Chicago Tribune. January 29, 2021.

Editorial: Three ways Illinois can move past the Michael Madigan years

With Michael Madigan now a defrocked ex-speaker of the Illinois House, the citizens of this state can dream of better leadership. They’ll get it, though, only if they demand that their often timid lawmakers reject bad practices Madigan perfected during his half-century in the Capitol. The new speaker, Emanuel “Chris” Welch, has indicated his support for moving in a new direction. We’ll see.

Most voters understand that during Madigan’s reign over the Statehouse and the Democratic Party that he still chairs, Illinois has devolved from a land of opportunity to a debris field in desperate need of cleanup. An economy once among the nation’s most robust, and most attractive to outsiders on the make, now is a comparative shambles of jobs shortages, taxpayer flight and employers who build their companies — and their workers’ futures — in more hospitable states. The coronavirus pandemic has left the state in even more wobbly standing.

Here are three broad strokes Welch could employ to begin the rebuild.

Control spending

Welch, the state’s first Black speaker, has indicated he will do things differently, starting, we hope, with sweeping changes to House rules that will open up the process of governing to all lawmakers and to Republicans in the minority.

But in more general terms, Welch could take a more respectful view of spending, understanding more meaningfully that tax money sent to Springfield to operate state government comes from the pockets of hardworking Illinoisans, from bus drivers and tradesmen to engineers and CEOs. For far too long under Madigan, the majority party in Springfield has routinely, carelessly, approached budget legislation with, “What’s in it for me?” instead of: “How can we keep more money in the pockets of our constituents?”

Madigan led on this, and not in a good way. One legendary example:

In 2002, the Tribune reported Madigan’s furious reaction in a closed-door meeting to a suggestion by George Ryan, who then was governor. In order to reduce planned cuts in social services programs for poor Illinoisans, Ryan proposed that some legislative pork spending be frozen. Of course, limiting the ability of legislators to hand out taxpayer dollars also could deprive them of ribbon-cuttings at voter-friendly projects in their districts. And what’s more important, helping disadvantaged families or helping lawmakers polish their halos for the voters back home?

An audacious response followed. “That’s my money,” Madigan snapped, several witnesses in the room told the Tribune’s Ray Long at the time. “You can’t touch it.”

Madigan later denied that “Me First!” outburst. But he always did treat taxpayer money as his — and routinely guarded the pork barrel for his members. If only Illinois’ enormous public debt was his too. Instead, it belongs to us taxpayers. Can public officials now learn to put governing ahead of opportunistic politicking? We’re about to find out.

Honest budgeting

Welch could take, finally, a serious approach toward budgeting. For years under Madigan, Democrats have passed state budgets in the hours leading up to adjournment and based on flimsy expectations of revenue coming in — and at times, counting borrowed money as “revenue.” That’s absurd according to any rational accounting standard. Lawmakers have long declared budgets “balanced.”

How is a budget balanced when the state’s backlog of unpaid bills falls in the billions and when the pension funds are woefully underfunded? Is your household budget balanced if you’re skipping full mortgage payments and your credit card bills are soaring?

State budgets that cleared Madigan’s House chronically overspent, overpromised and overborrowed, most notoriously creating unfunded pension obligations north of $140 billion-with-a-b. Guess who has to pay every penny of that bill. With lawmakers routinely mismanaging Other People’s Money, public officials at every level of government in Illinois learned that they too could bury today’s and tomorrow’s taxpayers in debt. Generations of well-pensioned Republicans and Democrats share beaucoup blame for the ruination of state and local public finances — the finances of many school districts included.

Other states with truly balanced budgets — our neighbor Indiana is one example — have legislatures that deal with their state budgets first, not last, on the calendar. Negotiate and pass the budget first when there’s time on the clock. Then deal with the myriad bills lawmakers have introduced. Then adjourn.

Pritzker ran for governor as a businessman who could balance budgets. We’ll see whether, with Madigan no longer essentially dictating budgets to governors, lawmakers and future governors will do what households must: Hold the number of dollars going out to the number of dollars coming in.

No more patronage

Moving Illinois past Michael Madigan also means curbing politicians’ addiction to job favors to family members and friends. Again, Madigan didn’t invent this often legal form of unfairness, but he did perfect it. We recall the Tribune’s 2014 reporting that traced more than 400 current and retired government employees who had strong ties to Madigan, and that found “repeated instances in which Madigan took personal action to get them jobs, promotions or raises.”

Welch is familiar with the game. He was included in a WBEZ investigation last year that explored Madigan’s job recommendations to Pritzker when he took over as governor. Madigan recommended several Welch-connected people for jobs, including Welch’s wife and mother.

No, making a job recommendation isn’t a crime. But in a state that has been burdened by clout and corruption in government for decades, every job applicant should be treated with neutrality. Clouted hires cheat honest job applicants and honest jobholders seeking promotions, who didn’t have political connections. We’ll never know how many people lost opportunities because someone stamped with the Madigan Seal of Approval got the job, the promotion, the raise.

