Here are excerpts of editorials published in newspapers around Illinois.
December 23, 2020
Obama Center: Four years, five months and counting. Time to break ground.
Rewind to July 2016, when word leaked that Barack and Michelle Obama had chosen the South Side’s Jackson Park as the venue for the Obama Presidential Center. Much of Chicago buzzed with excitement and satisfaction. The site, nestled in a corner of the park near the Museum of Science and Industry, stoked visions of “Museum Campus South.”
Still president at the time, Obama promised more than an homage to his legacy in choosing Chicago over other possible sites, including New York City. He talked of creating an engine for youth engagement and South Side revitalization.
What’s happened since then? A lot. Controversy over a private entity, the center, occupying public park space. Concerns of gentrification. Demands from the surrounding community for inclusion. A pandemic-related slowdown in fundraising toward the $500 million project. Nationally, Donald Trump’s improbable ascent to the White House and a global health crisis that continues to grip the city, nation and world. Then in November, the election of Obama’s VP, Joe Biden, as president.
That patch of land in Jackson Park earmarked for the Obama Presidential Center campus? Not a spade of dirt has turned.
The Obamas and their presidential center team must feel like they’re Sisyphus, only with a boulder the size of Saturn to heave uphill. After four years and five months, they’re still squinting at the horizon for a glimpse of the finish line. It’s time for this project to break the tape.
Roadblocks along the way have come in bunches, though some of them helped fine-tune the effort. The obelisk-shaped museum serving as the campus’s focal point has been redesigned a few times. At the community’s behest, the Obama Foundation scratched plans for an aboveground parking garage on Midway Plaisance and decided to build the garage underground and within the presidential center campus footprint.
A federal lawsuit filed in the summer of 2018 by an environmental group, Protect Our Parks, further slowed movement on the project. The suit claimed that the bid for the presidential center should be scrapped because it was being built by a private entity, the Obama Foundation, on public parkland, which would violate Chicago Park District code and state law. U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey did not agree and dismissed the lawsuit in the summer of 2019, declaring, “There should be no delay in construction.” In August, the 7th Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals effectively affirmed Blakey’s ruling.
Residents of Woodlawn near the site wanted assurances that any gentrification resulting from the center wouldn’t price them out of their homes and rental units. After months of negotiations between Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration and South Side housing advocates, the City Council passed an affordable housing ordinance in September that will help Woodlawn tenants collaborate to purchase multiunit buildings in the neighborhood and set aside money for residents to fix up their homes.
One of the center’s last hurdles recently got cleared. Before the Obama center is built, the federal government had to sign off on it. That’s because Jackson Park, designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and because the plan involves major roadway changes.
That federal review began in December 2017. It was supposed to wrap up in 2018, but it wasn’t until Dec. 17 that the most critical step in that federal review concluded. We know federal bureaucracy tends to move with the zip of a tortoise, but three years?
A groundbreaking is now tentatively set for sometime in 2021. Chicago awaits what is sure to be a major tourism draw, and the South Side awaits the benefits that the Obama Foundation has promised the center would generate — more than $3 billion in economic development for surrounding communities in the first 10 years.
The fundraising effort is still only about halfway to the $500 million mark and the center, and its campus are expected to take roughly four years to build out. During a Nov. 15 interview on “60 Minutes” to promote his new book, Obama discussed the center and its mission, which includes engaging the surrounding community with activities, new gardens and walking trails and of course, exhibits that will include Michelle Obama’s famous dresses.
But the benefits of the center won’t come to fruition while the Obama Presidential Center remains merely a scale model on a conference room table. It’s time to get this project built.
December 20, 2020
The (Champaign) News-Gazette
Frosty welcome for governor’s cuts
Gov. J.B. Pritzker came face to face with state budget realities last week, and it wasn’t pretty.
Presenting $711 million in proposed budget cuts that he called just the beginning of plans to eliminate a $3.9 billion budget deficit, he simultaneously blamed Republicans for his budget woes and sought help from unionized state employees in reducing payroll.
