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?