Squirming, nervous members of Congress have returned to Washington, D.C., apparently determined to do something about the ethics problems that may threaten even the most entrenched of the institution. Everyone from House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (99th on the Senate seniority list) has a plan to reform Congress, covering everything from limiting privately funded overseas travel, eliminating lunches paid for by lobbyists, extending the ban on lobbying by former congressmen and staff from one year to two years and eliminating congressional pensions for members convicted of a felony related to their official duties.
Many of those proposals may be good, but one idea sounds especially worthy – not just because it might help clean up Congress, but also because it might save billions of federal tax dollars.
Chicago Public School officials are warning that they face a $328 million budget deficit next year, a predicament that schools chief Arne Duncan says is the worst in more than a decade. That's certainly an unpleasant situation, but probably no worse than the annual budget squeeze that most downstate school districts have to go through. What makes Chicago special?
Well, because not only has Gov. Rod Blagojevich already pledged $100 million in new state funds to help the Chicago schools in the next fiscal year but because officials in the city are now speaking of – you guessed it – shortchanging their pension fund.
They say – and some people have learned it the hard way – that money can buy everything but happiness.
William "Bud" Post III of Franklin, Pa., would agree. Post, who recently died at age 66, won a $16.2 million jackpot in 1988 and came to rue the experience, calling his windfall "the lottery of death."
Last March 4, the University of Illinois and the city of Champaign hosted – unknowingly – an Unofficial St. Patrick's Day event. It was a promotion brewed up by Campustown bar owners to encourage UI students, as well as students from all over the Midwest, to celebrate St. Patrick's Day a few weeks early. Celebrating the real St. Patrick's Day in Champaign wouldn't be as much fun or as profitable, the bar owners figured, because UI students would be gone on spring break.
So the Campustown bars opened early – as early as 8 a.m. that Friday – and what has been called a "drinking holiday" began. The result, according to a report to the Champaign Liquor Advisory Commission:
Bill Trankina has been an administrator in the Rantoul City Schools district for 23 years. He's seen the good years, when the district was doing well financially and the village's demographics were strong, with healthy employment, low poverty and high education rates, mainly because of the presence of Chanute Air Force Base. Things have been more challenging since Chanute closed.
Test scores are down, and poverty rates and the number of students who move during the school year are up. The district did not meet adequate yearly progress standards in 2005. It is losing experienced teachers to the Champaign school district.
You wouldn't hear this kind of talk from most Illinois politicians, but across the border in Indiana the governor is proposing to – gasp! – eliminate a layer of government.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has proposed eliminating township assessors and putting those responsibilities in the hands of county assessors. There are 1,008 townships in Indiana but 92 counties (Illinois has 1,433 townships which, a 1999 Associated Press series found, cost Illinois taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars a year). Think there might be some efficiencies in moving to a countywide property assessment system? In addition, Daniels argues that his proposal would make for more uniform property assessments and would professionalize the assessment process.
A truce? The United States certainly appreciates the offer from terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, but it's a little late for that.
Still, one has to give the al-Qaida leader credit. If bin Laden wanted his latest audiotape to make a splash, his suggestion of a negotiated truce last week was a great way to do it. Of course, the offer was delivered along with the threat of more terrorist attacks, and it's easy to decide which of the two is the more credible offer.
Among Gov. Rod Blagojevich's latest legislative initiatives is a plan to give a $500 state sales tax credit on the purchase of a new, fuel-efficient car, beginning July 1.
The idea, officials say, is to help Illinois drivers save money, promote fuel efficiency and boost the use of alternative fuels.
Champaign City Council members voted last week to criminalize the possession of tobacco by minors. From now on, under city ordinance, anyone under 18 who is found in possession of tobacco products can be fined $145.
There is no doubt that tobacco use is a significant national health problem, that its use should be discouraged (among people of all ages) and that government has an appropriate role in fighting tobacco use. But Champaign officials and Champaign residents should be under no illusion that this ordinance – no matter how costly the penalty – will do much to decrease smoking among teenagers. On the contrary, it's more likely to further institutionalize disrespect for the law.
In less than two months, residents of the Champaign school district will have their say on a proposal to issue $65.9 million in bonds to finance the construction of three elementary schools (at a cost of $30 million) and improvements, renovations and additions to eight existing elementary schools (adding up to $29.4 million), plus a number of other land acquisition and building improvements.
If approved at the polls on March 21, school officials say that property taxes on a $150,000 home, with an equalized assessed valuation of $50,000, would increase about $42 a year.