Thursday, December 28, 2006

Beyond the Beltway year-end review

I had a thrill this week: a tag-team year in review Beyond the Beltway show refereed as always by Bruce DuMont. On the liberal end, Chicago Blog King Eric Zorn and myself; on the conservative end, Tom Roeser and Chris Varones. The first hour aired Christmas Eve and the second hour will air New Year's Eve, both on WYCC and on WLS.

So if you are not (a) watching the Bears take down the Pack or (b) celebrating New Year's Eve, then by all means, watch Zorn and I take on Roeser and Varones with DuMont calling all fouls!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Paul Froehlich identified justice as the core principle of the Illinois Republican Party

State Representative Paul Froehlich has written his vision of an Illinois Republican Party that competes for the affection and identification of racial minorities in the Tribune here. It's a thoughtful and insightful analysis that explains one of the reasons why the Democratic Party is the governing majority in Illinois and increasingly, in the nation: the Republican Party is perceived to be largely indifferent to the concerns of most racial minorities.

Representative Froehlich lays it out, identifying President Nixon's racist "southern strategy" (only formally revoked by GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman last year) as the reason for the hostility to Republicans by minorities, as well as:

Blunt crusades against illegal immigrants and affirmative action, which are easily (mis)interpreted as racist.

A blind attachment to the death penalty, despite the high wrongful-conviction rate of minority defendants.

The lack of serious Republican effort (except for Ken Mehlman) to earn support from African-Americans.

Opposition or indifference to issues important to Latinos and African-Americans, such as rooting out racial profiling and closing the nation's biggest disparity in public education funding.


He's correct. He's also sparked a debate on Rich Miller's Capitol Fax site here, where some Republicans seem to argue that the only way to pursue justice for minorities is ..... reduce the size of government. Actually embracing minority issues (such as the criminal justice system injustices or public education funding) is warmed-over liberalism, according to his critics. That's nonsense, but that's one significant wing of the GOP (particularly those from former Confederate states).

It's refreshing to see any white elected official from the suburbs reaching out to embrace justice for racial minorities. While it's healthy for a two-party system to have far-sighted Republicans like Paul Froehlich, the partisan in me hopes not too many GOPers catch on to his way of thinking.....

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Representative Robin Kelly moves on to Alexi's staff

Shocker: Representative Robin Kelly, a progressive south suburbanite legislators who I had thought had a long future in the House, will serve as Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias' Chief of Staff. I wasn't a big Alexi fan during the primary, but this is a fantastic move on his part and shows a lot of aggressive wisdom. Picking top-notch staff is a sign of smart leadership. I'm expecting a lot more progressive legislative energy out of the Treasurer's Office now than I had been before.

Representative Kelly was the force behind establishing a 14-day grace period for voter registration that allowed thousands of Illinois citizens to vote who otherwise would have been disenfranchised (SB 2133 in the 93rd GA with some blog posts here). She will be missed.

The price of oil is going to continue to rise: China is thirsty for more

The Chicago Tribune has a great report (just the first part of three) today detailing how China is now muscling its way into new oil-soaked regions around the world much like the U.S. (with armed forces in 100+ nations around the world, largely to keep our access to oil flowing).

Here's the Econ 101:

Demand for oil goes up -- a lot.
Supply of oil stays the same.
That means the price goes up -- a lot.

So what's a smart country to do?

Invest in transit, particularly transit that runs on electricity. Make your cars more fuel-efficient. Tax oil now so anticipate the price hikes and soften the blow. As John Anderson said in 1980, it's better to tax ourselves and use the revenue for our national interest than to pay the oil shieks billions of our dollars.

Higher oil taxes -- and soon, before the higher oil prices knock us into a recession. Or even worse, before some yahoo oil-patch president starts a Cold War with China over access to oil because we weren't smart enough to tax it domestically and break the habit.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

My bold prediction: Senator Barack Obama does not run for president

Since I'm Time's Person of the Year, I figured I had a responsibility to share my thoughts on the most exciting political buzz to run through the capital of Blue America in a long time: the almost-expected presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama.

I've blogged previously here (shortly after Obama took office in the Senate) that I didn't believe he would run for president in 2008, reacting to Chicago Tribune blogger's Eric Zorn's column predicting an Obama run (the first media maven to do so, as I recall). And further back, this was my late-night reaction to Barack's victory speech for his Senate primary. I think Barack Obama is a fantastic legislator and I'm very proud that I was an early supporter. If he does run, I'll enthusiastically support his campaign.

I'm way outside of conventional wisdom, but I'm going out on my limb: Barack Obama will decide over the next two weeks that he does not want to serve as President of the United States.

There's no question that he'd be a fantastic candidate. Progressives like me will stick with him, because he's straight with us. He's never condescending. He's fiercely intelligent and always looking for the best way to buy a better quality of life for most people. But the big deal about this decision-- and it came to me clearly while watching his interview on Leno -- is whether he wants to be the President. It's easy to want to be a candidate for president. He basically already enjoys most of the benefits of a candidate: hundreds of thousands of supporters, national attention to his thoughts and actions and the ability to mobilize dollars and hours for a good cause. Whether he could beat Hilary is a less interesting and relevant question to whether he wants to transform his life inside out in order to do a uniquely better job than other Democratic candidates would do as president.

He and his wife are level-headed enough to live in Chicago after he got a job in Washington. He has always struck me as completely unfazed by the hype. And his best speeches and lines about politics have been ruthlessly pragmatic: the point of all this is to measurably improve the quality of peoples' lives -- nothing else. Fame, glamour, power -- none of that matters. So when I hear Senator Obama talking about needing to have "a unique voice" to justify running for president, I hear an organizer and an advocate who is in politics for the mission of social justice first and foremost making a cool calculation about the expected value of serving as the president. If someone else (another progressive Democrat) can do just a good job as he can do at improving peoples' lives, what's the point of his run?

The obvious unique factor in a President Obama is racial. That's no small thing. But a female President is no small thing either. And a black Senate Majority Leader (his ultimate job, in my opinion, if not Attorney General) is no small thing either.

One of the refreshing things about Barack Obama is how impervious he seems to be from hype. I'm convinced that since he has essentially been bestowed a top-tier candidacy on the strength of his candor, intelligence, charm and hard work, he'll now decide quite independently of the allure of fame or power whether he believes that he can best pursue justice as a presidential candidate. His ability to be a competitive candidate -- which is more than enough for most politicians to make the leap -- is only a threshold question. Now that the ability has been thrust upon him, he's been forced, really, to confront the question whether he can do the most good as President. And I believe he'll calculate that others can do that job (and weather the enormous personal sacrifices) just as well as he could (if not quite as candidly and without the historic racial breakthrough that he would bring).

Barack Obama's ability to improve the lives of regular people around the globe is growing every year at an astonishing pace. I believe he doesn't need a presidential campaign -- or to serve as President -- to grow his power for social progress. Like Al Gore or Bill Clinton or Bono, Barack Obama can mobilize millions for smart, progressive causes and for the political civility that permits a consensus on good policy to emerge. And I'm predicting he'll make a similar calculation.

UPDATE: I realize that almost all news accounts have described the Obama campaign as essentially existing and the decision period as a formality. I just can't shake this hunch that news accounts are getting way ahead of Senator Obama's internal decision-making process as to whether he wants to serve as the President.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The House should require a new election in Florida -- stand firm for democracy

There are 600,000 people in each congressional district. Maybe 300,000 eligible voters in an average district, and with an average of 50% turnout, there are 150,000 votes in an average congressional race.

In a tight congressional election a month ago, the Democratic candidate lost by less than 400 votes -- but 18,000 votes just ... disappeared.

They use paperless touchscreen voting machines in that part of Florida, and there is absolutely no way to find out why 18,000 people who voted in the election (around 1 out of every 10 voters) didn't cast a vote in the congressional election.

The House can choose not to seat a new member (in this case, the Republican candidate) because the election was so broken.

Speaker Pelosi and the newly-empowered Democrats should stand up for democracy and refuse to certify a broken election. They should require a revote to make sure every vote is counted. is sponsoring a petition that you can sign here to Speaker Pelosi, but I'd suggest you also call your Representative and ask him/her not to certify the broken election in Florida and stand up for democracy.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The humble nominating petition for candidates is the base of all Illinois elected officials' power

We're in the midst of petition season for municipal candidates and I'm reminded by the power of the humble petition.

The most powerful political organizations in the state are based off of one simple premise: asking a citizen to act. We, as candidates, campaigns, consultants or organizations, are based off of a request: please sign a petition, or please publicly signify your endorsement and ultimately, please take 5 minutes and in secret, cast a vote for us.

Every candidate relies on thousands of citizens choosing to affix their signature to a nominating petition -- and the more effective organizations demonstrate their political strength by showing how many citizens they have successfully asked to sign a nominating petition.

And the barrier to entry is tiny. Anyone can circulate a petition. Anyone can take the time to ask strangers (or neighbors or friends) to sign a petition. But only some are willing to work.

