CN Dec 15 2016

Ever heard of VSI? It’s the Vendor Services Initiative, and it was deigned to help pay the hundreds of vendors who’ve never been paid by the State over the past few years of layered fiscal crises. Trouble is, the way it’s structured is something akin to a payday loan, and the resulting payments are what Dave Mckinney of Reuters has described as a fiscal “time bomb.” Dave and WBEZ’s Tony Arnold, both reporters with extensive experience in Springfield, are our guests this week.

Of course, we have no budget, and no real prospects for getting one any time soon. That may not be terrible news if you or your organization has the juice to go to court and get a judge to pay you, but two major sectors of State life don’t have such protection.

“There is a lobbying presence for the homeless in Springfield,” McKinney points out, “and they do what they can, but they don’t stack up against Exelon or the powers that be like that. They don’t have an effective presence like that, and so in terms of advocating, groups like that are under the gun, the sexual assault groups, the homeless groups, on and on and on. I think we will see those continue to kind of peel off, especially if we go into another two-year cycle here where we don’t have predictable income coming in.”

Another disaster-in-waiting is higher education. Their stopgap funding for 2016 expires December 31, and nobody knows what happens next. Students on need-based scholarships, MAP recipients – all could be high and dry come January 1.

McKinney says three state institutions are in the most serious condition right now  -Eastern Illinois University, Chicago State University and Northeastern Illinois University.

“Those three places are so dependent on state revenues. And you know you’ve already seen it like in the enrollment numbers for these places, where they are at the lowest level they’ve ever been and no end in sight. And so I think you’re just going to see a continuing drain of students who you know if you’re a parent with a college age kid do you want him going to a state school right now.”

Arnold tells us that the picture is a little different for the social-service agencies that aren’t getting paid. They’ve been to court, too, but just haven’t had success in getting a judge to order them paid.

“Everybody else convinced the judge that legally the state needs to fund foster care, or pay the employees their salaries,” he explains. “Somewhere along the lines there wasn’t a lawsuit over universities getting paid, but there is one over social services. It’s in appellate court. These are organizations that have contracts with the State of Illinois. They performed the contracts and did the work, but there’s this clause in the contract that says well if they don’t pass a budget then you don’t have to get paid. And a judge in Cook County said yeah, the State doesn’t have to pay you. It’s being appealed. It’s going to go to the State Supreme Court eventually. That’s where there might be a way for social services to get money, because again, it’s a court order, not because of a deal between Rauner and Democrats.”

We all lament that the 2018 campaign for Governor is already in full swing, with at least eight potential Democratic candidates in the mix. Bruce Rauner, they say, is anxious to show that he’s made at least a little progress on his “reform agenda”, so he’s holding up the budget until he can get term limits and a property tax freeze.

The Democrats won’t budge on either, so we’re back to square one. And another year begins in Illinois.

 

It’s a fascinating conversation about how not to run a big, midwestern industrial/agricultural state.

As we like to say, our show’s pretty good radio too, so you can listen to it in your earbuds or thought the Bluetooth in your car right HERE.

And you can read a full transcript of this show HERE: cn-transcript-dec-15-2016

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CN Dec 8 2016

Ben Carson is about to become the guy who oversees public housing and doles out community development block grants to every urban center in America.

What does that mean for Chicago?

Y’know all the stories about CHA’s broken promises and its stunning backlogs in construction and voucher assignments?

“All the bad things you described, that’s the good old days,” says architecture critic, writer and activist Lee Bey. “We’ll look on the times when the City couldn’t build enough public housing – or wouldn’t -and we’ll get misty-eyed. I miss those days.”

And Ethan Michaeli, the author of the highly-acclaimed The Defender, Carson may have no idea what he’s in for.

“The biggest scandal with the CHA in the last few years,” he explains, “Hasn’t just been that they  failed to build the mixed income communities that they promised, which were replacement housing for the high rises that they demolished. But also that the CHA has $400-million and maybe more sitting in the bank that they can’t figure out how to spend. At a time that there are homeless on the streets, that there’s a dire need for housing they cannot figure out how to spend the money. This is a complicated situation that Ben Carson is going to come into… I personally don’t think that he’s either politically or experientially, and perhaps not intellectually calibrated for this particular task.”

Michaeli guesses that, at HUD, the bureaucrats will be in charge and Carson will be a figurehead, making speeches and signing documents. “You know,” adds Bey, “I hope that’s what happens. Isn’t it funny, we’re hoping the bureaucrats take over, right?”

“This is my fear,” says Bey, “That he thinks any governmental intervention is Soviet, is communist, and is social engineering and it’s wrong, at precisely the time we need cities to be equitable places for black and brown people, and for poor white people as well. Whites tend to get left out of the equation because they don’t want to claim poverty often, but there has to be equitable places for them as well.”

Bey is adamant that HUD must play a role in providing the least-fortunate with the basics of human dignity. “You know,” he explains, “The thing that people never want to realize is that what poor people need are jobs and education. It’s as simple as that. If you have a job and you have a decent education you tend not to live in public housing.”

(That’s similar, coincidentally, to what Ben Carson told the Washington Post: “I don’t want to get rid of any safety net programs. I want to create an environment where they won’t be needed.”)

The issue, Michaeli adds, “is that we’ve never just said consistently…as a nation or as a city that quality housing is a right, just like air and water and voting and all that kind of stuff, and that if we want to be a viable country, if we want to be a viable city we can’t have people living in shacks. We do a little bit and then we fall off again, right, but just say it and put it in brick and mortar and in your heart. And just say, “Look, we’re just not going to have this.” We’re the richest country in the world; we’re not going to have it.”