Union representatives rejected the governor’s proposal for $75 million in “personnel cost adjustments” but said they would back any plans he has to raise taxes.
The Republicans’ response wasn’t any warmer than that of union leaders.
They asked who Pritzker thought he was kidding, noting they didn’t put together what they called the governor’s “fantasy” budget and, being a superminority in the Legislature, lack the power to do so.
That’s not a great start for Pritzker’s rendezvous with budget destiny, but it is revealing.
The upcoming battle of the budget cuts will feature the usual political posturing and a load of blame-shifting as Pritzker and legislators try to avoid responsibility for the tough decisions ahead.
That’s not a great surprise, because the governor’s $40 billion-plus 2020-21 state budget was constructed on a foundation of shifting sand. Circumstances were made infinitely worse by the economic lockdowns he has put in place to address the coronavirus pandemic.
The governor also came down on the wrong side of an ill-advised bet. He and legislators passed a budget that relied on increased revenue generated by his proposed progressive income-tax amendment to the Illinois Constitution.
The amendment, as most people know, was decisively rejected at the polls Nov. 3. That means money the Legislature didn’t have when it was appropriated will not be forthcoming.
So where does everyone go from here?
Frankly, it’s impossible to say. Pritzker has proposed $711 million in budget cuts for which supermajority Democrats have no appetite.
They include $425 million in savings generated by reductions in grants and operating costs across a variety of programs, including public safety, human services and health care.
The governor has the authority to order most of his announced cuts, but he’ll have to negotiate with hostile union leaders on the furlough days.
There’s a sea of numbers associated with the complicated budget problems.
But generally speaking, Pritzker has tried to avoid cuts through borrowing and counting on revenue from the failed tax amendment and lots of luck.
Unfortunately, what luck he’s had has been bad, at least for the current budget year. Now he’s confronting the consequences of that bad luck and finding himself and his party in, to say the least, a difficult situation.
All of Pritzker’s political instincts are averse to budget reductions. He wants to spend more, not less. That’s why he will inevitably propose more tax increases.
His party certainly has the votes for that, but the question is whether enough of these always-tax-averse legislators have the will to follow Pritzker’s lead.
December 20, 2020
The (Bloomington) Pantagraph
LaHood displays poor judgment
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, was among a minority of House Republicans who decided against supporting an effort before the Supreme Court last week.
A lawsuit filed by the state of Texas sought to challenge presidential voting in four states. A total of 126 Republican representatives made the questionable decision to sign on to the suit.
Davis did not. He did the right thing.
U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, felt differently. He supported the Texas effort, which ultimately didn’t meet legal muster, like multiple state and federal challenges to Joe Biden’s victory.
Both LaHood and Davis have been strong supporters of President Donald Trump. But LaHood argued that there was enough proof of voter irregularity to warrant a look into ballots. That would be understandable if there was any real evidence of voter fraud. And, as the courts have ruled, there has not been.
Contrast that to U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, who not only didn’t sign on to the amicus brief, but also has been critical of Trump’s post-election behavior and has told him to “move on.”
We have serious concerns about LaHood’s judgment in this area. In a column that ran in The Pantagraph, he wrote: “I voted for President Trump, co-chaired his campaign in Illinois, and believe that his policies would be better for our country than those of Joe Biden.”
Just because you want something to be true doesn’t make it true. This editorial board has endorsed LaHood, but we can’t defend that way of thinking. The Texas challenge undermines the very democratic process and has delayed the transition of power.
We too have questions about how the Biden administration will help middle-income Americans, business owners and Midwestern states. We also believe it’s time for Trump to accept these results and the outcome of the Electoral College.
LaHood in his column said: “As Americans, I believe that there is much more that unites us than divides us. I hope that a President-elect Biden will look at the election results and see that Americans soundly rejected the far-left policies some in his party want to achieve and work with Republicans on areas we can agree on, like infrastructure, trade, and support for our small and medium size businesses.”