I'm reminded of my favorite part of the Tribune article on "The House that Rahm built" when Rahm Emanuel is ranting about some conservative Democratic House members that apparently did not take to his aggressive style and he said: "They hate me too, because I'm arrogant and pushy with them. ... Because they've never, ever WORKED! NOBODY! NONE OF 'EM!" -- that made me laugh out loud. Successful political organizations -- especially in Chicago -- work hard at gathering petitions -- thousands of names from one ward -- and that's something to appreciate from a civic perspective, not to denigrate. A precinct captain from the 13th Ward was telling me about his election day ritual: he plants tiny American flags in the yards of every resident in his precinct to remind the people to vote. Isn't that great? We need more of that.

Anyway, these stacks of petitions that operatives around the state are currently poring over and binding together are a nice reminder that in our nation, the people ultimately rule, and even the most powerful among us ultimately rely on a humble petition.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A new day in Illinois and a new chance for children in poor schools

[Cross-posted at]

The first day of veto session feels like the first day of school -- a lot of excitement to see old friends and a feeling of anticipation of something big around the corner.

The big news is that the freshman class (to continue the analogy) will be a supermajority for Democrats in the Senate. That's exciting.

It's particularly exciting because it means the 37 men and women of the Senate Democratic Caucus are now just as important as the Blagojevich Administration when it comes to setting budgets and policies. When a consensus is reached by the Senate Democratic Caucus, it is the public will and can override a veto by the Governor. That's a very big deal and represents a tremedous shift in power over to the 37 Senate Democrats. Particularly because President Jones is said to be very open to representing the consensus of his caucus, that means the sparkling opportunity and heavy responsibility of implementing progressive policies lies on the shoulders of the 37.

The biggest opportunity for social and economic progress is raising the state's 3% income tax and with the extra three billion or so buying better educations for the hundreds of thousands of children in poor neighborhoods who suffer from poorer schools and worse teachers.

There has been no significant progress on this front in at least a decade in the state, and the predictable result of kids dropping out from poor school districts and robbing them of the American promise of equal opportunity has blighted another generation.

For the last four years, Governor Blagojevich's clear opposition to any increase in the state's income tax has stymied efforts to raise the 3% income tax and buy better educations with the money (as well as provide some property tax relief -- a secondary concern in the scope of problems in my opinion).

Unfortunately, Governor Blagojevich decided to reiterate his pledge not to raise the state's 3% income tax.

Fortunately, the 37 Senate Democrats need not consider the Governor's veto as relevant to their consensus.

And very fortunately, some of the bright freshmen Senators campaigned on raising the income tax (and providing property tax relief).

(As a quick digression, the freshman class of Democratic Senators will likely be considered a major 'impact' class. Michael Frerichs, Michael Bond, Dan Kotowski and Michael Noland will be policy-oriented legislators who will have an immediate impact on crafting progressive policy. I haven't met Linda Holmes, but I've heard very good things about her too. And on another digression, Michael Bond and his campaign staff should be giving lessons on how to run a field operation -- it was the most sophisticated campaign I've ever seen).

Of course, many Republican Senators have long understood the need to raise the state income tax and (more importantly to their constituents) cut the local property tax. The potential defection of a handful of Democratic Senators who might calculate their districts won't support a 5% state income tax can and should be made up by Republican Senators, particularly representing poorer rural districts, to withstand an expected veto.

And keep in mind: 10% of voters last week cast their votes for a candidate who explicitly called for a 5% income tax. That's extraordinary. That's about as close to a mandate as a tax increase can ever get. And that means that the potential blowback is likely rather low (at least in those districts, like Senator Syverson's and Senator Luechtefeld's where Rich Whitney earned around 25% of the vote. 25%!).

Put another way, 60% of voters supported a left or center-left candidate.

If there was ever a time for a 5% state income tax, 2007 is it.

And while the dynamics of the House may not have changed significantly, the Speaker and I'd venture a majority of the House Democratic caucus have expressed support for a tax swap. The House did pass a tax swap bill out in the late 90s only to suffocate from Pate Philip's Senate opposition.

There's still quite a bit of consensus-building to do: what accountability reforms need to be included with the billions in new spending, what tax cuts (either property or low-income) need to be included and what group of legislators can take the lead on crafting this consensus are all unanswered questions. But the future for poor Illinois children has not been brighter in a long time -- so long as our legislators decide that they have the opportunity and responsibility to craft a legislative consensus around a 5% income tax. The Governor's leadership on progressive policy (such as with the indexed minimum wage hike) will be in different arenas.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A $7.50 state minimum wage -- indexed!

Governor Blagojevich and Mayor Daley came out last week in support of a $7.50 state minimum wage and will push for its implementation during the veto session in November. Even better, they both called for an indexed minimum wage, so that every year wages will adjust upwards based on inflation. (A flat minimum wage means every year it is worth less -- an indexed wage stays constant in terms of actual purchasing power).

As I've blogged previously, Cook County voters (thanks to Lt. Governor Pat Quinn's political team) will have the chance to vote for the minimum wage increase on an advisory referendum on Tuesday's ballot.

The reason I bring all this up is I've been meaning to cite an Economist article I've been carrying around for a month. In the October 7th edition, the magazine reports that the United KIngdom's minimum wage rose on October 15th to 5.35 pounds per hour. That's $10.08 an hour!

Think about that: ten bucks an hour minimum wage in England.

That's what it *should* be in the United States. You can't live on less than ten bucks an hour. So it should be illegal to pay anyone less than ten bucks an hour. And because the Brits manage to do quite will with a ten dollar an hour minimum wge, we should do well too.

It really is shocking to think that the Congress hasn't raised the minimum wage past $5.15 an hour for a decade and that's one of the most compelling reasons to help elect a Democratic majority -- the economic values of the governing coalition in D.C. are lined up against people with jobs.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Blagojevich-Topinka-Whitney and Bean-Scheurer-McSweeney races show the need for ranked ballots

There are three high-profile three-way races in Illinois. Both of them show what an antiquated election system we still use and the need to modernize our elections to allow for ranked ballots.

In one of the most hotly-contested congressional races in the country, incumbent Melissa Bean (D) is challenged by David McSweeney (R) and Bill Scheurer (M). Scheurer is running on a progressive platform and is thus a threat to the Bean campaign much more than the McSweeney campaign. Bean looks like the likely victor and is running on a Rahm Emanuel Democratic record (embrace most of the Bush economic agenda) with the implied calculation that her affluent northwest suburban district likes economic policies that benefit higher incomes. For voters who don't like the Bush tax cuts or corporate-backed free trade policies or the Iraqi occupation, it's a tough pill to swallow: vote for the guy with the platform you agree with and risk electing the guy you really don't agree with or vote for the woman who is with you about half the time and send the message that it's OK to embrace most of the Bush economic agenda.

Most progressives are sucking it up in order to elect a Democratic majority, but imagine the consternation if McSweeney wins and the margin of victory is half of the Scheurer vote.

This is all because we don't have a runoff election to ensure the winner earns a majority of the vote. And because we don't have a runoff, the majority of voters can split the vote (in this case between Bean and Scheurer) allowing a candidate to get elected that the majority of voters rejected (in this hypothetical, McSweeney. That's dumb. But it happens a lot.

The solution is to have a runoff election, like most municipalities do. A better solution is to hold an instant runoff election.

On Tuesday, Oakland, Minneapolis and Pierce County (WA) will all vote to implement instant runoff voting. I think they will all win. They would join San Francisco, Burlington VT, Ireland and Australia by using instant runoff voting.

Here are the campaign websites (with a particular link to the neat flash demonstrations of IRV on each site if they have one -- they are worth checking out).

Minneapolis Fun flash demonstration on how IRV works called Elect-A-Date
Pierce County, WA Their flash demonstration

Ranked ballots with instant runoff voting is a little more resonant, perhaps, in the gubernatorial race where both the Blagojevich and Topinka campaigns believe the Green Party's Rich Whitney's campaign is pulling away their voters. Rich Miller is making the point that all eyes for the last four days of the campaign should be on the 10-15% of the electorate that are now (pollsters say) planning to vote for Whitney to see which way they will break as it becomes clear that Whitney won't win.

The trouble is, lots of voters would like to vote for a 6% income tax in exchange for more money for schools and a lower property tax as well as send a message for cleaner government, but do have a preference between Topinka and Blagojevich.

Our stupid voting system doesn't allow that to happen. So the major parties actively discourage third party candidates from getting on the ballot which is a major draw of resources for everyone (as an election lawyer, I might benefit from that, but it is a waste).

If Whitney gets more than 5% of the vote, and he almost certainly will, this problem will get a lot worse, because then the Green Party will become an established party in Illinois and thus get access to the ballot by filing for a Green Party primary election. That will likely create lots of three-way races in 2008.

The demand for a modern voting system like instant runoff voting is growing in Illinois. And while I'm a proud Democratic Party member, I also believe we're better off with a multi-party system and three or four candidates on the ballot instead of one or two.

I'm curious what others think about our election system now given three candidates on the ballot and whether we ought to hold a runoff or instant runoff in the future.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Amtrak expansion kicks in tomorrow -- Chicago-Springfield schedule now convenient

In exciting news for our state's economic development, Amtrak expansion is starting tomorrow.