HUD, our guests say, needs to continue playing a vital role in the redevelopment of critical cities like Chicago. Michaeli offers an example.

“43rd and Indiana should be thriving based on its geographic proximity to the money centers of the Midwest, right, but it’s empty. 43rd and Indiana is vacant on all four corners today, and that makes no sense unless you understand that all housing and all real estate in this country is subsidized. We subsidize it in various ways with housing, with mortgage interest deductions on our taxes, with highways that make places like Schaumberg frankly accessible to the money centers of the country.  So HUD plays an essential role in that.”

We talk at some length about the CHA “Plan for Transformation” which resulted in the demolition of scores of high rise buildings and other housing.

“When the developments were demolished a lot of people thought the problem would go away,” explains Michaeli. “That was the idea, that we will demolish the problem when we demolish these buildings, because the buildings are somehow (damaging) the people.…I mean the demolition of public housing frankly was just a demolition of a resource for low income people. That’s all that it was. It was a kind of a resource, a second rate soviet style crappy resource, but it was a resource, and taking it away just took that away. That means that they have a little bit less. They also have a little bit less geographically.”

And we touch on the one remaining development,  Lathrop Homes at Diversey and the Chicago River, that hasn’t yet been “redeveloped”. It remains mired in controversy despite years of planning because of a profound dispute over how much of the new housing should be “pubic housing” and how much should be “market-rate”. Michaeli says Mayor Emanuel missed a perfect opportunity to show leadership by mandating that the buildings be re-purposed.

“He could have come out there and said, Look, this is housing for veterans. This is housing for families that have been foreclosed on. This is housing you know… that he didn’t do that, in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, tells you that the race component of what Lee was talking about is what we’re dealing with here. Lathrop is maybe a diverse development in reality, but for everybody else you say public housing they think black people. They think African Americans.”

Michaeli notes that we’re now fifty years on from the Gautreaux Decree, which allowed the courts to essentially mandate many aspects of housing desegregation in Chicago. As with most other desegregation efforts, it’s been a bumpy ride. And the one thing that he believes has clearly emerged from this long struggle has been privatization.

“If you look at what actually happened with the Gautreaux Decree, the Gautreaux Decree did not obviously affect the desegregation of housing public or otherwise in Chicago and surrounding areas. What it did accomplish was steer a lot of public resources into the hands of private folks. Public housing is the harbinger of what is going to happen to the rest of this society. They are shaking us by our ankles and taking the change that falls out of our pockets. That’s essentially what’s happening.”

Bey adds that “my fear lately has been that libraries and water will be become that, and that water, some giant infrastructure guy is going to wave $3-billion at this municipality or someone and take water …”

At the end of this frank and often dark conversation, Lee Bey says it’s time to get a little more optimistic, to cast some sunshine on the subject. You’ll want to hear how it goes.

It’s a wonderful conversation with two of the most insightful observers of the Chicago scene, and we hope you’ll watch.

And by the way, Chicago Newsroom is also pretty good radio. Listen to it on your way home with SoundCloud –RIGHT HERE.

And read a full transcript of the show right HERE: cn-transcript-december-8-2016

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CN Dec 1 2016

 

No matter how you look at it, Wednesday, Nov. 30 was a big day for the CTA.

The City Council unanimously passed the largest single TIF ever, to raise nearly a billion dollars in 35 years that funds about half of a massive re-build of the Red and Purple lines. And it was all done within hours of a deadline to snag the other half, a billion-dollar matching grant from the waning Obama administration.

John Greenfield writes about transportation for both Streetsblog Chicago and the Chicago Reader, and a day after the big maneuver, he explained things to us.

“It’s a relatively new program called the Core Capacity Grant Program, and it’s for making improvements, capacity improvements to legacy systems. So we’re lined up to get a $1.1-billion grant, which will fund almost half of this massive $2.3-billion project,” he tells us. “It looks pretty clear that the federal government is going to give us this grant, and they’re going to award it by January 15th, which is five days before Donald Trump comes to office.”

That’s significant, because there’s no indication that the Trump administration will make any funding available to public transportation. He has instead proposed a “Trillion dollar infrastructure program” that has some Democrats saying this could be an area of mutual interest with Trump. Greenfied’s not buying it.

“But there’s a few reasons why I don’t support the Democrats going along with this infrastructure plan. For one thing the plan itself is really suspect. The financing is really sketchy. It’s starting to look like this isn’t really a plan about fixing infrastructure. This is a plan about building more infrastructure, specifically toll roads, and we do not need highway expansion in this country. We need to be making our transportation system less car dependent, not more car dependent. We need to be focusing on building inter-city rail, improving urban transportation.”

“The North Red line is basically at capacity during rush hours,” asserts Greenfield. “If you ride it during rush hour it’s sardine-like conditions.”

So why not just add some more trains? Well if it were that easy, the CTA would’ve done it decades ago. It turns out that there’s no way to get them through Clark Junction.

“The big log jam, the big bottleneck is this area just north of the Belmont Red line station where the Brown line tracks cross the Purple and Red line tracks at level. So what that means is when a northbound Brown line train has to go west just north of Belmont, Red and Purple trains have to wait. There’s basically a stoplight for the lines,” Greenfield explains.

The solution, which is part of this massive project, is the Red/Purple Bypass, which is also known as the Belmont Flyover. Think of it a a partial expressway cloverleaf. It lifts one track over and above the others.