More than cheating people, Madigan-style patronage in essence helped pay for his politicking: A precinct captain who pounded the pavement for machine politicians got his reward in a government paycheck that came at taxpayer expense. A cynic would call Madigan patronage the public funding of campaigns.

There are more of the former speaker’s behaviors that lawmakers should abandon. Moving past these three would begin to move Illinois past him.

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Champaign News-Gazette. January 31, 2021.

Editorial: Politicians manipulating democratic process

Appointing elected officials — an obvious oxymoron — is more common than it should be.

Election Day was just a couple months ago, but politicians in three districts are or have been trying to fill vacancies in the Illinois Senate.

Note the operative word in the preceding sentence — “politicians.”

Voters aren’t or weren’t allowed to participate in the search for successors to state Sens. Andy Manar, Bill Brady and Heather Steans. Their successors have been or will be decided by the respective party chairs from the districts the trio represent.

Why? It’s because all three resigned from office before their terms were up.

Manar, a talented Democratic legislator from Bunker Hill, was elected to a four-year term in 2018. He opted to take the money and run, choosing to become a senior adviser to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, where he will be paid more than four times as much as when he was a senator.

Manar is not moving up from the outhouse, but he’ll certainly be taking up residence in the penthouse.

Brady, a Republican from Bloomington, was also elected in 2018 to a four-year term. A former gubernatorial candidate, he has already been replaced by former Logan County Clerk Sally Turner.

Like Manar, his reason for leaving is also understandable. He was removed by his GOP colleagues as Republican leader and replaced by state Sen. Dan McConchie of Lake Zurich.

It seems Brady decided that if he wasn’t going to be first among Senate Republicans, he’d rather not be anything at all.

Steans, of Chicago, was an influential member of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Her resignation announcement took a lot of people by surprise because she had just been re-elected in November. She said she’s tired of serving in the Senate and wants to address other concerns.

She was, for all intents and purposes, running one day and resigning the next. It seems clear that Steans did so to ensure that one of her political cohorts, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, would be appointed to fill her vacancy.

That deal, however, is not going down well in Steans’ district, where some Democrats have expressed objections over how legislators there bequeath their positions to friends by resigning in the middle of their term.

It’s easy to conclude that Brady, Manar and Steans put their personal concerns ahead of their obligation to remain in the positions they were elected to fill. But there is so much rotten about Illinois politics that it’s easy to overlook this distasteful political game that insiders play.

After all, it’s not like they’re selling their votes for cash. But they are ignoring the public’s votes when they opt to come and go on terms that serves the narrow interests of themselves and their political associates.

No one, of course, is irreplaceable. Further, everyone knows things can happen in an elected official’s life that make remaining in office untenable.

But these people are not forced to run for public office. They often campaign zealously to persuade a majority of the people to put their trust in them.

In that respect, these resignations are often selfish acts, another manipulation of the public trust in a state where people’s disdain for their elected officials already is poisonously, but justifiably, high.

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Chicago Sun Times, January 25, 2021.

Editorial: Reforms would reduce number of wrongful convictions

The many lawyers who labor in the trenches at innocence projects around the state have seen numerous examples of cases going off the rails, landing innocent people in prison for years.

A legislative package of police and criminal reforms awaiting Gov. J.B Pritzker’s signature would do a lot to reduce the number of wrongful arrests, prosecutions and convictions. We look forward to the measures becoming law.

Although the legislation has been criticized in some quarters, “This bill will help prevent innocent people from going to prison,” John J. Hanlon, executive director of the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield, told us on Monday.

That’s no small consideration at a time when, as state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, points out, “Chicago, Cook County and the state of Illinois are the wrongful conviction capital of America.”

In a huge bill like this, which also addresses other issues besides wrongful convictions, we would expect some provisions will have to be tweaked in the future. That’s often how major legislation works. But many of the items in the bill are worthwhile because they would prevent miscarriages of justice.

Among them are:

1) Allowing people who are arrested or brought in for questioning permission to use the phone before being interrogated by police could reduce the number of false confessions, a major source of wrongful convictions.

2) Removing the requirement that people sign an affidavit before making a complaint about police misconduct — a big deterrent to speaking up — would more quickly alert police to patterns of misbehavior. So would new requirements to collect data about use of force, training all police to the same use-of-force standard and having police throughout the state wear body cameras.

3) The bill also would enhance police training requirements. Many of the cases in which individuals were wrongfully convicted could have been avoided if police had been better trained at the start of an investigation.

Taken together, the reforms would reduce the kind of “rush to judgment” that can lead to wrongful convictions, said Bill Clutter, executive director of the downstate nonprofit Investigating Innocence.

At a time when the rule of law has been under assault in some quarters, it’s important to make the law as fair and transparent as possible. This legislation will help get us there.

END