The Illinois General Assembly and Governor Blagojevich get the credit for coming up with the money for the expanded service, and Senator Durbin has done a ton of work to make sure a last-minute monkey wrench thrown by one of the freight railroad companies that owns part of tracks didn't derail the expansion.

Here is the expanded schedule.

To make it easier for the lobbyists, staffers and electeds who might want to take a train from Chicago to Springfield, here's the deal:

There are now 5 daily trains leaving Chicago to Springfield.

There's a 7 a.m. express train that stops in Joliet and Bloomington-Normal before arriving in Springfield at 10:15 am.

Then a 9:15 am that arrives in Springfield at 12:20 pm.

A 2:00 pm train that arrives in Springfield at 5:30 pm (that's the train that goes all the way to Texas).

A 5:15 pm train that arrives in Springfield at 8:39 pm (very convenient for working days in Chicago).

And finally a 7:00 pm train that arrives in Springfield at 10:24 pm, so you can grab dinner before you come back to Springfield. That's a great return train for day trips for fun up to Chicago.

All of these southbound trains will continue to run pretty much on time.

The northbound trains have been a problem. Here's the new schedule (just Springfield to Chicago).

The early morning train leaves Springfield at 6:33 am and arrives in Chicago at 9:55 am. Very good for working meetings -- and memo to all state department heads: please schedule morning meetings for 10:30 am and not before so your Springfield staffers can take the train and get there on time.

The next northbound leaves at two hours later at 8:33 am and arrives in Chicago at 11:55 am.

These first two trains should be very reliable, as they both start in St. Louis.

The next one leaves Springfield at 10:29 am and arrives in Chicago at 2:14 pm. However, the 10:29 am train is the Texas Eagle and that can run very late. A good trick is to check the train status of the Texas Eagle (it's train number 22) by checking or calling 1-800-USA-RAIL as if you want to get a northbound train at noon or 2 pm, sometimes the Texas Eagle is running three or four hours late so it works out perfectly.

The next northbound train leaves Springfield at 5:07 pm and arrives in Chicago at 8:30 pm. This should be a reliable train as well, because even though it starts in Kansas City, Missouri, they build in some time in St. Louis to make up for expected delays. (The track in Missouri is a mess).

Finally, there's an after-dinner train leaving Springfield at 7:28 pm and arriving in Chicago at 10:50 pm. This is perfect for day trips to Springfield.

Keep in mind if you are a state employee, you are eligible for a one-way state rate of $17 (unless they raised it a bit), so be sure to call 1-800-USA-RAIL and book your state rate (or ask the ticket agent at the station).

Finally, a commercial. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is a client of mine and a main proponent of this Illinois Amtrak expansion. We're a membership-based organization, so please consider joining. You can do so here. More immediately, we're celebrating the biggest Midwest Amtrak expansion in more than a decade by riding the initial run at 7:00 am Monday morning all the way to St. Louis, having a lunch downtown at the Hyatt Regency and then riding back. Anyone is welcome to join us, particularly for the lunch at 1 pm (that's $50 per person). If you'd like to be a part of the ride, just buy a ticket. The St. Louis lunch information is available here.

The best GOTV volunteer program I've ever seen

If you'd like to elect a Democratic Congress (as I would) and do not live in a district with a competitive election (like 80% of all Americans), the best way to help out is to call people who do live in competitive districts or states and ask them to vote for the Democratic candidate.

The best way to do that is through

I've been doing it a little bit over the last month, and it is fantastic.

It's though's political group, and I encourage every reader to sign up and spend an hour or two calling voters.

Monday, October 09, 2006

College Democrats -- a new network for Illinois student Dems

I've been helping start a small political committee called the Fund for Campus Democratic Party Organizing.

The idea is that Illinois is one of the bluest states in the nation. There are fantastic stories to tell about the progressive laws and policies coming out of our state government, and it's easy to get inspired about the good that government can do by seeing what a state government is doing.

Especially when it's easy for progressives to get depressed by what the federal government has been doing (enriching the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us and spending our commonwealth on the occupation of Iraq, not on our human capital), it's important to tell the story of state and local government here.

On a related note, college Democrats in Illinois should have the chance to visit Springfield on a regular basis and meet the very approachable legislators that are implementing the progressive agenda every year.

That's one of the main hopes of the Fund for Campus Democratic Party Organizing.

So, if you are a college Democrat (or close enough to either category), sign up for our email list here. Or just email me at with your ideas and thoughts about how to better connect college and university Democrats with the state government (and each other).

Illinois Campus Democrats: Join Our Email List

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Things are worse in Iraq than we can see

This article on how bad things are in Iraq was so compelling that I had to copy the whole thing.

The link is here. Chilling.

'NYT' War Reporter: 'Anarchy' Curtails Reporting in Iraq
The New York Times
Dexter Filkins
By David S. Hirschman
Published: September 15, 2006/ Editor & Publisher
NEW YORK Journalists are in danger everywhere in Iraq these days, making it
nearly impossible to report, and it only seems to be getting worse, said New
York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, speaking Thursday at the offices of the
Committee to Protect Journalists in Manhattan. Filkins, who will begin a
Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University this month and start work on a book,
said that 98% of Iraq, and even most of Baghdad, has now become "off-limits"
for Western journalists.
Filkins, one of the longest-lasting and most-honored reporters in Iraq, said
that many situations lately have become even too dangerous for Iraqi
reporters to report on. He described the current climate as "anarchy," and,
when asked if the country was already involved in a civil war, he said,
"Yeah, sure."
Asked what advice he had for a reporter from a small paper going to Iraq now
without the kinds of money and backup that the Times was able to afford him
(or previous reporting experience in Iraq), Filkins replied: "Don't go."
The most that Times reporters can do these days, said Filkins, is "very
carefully set up an appointment with someone" using back channels and meet
with them under tight security. "We can't go to car bombings anymore," he
said, describing how even getting out of a vehicle to report would expose a
Western journalist to mob attacks and kidnapping.
As a result, the paper increasingly relies on its 70 Iraqi staffers to go
out into the streets and do the actual reporting. These Iraqi journalists,
both Sunni and Shiite, do "everything" according to Filkins, and are paid
handsomely (by local standards) for their efforts. But they live in constant
fear of their association with the newspaper being exposed, which could cost
them their lives.
"Most of the Iraqis who work for us don't even tell their families that they
work for us," said Filkins. "It's terribly terribly dangerous for them."
He estimated that there are probably 50 murders and 20 to 30 kidnappings in
Baghdad every day, and said that it had gotten to the point where it was no
longer just Sunni-Shiite clashes or insurgent mayhem. "Nobody trusts anybody
anymore," he said. "There's no law, and the worst people with guns are in
According to Filkins, the New York Times is burning through money "like jet
fuel" simply to securely maintain its operations in the country. In addition
to the 70 local reporters and translators, the Times employs 45 full-time
Kalashnikov-toting security guards to patrol its two blast-wall-enclosed
houses -- and oversee belt-fed machine-guns on the roofs of the buildings.
The paper also has three armored cars, and pays a hefty premium each month
to insure the five Times reporters working there.
American journalists, he said, spend their days piecing together scraps of
information from the Iraqi reporters to construct a picture, albeit
incomplete, of what life is like these days in the war-torn country. But he
says that the work is slow and difficult, and it is hard in such an
atmosphere for reporters to nail down specifics. "Five people doing a
run-of-the-mill story takes forever," he said.
Most troubling was Filkins' assessment that the U.S. military may not know
much more than the Times does about what life is like on the ground in Iraq.
Soldiers barely leave their bases and they don't interact very much with
average Iraqis, he said, so it is hard to say who, if anyone, has an
accurate picture of the current situation.
"Everyone is kind of groping around in the dark," he said.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Answer to Daley's veto of big-box ordinance is statewide big-box law

Mayor Daley vetoed the income-raising big box ordinance yesterday, that would have forced the out-of-state owners of some of the most profitable corporations in the world to pay more than poverty-level wages to their employees in Chicago.

His main objection to the ordinance is that it would have disadvantaged potential city stores versus suburban stores (who would not fall under the terms of the ordinance, and thus could pay their employees the state minimum wage of $6.50 without any benefits). It's a fair point. I still think he should have signed the ordinance into law, as I believe the benefits from higher wages and benefits to Chicago residents would have outweighed the costs of any big box stores that did not open in Chicago. Who knows whether the big box behemoths, that have clearly articulated their express desire to penetrate the urban market (the last frontier for the big boxes who have reached points of market saturation in the exurbs and in most rural markets), would have shouldered the higher operating cost of paying non-poverty wages in Chicago, or whether they would have followed through with the threats to ignore Chicago altogether?

It's worth pointing out that the problem is not that the ordinance to require non-poverty wages and benefits is a bad idea, it's that the ordinance wasn't broad enough.

It only covered Chicago.

The response seems clear: a statewide big box ordinance.

With a statewide ordinance, the border question doesn't afflict the Howard Avenue or Cicero Avenue. It only affects the state border.

Would the big boxes ignore a 12,000,000 person market? I doubt it.