It’s making some people in Lakeview livid. “Not only do some people object to the aesthetics,” Greenfield explains, “people have compared it to  a rollercoaster, it’s going to require the demolition of some 16 buildings, so that’s huge, you know.”

People  directly affected by it are understandably against it but the transit experts all seem to agree that it will allow huge increases in rush-hour capacity in the future.

At the south end of the Red Line, a more than $200 million reconstruction of the 95th Street terminal is already underway, and the City has now committed $75 million to engineering for the extension of the line from 95th to 130th, near Altgeld Gardens.

The route is controversial, because it will require the demolition of dozens of houses and businesses and will take ten years to complete. Greenfield says that while there’s no question about the need for the service, there are alternatives.

“There’s also a movement to create rapid transit style service on Metra’s Electric line, which basically serves the same neighborhoods, so it would be so much cheaper to just start running CTA-style service on the electric lines,” he tells us. “Also, the south Red line route goes through fairly unpopulated areas. You know it’s a lot of money to spend to provide transit access for thousands rather than hundreds of thousands of people. So you know, you can make an argument that maybe it would be wiser to just improve the Metra electric.”

If you’ve spent any time on the northwest side around Logan Square, you know  how rapidly the area is growing, and, some may say, gentrifying. In many ways this, too, is a transit story because the growth is clustering around Blue line stops. It has to do with TOD, or transit-oriented development.

“In 2013 the City passed a Transit-Oriented Development ordinance,” Greenfield explains. “And then they beefed it up in 2015, and as it stands now it basically waives the parking requirements for developments within a ten-minute walk of transit. And…it has really sparked a lot of development particularly on the northwest side along Milwaukee Avenue and the Blue line corridor, which is, you know these neighborhoods a lot of young people want to live in, a lot of tech workers, a lot of relatively affluent people who are new to the City.”

It is meeting stiff opposition further up the line, especially in Jefferson Park, where TOD projects have been fought for years. Many residents fear gentrification, which means that rents will rise and people will be priced out of their homes. “The counter-arguments,”explains Greenfield, “Made by organizations like the Metropolitan Planning Council is that increasing the amount of market rate housing in a neighborhood takes pressure off the rental market, because the more affluent people who move in the neighborhood won’t be competing for the same apartments.”

We point out that in Jeff Park, the arguments seem to be against both higher-income gentrification and lower-income housing.

“I mean these people are against both wealthier people moving into these places and they are also against having affordable housing in them, because they don’t want less wealthy people moving into them.”

Chicago has been acclaimed recently as a bike-friendly city. But  five people have been killed in Chicago in accidents with vehicles this year. So bike-friendliness is a mixed bag.

“They’ve been doing a lot of the right things to make Chicago a bike-friendly city,” Greenfield confirms. “But you know, the fact is on the ground here you’ve got to have a fair amount of nerve to ride a bike on the streets of Chicago. It’s definitely not what we call an 8 to 80 city. That means having infrastructure that’s safe for 8 year olds and 80 year olds to use.”

You can read a full transcript of this conversation HERE:cn-transcript-dec-1-2016

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CN Nov. 24 2016

On this Thanksgiving weekend, we take a moment to offer our sincere thanks to CAN TV for hosting Chicago Newsroom over these past six-plus years.

We also take a video peek at some of the brand-new CAN TV studios and facilities and talk with Director Barbara Popovic, who’s led the organization for nearly thirty years, and is retiring at the end of December.

There’s an even greater need for public access media today than when CAN TV was first created at the dawn of the cable-TV era, she says.  Ubiquitous hand-held devices make communication easy and fast, she explains, but the ability to tell story effectively is enhanced with the media training CAN TV offers.

And access television is, as it has always been, a beautiful way for communities to share ideas and talk with one another about the issues of the day.

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CN Nov 17 2016

 

Pat Quinn was our Governor from 2009-20015.

As you may recall, a billionaire financier named Bruce Rauner defeated him.

On today’s show, he briefly compares notes with Hillary Clinton, who was also defeated by a billionaire with no government experience.

“You know it’s easier winning than losing,” he tells us. “One day you’re a peacock, the next day a feather duster.”

Quinn arrived with his clipboard hand, never ceasing in his quest for petition signatures. Right now it’s his attempt t term-limit the Mayor of Chicago job to two four-year terms.

But he’s also quite active in National Popular Vote, the effort to get states with 270 electoral votes to sign legislation commanding their presidential Electors to vote consistent with the national popular vote in the Electoral College.  The effort’s about half-way done, and Illinois was the first state to approve it. He points out that Hillary Clinton’s popular vote may well end up being 2 million higher than Donald Trump’s.

So I do think we need to reform the electoral college, a creature of the 18th Century. I don’t think it’s really apropos to the 21st Century, and there’s a movement that I’ve supported called the National Popular Vote. Illinois actually passed a law about 2008 that said once 25 states, more than half the states have a law on their books that says that their electoral college members are bound by law to vote for the candidate for president who gets the most votes, then that will be the law of our country. You don’t need a Constitutional Amendment…Actually, it was devised to help the slave states, the electoral college, and I don’t think we should maintain that.

Donald Trump wants a really huge infrastructure program, but Pat Quinn wants to remind everyone that he had one years ago.

We were able to put together an infrastructure bill for our state; we called it Illinois Jobs Now, a $31-billion investment in roads and bridges and water systems, building new buildings, college buildings as well as school construction and high speed rail, great things. We had the biggest infrastructure program of any state in the country and those (Legislative) members made it possible. They wanted to do things, and the sad thing now is my successor basically when you look at it, what has happened in the last two years other than gridlock and lots of alibies, but you’re not getting anything done for the people.

