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Senators won't give up on their dreams of a river of pork

Earlier this month 78 U.S. senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., demanding a vote on a $10 billion package of river navigation projects, including the biggest budget-buster of them all, $3.6 billion to pay for expanded locks and dams on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

It's too bad these senators don't approach budget-cutting and fiscal responsibility with the same ferocity that they try to stuff pork-laden projects into the federal budget.


Coach pays player, university pays coach

Former Ohio State University basketball coach Jim O'Brien last week won what most college basketball fans and many casual observers of the judicial system consider an astounding, common-sense-defying legal victory.

A judge ruled that OSU violated O'Brien's contract when former athletic director Andy Geiger decided to fire O'Brien after learning that O'Brien had given $6,000 to a recruit. A separate trial will be held to determine damages, but O'Brien has asked for up to $6 million.


Stamp of corruption won't stick

Everybody knows that reporters love a juicy scandal, that suggestions about public officials abusing the privileges of office practically have them foaming at the mouth.

So when Champaign County Board candidate Robert Kirchner issued a news release last week in which he revealed allegedly corrupt behavior by Barbara Wysocki, one of his opponents in a county board primary election next month, it had potential for excitement. And Kirchner, a lawyer, was magnificent in his denunciation, demanding that Wysocki's outrageous abuse of her position as chairwoman of the county board cease immediately. He even topped off his rhetoric with the suggestion that the state's attorney or a special prosecutor investigate. Let's not only throw the rascals out, let's lock them up, too.


Electricity auction proves power costs are higher

A unique electricity auction, held earlier this month in New Jersey, had to be unsettling to utility regulators and utility company executives in Illinois. The auction, in which companies bid on providing electricity to New Jersey's electric utilities at progressively less expensive prices, gave those utility executives a price shock: the cost of electricity was 55 percent greater than last year. Because electricity prices in New Jersey are based on contracts over three years, the actual increase in prices in June will be about 12 percent.

Why should Illinoisans – regulators, utility executives and customers – care? Because Illinois will have its own auction next September. And because electricity prices throughout the state, effective next Jan. 2, will be based on those prices. Utility companies here have been warning that rates could increase 25 percent to 30 percent overnight. In some cases, the price increase could be even greater.


Sleazy politics stains internship programs

The mere mention of the word "intern" conjures up the notion of a fresh-faced young person getting his foot in the door with a lower-level job that pays more in experience that it does in cash.

At least it does in places other than Illinois. Here in the Land of Corruption, the word conjures up the image of connected hangers-on looking for a shortcut to government spoils. That's because Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his merry band of flimflam men and women are using the hallowed tradition of internships as a vehicle to bypass state hiring rules and place the politically connected in decidedly uninternlike positions.


More financial follies from state government

Before the state of Illinois starts discussing and budgeting for all sort of new programs, perhaps it should budget for basic services it has not been funding – such as new cars for the Illinois State Police.

It's been four years since the state undertook a large purchase of new cruisers. In the meantime, the average patrol car in the Illinois State Police fleet has about 122,000 miles on it – 40,000 miles more than is recommended. Last year, a state trooper in Champaign County was unable to get to the scene of a fatal accident because his car broke down.


Property taxes on rise again

Only three things in life are certain: death, taxes and some local officials' insistence that property taxes are not increasing.

You may hear again this spring – perhaps from Champaign school board members who have to promote a March 21 property tax increase referendum, but perhaps from officials with other government agencies as well – that they have frozen or even decreased property taxes.


U.S. still looking for sensible energy policy

If you're confused about the United States' energy policy, you are not alone. Even the Bush administration can't seem to make up its mind. Sometimes it's for conservation, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's for nuclear power, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's for increased exploration of oil and natural gas, sometimes it isn't.

Now, out of nowhere, comes a president who says the United States is "addicted to oil," and instead wants to promote "wood chips, stalks and switch grass" as alternative fuels. Sounds great, but so did synthetic fuels, coal gasification, solar power, wind power, hydrogen power and, at one point long ago, nuclear power. If energy independence is such a vital national goal, why can't the nation develop a long-term, permanent policy for getting there?


Pension issue gaining interest among politicians — except one

Suddenly, the ordinarily humdrum topic of Illinois employee pensions has become an issue in the gubernatorial primary. Republican Bill Brady wants the state to recommit to a fixed payment schedule for reducing its pension fund liabilities. Democrat Edwin Eisendrath says Illinois' leaders must stop "raiding" pension funds and "start setting aside the appropriate amount of money to start repaying them." Republican Judy Baar Topinka warns that in order to be able to afford to build up pension assets, the state will have to make budget cuts, find more efficiencies and "find more revenue sources. It's going to have to be a lot of a lot of things going on," Topinka told The News-Gazette editorial board. She also noted that she has not taken a no-tax increase pledge.

The situation may not be that gloomy. There might be a way for Illinois to meet its pension obligations without raising taxes, but only if the state economy continues to grow for years at the unusually healthy level it is this year (a projected $1 billion increase in revenue) and the government devotes most of that revenue growth to the politically dull and largely invisible pension funds.


Just another day of partisan sniping on Capitol Hill

In what once was known as the world's greatest deliberative body, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., exchanged heated letters last week, accusing each other of disingenuousness (a long word that essentially means lying) on the issue of ethics and lobbying reforms in Congress.

It was a day rich with irony, in view of the fact that the senators – neither of whom is up for re-election this year – continue to take donations from special-interest groups even as they talk about limiting the influence of money and special-interest groups in politics. McCain, with $1.1 million in his campaign fund, accused Obama, with $881,393 in his treasury, of "self-interested political posturing" on the issue of ethics reform.