Would the cost of paying non-poverty wages be a big enough burden to write off 12,000,000 people? I don't think so.

There would be similar border dynamics around the ring of the state, but for most of the 12,000,000 potential customers who, according to industry standards that I learned about in Crain's will not travel more than 3-5 miles for retail, there isn't a border question.

Every county board should start passing similar big box ordinances, starting with Cook. And Lake County, Indiana, should do the same thing.

When wages are down (and they are -- average wages are falling) and the number of people without health insurance jumped by 1.1 million last year, we can't wait for the federal government to solve these problems. Cities, counties and states must continue to show leadership on raising the purchasing power of people to make everyone better off. Chicago's big box ordinance is a very innovative, envelope-pushing remedy to the problems of falling wages in our increasingly service-based economy.

To his credit, Illinois Lt. Governor Pat Quinn has been pushing the idea of a statewide big box ordinance. And I have a correction to make as well: I wrote about the $7.50 an hour minimum wage advisory referendum on the Cook County ballot and assumed that the Cook County Board voted to put the question on the ballot. I was wrong: citizens did submit petitions to place the question on the ballot. And the Master of Referenda -- Lt. Governor Quinn -- was behind the effort. Congratulations to him and his political team for a smart move.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Cook County asks 5 million residents whether to raise the minimum wage to $7.50

I haven't seen this reported elsewhere (I first heard about it from the Blagojevich campaign), and I think it's very smart politics: the Cook County Board has placed an advisory referendum on the November ballot asking voters if they want to raise the minimum wage from $6.50 to $7.50 an hour.

One of the Democrats' signature issues in 2002 and in the 2003 General Assembly was raising the minimum wage past the federal minimum of $5.15 (that's $10,300.00 annual pre-tax income, and if that's not a poverty-wage, I'm not sure what is) to $6.50 an hour. It has been a triumph for the state and I'm sure has resulted in a large influx of wealth into our state as the extra $2,000 in purchasing power that mininum wage workers enjoy has been multiplied throughout our economy, not to mention the upward pressure on wages it has brought to hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Upward pressure on wages -- what a concept!

It's especially appropriate after Labor Day weekend (and thank you to labor unions for giving me the power to have the day off on Monday -- what a concept it must have been 80 years ago to demand a day off from work to honor labor!) the unending need to shift power to low-income workers both because it's the right thing to do and because it's good for our economy.

I've heard enough about the 'job-killing' minimum wage and I don't buy it. There isn't evidence to support the argument. And if opponents of a decent minimum wage are serious, then they should be for lowering the minimum wage to, say, $1 an hour. Or we can match the Chinese and go to $1 per day. That's the logic. If you oppose raising the minimum wage because it somehow impoverishes the working poor, then you are for lowering the minimum wage, because *that's* really going to bring jobs to those that need them!

It's funny: those who think that paying poor people less will mean they get more money also think that cutting taxes will mean the goverment will get more money too. I wonder if those people apply the concept to their own lives and tell their bosses that they don't want a raise, because they want to make more money. Oh wait: they probably are the bosses.....

I think this is exclusively a practical question. At some point (probably at the lowest 20% of income -- just shy of $10/hour, around the poverty level), there will be fewer jobs created. But there's a lot of wiggle room before that point, and the benefits that come to Illinois workers (and thus, the Illinois economy from all that new income, often paid by out-of-state owners of publicly-traded corporations) outweigh the costs of the relatively few lost jobs.

I don't know what other premise anyone could accept besides a ruthlessly pragmatic assessment to determine their support or opposition to a minimum wage increase. If it's *ideological*, then please. That's empty. The only ideological position that makes any sense is to abolish the minimum wage (and thus, to be for Chinese wages of $1 per day). What's the logical reason to oppose a $7.50 minimum wage and reluctantly support a $5.15 minimum wage? If it's a border question (gas stations and hot dog shops are all going to move to Indiana and Kentucky!) then it's really a pragmatic assessment: how many jobs will Illinois really lose to the poverty-wage states on our borders versus how much more income will flow to Illinois low-income workers?

Since we have no evidence that firmly supports either proposition (and if anyone's got some, I'd like to read it -- applied only that documents actual job losses, theoretical constructs don't count), there's no pragmatic reason to support the lower wage over the higher wage.

Anyway, I think it's a smart issue to draw attention to for the Blagojevich campaign and the Democratic Party, and if I were Judy Baar Topinka, I'd be promising to support a minimum wage increase to $7.50 sooner rather than later. Whoever figured out to ask the County Board to put this on the ballot should get a raise.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I hope Ned Lamont ends Joe Lieberman's career

Joe Lieberman has been such a destructive force for the Democratic Party (in my lefty view). I've sent my twenty bucks over to Ned Lamont's campaign and have been making a few phone calls into Connecticut on his behalf as well.

Guess the Joe-mentum ran out of gas......

And the best part about the Lieberman campaign? Neither Barack Obama nor Dick Durbin went to Connecticut to campaign for him! Lots of Dem senators did (Boxer jumps to mind), but I like to think our guys were smart enough to put the need for a muscular, smart Democratic face above their personal friendship with the smarmy, moralizing, holier-than-thou incumbent. Senator Lieberman may be a nice guy, but his politics of rolling over for the Bush Administration on the invasion of Iraq symbolized D.C. squishiness. As Obama said at his kickoff event a few years ago, "Democrats get to Washington and they somehow lose their backbone!" That's why Lieberman has been bad for Democrats, and if he loses tomorrow, expect to see a lot more backbone in DC.

Representative McKeon bows out after a decade

I'm a little late to this party, but I'd like to wish Representative Larry McKeon a happy and active retirement. He is a fellow blogger (check it out here), and his posts somehow capture part of his personality. For example, the headline on his post announcing his retirement is "Well, I made a decision"

Not: "McKeon to Retire". Just, "Well, I made a decision". Something endearing about that.

It's one reason I like the General Assembly so much. It's a very human place.

By the way, be sure to go to the State Fair for either Governor's Day on the 16th of August or Republican Day on the 17th (depending on your party). It's a vivid reminder of how nicely accessible our state leaders are. No matter how powerful the elected official, when they are wearing a short sleeve shirt and sweating in the sun next to the cow made of butter, it's a nice egalitarian aura.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Big Business strikes back against Senator Collins' law on Sudan divestment

Senator Jacqueline Collins has championed a law (SB 23, here) that requires all public pensions to divest from any investments in Sudan. Technically, it prohibits the Treasurer from depositing any funds or contracting with any financial institution that does business in Sudan. Sudan is one of the saddest places in the world, where a genocidal campaign is waging.

To try to stop the horror, the State of Illinois is trying to avoid profiting from the misery of others. The state law requires all public pension funds to get a certification from private equity firms that they are not investing in Sudan (until the genocide ends). This has caused some administrative problems for investors and private companies, as they can no longer profit in the Sudan and today they fought back.

In federal district court in Chicago, they have sued the State, claiming that the state law is not permitted by the federal Constitution, because it resembles foreign policy and that's implicitly prohibited. (I don't recall that debate in Philadelphia....)

Keep in mind, no American companies are permitted to invest in Sudan, pursuant to a federal law passed in 2002. So only non-American companies are impacted by the Illinois law. And these non-American companies are getting together to use the resources of our country (the federal judiciary) to ensure that our pension funds can finance their operations in Sudan.

The main plaintiff in the case is the National Foreign Trade Council (, a big money organization out of D.C. that always seems to be advocating for lower wages and higher profits (funny how that works out). They managed to recruit eight Illinois pension funds to join the case.

Senator Collins released a statement arguing that state pension funds have no standing to sue the state, and that divestment is not foreign policy -- it's just disassociation with a genocidal country. Governor Blagojevich defended the law as well. This bill, by the way, was co-sponsored by Peter Roskam and Ed Petka and passed out of the Senate unanimously. It also earned 89 votes in the House and was supported by both Governor Blagojevich and Treasurer Topinka. But where there's money to be made.....

Here's an article from the federal government. (Yes, that's our government press at work. But, a good article nonetheless).

I hope those conservative judicial activists don't infringe on the authority of Illinois to decide where and with whom to invest our billions in pension funds. I really can't imagine the Founding Fathers, each of whom believed passionately in states' rights, would have taken the view that a state could not direct their own funds away from a particular foreign nation. Part of me hopes this case goes to the Supreme Court, as I'd find the debate interested, particularly to see what Justice Scalia, Mr. Original Intent, would say.

Anyway, it seems a little sad that a bipartisan initiative that will likely help end an ongoing genocide is the subject of a lawsuit because profits are apparently more important that helping to stop a genocide.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Chicago takes the lead on creating a better economy

Alderman Joe Moore and 34 of his colleagues on the Chicago City Council took a big step towards creating a middle class today by passing the big-box ordinance requiring the most profitable retail companies in the world to pay their workers a living wage.

It's important to remember the context: the federal government has dramatically shifted wealth to the wealthiest Americans and largely impoverished the rest of us, both by increasing the real tax burden on working people (counting state and local taxes, as well as tuition and fees that must rise due to a lack of federal resources to states and cities) and by ensuring wages do not rise by (a) making it harder to form unions and (b) not raising the minimum wage.