We ask whether he sees a Republican tide sweeping even the urban areas in the next few years, leaving Illinois more like Wisconsin, which seems to have become solidly red under Scott Walker’s leadership. “No!” he says.

Hillary Clinton beat Trump by almost a million votes in our state. In fact, I think we’re much more the model for the United States. Illinois’ demography, the people who make up our state are the best reflection of the entire population of the United States, so we’re much more like the United States than any other state in the Midwest, even,  the whole country.

Perhaps it’s Trump’s victory that’s given Quinn a kind of freedom to openly criticize Bruce Rauner here at the halfway point in the Governor’s first term. But his list of grievances was pretty long.

There are billionaires out there, really right-wing conservative billionaires who want to buy elections and they will spend untold amounts of money. Oftentimes they can, perhaps prevail when they have a candidate who has no record. But when that candidate gets elected, whether it’s Trump or Rauner and then you see the lack of a record, you know what have they done other than harm things and mess things up, then I don’t think they’re going to do very well in getting re-elected.

“You had somebody running around just like Trump with a slogan, and they said they can fix things up, they can shake things up, but then look at the record of the last two years. What has happened? Not much, not much at all. As a matter of fact, where’s the budget? I did six budgets when I was Governor. This person has you know, put all kinds of conditions on a budget, so right now they have a stop-gap. That isn’t a budget. You need something that really brings people together that makes investments for the future. That’s how you grow jobs. That’s how you help people. You’ve got to invest in people, invest in the infrastructure. The two go hand in hand, that’s how you have a strong state. When I left our state was very close to paying its bills within a 30-day period just like businesses do, but you know you come along with a person with a different approach like they have in Kansas and they cause a lot of mess, and that’s what we have in Illinois, a lot of mess.

You’ve got to have enough revenue to equal your expenditures. If Rauner thinks that whatever he campaigned on is sufficient to pay the bills he’s just plain wrong. The record shows that he’s in deep deep deficit and continuing to go deeper. That’s not right, and I think we need to do something about that, and I think the Democrats should continue to stand their ground with respect to making sure that we allow working people to organize unions, to have collective bargaining, bargain for wages and working conditions and so on and benefits. And if Rauner wants to break that he’s not going to get away with it. We’re not going to go the way of some other states that have allowed working people to be really hurt by attacking their unions.

We talk at some length about public education, both K-12 and Higher Ed. Quinn’s particularly animated about the mistreatment of the Monetary Assistance Program grants. As Governor, he says, he had proposed doubling them – to 3/4 billion.

 I proposed that. I ran against somebody in a campaign in 2014 who said that we didn’t need to have the revenue to do that, and now he’s got a $15-billion deficit. Now I also in that same budget proposed investing in K to 12, kindergarten to 12th grade more than any other time in Illinois history using the revenue that we had from the income tax and other sources of revenue. Again, the other side said, you know they demonized that source of revenue, and so we haven’t been able to make the investments [only] in K to 12, but early childhood education. I wanted to invest a billion and a half new dollars in early childhood, 0 to 5, birth to 5, a very very important investment for any state to make if it’s really concerned about education.

And about that petition drive to make Chicago’s Mayor a two-term gig, effectively ending Rahm Emanuel’s tenure in just three years:

 

What this petition is about is term limits on the Mayor of Chicago. Every other big city in America has term limits on the Mayor except Chicago. New York has it, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, San Jose, San Antonio, Phoenix. Chicago is the only city that doesn’t have a two-term limit on its Mayor. We want to give people a chance to vote on that right here in Chicago.

term limits on executives, especially mayors and presidents and governors is a good thing, especially now in this age of big money being spent on campaigns. It requires a changeover, a new look. A lot of the problems Chicago has today is they weren’t addressed by mayors who got re-elected, but oftentimes didn’t address serious problems. Term limits force you to shuffle the deck and have a new look. They are very popular with the voters.

Now, New York has this and that’s a big city, the same way with Los Angeles. They are both bigger than our city. It’s not like Chicago is doing a lot of good things. Too many mistakes have been made and I think voters ought to have a chance at the ballot box not to let Rahm Emanuel or any other mayor tell us what the rules are, but we, the people set the rules for the mayor.

 

And finally, Quinn’s effort to create, through referendum, an elected school board for Chicago:

The appointed school board by the Mayor over the last 20 years has made a mess of the school system here in Chicago. They even ended up with a superintendent who was convicted of a felony. You know, come on. An elected school board is fundamental to democracy. Around our state every other community has an elected school board. Only Chicago does not allow its citizens to have the voting rights to elect members of the Board of Education. In addition, that Board of Education is levying hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes on those voters and they have no voting rights. That’s not right.

And a final thought from the former Governor:

And so that’s really where we’re at, and I sure hope we don’t let Trump do the same thing to America, (that Rauner did here) and that’s why you’ve got to organize. Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize, that’s my philosophy.

Read a full transcript of this show HERE:cn-transcript-nov-17-2016

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CN Nov 10 2016

 

Delmarie Cobb, Bruce DuMont and Chris Robling have been in too many political battles to count. But the Trump victory was unique even for them. These political consultants, activists, writers and broadcasters sat down with us this week for a detailed de-briefing, and for some speculation about how Donald Trump might govern.

We asked whether there was any possibility that Donald Trump could become presidential.

“Yes.” was DuMont’s quick response.

DuMont tells us that he thinks Trump will keep his promises on the Supreme Court as long as he’s president, but that on many other issues he has more in common with the Democrats than the Republicans, especially those Republicans who didn’t vote for hm.

