that has not been something one could say about financial management in Illinois for some time.

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Chicago Tribune. April 18, 2022.

Two dollars and 20 cents doesn’t buy much, particularly during these times of stifling inflation. But for ComEd, it buys a lot.

The utility giant is proposing a $199 million rate increase, and $2.20 is what that price hike would add to the average residential customer bill each month. The Illinois Commerce Commission, which oversees utilities, would have to approve the increase.

For ComEd, it’s not just about the money. An approval would signal that it’s time for ratepayers to move on from the scandal that branded ComEd as part of the problem when it comes to corruption in Illinois.

In 2016, the utility’s parent firm, Exelon, secured hefty subsidies from the General Assembly for two of its nuclear power plants — after doling out contracts and jobs to allies of then-House Speaker Michael Madigan. ComEd later admitted the wrongdoing in a deferred prosecution agreement and paid a $200 million fine. Indictments of two top ComEd executives and consultants followed (they all pleaded not guilty). Later, prosecutors charged Madigan’s chief of staff, and ultimately Madigan himself.

If ComEd thinks it’s time to move on from that devastating scandal, well, it isn’t.

That ignominious chapter in ComEd’s history gave Illinoisans many reasons to mistrust the utility. Along with the bribes, there was ComEd’s successful lobbying bid for legislation in 2013 that effectively allowed the utility to sidestep the ICC. And there was the formula rate system that state lawmakers agreed to in 2011, a change that led to automatic rate hikes and guaranteed profits for the power utility.

There’s no doubt that ComEd squandered the public trust. It won’t win it back by hitting ratepayers with one more massive rate hike — the largest in eight years. It would mark the last rate increase under the old formula rate system, and it would come on top of a $46 million price hike the utility slapped onto ratepayers last year. The ICC still has authority to approve or reject the $199 million rate hike, and with changes in how rates are approved set to start in 2023, state regulators will get even more authority over proposed rate increases.

If the rate increase is approved, it would boost to $960 million the total amount of rate hikes since 2012, according to Illinois Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization.

ComEd says it needs to raise rates to pay for investments in infrastructure that prepare the power grid for a future dominated by renewable energy and electric vehicles. “As we bring more renewable energy like wind and solar onto the power grid to support the state’s ambitious clean energy goals, we must enhance our infrastructure to safely integrate these resources and ensure the more than 9 million people we serve can continue to count on reliable and affordable energy,” the utility’s CEO, Gil Quiniones, said in a news release last week. “We will continue working with local leaders and community groups to ensure the grid can meet the needs of all customers in the 21st century.”

If that’s the entire case ComEd is going to bring to the ICC, it’s not enough. The utility needs to show that this isn’t simply another attempt to pad ComEd’s profits. It also needs to show that it can be trusted as a steward of one of the most vital services a company can provide to northern Illinois — electric power. Proving that isn’t just about supplying a reliable source of energy. It also requires showing that the utility has firmly put in its rearview mirror the legacy of backroom wheeling-and-dealing in Springfield and stratagems to wangle even more money out of the depleted pockets of ratepayers.

Quiniones isn’t part of the utility’s previous leadership. He took over in November, so perhaps he’s in a good position to make the case that his company can be trusted moving forward. But until he convinces the ICC — and ratepayers across northern Illinois — that it’s a new day at ComEd, the utility shouldn’t be allowed to rake in $199 million more each year. Heck, it shouldn’t even get a penny more.

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Champaign News-Gazette. April 22, 2022.

Editorial: Thanks for the memories

Is there life for University of Illinois hoop heads after Kofi?

The sun will come up tomorrow. But that’s not to say it won’t be followed by endless dark, rainy days further deflated by the loss of one of the great big men in college basketball history and memories of what might have been if All-American Kofi Cockburn had stayed just one more year.

Yes, after twice deciding to return to the UI to play basketball, Kofi Cockburn announced this week that he’s decided the third time would not be the charm, that he will enter the NBA draft in pursuit of a professional career.

Good luck to him. After all the thrills that filled his three years on the Fighting Illini, he deserves fans’ best wishes.

The big question after Cockburn’s announcement, of course, is what’s next.

Everyone knows the college basketball landscape has dramatically shifted — that what was for decades ain’t no more.

Good players on high-profile Division I teams all across the country are entering the transfer portal or taking their chances in the NBA draft.

The UI is losing at least four starters to graduation or the draft and another three (so far) to the portal. Questions abound about those current team members who have yet to decide what paths they will choose.

But just as there are those leaving, so, too, are others coming in.

Illini coach Brad Underwood has attracted four highly touted freshmen, has a transfer center from Baylor coming off a redshirt season and no doubt plans to attract more talent from the portal.

Good players also are coming back, just not the one — Cockburn — that fans wanted most.

Cockburn was terrific while he lasted. Just think of all the thrilling games the UI played over the past three seasons. When Underwood described Cockburn as the “greatest center” in UI history, he wasn’t exaggerating.

Cockburn was so dominant that it took multiple defenders committing multiple fouls to try to stop him. Sometimes — thanks to remarkable forbearance from referees — they succeeded. But Cockburn’s string of double-doubles — points and rebounds — revealed the extent to which he dominated the game.

To say he was instrumental to the UI’s recent success on the hardwood barely scratches the surface of his contributions to team success.

But nothing lasts forever. Fans can be grateful Kofi led the Illini to three winning seasons. Great players like him — he was truly unique — do not come along very often.

END