And don't forget some of the other big policies that make most of us poorer: eliminating trade barriers and outsourcing jobs to put massive downward pressure on wages. Why are manufacturing jobs disappearing? Because the federal government approved trade agreements where American manufacturers compete with workers who are paid less than a dollar per day.

That's why the Chicago City Council's move, backed by SEIU's vivid and muscular threat to challenge legislators who vote with big business instead of with workers, is so important.

The best retort I've heard to the argument that retailers will avoid Chicago because they just can't afford to buy health insurance for the workers is Eric Zorn's column in the Trib yesterday. Corporate America isn't afraid that their arguments about killing jobs will be proven right... they are petrified that the urban market with billions in purchasing power will lure retailers into the city anyway, and the retailers will pay a living wage, and they will still be enormously profitable!

Because then, the rest of the country will start following progressive cities like Chicago and raise the minimum wage.

Why not all of Cook County?

We should pass a county ordinance raising wages. That would be a boon for the Cook County economy, because you can't outsource retail! And the increase in income for Cook County workers will get spent in Cook County, not sucked up into the profits and distributed throughout the world to the shareholders.

Today makes me proud and happy to live in the Capital of Blue America where elected officials show that government raises our standard of living.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Biodiesel mandate for all public agencies in effect -- is your local government in compliance?

A few weeks ago, HB 112 (Feigenholtz, Cullerton) kicked in, requiring all diesel powered vehicles owned or operated by the State, any county or unit of local government, any school district, any community college or public college or university, or any mass transit agency when refueling at a bulk central fueling facility, to use a blend containing 2 percent biodiesel fuel.

This is a very good thing for the Illinois economy.

Here's where you come in, courtesy of the Illinois League of Conservation Voters. Check with all of the local governments that represent you: city, county, township, community college or mass transit agency. Ask to speak to the person in charge of procurement. Ask them if they are aware of the new state requirement to purchase 2% biodiesel, effective July 1st. And ask them if they are doing so.

Biodiesel is usually cheaper than petroleum-based diesel. It burns cleaner and it is made in Illinois (or at least the Midwest) and not some other country.

Lots of laws aren't followed because citizens don't spend any time to follow up and enforce the law.

Let's not let this law lay unused.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The meaning of freedom while celebrating Independence Day

This Sunday, I'll be on Bruce DuMont's Beyond the Beltway radio show and the topic is the meaning of freedom.

I found this graduation speech by Geoffrey Stone for the University of Chicago Law School and thought I would share it.

His main point is:

Throughout American history, the most intense pressure for the sacrifice of liberty has come in time of war. This is only natural, for in wartime the national security is directly threatened. In such circumstances, it is inevitable that grave questions will arise about whether we can afford our freedoms. The challenge is to decide how much sacrifice of freedom is warranted.

One of the lessons of history is that in time of war we not only compromise our liberties, but we do so excessively and to a degree we almost always come to regret. As Justice Robert Jackson once observed, "it is easy, by giving way to the passion, intolerance, and suspicions of wartime to reduce our liberties to a shadow, often in answer to exaggerated claims of security." If we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, we must understand why this happens.


It's worth reading, as he speaks to the meaning of freedom -- and the role of clear-eyed citizens to defend our freedoms against the reflexive suppression of dissent to policies of an invading President --eloquently and concisely.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Big, bold plan to spend $6 billion on education has some cutting-edge parts

I think Senator Meeks and Governor Blagojevich deserve a lot of credit for putting forward a big-picture, innovative plan for education in Illinois. Everyone agrees that we need to improve education and most people agree that we need to invest more money into education. Finally, there's a big, bold plan out there (right at the top of that would demonstrably improve education if implemented.

I think the most innovative part is a call for merit pay instead of seniority pay, with the full support of the teachers unions. (That is, the plan calls for the unions to work to craft a merit pay plan. I'm not suggesting the unions support the concept today.)

For some background on merit pay, check out Denver. They are probably running the most aggressive merit pay system in the nation. And the teachers unions crafted the plan.

Here's an interview in Education Sector (a neat independent think tank) with Brad Jupp, a labor organizer with the Denver Classroom Teacher Association and a lead negotiator and advocate for the merit pay system.

The whole interview is worth a read, but here are some of the best parts.

ES: What were some of the specific lessons you learned in the pay-for-performance pilot?

BJ: The most important lesson was that you can build pay systems around pragmatic judgments. By pragmatic judgments, I mean decisions that are not necessarily based on researched psychometric standards but reflect common sense and professional judgment to make effective decisions. In fact, almost all pay systems–including the single salary schedule in place in most schools today–are built around pragmatic judgments. We will never create a perfectly objective basis for compensation decisions, but if we rely on the common sense of professionals we can go a long way.

The second thing we learned, which is very important, was that differentiated pay did not destroy workplace morale; it created new challenges, but in our pilot schools, we never saw the plummet in morale predicted by opponents of alternative compensation schemes.

The third thing we learned was that, when teachers set goals and plan to meet them, students perform well whether teachers meet those goals or not. When teachers set high-quality objectives, objectives that have clear, measurable outcomes and well-articulated strategies to meet them, and those objectives are assessed routinely throughout the year–kids learn more. Learning became the cornerstone of the way we built the pay system.

A fourth thing that we learned was that we need to think hard about how to connect the stakes in a pay system to the behavior that we're trying to change. Policymakers often think of pay systems in very simple ways: "If I put a lot of money on the table, it's going to change people's behavior dramatically, so I'll put a lot of money on the table for the behavior I want." But you often don't need to do that, and you may, in fact, be making a big mistake.

We've found, for instance, that a $1,000 incentive to work in a high-poverty school with low-performing kids doesn't motivate teachers in schools with wealthier kids that perform well to move to that low performing school. On the other hand, it does motivate teachers to stay at that high-poverty school after they've been hired there. Maybe what you need to do is to put a small amount of money on the table, stabilize the workforce, and then build the workforce in these schools over time, rather then to assume that what you want the incentive to do is to steal teachers from the suburbs. Another example is that it doesn't take a whole lot of money–only about $330 in the compensation model that we have–to get people to commit to look at their objectives twice a year. But if there's no money, they don't do it. Sometimes smaller stakes make a big difference.

There's a lot more, including why teachers should embrace accountability measures, because then they'll get paid more (as they should).

I also love the call in the plan for longer school days and longer school years.

So, say what you want about the efficacy about licensing the lotto to come up with the money, but this is the best plan that's out there about how to improve education. I think it's a big step forward.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Full Amtrak funding: one-third of the 2005 oil company tax cuts

[Cross-posted at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association blog (one of my clients), join here to help build faster, frequent, reliable trains out of Chicago]

I found this letter to the editor to the Albany Times-Union that very succinctly demonstrated the upside-down federal energy policy. Here's the best part:


Hopefully, our political leaders will recognize the value of rail passenger transportation and fully fund Amtrak's modest budget request of $1.5 billion for the year plus its $275 million of long-range improvements. Since Amtrak full funding is less than a third of the amount given oil companies in tax cuts last year, Amtrak is certainly a bargain.


Capital District Coordinator

Empire State Passenger Association


Two thoughts on immigration policy

One: we ought to dramatically increase legal immigration. Years-long lines to become a citizen are dumb. Citizens not only pay taxes, they can also call on the government to enforce minimum wage laws and protect their right to unionize in order to raise wages (downward pressure on low-income wages is one of the negative effects of illegal immigration). All those people waiting in line on the other side of the border should get a quicker wait to become a citizen.

Two, reforming Mexico's political and economic structures are far more vital to the United States' self-interest than creating political and economic structures for Iraq. Did you know that every level of government in Mexico is under a term limit of one term? How screwed up is that? And the percent of people paying taxes is far lower than in other nations, because only the federal government collects taxes -- state and local governments do not. That distant Department of Revenue breeds resentment, corruption and tax evasion. It's time for some local tax authority as well.

Improving Mexico should be a top priority of ours.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Legislators make a very smart budget move with college financial aid

The General Assembly made a smart move this week by transforming Governor Blagojevich's proposal for a tuition tax credit for students' parents into a regular grant to students.

Governor Blagojevich plans to sell the state's portfolio of student loans to a private company, generating a ton of money. At least $90 million of those proceeds were to fund a tax credit for the parents of children who earned more than a B average in school. This laudable goal of making college more affordable suffered from a few distributive flaws (why parents and not children? why the wealthy and not the needy?) but had the powerful advantage of almost certainly polling very well. This was shaping up to be an example of politics-over-policy, as the Clintonian stategy of "targeted tax relief" as a message for a candidate works well in attracting wealthy suburban women (and other demographics with money).

To their credit, the General Assembly and the Governor dropped the idea of a tax credit and instead plan to put the money into regular grant programs.

Never let it be said that the General Assembly and Governor Blagojevich put politics over policy! Well, everyone does that sometimes, but this particular issue is a happy example of policy over politics. After all, funding the MAP program and even creating a new "MAP-Plus" program for kids from wealthier families will not play as well on the campaign trail as passing a college tax credit -- but they did it anyway. (How do I know that? If it's in a Blagojevich commercial, you know it plays very well, and the tax credit had been featured prominently in his commercials.)