We bring up the Mike Pence issue, and the fact that most progressives find his views on social issues unacceptable. Given that Trump has already said  Pence will play a major role in day-to-day operation of the government, this is deeply troubling to many people.

DuMont attempted to bat down that fear.

“He’s going to have to answer to a president, president Trump,” DuMont explains.

Delmarie Cobb, who has for years been a solid Hillary Clinton supporter, is willing to see what develops in the immediate future. She says that Trump is from New York and he’s an entertainer, so many of his friends are gay-friendly and liberal on social issues. And she says on the campaign trail, Trump occasionally “just sorta slapped him” when he didn’t agree with him on an issue. So she says when trying to figure out what kind of president he’ll be, she’ll be watching to see “which Donald Trump shows up to govern.”

As four people with years experience in media, we attempt to sort out the role of media in this ugly campaign.  If it weren’t for the media, Cobb asserts, there wouldn’t have been a Donald Trump.  “They gave him three billion dollars of free media,” she claims.  “He paid only 48 million in paid media, and they gave him eight billion”

And because Trump was such compelling television, Cobb says that whenever a story was filed about a Clinton event, Trump was mentioned numerous times in the report, but that the opposite usually wasn’t true.

And Chris Robling says the “Trump on the bus” tape became so hot so quickly that it became the dominant topic of conversation. “It takes all the air out of the room with respect to Hilary’s conversation about him being dangerously, personally, mentally unstable, and somebody who’s got to be separated from the nuclear football,” he explains.

There seems to be a theme on which all our guests generally agree. That the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and Big Media have all essentially run aground, and that all have massive soul-searching and rebuilding to do.

 

 

 

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CN Nov 3 2016

 

How much will the new settlement between the CTU and Chicago Public Schools, which has now been ratified, end up costing? CUBS WIN! Is using TIF money to fill budget holes at CPS a good idea?  CUBS WIN!  Is the City of Chicago’s financial ship actually beginning to right itself since the budget office is finally reducing persistent structural deficits and getting out from under high-interest loans?

Bobby Otter, fortunately, is a Sox fan, so he was able to keep focused during our conversation today about our City’s financial stresses. As budget Director for the Center on Tax and Budget Accountability, he has some keen insights regarding state and local finances. And as Cubs fever wears off, you’ll probably find yourself asking – hey, where can I find some sober analysis of state funding shortfalls and the Lockbox Amendment?

Well, you’ve come to the right place. Here are some highlights from Bobby Otter’s comments.

On the CTBA’s opposition to the Illinois Safe Roads Amendment (“the lockbox”) and why you should vote “no”.

There’s better ways to do this. It’s a noble goal, but there’s better ways to do it…the issue with the lockbox amendment is not necessarily what it’s trying to accomplish, but it’s how they’re accomplishing it. So they want to put in a constitutional amendment that says any revenue generated through transportation issues, be it the gas tax, that’s probably the biggest one, that has to go towards projects, infrastructure projects for roads and transportation and what-not. Sounds great. Using the Constitution to do that though greatly greatly limits the wiggle room and the flexibility that governments have, especially local governments. It sounds great and overall we agree, infrastructure investment is needed at the state and city level, but there’s better ways to do it. Constitutional amendment is definitely not the best way to do it. It’s probably better to do it through statutes or other things to give the flexibility, because once you’re locked in in a constitutional amendment you’re locked in. 

On the CTBA’s recently released study about how the legislature and governor managed to make massive cuts in state spending on safety and human services without holding a single vote:

If people remember there was a budget impasse pretty much for the all of FY16 which runs from July 1st to June 30th, so we had an actual budget for FY16 for I forget, but it was roughly 12 hours. It wasn’t long… However, spending continued to take place even though we didn’t have a budget last year. Schools were open. Hospitals were receiving patients. Jails continued…What happened was that a bunch of court orders and consent decrees were handed down by the courts saying you have to continue spending money on healthcare, so like Medicaid for example, so hospitals can continue to get paid for seeing patients. A lot of human services also fell into this category, and some public safety fell into this category. 

They did pass a budget for K through 12 education, so the schools got their money last year, and they didn’t pass anything and the courts really didn’t say anything on higher education. So higher ed actually went most of the year without money. Now they did a couple of things throughout the course of the year, and roughly about $700-million got to higher ed, which is still a huge cut from the previous year. In FY15 we spent $1.9-billion on higher education. In FY16 we spent $622-million in higher education, so a $1.3-billion cut in higher education.  

That was voted on. The General Assembly and the Governor and everybody voted on that and it was signed into law. On the education side, everybody agreed upon this, but that only consisted of about $7-billion of spending at the State level. We still spent another roughly $21-billion, so only a third of what was spent was actually approved by the General Assembly and the Governor. That’s their job, right, to pass the budget. They only passed a third of the budget. The other two-thirds was in the form of consent decrees and court orders and continuing appropriations, so things continue to happen.

Then when you kind of drill down even more and look at what they actually spent – they got the authority to spend $21.5-billion, but they only actually spent $20-billion. So there’s about $1.5-billion that the State was authorized to spend again through court orders, consent decrees and what-not, but they didn’t spend that, and that’s the gray area. Why didn’t they spend that? Who made that decision? What programs weren’t properly funded? That’s kind of up for debate right now, and that’s what our report looked at is kind of drilling down through FY15, using 15 as a starting point, through 16 and looking at okay, what was approved. Again, two-thirds of that was from consent decree and court orders, not the elected officials which is how it normally should work, and therefore there was a lot of non-transparency. So we didn’t see, especially once we start digging into this $1.5-billion of spending that didn’t happen, why didn’t it happen? And we don’t know, because again there was no…public deliberation on it.