I'll repeat: Governor Blagojevich and the Democratic General Assembly took a political hit in order to do the right thing on higher education affordability.

The bill creating the MAP-Plus program for kids ($500 for students, contingent on the sale of the loans -- not just a tax credit for parents) is HB 1945 (read House Amendment 2 here).

The Pre-School for All program, by the way, is HB 2013, and you can read that one here. I haven't been following that debate.

Marching for Liberty and Justice For All

May Day, 2006 enjoyed the largest display of Chicago-area lobbying for federal legislation in the last few decades.

An absolute wave of people -- mostly Latino -- took over Jackson Boulevard for more than a mile.

Why did these people gather? To lobby for federal legislation.

Yesterday would make Norman Rockwell proud. Yesterday was more civic and more patriotic than Independence Day.

My favorite symbol of the march was a Latino man with a weary face and a proud smile floating above the rolling wages of people. He was walking on his construction stilts for the three-mile march, clearly a drywaller or similar contractor, wearing his work clothes and a yellow hard hat painted with a red-white-and-blue bald eagle, holding a hand-written sign that read "We trust USA to give us justice for all" -- joining hundreds of thousands of other people who looked like they came straight from their jobs to join together and ask Congress to live up to our nation's highest ideals.

Yesterday was a proud day for Chicago and the country.

We have Representative Sensenbrenner to thank for much of it, because without HR 4437, the punitive bill passed by the House a few months ago that would criminalize the undocumented and those who support them, this movement for justice and a push for a smarter, more progressive immigration policy would never have been born.

The parade was absolutely full of Mexican people and American flags.

I hope that Congress will follow Illinois' lead by implementing pro-immigrant policies that will benefit all of us.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Negative ads on Topinka's Republican policies work but could use some improvements

I like the Blagojevich campaign's current 15-second commercials about the gubernatorial campaign. They are substantive, punchy and not anything like the way-over-the-top, unfair attack ads that the Oberweis campaign ran against Topinka.

The Oberweis campaign just ran commercials with Topinka polkaing (polka-ing?) with George Ryan and then just lied by saying "Topinka ordered staff to work on political campaigns" -- an unwarranted lie without any real attribution that ought to be illegal. Why didn't Oberweis get more flak for those?

On the other hand, Blagojevich's commercials are substantive, fair, issue-oriented but aggressive. There are two of them.

The first is about Topinka's opposition to an assault weapons ban, one of the gun control advocates main goals and a fiercely fought legislative battle every year (with the exception of this year, where a 'gun truce' has been imposed by the legislative leaders to avoid the bloody trench warfare of gun bills on third reading). Treasurer Topinka argued that the definition of an assault weapon is nebulous enough to potentially include a rolling pin, and the commercial makes her look a little silly. Playing off one of her primary campaign themes of "Thinka Topinka", the commercial's tag line is "What's she thinking?"

The Blagojevich campaign has laid out these commercials on a separate website at which is a nicely transparent method of being accountable for a 'negative' ad campaign.

I think that's a very strong commercial and message.

The other commercial isn't so strong, and it's taken me a while to figure out why I think it doesn't resonate as well.

The second commercial is about Topinka's support for the "Bush tax cuts" that lowered the marginal federal income tax rates and the capital gains tax rate. The most important tax cut in terms of lost revenue to the federal government (helping to create that $400 billion annual deficit, which gives China more power over us every year since we can't pay our own bills) is the tax cut on the highest incomes. Until 2001, the tax on income above $300,000 was 39.6% and because there are ever-more very high incomes, that generates a ton of money. After Bush took over and the GOP Congress secured control, the top tax rate was cut to 35%. That's the biggest deal of the Bush tax cuts and the dumbest cut, because anyone earning more than $300,000 can afford to pay the roughly 40% while the rest of us can't afford the higher cost of everything else when the government is broke (less student aid for college, less renewable energy, less support to state and local governments, etc.).

That message isn't easy to convey. The commercial calls it the 'millionaire's tax cut' because, in combination with the repeal of the estate tax and the cut on capital gains, the people who make more than a million dollars get tens of thousands off their federal tax bills. It's a stupid policy that panders to the base of the GOP (rich people and those who think they will be) and should be reversed. But it's tough to communicate in 15 seconds the reality of the federal Republican economic policy of forcing regular, working people to pay more money while enriching the wealthy.

The commercial also lays out a great wedge issue: the minimum wage. This is a great issue for Democrats and a horrible one for Republicans, because most people know it's absurd to expect someone to make a living on $6.50 an hour (Illinois' minimum wage). Very few Republicans support raising the minimum wage, while very few Democrats oppose it. Topinka called the latest proposal "a giveaway plan" and the Democrats have proposed raising the wage to $7.50. (Some Republicans rightfully question why we don't just raise the minimum wage to $7.50 before the end of the 2006 legislative session, but hey, it's good to have an issue....)

Why doesn't the message about Bush's millionaire tax cut resonate as much as the minimum wage or the assault weapons ban? I think the answer lays in how Republicans talk about taxes.

I saw on C-Span some Republican candidate talk about an uber-consultant's (I think it was Grover Norquist or perhaps Karl Rove) axiom on taxes: never mention a number. Republicans talk about cutting taxes generally. They don't talk about which taxes they want to cut and how much money people will make based on their actual income levels. If they did that, it would be very clear that the wealthy get the money while the rest of us get Chinese-financed debt and diminished public services.

That suggests that Democrats should always talk about numbers when we talk about taxes. Blagojevich (and every other Democrat) should always talk about the Bush tax cuts for income above $300,000 (to the extent it helps to remind Illinois voters about federal policy that Topinka presumably still supports).

And a coda: it also means that progressives who want to stop cutting higher education and stop condemning kids in poor suburbs and rural towns to crappy schools that shut down at 2 in the afternoon and extend the school year to 200 days need to talk about a 5% state income tax to fund this investment, instead of our current 3% income tax. Now that we know Blagojevich is against a 5% income tax, and that we'll need a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly to pass a 5% income tax, we need to clearly and consistently make the case for a 5% income tax (and not just a vague idea of 'raising state taxes'). Let's talk about numbers!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Senate move for capital investment moves the debate forward

Senate Bill 668 (here) is a billion dollar bond program for school construction.

Last week, the Senate Democrats brought the bill, along with Senate Bill 665 (here), a $2.7 billion transportation bond bill, to the floor for a vote. Because the state constitution requires a three-fifths vote for putting the state deeper into debt, and Democrats only have 54% of the seats, Republicans need to vote for the bill as well. They did not, so the bills failed on a party-line vote.

Much of the debate, and much of the reporting on the debate, framed this as the Senate Republicans killing "the Governor's bill." Republican objections centered on the lack of any real negotiation between Governor Blagojevich and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, the lack of trust they have for Governor Blagojevich and finally, the lack of a revenue stream to finance the bonds.

I think that's not quite accurate, at least as it pertains to SB 668, the billion dollar school construction bond.

This was clearly not the Governor's bill, as the Senate Democrats chose to double the stakes and push for a billion dollar bond for school construction, not $500 million. One of Leader Watson's main points on the floor was the apparent absurdity of Governor Blagojevich's office scheduling a meeting for the day after the vote. I think that's a good sign that the bonding bill was the initiative of President Jones and the Senate Democrats, and not Governor Blagojevich. So it's a little unfair to rip into Blagojevich for not meeting with Leader Watson in time for the vote when the President pushed the bond forward to the floor.

The interesting part of the exercise was the apparent openness of several Senate Republicans to passing a capital bill. Just about every Republican began their statement with something along the lines of "I would like to vote for this, but...." Some attribute these statements as cynical window dressing to protect themselves from charges of obstructionism (remember that's what the federal GOP Senators called Tom Daschle?), but I choose to take electeds at their word. I think there's an opportunity to find a bipartisan consensus on a capital bill -- particularly the school construction bond, where, as Senator Miguel del Valle pointed out during debate, the state law creating the program strips out much of the Governor's ability to amend the rules governing the distribution of funds. Therefore, even if Republicans do not trust Governor Blagojevich, they should still be open to the school construction program, as it doesn't rely on trust.

Who can forge that consensus? I think the legislators have the chance to do that. The odd, persistent culture of deference to the Executive Branch in the General Assembly continues to shape the budget debate. It was a little weird that Governor Blagojevich dominated the Senate debate on the capital bill -- why didn't Leader Watson and the Republicans demand to negotiate with President Jones and the Senate Democrats in shaping what is, after all, a Senate Bill?

Especially given the re-election pressures that cause people to dramatically inflate the electoral consequences of passing or not passing a capital bill (really, how many swing voters will be moved in November based on whether school construction is funded?), it makes sense to me that the legislators work to find a consensus among themselves. Given that in any other year, April 11th would be just the beginning of talking about the shape of the budget, we've got plenty of time.