On the impact the newly ratified contract will have on CPS budgets for the next three years:

Overall it looks pretty cost-neutral at the end of the day when you kind of add the numbers up. Probably some more costs than the district expected or was budgeting for FY17… though it’s not like a ton more money. The last contract ended up costing the district about $175 to $100-million in that first year more than they budgeted. This looks like about 50-million as the Sun-Times is reporting. A lot of the savings actually probably took place last year because there was no COLA, Cost of Living Adjustments made last year. There were no step-and-lanes for teachers last year, so a lot of the savings probably already happened for the district.

On the State’s promise to allocate $215 million more to CPS in return for an agreement on “pension reform.” What does that mean? What would qualify as pension reform?

Could they just pass for instance SB1, which they passed under Governor Quinn and has since been found unconstitutional? I mean would that qualify? Would that release the $215-million? I think it would but who knows. I mean yes, they could pass another unconstitutional pension reform bill. Sorry, they could pass another pension reform bill that may be found unconstitutional, or is likely to be found unconstitutional, and I guess supposedly that would free up the money for CPS…But this money, this is the only money that right now CPS doesn’t have in the bank. They budgeted to receive it, but they don’t actually have it right now.

On the decline of the CPS student population, and its fiscal ramifications:

This is a really big issue because it affects funding especially from the State. The district has been losing students every year at about a 1% clip, but this year we saw a pretty substantial loss of students of roughly 12,000 from last year. That’s going to impact the bottom line of the district, maybe not this year, but in years to come because of the way the State formula works – it depends on how many students you’re educating…a lot of CPS’s costs right now won’t also decline with the decline in enrollment…the district’s pension costs right now and unfunded liability on those pensions, that’s one of the main drivers for CPS right now. They are seeing declining revenue, but expenditures are either going to stay flat or most likely increase with the pension.

On the State of Illinois being 50 out of 50 among the states with regard to funding for education:

We are last when it comes to the share of education funding that comes from the State. The State just doesn’t properly fund education in K through 12 and higher ed. And especially districts that are at risk with a lot of at risk students or high poverty students. They’re not receiving the money that they need to properly educate their students, and CPS with 80 to 85% low income, that’s a lot of students that aren’t receiving the necessary revenue from the State to educate them.

On how popular it is to tell the stories of thousands of Illinoisans running for the Indiana border to escape our exorbitant taxes.

Yeah, that’s very misleading. We are actually in the lower third when it comes to our tax burden in the State of Illinois. We have a very narrow sales tax base for starters. We only tax goods. Most services aren’t taxed in the State of Illinois on sales taxes…And then you look at our income tax rate at 3.75 flat, personal income tax rate and a flat tax, everyone is paying that no matter how much money they make, that’s one of the lower tax rates, especially when you start comparing it to most states who have graduated rates…At the end of the day our total tax burden in the State of Illinois actually puts us probably around 35th in the nation.

You can read a complete transcript of this conversation HERE: cn-transcript-nov-3-2016

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CN Oct 27 2016

 

Yusuf Omar is running a brand new newsroom. He has 750 reporters. They do all their reporting using cell phones. And there are 75 different types of phones, because his newsroom is in Dehli, India.

Gary Kebbel once edited newspapers with tin snips. That’s how he would shorten a story back in the hot-lead Linotype years. Later he became the Journalism Director for the Knight Foundation, where he helped create the Knight News Challenge, which has funneled millions of dollars into journalism innovation projects . Today,  he heads the University of Nebraska’s Center for Mobile Media.

They’re both in town for the Mobile Me&You conference, which runs this weekend. You’ll be able to watch select videos from the presentations soon at their site.

And they both joined us for this week’s Chicago Newsroom, to talk about the future of our business.

So what’s a mobile newsroom? It’s an operation that’s building its infrastructure from the ground up, based on the architecture of the smart phone and its apps. It is not an outfit that’s just trying to adapt its product to the small screen.

And it’s eagerly lapping up every technical innovation it can. That’s why there will be sessions on drone journalism, sensor journalism, virtual reality, 360 reporting and reporting with wearables.

And it all comes together by expanding the definition of commercial apps like Snapchat and Instagram.

If you’ve ever pondered the definition of “citizen journalist”, you’ll want to watch this week’s discussion. Hacking old 2-G cell phones, equipping them with air-monitoring sensors and sticking them to porch railings and fence-posts so you don’t have to FOIA air-quality documents from the government. Beaming live-as-it happens 4k video from a hundred feet above a civil disturbance or massive parade. This is today’s journalism.

But, we ask, who’s the editor? Who’s the publisher? Our show’s name honors the concept of a “newsroom”, a place where editorial decisions are made, and where there’s a 24-hour meeting of the minds about what’s important, and what needs attention.

Both guests agreed that this central point of curation remains critical.

“I think you need a hub,  a heart of editorial wisdom,” explains Omar. I think in this age where social media feeds have been surrounded by cat videos and all this ridiculous content, you need a central space with people who do make firm editorial decisions, and that’s where the newsroom is going to come into play. I think the notion that reporters are going to go out into the field might change entirely. We might start curating masses of civilian reporters, of selfie journalism coming in. But that physical newsroom isn’t going to change for a long time. ”

When we’re living in a world,” adds Kebbel, “where everyone can be a publisher, and two billion people are, then we have a lot of junk out there. So therefore the need for the journalists, the need for the person who helps us find accurate, helpful information that helps us make decisions in our lives, that need is greater than ever. So the role of the journalist has switched from the gatekeeper of the old-stye model, where I have the information and I’ll tell you what to know, now the journalist is the guide, helping you find the good stuff. ”

“The revolution,” Omar tells us, “will be Snapchatted.”