And I think there is absolutely zero fallout from 'missing the deadline' of April 7th to adjourn. The only deadline that matters is May 31st. Press spin that Democrats are 'failing to govern' because they didn't pass a budget seven weeks ahead of time is borderline ridiculous -- especially if one looks at the Republican-controlled Congress which is perpetually months late at passing the federal budget, and the press almost never frames that body as 'failing to govern'.

Senate Democrats and President Jones should be proud that they moved the debate about a much-needed capital program forward last week. I hope they continue to do so and take the initiative -- legislator to legislator -- at forging a bipartisan bill.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

What's the best way to judge transit performance?

Mass transit systems (the CTA, Metra and Pace, not to mention the dozen or so other mass transit agencies in Illinois) are just about out of money. They aren't making a big stink about it like they did in 2005 (and they were remarkably successful at framing the entire debate over the state budget, at least in Chicago, where the headlines after the budget was passed in 2005 read: CTA won't shut down), but they are broke.

Why are they broke? The federal government has money to pay for the invasion and occupation of Iraq for years to come, but no money to help cover the cost of buses and trains. As of 1993, the feds stopped paying for any operating support for mass transit. That was a dumb idea. But, what can you do?

They are also broke because the source of their income -- the local sales tax -- is not rising. As you savvy Internet readers go buy things online, you dodge the local sales tax. And, as we move more towards a service and tourism economy, the sales tax (which is for the sale of goods, not services) generates fewer dollars. Ridership is up all over the place, but fares only cover half the cost of the service, and the taxes (the local sales tax) that supports mass transit is flat or shrinking.

We should raise the tax on gasoline or parking so that people who drive pay more of the cost of transit, since really, fares on the CTA or Pace or Metra should be a lot closer to free than they are, as every rider on transit makes life better for everyone else, while every additional driver makes life a little more congested and thus a little worse for everyone else. Ideally, drivers would pay a lot more, and riders, well, maybe they'd even get paid a little something for making life better for everyone else. Or at least they'd ride for free. Illinois took a good step in that direction in the late 90s with Illinois FIRST, a big capital bond that paid for a lot of CTA capital needs like new buses and train stations that is financed by a higher fee for a license plate. That means drivers paid for the cost of infrastructure (lots of roads, but some transit). Our operating budget should move in that direction as well.

In any event, we've got a state policy debate on how, sometime before early 2007 when the FY08 budgets must be created and it becomes very clear and very public just how broke the transit agencies are, we can come up with a lot more money and (here's the fun part) make sure it is spent wisely.

Today's subcommittee hearing of the Mass Transit Committee of the Illinois House started that policy discussion. Triggered by Representative Larry McKeon's HB4663, the subcommittee on Transit Management and Performance discussed how to implement performance measures.

This is an important and intriguing debate, because part of building the case for spending more money on transit (a very good thing, especially transit that's powered by electricity and not Saudi Arabian oil) is to get the best bang for the buck. And right now, the members of the Mass Transit committee, led by Chairwoman Julie Hamos, are looking for good ideas.

Here are a few I have and I encourage you to add your own to the comments and send that over to Representative Hamos' office.

1) All data collected by any transit agency should be available online. It should be open source. Every little bit of data gathered, especially the actual trip times of each run of each bus and train, should be available online.

2) Employee data should be online as well, including salaries and benefit packages of every employee. There's a widespread suspicion that some agencies pay too many administrators too much money. If that suspicion is unfounded, then data will evaporate that objection. If it's true, then that needs to change.

3) The state should set up somewhat arbitrary standards and force every mass transit agency to use them, so that comparing different agencies will be easy. Ideally, every agency in the country would use the same standard.

What else should the state do to make sure that transit agencies work better?

I should mention that Representative McKeon's main point was that transit agencies should be planned according to a consumer-driven process. He wants to start the process by determining what the consumer expects (reliable, on-time, cheap and fast travel, presumably), and then work backwards from there in order to figure out what the agency needs to do to make that happen and what reporting processes need to be created to make sure the agency is executing the plan that leads to consumer expectations.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Meeks, Blagojevich, Topinka: an inverted spectrum on social and economic issues

Random thoughts after a week back at the Capitol.

The House of Representatives is taking a more active role in shaping the state budget than, apparently, the legislature has done in the past. Usually the Administration submits a budget (they've got an Office of Management and Budget -- the General Assembly does not) and the legislature negotiates around those basic parameters. There are add-ons in the budget to satisfy the demands of legislators and there are agreements reached on what social service agencies will receive state funds devoted to human services. But the big picture stuff generally comes from the Governor's office.

This year that seems to be changing, and that's a very healthy institutional move. The legislature ought to have an equal say in shaping the budget. I've found an odd, persistent deference to the Executive branch on setting the budget in Springfield, and I'm glad to see that the legislature is asserting its role.

I also picked up this insight on Meeks, Blagojevich and Topinka.

On the main economic issue of the next four years: whether to raise the state's 3% flat rate income tax (the lowest of the 41 states with an income tax), Blagojevich is the most conservative with his no-new-tax pledge, Topinka is in the middle with her studied amiguity and Meeks is the most progressive with his promise to raise the state income tax to 5%.

On social issues (abortion rights, stem cell research and gay rights), Blagojevich is the most progressive with his best-in-the-nation record on the morning after pill, abortion rights and the like, Topinka's in the middle with her moderate branding and more conservative voting record and Meeks is on the far right with his evangelical position that essentially mirrors Oberweis'.

(Meeks reminds me that those Christians who take the teachings of Jesus seriously are economically liberal -- chasing the money-changers out of the Temple and all that).

Fun dynamics.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

New jobs don't pay well. What to do? Tax low incomes less

Thanks to an anonymous poster for the link to this New York Times story about the new lower-wage economy (the basis of a new book, "The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences" by Louis Uchitelle).

Here's the end of the article:

So the demand for jobs is considerably greater than the supply, and the supply is not what the reigning theory says it is. Most of the unfilled jobs pay low wages and require relatively little skill, often less than the jobholder has. From the spring of 2003 to the spring of 2004, for example, more than 55 percent of the hiring was at wages of $13.25 an hour or less: hotel and restaurant workers, health care employees, temporary replacements and the like.

That trend is likely to continue. Seven of the 10 occupations expected to grow the fastest from 2002 through 2012, according to the Labor Department, pay less than $13.25 an hour, on average: retail salesclerks, customer service representatives, food service workers, cashiers, janitors, nurse's aides and hospital orderlies.

The $13.25 threshold is important. More than 45 percent of the nation's workers, whatever their skills, earned less than $13.25 an hour in 2004, or $27,600 a year for a full-time worker. That is roughly the income that a family of four must have in many parts of the country to maintain a standard of living minimally above the poverty level. Surely lack of skill and education does not hold down the wages of nearly half the work force.

Something quite different seems to be true: the oversupply of skilled workers is driving people into jobs beneath their skills and driving down the pay of jobs equal to their skills. Both happened to the aircraft mechanics laid off by United.

The article also mentions that more than 30% of the country has a college degree now (up from 10% 50 years ago), but less than 30% of all the jobs require a college degree. That's why a lot of twenty-something graduates are working retail. There aren't that many jobs that require a degree. And with a lot of student debt, that's not good at all.

What to do?

One thing is to tax incomes below $30,000 less than we do now, and therefore tax incomes above $100,000 or so more than we do now.

The structure of the economy is moving to more low-wage work, so it makes sense that we lessen the low-income tax burden.

The payroll tax hits jobs, not wealth. The federal income tax is somewhat progressive (higher rates for higher incomes), but the federal GOP is hell-bent on cutting high-income taxes, and has been successful at doing so for the last six years.

The state sales tax hits lower incomes more than higher incomes, and the state's 3% flat income tax rate with a very low $2100 personal exemption also hits lower incomes far more than it should.

There's a good focus on creating more high paying jobs, but we also should ensure our tax system reflects the new economy. Cut taxes on low incomes!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What should Edwin Eisendrath and Ron Gidwitz do now?

Edwin Eisendrath and Ron Gidwitz are both wealthy, civic Chicagoans who believe that state government ought to do a better job at raising our standard of living.

Since neither one will be campaigning for governor any longer, what should they do?

Start a think tank that focuses on state government.

We don't have many of them, and our state would be far better off with some entrepreneurial research from civic benefactors who want to help shape public policy.

There are tons of D.C. think tanks and institutions where federal policy is debated and shaped and prodded and discussed -- and these think tanks help move policy by serving as a crucial resource to legislators and executive branch staffers.

For progressives, a lot of that is wasted energy, since we don't have the ear of federal policymakers. We do have the ear of policymakers in Illinois -- at least, enough to get a fair hearing and the same basic values.

And now that Eisendrath and Gidwitz have formed relationships with people and donors around the state, as well as created a decent media profile, either one can take the next step at creating a permanent institution that can advance the causes they hold dear.

Great quote from Learned Hand is made up of a series of judgements on insufficient data, and if we waited to run down all our doubts, it would flow past us. On Receiving an Honorary Degree, 1939, p. 137

I subscribe to a list run by and today's (or maybe yesterday's) excerpt was from U.S Court of Appeals (Second Circuit) Judge Learned Hand who was one of the most influential jurists of his time. Sort of the Richard Posner of his day.

I'm so glad President Jones cancelled session today

Here's the fun part about these legislative campaigns -- session starts up again tomorrow in Springfield and doesn't really stop until April 7th.

Tough schedule. I'm grateful President Jones and Speaker Madigan both cancelled session today so the political hacks like myself could sleep off this primary.

I don't have much insightful to say, but here's what I see.

Too bad about Claypool's campaign. It reminded me of the Vallas campaign and the Gore campaign on election night -- fleeting thoughts of victory only to be brought back down to earth after a few hours. Remember when Vallas was ahead from 8 to 9 pm four years ago? And when it looked like Gore won? Oh well. I can't recall any election where the victor was in the hospital.

Very glad that Debra Shore and Terry O'Brien both won for the Water Reclamation District. I can't tell who came in third. Is it Frank Avila, Jr. or Patricia Horton?

Two upsets both in 708-land in the House -- Calvin Giles beat by LaShawn K. Ford and Michelle Chavez beat by Lisa Hernandez. What do they have in common? Both of them represent the City of Berwyn.

More later on how the Cicero Voters Alliance, led by President Larry Dominick, surged for Lisa Hernandez. Lots of credit to the victory should go to former state representative Frank Aguilar. The slogan for Cicero is "the new Cicero" and I believe that Cicero is firmly on the upswing. It's a good news story for the 60,000 or so people of the Town -- most of them working-class. The Cicero Voters Alliance is probably the most influential independent (meaning they endorse candidates from both parties) political organization in the state.

And on the late results from the voting machines: I think we're going to have to somehow get used to the fact that election results will not largely be available on the night of the election. Federal law mandates these touch-screens (the Help America Vote Act), and with two systems per precinct, it will be difficult to merge the results from the optical scans and the touch screens in each precinct flawlessly.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Claypool for President; Cook County Democratic primary ballot

I voted yesterday. I have moved since the 2004 general and decided that I'd take advantage of the grace period (that ended today) to register to vote at my new address. After registering, they gave me a ballot (a large, two-sided optical scan) which I filled out and turned back in. I'm curious to find out how many people took advantage of the grace period this first time out -- and I'll bet far more will in November.

I had been a little bit torn over the Cook County Presidential election ever since SEIU endorsed the incumbent John Stroger. Some of the Stroger-supporting legislators also made a case that without Stroger's leadership, the new County (Stroger) hospital would never have been built, and that the capital investment had really paid off for poorer people. Yes, the county might have been an ossified mess, but was I somehow not sufficiently valuing the contributions that Stroger had made on health care over the last decade?

Nothing assured me more than Dr. Quentin Young's endorsement of Forrest Claypool. Dr. Young has been a fierce, relentless advocate for universal health insurance in Chicago for decades. He spent decades at County Hospital and he loves the institution. If *he* believes that a Claypool Administration would deliver more health services to the people of Cook County, then I believe it too.

That's the huge disconnect (that actually got to me for a while) on the Claypool message. Somehow, the common sense view that cutting wateful middle managers and modernizing county operations leads to more and better services, especially for poor people, doesn't intuitively resonate. It feels like wasting money on patronage bureaucrats means more health care for poor people. Most of the Stroger supports back Stroger because they believe that Claypool will cut services for people -- or they have equated 'lots of county jobs' with 'lots of health care for poor people.'

I'm proud to have voted for Forrest, and when I did so, I thought of Mike Quigley, who took one for the team and withdrew from the race in order to give the reformers one shot at the presidential race.

I'm predicting a Claypool victory. I sense a shift over to Claypool among people who are paying attention, and I also sense a lack of enthusiasm for Stroger. I think there's a strong sense of duty and loyalty to John Stroger among his supporters, but very little passion for the man or the campaign. It's a little bit like Bob Dole running for president in 1996 -- his loyal followers are limply raising the flag for an old battle-scarred veteran, not because they really want to, but because they feel they must.

I do think that this one will be close, so if you live in Cook County, you really ought to vote for Claypool.

The rest of my ballot was like this:

I voted for Tom Dart. He'll be a great sheriff.

I voted for Terry O'Brien, Debra Shore and Patricia Horton for the Water Reclamation District. O'Brien has been a very solid President of the District, Debra Shore will be a fantastic addition as a strong conservationist (check out her website at and Patricia Horton got my third vote because Senator Rickey Hendon has been pushing for her so hard and the rest of my ticket was all white. (I would have liked to have cumulative voting rights so I could have cast all three of my votes for one candidates if I wanted to. And did you know that at one time the Water Reclamation District used cumulative voting rights when it was known as the Chicago Sanitary District? Check this out if you don't believe me).

In the state treasurer's race, I voted for Mangieri over Giannoulias. I buy the Speaker's argument that we really ought to have one Downstater on the statewide ticket, and while Giannoulias might be a touch sharper than Mangieri, Mangieri is an elected official and that matters. There's something a little wierd about running for statewide office without serving as an elected or appointed official -- or even a staffer. However, this one felt a little empty, because I think Christine Rodogno is going to be a very strong candidate for the Republicans (and probably the only GOP who wins this coming November).

And for Governor? Well, I was in a quandry. It was the last race I voted for. I looked at Blagojevich's name, and looked at Eisendrath's name, and just didn't know what to do. I know that Eisendrath is not a serious alternative, and I know that I want Blagojevich to get re-elected in November. I thought about AllKids and FamilyCare and KidCare and a ton of great Democratic-sponsored bills that Blagojevich signed. And so I planned to vote for him.

And then I remembered the No New Taxes pledge -- a ridiculous pledge made in the middle of a totally uncompetitive primary election that essentially guarantees that we won't raise the 3% state income tax and that locks us into regressive sales and property taxes as well as poor kids in poor school districts not getting a fair shot at life. I wondered whether I'd somehow weaken Blagojevich by voting for Eisendrath. No way. So, with an angry little mark of my pen, I voted for Eisendrath.

Ultimately, that's the fuel of the Eisendrath vote: Democrats who are mad at Blagojevich and want to formally express their disapproval before working to help his re-election campaign in November. Maybe a higher Eisendrath vote will help signal to the Blagojevich team that they can find a way to raise the state income tax but not raise taxes "on the hard-working people of Illinois" by significantly raising the personal exemption while raising the overall income tax rate to 5%, so that most people actually pay less, but the people who are making a lot of money pay more (since they can most afford to do so). I hope so.

Now, why am I disclosing who I voted for and opening myself up to some backlash? (And I'm having second thoughts about laying it all out there right now, as a lobbyist and political hack/operative...) I believe that the Democratic Party (and democracy) works best with honest conversation about policy and politics. It bothers me when people won't tell me who they vote for or which political party they support, because "that's private" or "you're not supposed to talk about politics." Democracy is public. And if I'm going to press people to share who they vote for in order to try to create a more civic culture (and try to convince people to vote for better candidates), I've got to walk the walk myself. I mean, I think government should be ever-more transparent, so as a citizen, I should try to be as transparent as possible. (I'm trying to talk myself into keeping this post on the internet...)

Who are you planning to vote for and why?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Procurement and pension clean-ups happening, but you'd never know it

I guess good news doesn't really sell, because the press rarely covers the legislative moves to clean up Illinois government that, over time, really do make the state a cleaner place.

The press coverage is all about pay-to-play, as if contracts are auctioned off on the rail to the highest bidder.

And when good news does happen, like Senator Schoenberg's SB 2847, which was voted out of the Executive Committee unanimously (signaling a consensus between the Senate Dems and the GOPs, especially since the co-sponsors include Senators Dillard, Garrett, Radogno and Harmon).

Bills like these are good things, and I do believe that the workhorses of the legislature don't get nearly enough credit from much of the press.

I guess as Miller says, coverage follows conflict. The inherent problem is that legislating is a consensus-seeking process (either with the majority caucus or the entire body), so most bills don't get covered very well. There's not a lot of transit funding discussion, even though it's a huge policy debate, largely because the CTA, Pace and Metra are all largely getting along.

Maybe that's why the Governor gets a lot of coverage -- he's good at creating conflict (some good, some bad).

Anyway, SB 2847 should be voted on this week. Let's see if anyone covers it (and let's hope it passes).

Friday, February 24, 2006

Bad-ass bureaucrat of the month: Jesse Ruiz.

What a bitch-slap of bigotry!

What do you do if some sleazy law firm is trampling on the constitutional rights of immigrants by telling a school district to scare off immigrants from the public school?

Shut that school down!

In an unprecedented move for justice, the Illinois State Board of Education, led by lawyer Jesse Ruiz, voted to de-recognize the Elmwood Park School District because they had been (illegally) asking students if they were citizens or not.

And so instead of wringing their hands and sighing about local control and misguided priorities and hoping for a better day, Ruiz and the Board took emergency action and shut down the school!

And they say government moves slowly....

Days like today make me more partisan. It's hard for me to imagine that a Republican-appointed Chairman of the Board of Education would have so boldly stood up for justice, especially with the anti-immigrant fifth or so of the Republican electorate.