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CN Oct 20 2016

 

Well, now it’s out there. Mayor Emanuel would like a third term. And he’s making the case – gingerly at first, but possibly more confidently in the future – that he’s getting Chicago’s fiscal mess under control.

Bill Ruthhart was among the first journalists to touch the topic after it was discussed with the Mayor at an editorial board meeting last week.

“Politics are always at play with Rahm Emanuel,” Ruthhart explains. “And when he gave his budget speech recently there was a heck of a lot more than a spending plan for 2017. It had a very strong ‘we’ve turned the corner’ theme. We had four unfunded, very dramatically underfunded pensions, police and fire, municipal workers, laborers – they are all a path to solvency he says, right?  He has raised taxes dramatically to do it, record property tax, huge phone fee, the 30% increase in water and sewer bills this year to do that. But he can turn around and say ‘I made the tough decisions that I told you I was going to make and I fixed this.’ Now, he’s fixed it for a good 5 years as the pension payments ramp up they have the money to cover that.”

But, he explains, that’s just the first five years. “We’ve done a hard look at it and down the road beyond 5 years from now, which is beyond his current term, very likely they will have to come up with even more money to keep the pensions sustainable.”

A major factor in this possibly rosier outlook for the mayor is the fact that two education strikes were averted this past week.

The CTU and CPS came to a tentative agreement, and the agreement must now be ratified by the rank-and-file. The union’s House of Delegates voted their approval on Wednesday night. But WBEZ’s Becky Vevea tells us it wasn’t exactly a celebration.

“I do find it kind of interesting that there was a third of people in that room that weren’t in support of it,” she explains.” Typically, this leadership and the caucus that they come from has gotten a lot of support from that bigger body, but I think you do see some sections of the Union that are disappointed, particularly special education teachers, some support staff who feel that there’s just not enough in this contract to protect their caseloads and protect them from the conditions they see as pretty bad right now in the school system.”

Averting a strike was high on Emanuel’s priority list, too.

“We’ve polled on this time and time again,” explains Ruthhart. “Chicagoans side with the Chicago Teachers’ Union 3 to 1 over the Mayor when it comes to education. He knows that. He does plenty of polling himself.  He’s got a whole host of issues at the Police Department under federal investigation. The last thing he needed was a teachers’ strike, so when it came down to the final 24 hours at the insistence of the Mayor and Forrest Claypool, that they were going to insist that the teachers pay their full 9% toward their pensions, that suddenly went away in the final hours. So did sweeping up the extra TIF surplus to help free up some funding.

It’s a complex agreement, but a key measure was that agreement to move a large bucket of money from  TIF surplus funds to the schools.

“I think that actually was some masterful political maneuvering,’ Vevea asserts,”because last year the TIF surplus that went to CPS was about $80-million. So when the budget came out this summer and they only had $30-million of TIF surplus, I was like oh, this is something they are going to do at the very final hour and they are going to say, “We’re going to give you $50-million more.” That’s apparently what happened.

And Ruthhart adds that the mayor also got to demonstrate his ability to tamp down labor costs. “One of the big talking points, you know we talked about how he gave on the pension pick-up and he gave on the TIF surplus and he gave on classroom guarantees, one of his big talking points afterwards to try to kind of change the topic from that is – there has never been a teachers’ contract, and I would challenge you to find any Union contract ever in Chicago where there’s been back to back years of pay freezes. And so that will be his selling point on that. In tough fiscal times I got them to agree to two years of no pay raises.”

Vevea and her colleagues tried to calculate the cost of this agreement, and they came to the conclusion that, over the four years it’s likely to be cost and revenue-neutral.

Here’s their chart:

 

screenshot-2016-10-20-07-38-18

“You kind of add it all up and it’s’ about $500-million savings and $500-million of costs,” Vevea explains.  “So you end up kind of cost-neutral, and so again it’s the politics of it. The Mayor, by prolonging a whole year of teachers without a contract allows him to then you know give back some of that money in other areas, like class sizes. You know you saved that money by spending a whole year of not giving them raises and laying people off. You collect all that money into this little thing over here and then you say, “Here, class sizes.” You can give things back in other areas.

Is it true that there’s a thaw in the relationship between the mayor and CTU President Karen Lewis? Well, at least publicly there is.

“She wasn’t calling him the Murder Mayor anymore,” Ruthhart points out. “I think she also knew that the teachers’ strike in 2012 was the first one in 25 years, and so nobody knew what that was really going to look like and they had a lot of public support. We’re in an environment now where Chicagoans have paid a bunch of higher taxes just to pay for pensions of police and fire and other things. There’s a lot less sympathy for teachers going on strike for 7% raises or whatever it might have been. So her going on TV and you know dropping bombs on Emanuel to pay-up wasn’t going to play the same as it did last time and she recognized that.

And Emanuel?

“Well I think certainly Emanuel developed a respect for Lewis that he did not have when he was yelling at her in his office in 2011 saying ‘F you’ and all the rest. He I think is the most political of political animals and recognizes someone who is a worthy opponent, and I think he came to recognize that in Lewis. They both talked about how the relationship improved, how they text each other regularly, which we’re still suing to get the Mayor’s text messages.”

And Vevea says ultimately, it might be the teachers themselves who made the deal work. “There are a lot of people who have figured out and have made the calculation that look, maybe this isn’t the best deal. Maybe this isn’t the deal we really would want in a perfect world, but we have to take a deal that fits in the world we’re living in.  And so I think there’s a recognition by a lot of people in the membership…that probably think you know, let’s take this because working yet another year without a contract, good things aren’t going to come of that.”

The other teachers’ strike ended in much the same way, in the middle of the night with a murky, ill-defined agreement, the cost of which still isn’t clear. But the staff at the UNO charters came to an agreement with their schools.

“It would have been the very first charter school teachers’ strike in the whole country as far as everyone that I’ve talked to, the big Unions,” Vevea explains. “NEA, AFT, both said this would be the very first one they know of. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools said they have never had a teachers strike at a charter school that they are aware of, so that would have been huge. They were really locked in a  bad, tense battle with the UNO charter school network, which actually agreed to a tentative agreement. But they still need to find a million and a half dollars in their budget, and UNO charter school network gets a lot of their funding from CPS. They are going to have to talk with CPS a little bit too, like hey, are we going to get any of that TIF surplus? Is there any revenue option for us? Because they can’t raise taxes. They are not a taxing body.”

Whether the mayor’s slightly elevated standing will continue is anyone’s guess. On this first anniversary of the Laquan McDonald killing, we’re reminded how quickly one incident can completely re-set the political agenda. The Mayor’s new budget calls for major increases in the Chicago Police department.

“Right now ,” Ruthhart concludes, we have more than 1,000 shootings this year than we did at the same time last year. And so it’s also likely that the Department of Justice whenever they come down in the likely federal consent decree probably will require more officers.

So he’s kind of killing two birds with one stone with that, but we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of more officers and adding to the capacity of the police academy. It will be a difficult task to hire enough officers to just keep up with attrition, let alone put more on the street. The attrition issue has been huge for CPD. So while he hasn’t solved that or fixed that, he can at least point to plan he has now.”

Read a full transcript of this show HERE: cn-transcript-oct-20-2016

 

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CN Oct 13 2016

 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel may have just had the best few days of his administration. A tentative contract with the teachers, a budget that appears to bring , for the first time in years, some fiscal stability to the city – and let’s not forget the Cubs.

The Daily Line‘s Mike Fourcher says that, yes, the Mayor does have some reason to celebrate. “What Rahm Emanuel has managed to do with the City’s debt and with pensions is that he’s managed to refinance everything so that there is a path to solvency. The trouble is the path to solvency is 40 years long.”

So today’s situation isn’t all that different from the Jim Edgar years, when the Governor created what came to be called the Edgar Ramp. It called for escalating payments for a series of years that would have brought fiscal sanity to the State within a decade or so. But  the state’s politicians pretty much never walked up the ramp.

The agreement with the public schools may be yet another ramp – a fiscal commitment none of its architects will be around to shepherd through.

“Another dirty secret that the city government doesn’t want to talk about,” Fourcher continues, is that “I and other reporters have been hounding the Chicago Public School System in order to tell us what is the true cost of this, and they won’t talk about it. Bobby Otter from the Center for Tax and Budget and Accountability told me, ‘Well, what we should expect is the pension pick-up is going to be an additional $150-million a year and that when they have the cost of living allowance agreements, the COLA agreements go out in years 3 and 4, that will be an additional $50 and $60-million a year that will be on top of that in years 3 and 4 of the contract.’”

So did the Emanuel administration do the right thing?

“There aren’t a whole lot of real positives that came out of this for the City,” he opines. “What we’re really learning now, and it’s taken a couple of days, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union doesn’t want to talk about it because they got a great deal and they want to get all the teachers to ratify it and they don’t want to mess that up, and the Chicago Public Schools…well, it’s not terrible, but it’s not great, and they’re going to have to figure out how to pay for it.”

Fourcher feels more positively about the City’s overall budgetary policies, though.

“When it comes to fiscal management Rahm Emanuel’s administration has really been very good,” he explains. “Alex Holt and Carole Brown have done a very good job. They’ve found a lot of cost controls. They are doing a lot of very reasonable things like instead of just buying gasoline every day what they are doing is they are buying gasoline on the futures market…that’s a big deal. And they are doing all these little things like that that are saving them 10-million, 20-million, 30-million here and that adds up.”

Although he says the City isn’t proposing any glitzy mega-projects, this budget makes solid investments in hundreds of new police officers and detectives, a complete technical makeover of the 311 center, and the replacement of all 345,000 city street lights with LED lamps.

And one of those investments is in a new “Community Schools” concept. “The City has been neglecting the idea that elementary schools in particular are centers of communities,” Fourcher explains, “And that they are more than just a school. It’s where everything in the community comes together. And there’s an interesting thing, which is that I think about 70% of students in the City of Chicago don’t go to their neighborhood school. They are going somewhere else, and so this effort is to try and build up the idea that there are going to be more of these community schools.”

So, in the final analysis, the CPS teachers will all have to vote on the tentative contract.  George Schmidt in Substance News hinted today that it might be “the worst contract in CTU history,” because the teachers didn’t get enough of a raise. Fourcher says not entirely.

“I think that if you’re looking at it from the purely, the situation of how much money is going into the pockets of teachers, yeah, probably it is a bad deal. But when you’re looking at the perspective of how screwed up our school system is in the City of Chicago and how many problems there are in Springfield, I’d say the teachers came out ahead of everybody else.”

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